Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologiae: A Biography

Bernard McGinn

Princeton University Press 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologiae, written around 1270 as an attempt at a comprehensive synthesis of Christian theology, runs to a million and a half words — three or four thousand pages — and has generated orders of magnitude more in commentary, making it one of those works even medievalists and theologians might approach with trepidation. Given its prominent place in the history of ideas, a brief guide to the Summa and its history and reception is a welcome resource.

McGinn offers some background on "The World That Made Thomas Aquinas", with a quick overview of the medieval church and the place within it of universities, scholastic masters, and scholar friars. This is pretty brief, however, and offers nothing on theology: the reader is really assumed to have a decent grasp of the history of Christianity and at least an elementary understanding of its theology.

The next chapter offers an account of Thomas's life and works as the context for the Summa. This draws heavily on its first question or introduction (on sacra doctrina) to help us understand its purpose and motivation, but also draws on other parts of it and on other works.

"Thomas uses reason and philosophical modes of arguing throughout the Summa, but it is not a work of philosophy, or even of philosophical theology. The Summa theologiae is fundamentally a work of doctrinal theology, however much it makes use of philosophy and philosophical theology (i.e., metaphysics). Since sacra doctrina is a true science, it needs to make use of both reason and faith, of philosophical and theological argumentation. If philosophy and theology are necessary, however, they are not equally necessary — only revelation and the faith based on it are salvific."

A "Tour of the Summa theologiae" in just forty pages could have been little more than a table of contents, but McGinn opts for five pages of that and then a more uneven approach, aiming "to give a sense of the range of doctrines considered and to sample a few of the important sections in some detail".

"Thomas devotes twenty-four questions to charity. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about his treatment is that he places it in the category of friendship (amicitia), citing Jesus's words in John 15:15: 'I do not call you servants any longer, but my friends' (q. 23.1). Because grace perfects nature, Thomas weaves all the natural designations concerning love into his account of caritas, not only friendship, but also love (amor), delight (delectatio), and benevolence (benevolentia). They are all subsumed into this most excellent of virtues, the virtue that for Thomas is the form, or inner reality, of all the virtues."

"The Tides of Thomism" traces the changing fortunes of the Summa, and of Thomas's ideas more broadly, over its first six hundred years or so. There was early championing by fellow Dominicans, but also opposition, for example in a 1277 condemnation by the Bishop of Paris of a number of ideas, including some of Thomas's; the responses of Duns Scotus and Meister Eckhart give a feel for his broader intellectual reception, and he was canonised in 1323. McGinn goes on to describe the ramifying body of commentary and interpretation, encounters with the Renaissance and Reformation, the establishment of the Summa as a standard text and of Thomas as "the Angelic Doctor", and the gradual decline of Thomism as an active source of philosophical and theological discussion and debate.

Arising in the second half of the nineteenth century through papal attempts to respond to Enlightenment critiques of traditional religion, Neothomism was more philosophical than theological. Attempts to impose one particular interpretation of Thomism as orthodoxy, pushed most notably by popes Leo XIII and Pius X, persisted to the mid-twentieth century but are now forgotten. McGinn also covers the broader twentieth century history of Thomist ideas, looking at the variety of schools, at influences on individual theologians such as Gilson and Lonergan and Rahner, and at the rise of more scholarly studies of Thomas.

Note: Other recent books on the Summa theologiae and Thomas Aquinas include Brian Davies's Guide and Commentary and Denys Turner's biographical Portrait. I chose to read the McGinn because my interest is primarily historical and, unlike the others, it treats the reception and later history of Thomist ideas at length.

September 2014

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%T Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologiae
%S A Biography
%Y Lives of the Great Religious Books
%A McGinn, Bernard
%I Princeton University Press
%D 2014
%O hardcover, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780691154268
%P 260pp