Theological Approaches Comparison: Thomas of Aquinas and Saint Augustine

Words: 881
Topic: Religion
Updated:

Introduction

The views of Thomas of Aquinas and Saint Augustine contain many similar points. However, some difference exists between the two thinkers. Aquinas and Augustine had different attitudes to philosophy.

While Augustine offered individual ways to cognize God, Aquinas presented logical proofs that God exists. Unlike Augustine, Aquinas acknowledged earthly happiness. The critique of Thomas to Augustine was gentle since Augustine was a renowned theologian, respected by Aquinas.

Attitudes Towards Philosophy

Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine held different attitudes towards philosophy. In the view of Aquinas, philosophy is a science, which, unlike other sciences, receives its principles via God’s revelation without borrowing principles or depending on the other sciences. Philosophy has to use the other sciences as its “handmaidens” because of the deficiency of human mind (Thomas Aquinas 5-12).

Thomas considers theology a part of philosophy, but theology contained in the sacred doctrine is different from the theology that is a part of philosophy, i.e. the sacred doctrine is not a part of philosophy. In other words, for Aquinas philosophy is a superior science that includes theology.

For Augustine, philosophy is an instrument. Even though the majority of philosophers were pagans, their writings and views “should not be feared” (Saint Augustine On Christian Doctrine 48-49). Instead, the things these philosophers claimed should be taken out from them and converted to the use of Christians since many of their claims were reasonable despite them being pagans.

This knowledge, Augustine says, “would prove useful in the worship of one of God” (Saint Augustine On Christian Doctrine 49). So, while Thomas considers philosophy a universal science, Augustine considers it an instrument for Christian theologians.

Approaches to Establishing the Existence of God

The ways, in which St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas presented the proofs of God’s existence, were different as well. Augustine considered that three ways were available to humans to learn about the existence of God. First, through mystical experience, which only a few people can receive.

Second, through faith, i.e. a person had to believe the claims of others, who had mystical experience (Saint Augustine The Confessions of Saint Augustine 111). This way presents wide knowledge to a person. Third, through reason, i.e. an individual should come to a logical conclusion that God exists.

The last way, In Augustine’s view, was available to most humans. Aquinas, in his Summa, offers three articles on this problem. In the first one, he states that the claim “God exists” is self-evident, but not to humans. In the second one, he says that it is possible to prove God’s existence to people. In the third article, Aquinas presents five logical proofs that God exists:

  1. all things are in motion, so there is someone to start the motion;
  2. everything has a cause, so there should be a first cause;
  3. the existence of things is casual, so there needs to be a thing necessary in itself to cause them;
  4. things have characteristics to different degrees (good, better). There will always be something of a greater degree. Therefore, there has to be something of the greatest degree.
  5. all living beings are striving to the better, so someone is guiding them (Thomas Aquinas 22-29).

Basically, the difference between the approaches of Augustine and Thomas is that the former offers the ways for individuals to learn about the existence of God, whereas the latter present logical evidence.

Views of Happiness

Some differences exist in the understanding of happiness by the two thinkers. According to Thomas Aquinas, happiness consists in “goods of the soul” rather than that of the body or some created good.

Additionally, happiness is an activity of speculative intellect. Only in the vision of divine essence can a person find their ultimate happiness. Unlike Augustine, Thomas considers that some imperfect happiness can be achieved on the Earth, but the only way to receive perfect happiness is to develop one’s natural powers such as intellect and will (Thomas Aquinas 1330-1344).

Augustine holds that the only happiness a person can achieve is in God, and considering that anything earthly can bring happiness is a mistake (Saint Augustine City of God par. 4). Overall, Thomas and Augustine agree that true happiness is connected with God, but Thomas distinguishes a kind of “imperfect” earthly happiness.

Criticism of Augustine by Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas often quotes Augustine and expresses his disagreement with his views, particularly in Summa Theologica. For instance, Thomas cites the opinion of Augustine, who said that the Bible’s words about the creation of the world in seven days were metaphorical. Thomas gently rebuffs this opinion.

Several Augustine’s notions on happiness are criticized in the same gentle way. Apparently, Aquinas was not willing to criticize Augustine severely for two reasons. First, Augustine was a renowned theologian, highly respected by the church. Second, Thomas agreed with Augustine in a lot of things, and several disagreements were not a sufficient reason for him to present strong criticism of Augustine.

Conclusion

Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine understood some important problems differently. Their attitudes to philosophy were different. The approaches of these thinkers to establishing the existence of God did not coincide. Even though their views on happiness were similar, Aquinas recognized earthly happiness, unlike Augustine. Thomas’s critique towards Augustine was subtle due to the church’s and his own respect to this thinker.

Works Cited

Saint Augustine. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. New York City, New York: Open Road, 2014. Print.

Saint Augustine. The City of God (Book XIX). n.d. Web.

Saint Augustine. n.d. On Christian Doctrine. PDF file. Web.

Thomas Aquinas. n.d. Summa Theologica. PDF file. Web.