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The modesty of the theologian

Dr. Herwi Rikhof - Director of the Thomas Instituut - on the importance of Thomas Aquinas.
What are your current activities?

I'm currently working as a professor in Systematic Theology at the Catholic Theological University in Utrecht (Katholieke Theologische Universiteit te Utrecht). I'm also president of a co-operation, called 'Christian Articles of Faith' (XART), a Dutch co-operation of dogmatic theologians, both protestant and catholic. Last year I lectured on Trinitarian Theology, Fundamental Theology, the Theology of Ordination and Ministry and two classes in the field of sacramental theology: a class dedicated to the text of De Sacramentis in Communi from Aquinas' Summa Theologiae and a methodological class about trinitarian theology, where we discussed Weinandy's book The Spirit of Sonship. The research on Thomas Aquinas I'm conducting has its main focus in Thomas' Trinitarian and sacramental theology, i.e. the nexus mysteriorum. I'm also doing research into the reception of the theology of Aquinas by M. Scheeben. This research is still in full progress so it's a bit early to indicate the results of this project.

Can you tell us the most important thing you've learned from Thomas Aquinas?

I think that Thomas Aquinas is an indispensable guide to what I would call "the modesty of the theologian". Thomas teaches us to be modest as theologians. Aquinas' own attitude is an excellent example of this modesty: he's always in discussion with the Tradition and with other theologians, as well as with himself.
He's always listening to other opinions, always trying to be even more precise, never afraid to change or adjust his own position or discoveries.
Aquinas teaches us that a theologian can never sit back and think his work is finished; a theologian always has to move on. Aquinas' modesty can also be detected in his continuing care to put God in the centre of theology. This may seem obvious, but in reality it's quite demanding! In theology there's always the risk of concentrating too much on secondary topics. Aquinas is always concerned to show the "mystery of God". For him, theology has to focus on this mystery of God; everything else is seen in connection with this mystery.

With which works of Aquinas are you most familiar?

Most of his systematic works, as well as some of his commentaries of the Scripture. In my opinion, a very intriguing work of Aquinas is his Summa contra Gentiles. Aquinas uses a completely different form to communicate his ideas than he does in for example the Summa Theologiae. Some parts of the Summa contra Gentiles are very beautiful. It has never become clear exactly why Aquinas wrote this work. It's different from the rest, and very intriguing indeed!

What is, in your opinion, the importance of research on Thomas Aquinas for contemporary theology?

First of all, I would like to stress again the importance of his constant attention to the "mystery of God" as the centre of all theology. Secondly, I think that Aquinas often pays attention to things that contemporary theology sometimes tends to forget. Theological research nowadays is often concerned about the historical dimension of theology. This might overshadow the fact that there is also something like "contemplative theology". A third, very important insight is the importance of language when you are doing theology. Aquinas is paying a lot of attention to the language we use in theology. And he also defines the boundaries of this language. This consciousness of the possibilities and the limitations of our (theological) language is very important in theology.

Are there any contemporary insights that influence your research on Thomas Aquinas?

I think that we have become more aware, not only of the possibilities of Aquinas' thinking, but also of its limitations. There are a lot of things Thomas hasn't done. In Trinitarian theology, for example, we would have to discuss many more different topics nowadays than Aquinas did in his time. Another thing is, that quite a few things remain implicit in Aquinas' theology, whereas we have to treat these things in a much more explicit manner today. The current attention to history and Scripture helps us to see that Aquinas implicitly uses Scripture as the basis of his theological thinking. A lot of the concepts he works out are in fact tools to get a better understanding of what we read in the Scripture.

How do you see the work of the Thomas Instituut now, and its development in the future?

In my opinion, one of the main tasks of our Institute is to stimulate and co-ordinate the research on the works of Thomas Aquinas. I think it's very important that our Institute has been acknowledged by the Catholic Theological University as an Institute of the University. But at the same time I realise that there is still much to be done: developing plans for new research-projects, stimulating current research and trying to attract new people to work on Aquinas.
Two new projects are very important at the moment. We are beginning a series of Dutch translations of works of Thomas Aquinas, and Professor J. Wissink is working on a publication about Thomas Aquinas aimed at a larger audience. So, we have, in fact, two important aims: to assure continuous research on Thomas Aquinas and to make our findings available to a larger audience interested in theology and spirituality.

Roderick Vonhögen