A Feature Review of
Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae: A Biography
Reviewed by Alden Lee Bass
“If Thomas Aquinas were alive today, he’d be a holy-roller,” I recently heard a Catholic professor explain. Looking at a few of the many paintings of St. Thomas made by his admirers, one does not get the impression that he ever broke into holy laughter, or laughter at all for that matter. Which just goes to show how diverse the reception of Aquinas has been over the centuries since his death, and by his most influential and representative writing, the Summa theologiae.
Thomas published a great deal more than the Summa in his short lifetime (he died at age 49). He wrote many beautiful commentaries on scripture, for instance, as well as commentaries on existing theological texts such as the Sentences of Peter Lombard. He also generated a large number of philosophical and theological treatises on such questions as: What is truth? What is evil? What is the soul? Though Thomas is mostly remembered as a man of sky-scraping intellect, in his own day his works were read widely by laymen and people of modest intelligence.
Today, however, Thomas is best-known for the monumental Summa, one of the great works in the history of Christian thought. The Summa theologiae, or Synthesis of Theology, was written originally for his Dominican students at the University of Paris. The work was intended “for the instruction of beginners,” those just starting their study of theology. The medieval university, unlike the modern seminary, understood the study of scripture to be the culmination of one’s education; before divine scripture could be competently handled, human philosophy and theology must be mastered. The Summa thus provided a theological framework for more advanced scripture study, the equivalent of a modern graduate education.
One might easily pity the beginner confronted with the Summa. The three volumes weighs in at over a million and a half words containing 512 topics (quaestiones) and no fewer than 2,668 articles (articuli) dealing with a variety of subjects. The English translation takes up over 2,500 double-column pages. Ever the prolific writer, Thomas composed all of this in the space of about 7 years (while simultaneously working on other projects). Since then, the books have been pored over by generations of scholars, theologians, and churchmen, resulting in millions of pages of commentary and analysis.
In this biography of the great Summa, McGinn sets out to craft a narrative from those millions of pages. To make the gargantuan task more manageable, he breaks the Summa’s reception down into two large periods: 1) from 1275 to 1850 and 2) from 1850 to the present. These two chapters are some of the most valuable in this short book, because the history of the Summa is in many ways the history of Western theology and philosophy over the past 700 years. In the first section, he takes us through the several schools of Scholastics – Scotists, Albertists, Thomists, and Nominalists – through the Renaissance Humanists, the Reformers, and the Enlightenment. In each period, the Summa stood at the center of religious debate. The second section picks up with the Catholic anti-modernism crusade and rise of Neothomism. In this period (the 1870s) Pope Leo named Neothomism the official teaching of Catholicism with the encyclical Aeterni Patris which identified the teachings of Thomas as “the invincible bulwark of the faith.” Yet the variety of interpretations which sprung up in the twentieth century prove that the Summa resists any single interpretation or “Thomism.” McGinn develops four categories to describe the twentieth-century Thomisms: Strict-Observance Thomism (Garrigou-Lagrange), Revived Thomism (Chenu, De Lubac), Metaphysical Thomism (Gilson, Maritain), and Transcendental Thomism (Lonergan, Rahner, von Balthasar).
Returning to the labyrinthine text itself, which was the culmination of Thomas’ life-long engagement with scripture, the medieval Christian tradition, and classic Greek philosophy, one begins to understand why so many and diverse interpretations have proliferated. The explicit subject of the Summa is sacra doctrina, or sacred instruction, which Thomas, as a good scholastic, understood as a type of scientia, or “science” in the Aristotelian sense of an organized body of knowledge based on strict deductive reasoning. The Summa reads like an operating manual of a complex piece of hardware, governed by the mechanical logic of the medieval university and the relentless tick-tock of quaestio and respondeo. The work as a whole has been compared to a gothic cathedral, lofty and sublime, but also cold and distant.
McGinn’s gift is his effort to bring some of the original warmth back into the Summa, first by making it the subject of a biography, reminding us that this great work has had a life of its own. He also argues that the sacra doctrina at the heart of the Summa is best understood in relation to sapientia, or wisdom. Wisdom has a more earthy and humane quality than abstract deductive philosophy; in fact, Thomas understood the word sapietia to derive from sapida scientia, literally “tasteful or savory knowing.” This type of knowledge is experiential, filtered through the flesh with all of its senses. Wisdom is not only delicious, but also fun. In his Commentary on Boethius’s “De hebdomadibus” Thomas compares wisdom to a delightful game, enjoyable because it is “not ordered to something else but only to itself.” Like the ethereal spheres, divine wisdom is cyclical, flowing from God into creation and then back to God again. The plan of the Summa is patterned on this sapiential circle, moving from God to creation (Part 1); to humanity and to creation’s return to God through a human (Part 2); to Christ to sacraments (Part 3) and back to God. For all of its density and sophistication, the Summa was at its heart a work of wisdom inspired by the Holy Spirit and designed to cultivate and increase wisdom in its Spirit-filled readers. Perhaps Thomas was a Charismatic after all.