Saturday, June 13, 2009

An Example from the Summa Theologica

Have you ever wondered about some of the very strange prohibitions written in the Old Testament? Like the one about not mixing wool and linen? Or not cooking a goat kid in the milk of its mother? Or prohibiting bacon and shellfish? For me, it's always been hard to understand why God would have made commandments that seem nonsensical and absurd from the perspective of modern man. Of course we as Christians must have faith that there was a reason, since His ways are higher than ours, but despite this, these beg the question of why, don't they?

Well, as I meandered my way through the Summa Theologica today, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that these were questions that Thomas Aquinas anticipated...and summarily answered. As I said, nearly everything I've ever heard as an attack upon Christianity can be found within the scope of this massive work. Here is an example:

From the First Part of the Second Part, Question 102, Article 6:

As in every section of the Summa, Aquinas begins with the question he will debate:

Whether there was any reasonable cause for the ceremonial observances?

Next is a list of numbered objections, mapping out the false arguments he will momentarily destroy.

For example, let's take Objection 1: It would seem that there was no reasonable cause for the ceremonial observances. Because, as the Apostle says (1 Tim. 4:4), "every creature of God is good, and nothing to be rejected that is received with thanksgiving." It was therefore unfitting that they should be forbidden to eat certain foods, as being unclean according to Lev. 11

I think modern man would agree with this objection: we don't understand why there was any need for ceremonial observances, at least regarding some of the more bizarre demands strewn throughout the Old Testament. But after listing the 10 Objections Aquinas will oppose, he naturally has an answer. And it's a good one.

He begins every answer with these words, echoing what Christ said to Satan: On the contrary, It is written (Dt 18:14): "But thou art otherwise instructed by the Lord thy God": from which words we may gather that these observances were instituted by God to be a special prerogative of that people. Therefore they are not without reason or cause.

Next follows his general answer, to the larger question he poses, before dealing with the specific objections one by one.

He always begins his general answer with the same phrase: I answer that, The Jewish people, as stated above, were specially chosen for the worship of God, and among them the priests themselves were specially set apart for that purpose. And just as other things that are applied to the divine worship, need to be marked in some particular way so that they be worthy of the worship of God; so too in that people's, and especially the priests', mode of life, there needed to be certain special things befitting the divine worship, whether spiritual or corporal. Now the worship prescribed by the Law foreshadowed the mystery of Christ: so that whatever they did was a figure of things pertaining to Christ, according to 1 Cor. 10:11 "All these things happened to them in figures." Consequently the reasons for these observances may be taken in two ways, first according to their fittingness to the worship of God; secondly, according as they foreshadow something touching the Christian mode of life.

This opened my eyes to the well-reasoned understanding that Israel was set apart, from out of all of the nations, to be the Chosen People of God and that it stands to reason that God would impart to them a sense of holiness which marked them as Chosen by God. But it still doesn't explain the bizarre prohibitions. Hold on, because Aquinas is just getting started!

I will not excerpt his answer to Objection 1, because it is so lengthy, other than to share briefly his explanation of a few of the reasons why certain animals were considered unclean. In the Summa, Aquinas explains that there are symbolic reasons for not eating certain animals, that reflect to very specific vices within mankind that we must attempt to avoid. It is almost as if eating or not eating certain foods are a reminder of the way of life Israel was called. (Aquinas was the first to posit that man was both soul and body, and that both were indivisible from the other. This leads to the implication that what we do to the body impacts our soul, for they are inextricably intertwined in our nature. In this sense, it seems to me that what Aquinas reveals about the significance of eating or not eating certain animals has an iconic quality to it: it taught how Israel was to live and be.)

The animal that chews the cud and has a divided hoof, is clean in signification. Because division of the hoof is a figure of the two Testaments: or of the Father and Son: or of the two natures in Christ: of the distinction of good and evil. While chewing the cud signifies meditation on the Scriptures and a sound understanding thereof; and whoever lacks either of these is spiritually unclean...The screech-owl, which seeks its food by night but hides by day, signifies the lustful man who seeks to lie hidden in his deeds of darkness...The cormorant, so constituted that it can stay a long time under water, denotes the glutton who plunges into the waters of pleasure...The bittern is a bird of the East: it has a long beak, and its jaws are furnished with follicules, wherein it stores its food at first, after a time proceeding to digest it: it is a figure of the miser, who is excessively careful in hoarding up the necessaries of life.

This gives a new understanding to Romans 1:20: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

Regarding the bizarre prohibition against cooking a goat kid in its mother's milk, Aquinas gives an answer that explains fully and completely why God would have prohibited this:

Reply to Objection 4: Although the kid that is slain has no perception of the manner in which its flesh is cooked, yet it would seem to savor of heartlessness if the dam's milk, which was intended for the nourishment of her offspring, were served up on the same dish. It might also be said that the Gentiles in celebrating the feasts of their idols prepared the flesh of kids in this manner, for the purpose of sacrifice or banquet: hence (Ex. 23) after the solemnities to be celebrated under the Law had been foretold, it is added: "Thou shalt not boil a kid in the milk of its dam." The figurative reason for this prohibition is this: the kid, signifying Christ, on account of "the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8:3), was not to be seethed, i.e. slain, by the Jews, "in the milk of its dam," i.e. during His infancy. Or else it signifies that the kid, i.e. the sinner, should not be boiled in the milk of its dam, i.e. should not be cajoled by flattery.

There are significant meanings to each prohibition--these prohibitions are not the commands of a bizarre or strange god, but rather reveal to us more clearly how profoundly He has tied all of creation into his redemptive plan, so that such a strange prohibition is linked to his Incarnation!

I will share one more argument from Aquinas, regarding the seemingly absurd prohibition of mixing two different kinds of thread:

Reply to Objection 6: It is said of a man in Ecclus 19:27 that "the attire of the body . . . " shows "what he is." Hence the Lord wished His people to be distinguished from other nations, not only by the sign of the circumcision, which was in the flesh, but also by a certain difference of attire. Wherefore they were forbidden to wear garments woven of woolen and linen together, and for a woman to be clothed with man's apparel, or vice versa, for two reasons. First, to avoid idolatrous worship. Because the Gentiles, in their religious rites, used garments of this sort, made of various materials. Moreover in the worship of Mars, women put on men's armor; while, conversely, in the worship of Venus men donned women's attire. The second reason was to preserve them from lust: because the employment of various materials in the making of garments signified inordinate union of sexes, while the use of male attire by a woman, or vice versa, has an incentive to evil desires, and offers an occasion of lust. The figurative reason is that the prohibition of wearing a garment woven of woolen and linen signified that it was forbidden to unite the simplicity of innocence, denoted by wool, with the duplicity of malice, betokened by linen. It also signifies that woman is forbidden to presume to teach, or perform other duties of men: or that man should not adopt the effeminate manners of a woman.

These were all symbolic of the need for the Chosen People to reflect their Chosen status, separating them from the rest of the world, so much so that by the very kinds of clothing they wore, or didn't wear, there was a constant reminder to them of their status of being set apart.

It's fascinating to me. If you are as intrigued as I am by this, you can read the entire passage here.


ali said...

this is so awesome, dan....thanks for posting it

Dan said...

Thanks for the comment, Ali. It's nice having evidence that someone reads this from time to time, especially on things that I found so utterly fascinating!

I owe you a letter...I'm planning on sending it this week...