I was recently asked why St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, has such a central importance for Catholic theology when there is the myriad testimony of Church Fathers of old. This was my answer:
Well, there are a number of transitions in the history of theology. In the first place, our God came to the people of Israel. The Lord Jesus was born as an Israelite, and revealed Himself as the bearer of their covenantal fulfillment. Then, you have him dying, rising, and ascending back to His Father. From here, the Jews began to preach that God-become-man had died for the sins of the world, and rose from the dead to abolish death and bring immorality and life to light.
There is almost nothing about metaphysics here.
The Jew knew God differently than did the Greek. The Greek philosophical tradition sought God or the “one” (monad) from the bottom up – form, substance, accident, matter, cause, effect, motion, etc,etc. The Jew knew God because God showed up at his front door step (Abraham/Moses/Egypt/Passover). The latter is far more personal, relational, covenantal, and practical, whereas the former is impersonal, logical, impractical, etc,etc.
The early Jewish Christians continued to carry along the worship of Jesus as “Adonai”, equal with God. However, when the gospel became the mission of Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world, the gospel would come under scrutiny of people influenced by the Greek philosophical tradition. Hence, “how can the finite Jesus, a creature, be God” (divine simplicity). And thus, the theologians of the Church had no choice but to engage with Greek metaphysics and utilize this as a vehicle to convey and clarify the secrets and mysteries of God. The revolution, perhaps, is that God’s mysteries are not at odds with natural sciences. They necessarily cohere, since God made both, and he cannot be schizophrenic or contradictory. Thus, a confidence that metaphysics could be used to reconcile questions related to the identity of Christ (i.e. see the Cappadocian fathers).
The Church Father used this method, and we see it so wonderfully in St. John of Damascus and St. Maximos the Confessor. But it was only applied to specific matters, and a systematic work full enough to comport with the whole of the science of theology had not been done (no discredit to St. John’s De Fide Orthodoxa). Ultimately, Greek metaphysics and Christian mystery was reconciled in such a unique way with St. Thomas Aquinas (and his teachers) that was not done before. Perhaps, the kind of study existed, but Aquinas brought it to a new level.
Where some of the Church fathers care little about total coherence of the Christian tradition with natural science, Thomas takes up the task of providing a robust theological and philosophical framework.
This has its great benefits, but it has its limitations as well. No one apparently knew the limitations of scholastic thinking more than Aquinas himself. Maybe the Thomists don’t realize (I’m sure most do). The mysteries of divine revelation take precedence….always.
Now, you had a sort of neo-Patristic movement which sought to simply “adhere to the Fathers”, but such a noble task is fraught with difficulty. In the first place, they do not all cohere in their theology, commentary, and thought. This is why Anglicanism, particularly the Anglo-Catholic tradition, has been fraught with the same impasse on matters of doctrine. They have a Church-Father-Magisterium, and it is simply a Museum of inanimate data from the dead. Some of that data is good and true, and some of it is false and bad. Who gets to decide? Take your pic.
However, that is not to say Aquinas relied little on the Church fathers. So much to the contrary, he is a walking Patristics commentator. He was a Bible and Patristics man, all the way. Just see how often he quotes from St. John Chrysostom, St. Dionysios, St. Augustine, and St. John of Damascus just to name a few. Some day, one should write on the Thomistic reliance on Patristic and Biblical testimony to dispel the modern myths of an Aquinas who sees them as superfluous in comparison to reason.