Thomas Instituut te Utrecht (Tilburg University)

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Research on Thomas Aquinas? It has never been more relevant!

An interview with Henk J.M. Schoot (1958), who is lecturer in systematic theology at the Catholic Theological University of Utrecht since 1995 and founding member of the Thomas Instituut (1991).
Henk has been secretary of studies at the Thomas Instituut and director of studies at the education to the priesthood of the Archdiocese of Utrecht and the diocese of Groningen (1993-1998).
At present he is secretary of the board of the Institute, editor-in-chief of the Institute's Jaarboek and managing editor of the Series of Publications of the Institute.
He also is (vice-)chairman of the board of his home town parish, and was ordained a deacon of the Catholic Church in april 2004. He is married and has two children.

How did you get to know Thomas Aquinas? Was there someone in particular who introduced you to his work?

My first reading of Aquinas dates from 1981 or 1982. I studied theology in Utrecht, and was invited to participate in a group of students and scholars who together read Aquinas's disputed questions De Malo. The founding father of this group was prof. dr. Ferdinand de Grijs, professor in systematic theology, the history of theology and the history of dogma at the Catholic Theological School of Utrecht. In this group there were several professors present, so most of the students just solemnly listened and did their best not loosing the thread of the discussion. Which, I must admit, was a task often too high. In Utrecht prof. De Grijs was very active in trying to combine modern theology with a keen interest in the ways Aquinas had shown. His approach was very textual, not so much influenced by one ideology or the other. It was open, historically minded, and both very academic and very loyal to the church. In the end I did my finishing thesis, licentiate if you want, on the questions in Aquinas' commentary on Peter Lombard on the death of Christ.

Is there something you learnt from Thomas, which did influence your own way of thinking and doing research?

I guess the straightforward answer to this is that Aquinas made me appreciate the continuous teaching of the Church, and in particular the Church's teaching about Christ. Especially in his Summa Theologiae Aquinas discusses the doctrine of the union of divinity and humanity in Christ in such a way that it still makes sense today, i.e. as a fundamental law for theological reasoning, in stead of a way of describing the life or identity of Christ. Aquinas does so in both respecting the earthly Jesus - he was the first to address so many 'historical' questions - as well as the mystery that his mission and his identity constitutes. I should add to this, that I have never regarded Aquinas’ views as the only truth; in fact, most of what Aquinas teaches is only accessible when considering him as a - albeit prominent - member of the community of theologians, small and great alike. But I do admire his conciseness, his clarity, his way of separating the important from the less important, and his 'drive' to put God and the human way of confessing His glory - intellectual, moral and spiritual - in the center of his considerations.

With which of Thomas’ works are you most acquainted?

I've read all the genres of Aquinas’ texts. Philosophical and theological, occasional writings and exegetical commentaries. In the end it is his theological work that interests me most, i.e. the Summa Theologiae and its roots in Aquinas' exegetical works.

What in your opinion could be the relevance of research on Thomas Aquinas for this day and age?

It has never been more relevant. There are few theologians who discuss the whole of the teaching of the Church, at the same time aware of man’s intellectual mission and the fundamental mystery it constitutes, at the same time aware of tradition and the new context one's living in, at the same time open for his surroundings and yet trying to open up tradition in answering the present concerns and queries. There are of course respects in which Aquinas' thought or approach is outdated. For example the way he reads scripture. And yet the Church (as well as the New Testament itself) still holds on to the christological reading of e.g. the psalms, and it is from Aquinas that we can learn how that is done.

Do you currently do any research on Thomas Aquinas?

I continue my studies in Christology, in which I prepared my thesis that I defended in 1993: Christ the 'Name' of God. Thomas Aquinas on naming Christ. Last year I edited a Dutch translation of Aquinas' De Rationibus Fidei, which is in some ways relevant to the present discussion of interfaith dialogue and Christ's position in it. In the years to come I hope to follow up on this. At present we are preparing the third international conference of the Thomas Institute, which will be held in December 2005. There we will discuss the theme of Divine transcendence and immanence, which I will be developing from the angle of the person of Christ.

As secretary of studies (1993-2000) and secretary of the board of the Thomas Instituut (since 2000) you have been very much involved in the formation and the development of the Thomas Instituut te Utrecht. Perhaps you could share some of your memories with us?

I remember that Ferdinand de Grijs, with whom I was doing my thesis, came to me some day in 1990 and asked what I thought of founding a Thomas Institute. Because of the fact that I had been working in the administration of the University of Utrecht, I had some experience in university policy. Despite the negative commentary that De Grijs had received from others, I was in favour from the beginning. I wrote a policy proposal, that was submitted to the 20 or so Dutch scholars who had been convening in Utrecht for years in the Working Group Thomas Aquinas. It was accepted, and funds could be raised to pay for the salary of the secretary of studies, which I was to be from the day that I finished my thesis, december 1992. I regret to say that De Grijs never received the credits that were due to him for taking these steps and for founding the Utrecht school in thomistic studies. This is largely so, because De Grijs never published much of his reading of Aquinas, apart from his very thorough Dutch thesis on Aquinas' thought on man as imago Dei. Instead he invested much of his time and energy in his students, which resulted in four dissertations on Aquinas that he directed, and another three that came later, under the guidance of his successor, prof. Herwi Rikhof. I have always been convinced that from the closure of the Dutch seminaries, in 1967, onwards, catholic theology in the Netherlands had to build up itself again starting from scratch, now meeting the demands of university research as well. Time - and history - will tell, whether the phase of erecting four catholic theological departments, next to the department of Nijmegen, in 1967, of which three now remain, must be considered a phase in the way down, or in the way up for catholic academic theology.

How do you see the work of the Thomas Instituut now and its development for the next few years? To what matters should the Thomas Instituut lend priority?

The future of the Instituut is insecure. The institute has got an interuniversity status, engaging the Tilburg Faculty of Theology and the Catholic Theological University of Utrecht. But both departments, together with the third in Nijmegen, are considering a strong cooperation in the near future, if not a merger. The numbers of students are down, the interest in classical theology is down, and the circumstances for members of the faculty are not favourable. And yet, the Institute harbours a continuing interest in doing theology in a certain, classical and traditional but open and scientific way. I am convinced that such a way of doing theology has a future in the Netherlands, organised in one way or the other. I think that we have reached a stadium now, in which we can show the continuing relevance of Aquinas' type of doing theology. And so we must do.

Thank you very much for your time!