The Common Doctor for Common People

Thomas Aquinasby Denys Turner

Yale University Press. 312p $28

In the four most productive years of Thomas Aquinas’ life, the man produced the equivalent of two or three average-length novels every month. For all the words he wrote, however, an immense silence lies at the heart of Thomas. There is, of course, the silence of the Summa, which he left unfinished when he suddenly stopped writing. More significantly, however, is the silence about Thomas’ life itself. His contemporaries leave us few biographical details, and Thomas gives us none. While Augustine and Bernard write their personalities large over their sermons and treatises, Thomas quietly recedes into the background behind his arguments and exegesis. What is it, then, that makes Thomas a saint, and how can a non-specialist reader begin to appreciate the enormity of his thought?

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Having read James R. Kelly’s recent review of Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, along with the book itself, let me offer some thoughts on both questions. The book is aimed at non-academic readers and exposits Thomas’ thought with as few technical terms as possible while drawing on many parts of Thomas’ corpus. As Kelly notes, Turner seeks to produce a caricature that reveals the prominent features of Thomas without obscuring them with details. As Kelly also notes, the end result is difficult reading. But how much can one synthesize Thomas without doing damage to the complexity of his thought? Turner gets his readers into the world of Aquinas’ thought and does so with humor and energy. He sounds less like a professor lecturing and more like a friend sharing something he is passionate about over a glass of brandy. Indeed, this is the most delightful work of theology one could read in a long time.

The first major event in Thomas’ life was his decision to join the Dominicans, and being a Dominican not only gave Thomas’ life its structure but also informed the structure and arguments of his thought. Many treatments of Thomas overlook this important point. As Turner argues, Thomas’ theology is deeply Dominican, marked above all by a concern for preaching. The Summa is, after all, a curriculum designed for men who are studying so that they can proclaim the Word of God and administer the sacraments. It is academic, but its study is aimed at proclamation. Attendant to the concern for preaching is a concern for poverty, which allows the preacher to back up his words with his own life. For all its erudition, the Summa is theology that friars can take with them to care for the people of God.

Turner begins his exposition of this theology in what might seem like an odd way: He argues that Thomas is a materialist—a materialist not according to the contemporary reductive sense that matter is all there is, but in a richer sense that matter is capable of bearing immense meaning. Hence he argues that we know truths about God and ourselves from our intellect’s grasp of material, worldly objects.

In a similar way, Thomas argues that human beings are body–soul composites. Contra Plato and his followers, the soul is not “the center of gravity of personhood,” to use Turner’s term. For Thomas, the person is the body and soul together, and not just the soul’s rational faculties, but even its more vegetative and animal ones. Thus, Turner concludes, “my vegetative and animal life (eating, having sex) can bear sense, carry meanings, become a discourse, become a language of human interaction.” Human actions can bear deep meaning because human bodies can bear deep meaning. And human bodies can bear deep meaning because they are part of who we really are, not prisons or machines in which our souls exist. In an age when a dualism between the mind and body pervades our public discourse and affects our view of everything from end-of-life care to the nature of sexuality and marriage, it is critical that we grasp Thomas’ more holistic view.

Having treated Thomas’ understanding of human nature, Turner moves to Thomas’ understanding of the God. On Turner’s (more traditional Thomistic) account, Thomas begins the Summa with philosophical arguments for the existence of God. He thinks that the question is debatable and gives five arguments, the famous “five ways,” that one might go about proving God’s existence. Indeed, Turner seems to take for granted that there is not much difference between what Thomas is doing in the five ways and what a contemporary apologist might do in debating an atheist. However, some scholars of Thomas doubt this on historical grounds. Rudi te Velde, for instance, argues that “the modern epistemological context of the arguments for the existence of God is radically different from the premodern context of medieval theology.” Thomas is not looking for reasons to justify our assent to the proposition that God exists; rather, he seeks ways in which we might understand the proposition that God exists. In short, te Velde concludes, the five ways are not about certainty, but about intelligibility. Given the historical consciousness that Turner exhibits elsewhere, te Velde’s interpretation of the five ways would have been a better fit in his portrait.

It is in those questions of intelligibility that we find Thomas’ most useful arguments for contemporary disputes about God. For Thomas, as Turner puts it, “God’s oneness is not such that God is one more in any numerable series whatever.” Rather, God is the ground of all being, the reason why there are things at all. God is the source of creation, the mystery before which we fall silent at the end of our rational investigation of the world—not another thing like us, bumping around the cosmos.

