Recently, I had the honor of presenting a paper at an academic conference centered on Aquinas as a Biblical Theologian. Academic discussions can seem disconnected from and irrelevant to our daily lives, but perhaps I can briefly attempt to persuade otherwise.
Many of the problems in the world today in some sense trickle down from academic discussions into everyday life. Research at universities is taught to those who teach at elementary, middle, and high schools, both public and private.The formation priests receive in seminary directly impacts their preaching and other facets of their ministry. Even outside of schools and religious contexts, the ideas of the academy enter into the professional world as the workforce is more and more made up of people who went to four-year universities. Our lawmakers study at universities where academia forms them to discern between good and evil with respect to public policy. These lawmakers are perhaps the most apparent and widespread example of failure in higher education. Even if your adult children didn’t get a degree in philosophy or theology, the philosophy of their professors will have an impact on how they think (to greater or lesser degrees depending on the student).
To some extent, everyone is impacted by the research and discussions of academic professors. So—as with anything in life—we the people must keep our ears to the ground, discerning the good, true, and beautiful from the evil, false, and sinful. Much of academia is horribly corrupt. The world today is seeing an increase in secularizing ideologies, even in so-called “Christian” and “Catholic” universities. Perhaps that is more evident in places like southern California, where I grew up, than in east Texas, which I now affectionately call home. Nonetheless, secularism and other harmful mentalities are coming for us and our children too.
It is with these considerations that I joyfully say that the conference I’ve just attended represents some of the best of American Catholic scholarship. I’d like to briefly discuss some of the highlights. The conference was held at Ave Maria University, but was attended by more than 100 scholars from around the country. It was co-hosted by the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and The Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal. Various scholars presented their research on many topics tying St. Thomas Aquinas to the theological study of Sacred Scripture.
Some were very well-known in American Catholicism. One of the keynote speakers was the famous Scott Hahn. Many faithful Catholics will recognize his name from one of the many popular talks he has given or books he has written. Perhaps you’ve seen him on EWTN. Maybe, like my first exposure to Dr. Hahn, you heard one of his talks on cassette tapes. But many don’t realize that he is also an academic Bible scholar and theologian. Many other important scholars attended, including Michael Waldstein, the translator of Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and Brant Pitre, author of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist (and many other books).
Nearly seventy biblical scholars and theologians presented their research at this conference. A few of them have been my long time friends and mentors, others I only recently met. Nonetheless, this conference has renewed my zeal for the faith, as there were so many wonderful presenters who display a bright future for Catholic theology.
I had the honor of presenting some of my own research on Jesus’ priesthood. I argued that even though the Gospel of John doesn’t explicitly call Jesus a priest, if we study John’s gospel carefully and take St. Thomas Aquinas and modern biblical scholarship into account, we can actually see that Jesus is indeed a priest, and his great priestly act is to give us divine life through the Eucharist.
The theme of this conference was “Aquinas the Biblical Theologian.” It sought to merge the fields of Biblical studies and Theology after the model of St. Thomas Aquinas. This is something we should emulate in east Texas where Catholics are a minority. In talking with Protestant Christians we’re often tempted to fear biblical discussions. We very often think of the Bible as their territory.
This couldn’t be further from the truth! The Catholic Church wrote the New Testament, she compiled the books of the Old and New Testaments; and she protected, preserved, and taught the Bible throughout history.
The Bible is a Catholic book, and we need to treat it as such!
We need to do the intellectual heavy lifting of learning what God desires to teach us through his living word. One thing I learned from this conference is the great value of St. Thomas Aquinas in doing just that. St. Thomas’ profession was a professor at the University of Paris. He was also a priest (a Dominican friar).
As a teacher of theology, he didn’t teach classes on the Trinity, or Christology, moral theology, or systematic theology. These are all wonderful fields, and he wrote a lot on these topics, but St. Thomas didn’t teach them in the classroom. His most famous work is a huge summary of theology, hence the name Summa Theologiae. But he didn’t teach it in the classroom. He’s also famous for his philosophy, especially his commentaries on the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. But he didn’t teach Aristotle in the classroom.
What did he teach?
St. Thomas’s title at the University of Paris was Magister in Sacra Pagina, or teacher of the sacred page. Thomas Aquinas was a scripture scholar! He spent his lectures reading, commenting on, debating, and preaching about the Bible. St. Thomas Aquinas was a biblical theologian.
We modern Catholics can learn so much about the Bible by going back to this master of the sacred page. The scholars I encountered at this conference are doing just this! These men and women are faithfully studying and teaching about Scripture and Theology after the example of the Angelic Doctor.
That’s not just the job of university professors, though. We are all called to love God with all of our strength, all of our hearts, and all of our minds. We need to pour all that we can into the great effort of knowing God better so that we can love him better.
As a conclusion, I’d just like to quote Pope Leo XIII on the topic of St. Thomas’ theology:
Domestic and civil society even, which, as all see, is exposed to great danger from this plague of perverse opinions, would certainly enjoy a far more peaceful and secure existence if a more wholesome doctrine were taught in the universities and high schools-one more in conformity with the teaching of the Church, such as is contained in the works of Thomas Aquinas.Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, 28.
Society as a whole, from your home to the public arena is under attack. Part of this attack is fundamentally intellectual. The world would benefit greatly if we just learned and taught ideas which are true. Few can help us in this endeavor like the great Thomas Aquinas.