Biblical and Theological Studies Faculty Presentations


Contemplation, Charity and Education: Thomas Aquinas on the Contemplative and Active Lives as a Paradigm for Education

Document Type

Conference Presentation

Event Date



2011 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture, "Educating for Wisdom in the 21st Century"


Waco, TX


In this paper, I argue that Thomas Aquinas's account of the contemplative life and the active life provides an instructive paradigm for appropriately ordering the relationship between education for practical or instrumental ends, and education for knowledge as its own end. The paper will proceed in four parts.

First, I offer an exposition of Thomas's account of the contemplative and active life. For Thomas, the ordering principle of each is the loving knowledge of God in God's gift of beatitude to the saints. The contemplative life is aimed principally at knowing God for God's own sake. Yet, it is precisely the love of all others in God that provides the principle of the active life, and provides the warrant for why on this side of eternity there is often a provisional practical priority of the active life over the contemplative life. Hence, Thomas's account of the distinction of the contemplative and active life is not precisely a distinction between 'religious' and 'secular' life. Rather, it is a distinction of priorities and emphases. All are to be contemplative insofar as all, by virtue of humanity's created end, are called to worship God simply. Yet, all at times must engage the active life insofar as the full vision of God - seeing God face to face - is an eschatological end. The relative emphasis of each depends upon one's particular vocation.

Though he makes use of (what we might call) philosophical reflection to show that the distinction is fitting to the kinds of creatures humans are, for Thomas the warrant for distinguishing the contemplative from the active life is fundamentally the authority of the church as it reads and reflects on Scripture. So, in the second part of my paper, I consider representative biblical passages to which Thomas (and the tradition) adverts. First, I consider Luke 10: 38-42, the story of Mary and Martha. Thomas takes Mary and Martha to be figures for the contemplative and active life respectively. Contemporary biblical scholars are usually inclined to take the use of these two disciples as figures for the contemplative and active life to be an unjustified imposition on the text. I argue otherwise. Second, I consider the Psalms thematically as a whole, as the Psalms provide a plethora of textual support for Thomas. The fruit of considering these passages is not only to defend Thomas's own account, but also to illuminate the intrinsic relationship between contemplation (lovingly knowing God for God's own sake), and action (charity towards others in God).

Third, after describing Thomas's account, and after considering some important biblical passages, I argue that Thomas's account provides a paradigm for relating the instrumental ends of education and education for knowledge for its own sake. I will consider two representative proposals. First, John Henry Newman offers a classic and still influential account of the intrinsic value of knowledge as its own end. Second, Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that for Christians education ought to aim atshalom, the repair of injustice aimed toward human flourishing. I will suggest that these two accounts of education can be fruitfully related to one another in terms of the paradigm of Thomas's account of the contemplative and active life. The instrumental goods of education are ordered toward love and justice, which find their proper end in the contemplation of God. The consequence is that education is good and just when it orders its practice-both active and contemplative-toward loving knowledge of God.

Finally, on the basis of the three preceding parts, I offer some practical suggestions for what difference the proposed relationship between the instrumental ends of education and the intrinsic good of contemplation makes to the actual practice of education.