However, Christians claim more of God. Based on the revelation of Jesus and his apostles, we hold that God is not only one, but also three persons. Thomas argues that the persons of the Trinity are subsistent relations, real “relatednesses,” to use Turner’s term. For instance, the Father is not the being that generates the Son, but the generating of the Son. Rather than offer a more detailed academic explanation, Turner switches to a helpful analogy. While there is only one Interstate 95, there are two distinct directions on it. Yet both are identical to I-95. The directions are real, not just a matter of the driver’s point of view and not three distinct I-95s—north, south and the two combined. Rather, “there is one and only one highway constituted by three really distinct relations.”

Like the rest of Thomas’ theology, his Trinitarian thought is not intended to be kept apart in academic debates. It depicts God as a communion of love, and it serves as the foundation for Thomas’ later articulation of a theology of grace. While Thomas’ account of grace is frequently bracketed out or not treated at all when scholars consider aspects of his thought, it is crucial to his thought as a whole. For grace is the means whereby God incorporates human beings into that communion of love that is his very nature. Unlike other medieval theologians who see erotic love and the Song of Songs as the core models of Christian love, Thomas sees it primarily as friendship. Good Aristotelian that he is, he also knows that friendship is only possible between equals. So, if Jesus’ words “I have called you friends” are to become true, they require a free gift on God’s part that overcomes the moral and ontological gaps between sinful human creatures and the God who is being itself. God must make us, in a sense, equals in order to make us friends.

More than his contemporaries, Thomas saw this process of sanctification as one shrouded in grace. True, the human will is involved, but the will’s free consent is itself the work of grace. The end goal of sanctification is a unity of will in which human beings learn to love and do that which God loves and does, to share in God’s life by sharing in God’s will. This progressive healing of will brings with it a healing of desire, whereby human beings learn to love and do what makes them flourish, what they were created for—what is, in the deepest sense, natural to them. And the most perfect picture of human nature is Christ himself. In Jesus of Nazareth, we find the radiant image of what we are called to be as human beings and the God who calls us to be so, as well as the means of grace by which we are renewed and made friends of that Triune God.

Finally, Turner ends with Thomas’ treatment of the Eucharist. It is here that the significance of Thomas’ materialism comes into full view. Thomas thinks that because matter can bear such significant meaning, it can really bear God. In the Eucharist, Christ is present in his body under the sacramental sign of bread and wine. Thomas cannot find adequate terms to describe the process by which this takes place, so he adopts a theological term of art, transubstantiation. As Turner notes, many debates and polemics have resulted from this word, but for Thomas it serves a limited purpose: giving some theological description of the process whereby what was bread and wine is now truly the body and blood of Christ. Turner himself seems not to like the term and thinks that the intellectual work required to understand it does not result in a sufficient increase in one’s comprehension of Eucharistic theology. While many disagree with him about that, more would agree that the particulars of Thomas’ Aristotelian framework are less important than the underlying theological truth that what was once really bread and wine is now really the Son of God.

All of this serves as a fine introduction to Thomas’ thought, but does it help us understand his sanctity? Is Thomas a saint because he made good arguments, and if not, what is it that he did? Turner’s answer is simple: He fell silent. Thomas’ refusal to finish the Summa speaks volumes about the limits of theology and the magnitude of God. More than that, though, there is a holiness lying behind everything Thomas wrote, precisely in the fact that he lies behind it, not in front. Thomas’ writing is not about Thomas; it is about the truth. His holiness, Turner concludes, “is a theologian’s holiness, the holy teacher invisible otherwise than in the holy teaching itself.” In his writing as in his life, Thomas embraced poverty so that God might be preached all the more. By so effectively decreasing, he made the truth of God increase all the more.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Rushlau
5 years ago
I think it is not only obvious but unavoidable that Jesus and the trinity are the last act, the making-self-smaller to make-God-greater (deo semper maior, allahu akbar) that is the fulfillment, the realization of mono-theism as the alternative to solipsism ("the self alone"). So Thomas's equating of God and being, and, to add Karl Rahner's interpretation, knowledge as well, are not some curio add-on to the mystery of faith but are the core of that mystery, in the senses both of something to be revealed in time and something that will remain obscure. For example, if the Roman church stays together long enough to revisit basic doctrinal questions, it will probably add a clause to the Nicene Creed to the effect that Jesus's divinity was concealed on earth. This will preserve the point that Peters regards as highly as I do, that God speaks to us solely in material facts. If God speaks in your ear or mine, there is no church except the church of satanic deception and distraction, which is how many protestants regard their own churches. And how many catholics take the view, "close enough for government work," in their participation in the church? If Jesus could zap you with his holiness raygun, then or now, where's the credit in that? A word to the doctoral student: keep going.

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