Thomas Aquinas and The Concept of the Ontology of the Human Person

Sounds like the title of a children’s book gone horribly awry, doesn’t it?

Sadly, coming up with something creative as a title for this series of posts proved impossible; I’m rather bad at coming up with titles to begin with not to mention for entries once meant to be part of a larger academic work. *sigh* Oh well, “it is what it is”….wait, that may have worked! 😉

This is the first post (of many; yes you’ve been warned) discussing Thomas Aquinas’ concept of the human person. I’m pulling directly from a section for a dissertation I am no longer working on, which hurts…a little, won’t lie. But, having 75 pages of written material sit on the drive of my computer hurt more, so I’m giving them some light here on my blog. I can hear from here the shouts of ecstasy. Stop it. You’re making me blush.

My plan is to go through and chunk up the section and post it (post by post by post…) here. I am neither an Aquinas scholar nor a Thomist. In an attempt to understand what Luther was saying about the concept of ontology of the human person (also part of the larger, former dissertation) I had to know (well) what he was working with and even against; this is how a Lutherphile ends up with near 100 pages of work on Thomas Aquinas. With that said, I want to add that I did my best to assume the posture of a student who wanted to learn from Thomas Aquinas; my aim in this section was not to find the myriad of ways I could disagree with him, but to (as best I can from the 21st century) get into his head, make his language my language, see through his eyes. And, in my opinion, that’s what a good student does: she learns, she learns well, and then she find the cracks and faults.

Now that that’s off my chest, let me cease my preliminary yammering. Without further interruption:

The Introduction

The concept of the ontology of the human person is rather difficult to pin down in the works of Thomas Aquinas. One cannot turn to the index of the Summa Contra Gentiles or the Summa Theologiea and look up the concept of the ontology of the human person to be directed to a part in each work that will clearly tell the reader the proper definition of the ontology of the human person. Rather the concept is embedded within Thomas’ works, nearly all of them. In Thomas’ discussion about God, we see what humans are not and this plays a role in understanding the concept of the ontology of the human person for Aquinas. One must first understand God as Creator, to know the created and why God creates and what aspect or characteristic of the Creator is contained within the created and what does the created say about the Creator. The concepts are intimately bound together yet distinct; they are one but polyform.

For instance, to understand humanity and the world as created, there must be a differentiation between Creator and created, a differentiation that must be upheld if we are to make sure that God is distinct from creation (distinction not intending complete disassociation, but rather difference: God is not creation and creation is not God). Not only that, but also that God is intimately connected with and toward creation (the concept of God’s Providence); God is not a far-off God that has merely created this world only to let it now run its course of action without any involvement on God’s end: God cares for, provides for, is the authority over, and sustains creation.

This distinction between God, Creator, and humanity and the world, the created, is crucial for Aquinas. The distinction highlights mainly the healthy differentiation between God and creation. As stated above, God is distinct yet connected to what God creates. What God is and who God is, humanity and the rest of creation are not (and cannot be). But it is also important to mention that the inverse is not 100% true. We cannot say, taking Aquinas at his word, that what humanity and the world are or who humanity is, God is not. Primarily we cannot say this because of the fact that there are resemblances and types that reflect the divine Creator within the creation. So, if we see beauty in a flower or a pastoral setting, we can deduce, according to Aquinas, that God is beauty more fully and perfectly. When we encounter a wise person, we can likewise deduce that in God wisdom is full and perfect, and so on. According to Aquinas, the virtues and the good that we see in humanity and in creation are in God fully and perfectly.

With this said, the main point of this discussion is to discern, carefully, what Thomas says about the ontology of the human person. It has been established that in order to do this well, maintaining the integrity of Thomas’ thought, one needs to look at both Aquinas’ concept of God and his concept of creation. So, what does the distinction between the Creator and the created as well as the types and resemblances between the Creator and the created tell us about the ontology of the human person? This concept of the ontology of the human person seems to come down to the proper definition of the image of God in which and with which humanity is created. It is here, in the image of God, where we see both the distinction between God and humanity and the resemblance of the Creator within the created. To understand the ontology of the human person, for Aquinas, one needs to understand the image of God as it is within humanity and as it is communicated to humanity through creation. For Aquinas, the image of God contained within humanity—if we dare to simplify here his complex definition—is (best defined) as: the intellect. While the term and concept of the intellect will be teased out in future posts, it will suffice to say here that this is not a cold and isolated term, depicting man as merely a brain with no heart. For Aquinas, the concept of the intellect is a broader term, encompassing the reason, free will, and love. It is the intellect that separates humanity from the beasts of the earth, for by it we can contemplate, and by it we can seek God, the true end of all good and humanity’s beatification.

This discussion, in its goal to define Aquinas’ concept of the ontology of the human person, will attempt to be faithful to Aquinas’ own approach by first looking into Aquinas’ concept of God, then into why God created and what He created, and then conclude with a discussion of Aquinas’ concept of the ontology of the human person. But prior to diving into those concepts I’ll be providing a background to some of Aquinas’ work (I know, you were dying to know) and definitions of terms (now this I know you wanted to know). Providing background into Thomas’ work gives his work a dimension for us in the 21st century; he did write in a particular time with a particular goal to address a particular problem, we would do well to understand this historical background as much as we can. Giving some definitions to terms is always a good idea to create the common-ground of language: if I merely toss to you the term “essence” you maybe be familiar with the term but we may be working with varying concepts depending on how we’ve developed the term from our own research.

With that…Stay tuned!

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