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Aquinas — and his exploiters

17 January 2014

Duncan Dormor on St Thomas in court

Aquinas and the Supreme Court: Race, gender, and the failure of natural law in Thomas's biblical commentaries
Eugene F. Rogers Jr
Wiley-Blackwell £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50 (Use code CT261 )

WE ALL know the name, and we think we know what he said; he is, after all, the man who gave us, at least in Christian clothing, the idea of natural law. Although his Summa Theologiæ was written more than 700 years ago, his thinking is still profoundly influential, and, indeed, cited extensively in the law courts, not least in the Supreme Court of the United States, where Eugene Rogers teaches at the University of North Carolina. That influential theologian is, of course, St Thomas Aquinas.

But, as the subtitle suggests, Rogers thinks we have got it substantially wrong. Indeed, he argues in his conclusion that "we have hardly begun to read Aquinas historically." On the face of it, this seems an extraordinary claim. Rogers, however, makes a very detailed and persuasive case that Aquinas needs rescuing from many of his interpreters, and particularly from the dead hand of the "new natural law" theorists (Robert George, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and Germain Grisez) who have sought to influence secular courts with "their" Aquinas.

Much of what Rogers has to say will be familiar to serious students of Aquinas, most obviously that he is primarily a theologian of grace rather than nature, and that it is impossible to abstract a purely philosophical account from his writings, or, as Rogers puts it: "Aquinas ties God into every knot, leaving no place to disentangle the theology from the philosophy."

Although Rogers bills his work modestly as a "series of correctives", what is innovative about this volume is the way in which he uses Aquinas's biblical commentaries to reframe our reading of the Summa. From this he makes a clear case not just that Aquinas's ideas about natural law cannot be separated from his theology and somehow rendered in a secular form, or that what Aquinas is actually concerned with is the failure of natural law, but also that natural law itself is deeply marked by religion, gender, ethnicity, and history: that Aquinas places natural law inside a "narrative of God's dealings with two religio-ethnic groups, Jews and Gentiles".

Scrupulous in its scholarship, this is a watershed book, which demonstrates with clarity how egregiously and often Aquinas's name has been taken in vain and co-opted to the agendas of others.

Naturally, not everyone will agree with Rogers, and some may even blanch at the title of several chapters in this enlightening volume, not least chapter 12, "How the Semen of the Spirit Genders the Gentiles". In that case, let the counter-arguments be put forward. A "must" for the theological-college library, this is not a book that can be ignored by anyone interested in this fascinating and deeply influential Dominican.

The Revd Duncan Dormor is the Dean and President of St John's College, Cambridge.



IN HIS engaging book Thomas Aquinas: A portrait, (Yale, £18.99 (£17.10); 978-0-300-18855-4), Denys Turner provides a sketch - a "caricature", he calls it - of the life and thought of St Thomas Aquinas. His starting point is Aquinas's "materialism": his belief that human beings are fundamentally and essentially bodies.

From there, Turner describes Aquinas's views on God, grace, Christ, and the eucharist.

Perhaps the most original insight is found in the opening chapter. Turner argues convincingly that the much-debated structure of the Summa Theologiæ is to be explained not theologically but pedagogically: it represents, as Aquinas himself states quite explicitly, "the structure of a university degree course" (in Turner's apt words).

Apart from this, Turner's enthusiasm for his reading of Aquinas sometimes leads him astray, and we might better think of the book not so much as a caricature of Aquinas as the Thomistically inspired reflections of a very 20th-century theologian.

It is, in other words, by no means a reliable account of Aquinas's thought, and someone who read the book as though it were would often be somewhat misled. Turner warns us of this in advance, but in my view the warning is not strong enough.

For example, it is crucial to Turner's account of Aquinas that the human soul does not count as "a sort of thing". But Aquinas himself states just the opposite - the soul, albeit a part of a human person, is itself a "this something".

Likewise, Aquinas holds that abstracting universal concepts from particular experience involves somehow "thickening" experience (as Turner puts it). But, according to Aquinas, it occurs by considering the essential universal core of a thing "apart from" any extraneous features - "thinning" experience, we might say.

And Turner repeats the mistaken view, often found in the literature, that the earliest medieval Latin translations of Aristotle were made from Arabic versions rather than Greek.

Aquinas himself almost invariably treats those who disagree with him with respect and politeness. In this, Turner has failed to learn from his master. He describes Aquinas's Christian theological opponents - thinkers such as Bonaventure - as "dogmatic", and as "pagan materialists" and "idolaters" (to select a few choice epithets). This is as implausible as it is unworthy.

Richard Cross

The Revd John O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, in the United States

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