Summer with the Summa: July-August Selection: 'Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae,' by Bernard McGinn

Amazon currently sells a 5-volume, 3,020 page (11.6 lbs.) hardcover version of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae for $198.46. Before you go out to buy the set and strive to finish reading through the double columned pages before Labor Day, it would behoove you to read Bernard McGinn’s fine introduction to the structure of the book, the man and the age that produced it, and the history of the book’s reception during the last 740 years. Here are some more statistics regarding the Summa (not to be confused with the Summa contra Gentiles, Thomas’s other large theological synthesis):

  • There are over 1,000 published commentaries on the Summa.
  • Thomas Aquinas was cited 734 times in the decrees and documents of Vatican II (McGinn, 207).
  • The Catechism refers to Thomas and his works 61 times (211).
  • Regarding the sheer size of the text, the Summa theologiae is divided into 3 main parts, with the second part subdivided into two further sections. The Prima Pars, dealing with God and creation, contains 119 questions and 584 articles. The Prima Secundae and Secunda Secundae—which consider moral acts—are composed of 303 questions and 1,235 articles. The Tertia Pars, made up of 90 questions and 549 articles regarding Christology and the sacraments, remained unfinished at the time of Thomas’s death in 1274.
  • The Summa consists of over 2,000,000 words.

The work is mammoth. It is also intricately arranged, akin to the structure of a medieval cathedral. Like Chartes, a tour of the Summa can be daunting initially. Bernard McGinn is a warm and thoughtful guide to the text. Not a Thomist himself, he is free to offer an objective presentation of the man, the book and the great commentators and teachers of the book. And so, the Catholic Book Club selects McGinn’s history of the Summa for the summer months. McGinn’s short book offers a dose of medieval history, a tour of a classic theological text, a bit of counter reformation reception history, a snapshot of the modernist crisis and a presentation of the 20th century’s most prominent thinkers in the Thomistic tradition. It is also a testament to the continued influence of St. Thomas Aquinas.

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Thomas’s Summa has shaped how theologians have sought to define creation, providence, incarnation, grace and theology itself. McGinn grounds Thomas’s concept of sacra doctrina or theology in three elements: holy teaching (Thomas’s sacra doctrina) is fundamentally biblical; the nature of God’s words directed to humanity in revelation are narrative and metaphorical; and the teacher of theology transforms scripture into scientific, propositional discourse (66). The initial two elements still govern Catholic theological discourse today. Furthermore, sacra doctrina seeks to cultivate both knowledge of God and promote the activities, dispositions and virtues that aid the journey toward one’s final, most comprehensive encounter with the Triune God—the beatific vision (98). The entire structure of the Summa reflects creation’s exit or emanation from God and its way of return—through Christ, charity and the sacraments. The beatific vision completes one’s return to God. Unfortunately, for us who read him, Thomas experienced some sort of physiological or mystical event (or some combination of the two, 37-38) on December 6, 1273—a hint of the beatific vision that was to come. He did not write anything thereafter, and he died after hitting his head on a tree branch while riding to an ecclesial council on March 7, 1274. His students completed Thomas’s work on the sacraments and presented what they thought to be his eschatology.

Princeton University Press has recently issued a series of books that presents the history of religious classics from Genesis and Job to John Calvin’s Institutes and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. The series commissions learned scholars to introduce the works and offer an accessible synopsis. Bernard McGinn, an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and an expert on Christian mysticism, is an interesting choice to present Aquinas’s Summa. It seems that Prof. McGinn’s own experience as a student of the Summa in the 1960s helped inspire him to pen this biography of Thomas’s great book. Prof. McGinn was in the thick of things as a student of Bernard Lonergan at the Gregorian during the 1960s. He was well aware of the scholarship of Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain as well as the controversies swirling around the normative interpretation of Aquinas’s Summa since Leo XIII elevated the Summa to become the standard text of Catholic theology with the promulgation of the encyclical “Aeterni Patris” in 1879. In fact, McGinn’s last chapter, “The Rise and Fall of Neothomism,” offers a fascinating history of Thomism in the last century and a half—from Garrigou-Lagrange and Chenu to Von Balthasar.

