When one of the Smartest Theologians in History heard God’s Voice, he Stopped Studying

Thomas Aquinas was one of the theological heavyweights in church history. His enormous collection of writings, Summa Theologica, is one of the most comprehensive and profound works of theology the world has seen.¹ Years of his life were spent developing the systems of thought and rationalism that would go on to shape theology far beyond his lifetime. But near the end of his life, Aquinas had a hearing-God experience that changed his life. He ceased writing as a result. 

When urged to continue, he wrote: ‘I can write no more; such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems as straw, and I now await the end of my life.’²

After spending a lifetime building his intellectual knowledge, Aquinas recognised its value in the light of hearing from the Spirit. Everything else was “as straw.”

“I Consider it Garbage…”

Aquinas’ conclusion was not too dissimilar from that of the apostle Paul. As a ‘Pharisee of the Pharisees’, Paul had obtained great reservoirs of cerebral knowledge under the rabbi Gamaliel. But he also understood that this type of knowledge had a tendency to ‘puff’ him up (1 Cor. 8:1–3). Compared with the ‘surpassing worth’ of knowing God personally, it was the worst kind of ‘garbage’ (Phil. 3:8). In contrast, knowledge from the Spirit was worth losing everything for (1 Cor. 3:8). This was the key to knowing God. This is why when Paul prayed for the Ephesians to know God better, he prayed for them to experience the ‘Spirit of wisdom and revelation’ (Eph. 1:17). 

I’ve experienced a similar realisation in my own life. A few years ago, while staying interstate with my Mum on a PhD study intensive, I spoke harshly and made her cry. I remember being surprised at how nasty my words were and immediately felt convicted. “Learn to love your Mum”, the Holy Spirit said. In that moment, I realised that all my PhD research was rubbish should I say “no. Every year of study spent preparing for ministry for becoming a “Rev Dr” would be wasted if I chose to disobey. Knowing God came with listening to and heeding the Spirit. My PhD in theology was only useful in service to a PhD in love.

Two Types of Knowledge

My experience, the experience of the Apostle Paul and Thomas Aquinas reveals two different ways of understanding “knowledge of God.” One type is cerebral and relates to what we know. It is achieved through intellectual study of Scripture, the understanding of Bible customs and cultures, exegesis skills and the like.

The other type is experiential and relates to who we know. It is achieved thought receiving revelation by the Spirit and following it. In simple terms, it comes when we hear God’s voice and follow (John 10:27). 

This doesn’t mean that cerebral knowledge is useless. Without it, our biblical interpretation becomes distorted and we can’t make proper sense of Scripture. In my six years of PhD study, I discovered truths that I know will help people in their faith. So it’s important, but it’s not the most important. Cerebral knowledge must never be elevated above the experiential. As we see in the lives of the Pharisees who ‘studied the Scriptures,’ but never heard God’s voice (see John 5:39–40), it will never achieve the fruit of spiritual maturity and intimacy with God. Instead, cerebral knowledge must always retain its place as servant, not master. 

This experiential understanding of the “knowledge of God” has profound ramifications for our world. It means that the path of discipleship is available to all, not just to those who have the privilege of education. This was just as good news for the ‘unschooled, ordinary’ disciples (Acts 4:13) who listened and followed the voice of God as it is for us. 

To receive the Spirit’s revelation, we need to be neither educated nor intelligent. Rather, we must ‘remain in’ God (1 John 2:27). That means, whether poor or rich, young or old, the defining factor in our spiritual growth is whether we say ‘yes’ or whether we say ‘no’.

 

Adapted from chapter 13 of book, The Church who Hears God’s Voice

¹ St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican Province; New York, NY: Benzinger Bros., Inc., various dates).

² Mortimer J. Adler and the University of Chicago, Great Books of the Western World, vol. 19: Thomas Aquinas (Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), p. vi.

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