Friday, May 16, 2014

Bernard McGinn's "Biography" of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas

A new book on St. Thomas's Summa. It will be interesting to see where this comes out when the dust settles. His self-identification as something other than "a card carrying member of any Thomist party," as well as his disenchantment with the pre-Vatican II "dry-as-dust version of neo-Thomist philosophy" and affection for the Nouevelles suggests some caution. We shall see.

Christopher Blosser plans a more substantial review of the book in the near future, but for now offers this post as a courtesy to the publisher who sent him a complimentary copy for review: "Thomas Aquinas' 'Summa theolgiae': A Biography -- Bernard McGinn" (Against the Grain, May 14, 2014): In full disclosure, I promised that I would give it mention on my blog while the review was forthcoming. McGinn is distinguished for his extensive scholarship of Christian mysticism and does not identify himself as "a card carrying member of any Thomist party." Nevertheless:
"... I'd been reading Thomas for almost sixty years and teaching him for over forty. When I was studying a dry-as-dust version of neo-Thomist philosophy from 1957 to 1959, I was rescued from despair by reading the works of Etienne Gilson, especially his Being and some Philosophers. . . . between 1959 and 1963, I was privileged to work with two great modern investigators of Thomas, Joseph de Finance and Bernard Lonergan. It was then I realized that no matter what kind of theology one elects to pursue in life, there is no getting away from Thomas. So the opportunity to come back to Thomas and the Summa was both a challenge and a delight." [From the Preface]
Suffice to say I am intrigued, and will have more to report once I get into it.

From the Publisher
This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, the Summa was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church. It synthesizes an astonishing range of scholarship, covering hundreds of topics and containing more than a million and a half words--and was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas's death.

Here, Bernard McGinn, one of today's most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity, vividly describes the world that shaped Aquinas, then turns to the Dominican friar's life and career, examining Aquinas's reasons for writing his masterpiece, its subject matter, and the novel way he organized it. McGinn gives readers a brief tour of the Summa itself, and then discusses its reception over the past seven hundred years. He looks at the influence of the Summa on such giants of medieval Christendom as Meister Eckhart, its ridicule during the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of Neothomism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of the Summa in the post-Vatican II church, and the book's enduring relevance today.

Tracing the remarkable life of this iconic work, McGinn's wide-ranging account provides insight into Aquinas's own understanding of the Summa as a communication of the theological wisdom that has been given to humanity in revelation.
[Hat tip to C.B.]


Anonymous said...

I think the Church needs to re-examine the emphasis on Thomas.

"By replacing the distinction between the essence and energies of God with the theory that God is the being who is the unity of all and only perfections, western theology is forced against its own intentions to regard many properties, laws, and other relations found in the cosmos as uncreated. Nevertheless, the prevailing western theology still maintains that position in the face of the explicit teaching of the NT that God is the Creator of “everything visible or invisible’, and despite the fact that the essence/energies distinction was reasserted in the west (in different terms) by Luther, Calvin, and Barth."

Roy Clouser, "Pancreation Lost: The Fall of Theology"

Pertinacious Papist said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm not persuaded that the essence/energies distinction is ultimately productive or sustainable, as I've suggested in debate with Palamasians elsewhere.

What I'm wondering as I read your remarks, however, is what you think the Church stands to gain practically by embracing this distinction. What concrete goods and benefits would it logically justify?

Anonymous said...

I haven't thought about it from the perspective of what is to be gained practically, unless we count truth was something practical. I simply think it's closer to the doctrine of God revealed in Scripture. Conceiving of God as "pure being" leaves me cold, too, so I suppose from the standpoint of prayer or relating to God, I find Thomism lacking.

Pertinacious Papist said...


Fair enough. Your response to "pure being" is understandable, but it's possible that it involves some misunderstanding as well. It's a sort of Hegelian notion of "being" as the most "abstract" of concepts, and therefore not very interesting. In fact, it's how Hegel (in his book on logic) gets his dialectic going, beginning with "being," whose antithesis is "nothing," which are both sublated in the synthesis of "becoming," etc.

But the Thomistic notion of being is dynamic: pure act (activity, if you will).

Not we're still talking theoretical concepts, whereas the Bible is concrete.

But there's a reason why Christians over the ages have had recourse to theoretical (speculative, philosophical) concepts. The language of the Bible, while far closer to our experience, leaves us with some problems.

Genesis describes the decadence of the days of Noah and says that God, beholding the rampant immorality over the face of the earth "regretted" (or "repented") of having made man (or human beings) on the earth, and was "grieved" of heart. (Gen 6:6)

This "humanizes" God, of course, with the image of a cosmic creator being disappointed with the way the work of his hands has turned out, almost as if He were taken by surprise. But it also, if taken literally, leaves us with a God who is far less than God: a God who is finite, limited, doesn't know the future, etc. -- which in turn conflicts with other passages of Scripture where God is described as knowing all things, like Ps. 139:4 ("even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether"), Rm 8:29 ("for whom He foreknew, He also predestined ..."), etc.

So philosophical theology (of the type Thomism employs) is an attempt to conceptually reconcile God's attributes into a coherent conception of God. Terms like "being," "absolute divine simplicity," "immutability" can make God seem like a lifeless boulder if one tries to imagine God in those terms, but these terms are not meant for imagining, but for conceptualizing (without images), in order to understand (not picture).

"Immutability," for instance, doesn't mean that God doesn't love us or hate sin. It means that that God isn't going to change from this sort of being one moment to another the next.

Peace. --

Pertinacious Papist said...

Sorry for the typos.

Anonymous said...


Thank you.

I think what you say about conceptualizing vs. picturing is important, though ultimately, I think we will use the conceptualizing (or understanding) to picture - and rightly so.

In terms of the "humanizing" God, do we run the risk of dictating to God who or what God (or "A God") must be when we reason that it "leaves us with a God who is far less than God: a God who is finite, limited, doesn't know the future, etc."?

Why do we take the immutability or unchanagableness of God, for instance, as the highest attribute, while we place the others as secondary or merely analogical? On what basis do we read Scripture that way? I'd say it because of the philosophical conceptions that were accepted a priori.

Put another way, do we risk "necessitating" God in our attempt to avoid "humanizing" Him?

In terms of God, say, "repenting" or regretting, there must be something to that, no, if we are to take free will seriously? God must be displeased with how His creation would turn on Him.

Finally, if I may refer to the writing I did before for a point of confusion that I think Thomism has not been able to address:

"if God’s attributes are all identical with God then they are all identical with one another. Since there is only one God there can really be only one attribute (perfection, form). Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas all affirm that point. But in that case we have no idea whatever of what the terms naming perfections ascribed to God mean.
"In that case we have no idea whatever of what the terms naming perfections ascribed to God mean. According to the proper proportionality theory, the terms have the same res but differ according to their modus. But the simplicity hypothesis destroys all that: justice that is identical with power which is identical with mercy which is the same as wisdom is something of which we have no idea whatever. There is no longer any sameness of res. There is therefore no analogy and no likeness with our ordinary meanings for these terms. They cannot designate the same properties, not even in an infinite mode, so they cannot be the properties we connote in ordinary speech at all. If simplicity is insisted on, then our language cannot convey anything that God is even like."

Pertinacious Papist said...

Hello Anonymous,

We're not going to resolve this issue here. However, I will offer a two broad considerations that may be need to be taken into account.

The first has to do with the difference between theological truths and existential realities of experience.

When I was at Swiss L'Abri for a year back in the 1970s, Francis Schaeffer described a person who had read Merlin R. Carothers's book, Prison to Praise, which basically affirms God's sovereignty in every situation (a doctrinally important point). However, like many in the Carothers group, he had pushed this logic in the direction of those who like to say "praise the Lord anyway!"

A family was making an outing one day, and one of the children was struck by a flying bullet and killed. When this Carothers disciple met the family, he told them that they should rejoice and praise God, because God is perfectly good and has His reasons for whatever happens in our lives (again, a theologically correct point).

Schaeffer's response was utter horror that this man could be so utterly insensitive to the existential devastation of this family.

My point in bringing up this example is that something may be theologically true in the abstract, but horribly inappropriate (and even unintelligible) in the concrete. I think of the friends of Job who said nothing but simply sat beside him in his suffering for days before uttering a word.

For this reason, I would say that the dichotomy you suggest between "humanizing" and "necessitating" is a needless one. The language of the Bible is true, rightly understood; and the language of metaphysical theology is true, rightly understood. But they are not the same thing.

If we interpret the Genesis language about God "repenting" of having made man (our our assertions about human "free will") as suggesting that God there are some human actions that take God by surprise, we land ourselves in a thicket of contradictions, not only contradictions with other biblical passages but conceptual contradictions.

The second consideration has to do with your suggestion that the speculative conceptualization of the identity of divine perfections in traditional scholastic theology is self-contradictory. I beg to differ. In his discussion of the transcendentals, St. Thomas points out, as you suggest of the perfections, that they coincide with one another in the same subject. Thus, to say of God that He "exists" and that He is "good" and "one" is not to refer to anything other than the self-same being of God. This, you suggest, destroys the multiplicity of meanings of these attributes (or, in this case, transcendentals). Not so; because in the very same place he says this (check out An Introduction to the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Fr. J.F. Anderson, chapter on "Transcendentals"), he immediately goes on to say that although they coincide in the same subject, they remain conceptually distinct.

Peace. -- PP

Pertinacious Papist said...

Again, forgive the broken sentence and typos. I took a 15-minute phone call in the middle of my answer and lost track, I'm afraid.