In short, if you have ever wondered about the Summa—its content and structure—or if you have ever skimmed parts of its articles, I recommend McGinn’s introduction. Please consider the following questions for our discussion.

1.  When you hear “Thomas Aquinas” or “The Summa theologiae,” what comes to mind? What has your experience been of Aquinas’s masterpiece?

2.  What, if anything, surprised you about the Summa’s reception during the two periods that McGinn describes: 1275-1850 and 1850-the present?

3.  Flannery O’Connor used to read parts of the Summa for her nightly spiritual reading. Does study of the Summa or any other of Thomas’s works serve to deepen your prayer or your spiritual life? 

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Bill Mazzella
3 years 4 months ago
Kevin, Your readers can thank me for saving them $197.45 Product Details Summa Theologica (Complete & Unabridged) by Thomas Aquinas (Jun 19, 2010) - Kindle eBook $0.99 Kindle Edition Auto-delivered wirelessly (79) Product Details Catechism of the "Summa Theologica" of Saint Thomas Aquinas for the Use of the Faithful by R P Thomas Pegues OP, Paul Boer Sr and Aelred Whitacre OP (May 29, 2012) - Kindle eBook $0.99 Kindle Edition Auto-delivered wirelessly
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 4 months ago
thanks Bill. Saving $197.45 is always good.
ROBERT STEWART
3 years 4 months ago
It can also be obtained for $.99 via Nook from Barnes & Noble. I, and I hope others, prefer to support Barnes & Noble. Would like to see a local book store remain in business, especially since we lost Borders and some of the other book stores in our area.
Bill Mazzella
3 years 4 months ago
Robert, whatever its merits, Barnes and Noble is the wrong horse. Further Amazon has insisted on keeping the prices low and has the best customer service. Third, Apple and other book publishers conspired to keep prices higher. So those who Amazon beat out are not Sunday School teachers. So far Amazon has been all consumer. Of course, there has to be competition. Which the publishers broke the law about. So it is a danger if Amazon is the only one standing. Our energies might be better used for helping the downtrodden. Which Borders, Barnes et alii are decidedly not. At any rate I appreciate your underdog sentiments......
Anne Chapman
3 years 4 months ago
I am with Robert Stewart. Barnes & Noble generally has the same prices as Amazon, and in my neck of the woods (suburbs) it's literally the only actual book store around. Going to bookstores and browsing is my main form of entertainment. I find books by browsing that never appear in the very limited selections mentioned in book reviews. And if the downtrodden include people who run the cash registers, shelve the books, and guide you to books on almost any esoteric topic you might want to name, Barnas & Noble's workers deserve to keep their jobs. One cashier I spoke with mentioned to me that if we who love books don't shop in the stores, the stores will disappear - and so will the jobs of the many booklovers who work in the stores. The knowledge of some of those who work in the "information" desk is astonishing.
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 4 months ago
"Bernard McGinn is a warm and thoughtful guide to the text. Not a Thomist himself, he is free to offer an objective presentation of the man, the book and the great commentators and teachers of the book." What does "a Thomist" mean to you? I hate to be so critical all the time, but you ought to read Spirit in the World and Hearers of the Word by Karl Rahner. If the opposite of "Thomist" is "existentialist", meaning that a Thomist presents us with a fait accompli, a set of words that we must (somehow) believe, while an existentialist meets us where we are--where I am, in my concrete individual experience (Rahner has an article in the "Dynamic Element in the Church" with that phrase in its title, the whole being "The Logic of Concrete Individual Knowledge in Ignatius of Loyola"--how's that for bringing it all home to where you live?), then the essence of church, of the encouragement of faith, is either abject craven fear of human authority or a validation of a love which knows when a sparrow falls from its branch and by extension (from this metaphor!) us all the more so. I define "Thomism" perhaps as you wish you could: "The entire structure of the Summa reflects creation’s exit or emanation from God and its way of return", which is to ask, if I understand God as a concept and me as a concept, how can I not be God, how can I exist apart from God?