“If it were not for some [divine] power that wanted the feminine sex to exist, the birth of a woman would be just another accident, such as that of other monsters [= a dog with two heads, a calf with five legs, etc.]”
– Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas was one of the most influential theologians and thinkers in the Church (and the Western World for that matter). But he was also a man of his age (1224-1274 AD). He accepted Aristotle’s view of the inferiority of women and used it in his argument as to why women couldn’t be priests.
Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle in attributing the conception of a woman to a defect of a particular seed. The male semen intends to produce a complete human being, a man, but at times it does not succeed and produces a woman. A woman is, therefore, a mas occasionatus, a failed male.
Leviticus 21:17-23 required priests to be free of physical defects. Women were defective, ergo disqualified. Aquinas also held them to be intellectually inferior and born in a state of perpetual subjection to man. Their primary role was as passive receptacles for the male seed.
It would be another 600 years before empirical science discredited this line of thinking by proving the existence of the female egg and the woman’s contribution of half the genetic material for each new human.
“Avoid Such Embarrassment”
This example illustrates the perpetual need to amend our understanding of the Bible and theology in the light of new discoveries. Not because Scripture is subject to flawed human knowledge but because our interpretation is warped by our limited worldview and needs periodic adjustment.
This error is repeated today by those who insist on a literal 6-day creation, which flies in the face of overwhelming data. The tension isn’t with the text so much as with one interpretation of it. Even a theologian as “fundamental” as Augustine saw the danger in this.
Often a non-Christian knows something of the earth, the heavens, the motions and the orbits of the stars, and this knowledge he holds with Certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based on Scripture. We should do all we can to avoid such embarrassment, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn. – The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Vol 1:41; Ancient Christian Writers
All truth is God’s truth, including what’s seen through electron microscopes and radio telescopes (Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:20). We shouldn’t be afraid of it, even when it challenges our cherished beliefs.