Many years ago (and for reasons I don’t entirely fathom myself) I became dissatisfied with the fact that I had little or no comprehension of the theology of Thomas Aquinas.
The few times I dipped into the Summa Theologica I found it incomprehensible. I knew that Thomas was a great and accomplished thinker, but I found his writings impenetrable. So, I started wondering if there was a way I could gain some degree of mastery of his thought. I wasn’t looking to become an expert, I just wanted a basic understanding.
I happened upon a very good path — which I highly recommend to anyone else out there who wants a basic understanding of Thomas’ thought. Here’s what I did. I searched around on the Amazon site for books on Thomas Aquinas. I was a little nervous about secondary sources (that is, books about Thomas and his theology) — I didn’t want to end up with ones that were primarily an exposition of the commentator’s bias, and I didn’t know which ones those were. I wanted to know enough to be able to dip into the Summa Theologica and understand what I was reading. Somewhere I encountered the view that Thomas is often easier to understand than his interpreters. That was part of my concern about secondary sources. So, I looked around for resources that would help me engage the primary sources. I hit upon a reading plan that I would recommend to anyone who wants to do their own short course on Thomas Aquinas. I purchased the following three books:
Thomas Aquinas, The Dumb Ox by G. K. Chesterton (never out of print, but readily available for free on the Internet), A Summa of the Summa edited by Peter Kreeft, and Aquinas’s Shorter Summa. Here was my thought: Chesterton’s book was brief, readily available, and some people recommended it highly as the best brief introduction to Thomas’s life and thought. Okay, it’s a secondary source, I thought, but it might still serve as a good, brief introduction. Kreeft’s book is actually a selection of passages from the Summa Theologica with an introduction, a glossary (very helpful) and explanatory notes on the selected texts. I figured that was just what I needed. Then, Aquinas’s Shorter Summa is a book I could read to “fill out” my knowledge of Thomas’s theological views, since Kreeft’s book was more about Thomas’s over-all philosophy.
I don’t know how I could have happened on a better reading program.
Chesterton had a habit (evident in so many of his essays) of seeming to ramble on and on about irrelevant matters — until suddenly one realizes he’s not rambling at all. As always, I enjoyed Chesterton’s sly humor and I found him a good advocate for Thomas. But, it was Kreeft’s book that actually opened the door. Everything Kreeft was doing was designed to help his reader understand the primary sources. He was more concerned with getting me reading Thomas in his own words, than in convincing me of his own point of view (though it was clear throughout that Kreeft had very strong opinions). Kreeft’s book was the single most helpful resource I encountered. The book Aquinas’s Shorter Summa is a translation of Thomas’s Compendium of Theology that he wrote late in life, and actually never completed. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hadn’t read the Kreeft book first. In Aquinas’s Shorter Summa, Thomas seems to be spinning his theology out of thin air — he is summarizing his conclusions without showing the debate and reasoning that went behind it. And, because the work was never completed, there are still topics that are not discussed.
Which brings me to the things I love about the theology of Thomas Aquinas. I often disagree with him (as you might imagine) but I always benefit from reading him.
(1.) In the Summa Theologica, Thomas’s theology is set out in the context of vigorous debate. This is one of the reasons I never could comprehend the Summa when I first attempted to “dip into” it. Thomas carefully states the opposing views first. He takes up various topics in a logical order. On each topic he allows his opponents first crack at the issue. Here is his procedure: He will state the topic, then state various views that are opposed to the view he is going to take. After that, he says “On the contrary…” and cites Scripture or Christian tradition against the views already given. Then, he says “I answer that…” and gives the heart of his argument — deeply rooted in the philosophy of Aristotle and his interpreters. Then, in a kind of mopping up operation, he offers further replies to some of the alternate views (which he calls “objections”) that he presented at the beginning. Kreeft gives a much better explanation of the style in which the Summa Theologica is written. But, the essence of it is this: when we read the Summa, we are actually being invited into a medieval mini-debate over each major point that Thomas wants to make. He always gives his opponents first crack at the issue.
Thomas is not pretending that there is no difference of opinion on the issues. He knows there is — and he lets us know there is. Of course, as the author, he has given himself the last word — but he has also laid out for us not only his reasoning, but also the alternative views.