--to which Thomism offers as its vital element the idea of analogy, participation (Rahner uses "intensity of being"), which is certainly a mysterious concept in itself but it localizes the mystery perhaps. Perhaps there are two faces of theology, one to the world outside church and one to the church. Thomism to the world outside the church might start with the idea of God: ultimate power, perhaps. Inside the church, to which problem Rahner devoted himself, I think, the idea of humanity must be paramount, lest there be a utopian church which no actual human can tolerate, a "no-place". If the essential concept of humanity is personal knowledge in the sense of knowing that I know something--perhaps "understanding" is the best term, or "explanation" (both of which have a mysticism built into them with their conjecture of two places: one where the thing is and one where I am when understanding it, standing under it, looking at its explanation--its being laid out on a plane which I stand above looking down on), then the essential pastoral job is to say to people, "Don't throw away your knowledge so as to get on the party-line gravy train of lies, for that is the way of unhappiness, the anti-beatific."
Andrew Di Liddo
3 years 4 months ago
gee whiz Christopher. I thought a Thomist was/is a scholar/theologian who studied and was/is an expert on the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas. At what point in study does one get to call oneself a Thomist?
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 4 months ago
"Bernard McGinn is a warm and thoughtful guide to the text. Not a Thomist himself, he is free to offer an objective presentation of the man, the book and the great commentators and teachers of the book."
maurice alvarado
3 years 4 months ago
As a student I used to find Thomas Aquinas and specially the Summa a bit boring, too metaphysical, and quite unnecessary for theology today. As for Thomists, I found them a bit outdated, still living in the Middle Age. All that until I read something not so theological about Thomas: G. K. Chesterton's "St. Thomas Aquinas". Chesterton's wit made me look upon Thomas on a whole new way. Basically he made me see that Aquinas' theology doesn't actually start from God, but from a profound admiration and trust in nature, and specifically in human nature. With this prism, I currently teach theology in my local diocese, seminary and university. In this manner, I consider myself a Thomist. As Thomas, I find great potentiality in human nature which can be put into act by God's grace. In this sense I trust very much in human reason, and like Thomas, try to find ways in which faith and reason can illuminate each other. Behind the sometimes too analytic writings in the Summa, I can now thanks to Chesterton, discover the mystic and saint behind them.
Michael Barberi
3 years 4 months ago
Maurice, I did not need to read Chesterton to understand Thomas Aquinas. I have been studying moral theology for 5 years now and 'reason' underpins much of Aquinas' second part on ethics. Clearly, Aquinas' discussion on 'conscience' is metaphysical but also understandable because it does not neglect human experience. On the other hand, as Sandi pointed out, many of his narrow and erroneous beliefs such as the nature and role of women reflected his times. To a certain degree we still find this foundational philosophy about procreation and women solidly embedded in the patriarchal hierarchy and their teachings on sexual ethics. Nevertheless, if you take Aquinas' ethics as a whole, he was a genius and his ethics remain the moral foundation of the RCC even though the hierarchy will not admit to any particular "moral method" regarding sexual ethics. Thomas Aquinas writing style admitted to ambiguous terms, such as 'object' that today are at the center of profound dispute among theologians regarding the morality of voluntary human action. However, I still find no other work, in particular Rahner's, a better guide to moral decision-making. This does not mean I totally rely on Aquinas, for that would be to irresponsibly neglect the many brilliant and insightful works of others such as Bernard Haring. It takes a lifetime to fully understand Aquinas but his work is one of many good guides in our journey with Christ.
Bryan Apper
3 years 4 months ago

My first venture into the book club. Just received McGinn's book today.

Sandi Sinor
3 years 4 months ago
As a college student, I spent an entire semester with Thomas. It's hard for women to get too excited about a man who wrote things such as the passages below. Although it would be nice to simply ignore some of what he wrote and focus on other parts of his work, it's hard - because some of Thomas' thoughts still plague women today, and underlie too many church teachings, even in the 21st century - basically that woman is to be subservient to man - a helper. She is passive and not active. Her role is to be a womb - to procreate. etc. (cf writings of John Paul II and Ratzinger ) The church still teaches this, and these ideas underlie the teachings on contraception and the denial of a sacrament to women. Thomas may have had an "excuse" given that he lived in the 13th century. He may have been brilliant, but he was also a man of his times, and he was ignorant about some things, including human biology, human nature, and psychology. So one wonders, if his 13th century ideas about women were so wrong, what else was he wrong about? ... It was necessary for woman to be made, as the Scripture says, as a "helper" to man; not, indeed, as a helpmate in other works, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation. This can be made clear if we observe the mode of generation carried out in various living things. Some living things do not possess in themselves the power of generation, but are generated by some other specific agent, such as some plants and animals by the influence of the heavenly bodies, from some fitting matter and not from seed: others possess the active and passive generative power together; as we see in plants which are generated from seed; for the noblest vital function in plants is generation. Wherefore we observe that in these the active power of generation invariably accompanies the passive power. Among perfect animals the active power of generation belongs to the male sex, and the passive power to the female. And as among animals there is a vital operation nobler than generation, to which their life is principally directed; therefore the male sex is not found in continual union with the female in perfect animals, but only at the time of coition; so that we may consider that by this means the male and female are one, as in plants they are always united; although in some cases one of them preponderates, and in some the other. But man is yet further ordered to a still nobler vital action, and that is intellectual operation. Therefore there was greater reason for the distinction of these two forces in man; so that the female should be produced separately from the male; although they are carnally united for generation. Therefore directly after the formation of woman, it was said: "And they shall be two in one flesh" (Gn. 2:24).I, q. 92, art. 1 (Whether the Woman should have been made in the first production of things?) As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active power of the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of a woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence...On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature's intention as directed to the work of generation. Now the general intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God formed not only the male but also the female. I, q. 92, art. 1, ad 1 He stopped writing after some kind of vision, and never wrote again. Too bad we don't know what he meant when he said “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.” Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224–1274), in conversation with Brother Reginald.
Bryan Apper
3 years 3 months ago
Nobody's perfect--Thomas was right about that. The church's denial that there "is neither male nor female" is unfortunate.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 3 months ago
Bernard McGinn’s book was a great read and highly informative, esp. the chapters on how the Summa was encountered right up to VCII. Thanks for recommending it. A few remarks. McGinn takes a very definite (and not obviously objective) position on Thomas, forcefully and repeatedly arguing against those who give pre-eminence to the metaphysical philosophy of the Angelic Doctor over the theological. I also think he underplays the harm done by many subsequent philosophers in undermining reasonable Realism and inaugurating the problems of Nominalism, Relativism and Subjectivism that are raging today. To Kevin’s questions, I have read St. Thomas (in English translations) for many years, and many books and articles on his work. I have been strongly influenced by him although I haven’t read systematically enough to call myself a Thomist (maybe some day). He is a great guide to reasonably addressing various philosophical and moral questions. And, he is an aid to my prayer life. I would tend to listen to Gilson and Maritain and of course JPII’s encyclicals for the best contemporary interpretations. I completely agree with some of the comments below that St. Thomas was not infallible. In his huge opus, he made errors, due in part to his reliance on Aristotle but also on other false ideas of the time. But, then, so did Augustine and everyone else, even today. That is why the magisterial charism is not located in theologians. Thomas remains the most important theologian-philosopher the Church has. He was a towering genius and incredibly productive (Opus >9 million words?) despite dying at the early age of 49. What a time he lived in - of cathedrals and universities, but also crusades and Mongol invasions; of other geniuses like St. Francis just before him, Bonaventure & Albert with him and Dante just after him. It was also the birth of science (the scientific method of Grosseteste and physics of Buridan). Modern science owes a lot more to the scholastic method than is commonly realized and St. Thomas' metaphysics is a great bulwark against the irrationality of materialism and atheism. For those who wish to read a short but serious introduction to St. Thomas’ metaphysics, I strongly recommend Edward Feser’s “Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction” which, amazingly, is a best seller on Amazon in the metaphysics category.

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