Often theologians set out just to give the last word on a topic. They have researched for years, they present their views. As the reader we could (foolishly) assume that anyone coming to this topic would find the author’s views convincing. Thomas doesn’t even pretend that there is unanimity on the topics he discusses. While it is true that the Summa can get dry and technical in it’s argumentation, at it’s heart is a lively debate about the meaning of life — a debate into which we are invited.
(2.) The theology of Thomas Aquinas was an awesome intellectual achievement whose influence on Western thinking cannot be calculated. Thomas brought together the Scriptures, the Christian tradition up to his lifetime, and the medieval Aristotelian school of philosophy in a grand philosophical synthesis. His intellectual program sought — and provided — answers to the main questions of (in the words of Douglas Adams) “life, the universe, and everything.” In Thomas’s perspective, theology was the “Queen of the Sciences” bringing all the sciences — all knowledge — together. It is easy to see why this synthesis became such a dominant perspective.
From our current point of view, we can see how deeply flawed such an Aristotelian philosophical program actually is. But, on the other hand, taken on its own terms, what an amazing accomplishment! And, Thomas’s theology is determinative in the Roman Catholic Church to this day. So, even if you are inclined to disagree — even at a very foundational level — the power and pervasiveness of this great medieval synthesis cannot be denied. Instead of arguing with Thomas’s ideas indirectly (through those he has influenced) why not take things up directly with the man himself? And, Thomas invites you into the debate.
Strangely enough, the alternative — a scientific view — was already present in Thomas’s day, in the writings of Roger Bacon, called by one writer The First Scientist. Bacon understood, wrote about, and practiced the inductive, scientific method — basically as we know it today.
But, of course, this method could not produce the sweeping philosophical overview of all reality that Thomas’s Aristotelianism generated. Thus, Bacon’s work was forgotten, until his much later namesake Francis Bacon revived it.
And, for a long time until then, Thomas’s views were so widely accepted that they shaped society in a pervasive way.
(3.) The ethics of Thomas Aquinas is a virtue ethics whose goal is human happiness (a better translation might be “human flourishing”). I hadn’t realized that until, via Kreeft, I started reading some of the ethical passages in the Summa. And, the parallel with the preaching of John Wesley — who said that happiness is holiness and holiness is happiness —is very striking. No doubt Wesley was influenced by the ethical thinking of Aquinas — either directly or indirectly. Ethics formed character. It led the person toward the kind of life that maximizes human flourishing.
It would be unfortunate to get bogged down in the sections on the proofs of God, and the nature of God, and of the angels, etc. and never get to the practical, ethical sections of the Summa.
(4.) The commonalities in the theologies of Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley are worth exploring. Recently, books have been coming out which show a high degree of compatibility between some of the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and the teachings of John Wesley. On the theme of Christian Perfection, Edgardo A. Colón-Emeric has written Wesley, Aquinas, and Christian Perfection: An Ecumenical Dialogue. And, on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Kenneth Loyer has written God’s Love Through the Spirit: The Holy Spirit in Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley. But, I have already alluded to these similarities in the point above: John Wesley and Thomas Aquinas share a common ethic of human flourishing.
(5.) The theology of Thomas Aquinas had a profound spiritual impact on the lives of those who learned it. We can see this most clearly in the poetry of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and in the spiritual writings of St. John of the Cross. Both of them obviously found the study of Thomas’s theology to be a profoundly spiritual experience. Thomas Aquinas was Dante’s imagined guide through Heaven. He became seen as the Divine Doctor. And, it spite of its nit-picky philosophical character — and in spite of what can only appear to us as obvious mistakes — reading it can be a spiritual experience. You feel like you are reading the writing of a man who was both a saint and a genius. Here was a man who had poured his life into the study of Scripture, and of the Fathers who had gone before him, and into the latest philosophical insights of his time. He had committed his mind and life to the pursuit of God and God’s ways — not only to knowing them but to explaining them. And, this amazing devotion shines through the whole work.
Well, those are the five main points I can think of to explain my abiding love for Thomas’ theology (especially the Summa Theologica). Actually, the attraction of this material can be hard to explain to the uninitiated.
I love this humorous quote from Flannery O’Connor:
I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa except to say this: I read it every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during the process and say, “Turn off that light. It’s late,” I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, “On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,” or some such thing. In any case I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas.