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The Cambridge Companion to the “Summa Theologiae” edited by Philip McCosker & Denys Turner

01 September 2017

Robin Ward considers the study of the Summa

IT IS a bit unnerving to open a new book and find a chapter in it written by someone who died in 2001, particularly when the chapter is entitled “Eternity”. It does take a notoriously long time to gather up the contributions needed for these Companions, but this is above and beyond what editors usually have to contend with. The “Eternity” chapter, by Herbert McCabe OP, is in fact a lecture he gave in the 1980s, rescued from what might best be called the challenging state of his literary remains, and is a characteristically lucid highlight of the book.

The Cambridge University Press published a Companion to Aquinas in 1993, and so the current volume needs some justification. The editors characterise it primarily as a theological collection of studies, dealing with Aquinas as a systematic theologian in his most mature work rather than as a philosopher or biblical commentator.

The Summa Theologiae is the work of Thomas Aquinas’s mature years, from about 1265 until his death ten years later. It is at once the most sophisticated expression of his theological vision, and his work most intended for beginners. This collection does justice to both aspects of this, considering, on the one hand, discrete doctrinal topics and, on the other, the reception of the text as an authority for teaching and learning in the life of the Church.

The editors organise this by dividing the Companion into three parts: one containing six chapters on background and method; one containing 14 chapters on individual doctrinal topics; and one containing four chapters on the reception history of the Summa in a variety of contexts and faith traditions. This inevitably makes things somewhat bitty, and the contributors are largely drawn from the world of the English-speaking British and North American Universities, although Gilles Emery and Olivier-Thomas Venard, both Francophone Dominicans, make an appearance.

I found of particular interest in the first section the contributions by Mark Jordan on “Structure” and John Marenbon on “Method”. The new student of Aquinas has to make a significant cultural adjustment to appreciate the Summa Theologiae, ordered as it is around the “Quaestio” formula of the medieval Schools, so efficient and economical in expression, and so without literary charm for us. Jordan and Marenbon both help us through this, giving an overall sense of pedagogic intent to the work, and the practical character of its teaching for an enthusiastic but non-elite Dominican audience.

The contents of the second part of the Companion reflect the interest of the editors in systematic theology, perhaps proportionately rather more than the text of the Summa itself does. It is worth recalling that, roughly speaking, about half of the Summa deals with moral theology, and less than ten per cent with the doctrine of God, although here we have chapters on “God”, “Eternity”, “Trinity”, “Holy Spirit”, “Creation”, “Providence”, and “The human person” reflecting themes from the more technically theological Prima Pars of the Summa, but only “Happiness”, “Virtues”, and “Grace” from the more morally orientated Pars Secunda. This is perhaps a pity for Anglican readers, where the influence of Aquinas on our theological tradition is at its strongest in Hooker’s understanding of law in the Christian commonwealth.

Highlights here are Gilles Emery’s compendious and lucid summary of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, Philip McCosker’s astute analysis of the part played by grace in Aquinas’s taxonomy of salvation, and Paul Gondreau’s apposite summary of Jean-Pierre Torrell’s important rediscovery of the doctrine of the mysteries in the human life of the incarnate Christ.

The third section, on the reception of Aquinas, is perhaps the weakest: those looking for a brief introduction to the reception history of the Summa in the Roman Catholic tradition might prefer to find it in Romanus Cessario’s excellent A Short History of Thomism; and Andrew Louth confesses that his treatment of the reception of Aquinas in Orthodoxy was not able to take into account Marcus Plested’s outstanding Orthodox Readings of Aquinas. Francis Clooney’s consideration of common themes in Aquinas and medieval Hindu logic is the most technically specialist contribution to the volume.

This Companion is to be welcomed as a significant contribution to scholarship, and a testimony to the lively and thorough engagement with the Summa which is being carried on by scholars today. The general reader will find useful material to help put the Summa into context, pithy introductions to its key doctrinal themes, and some help in dissipating the cultural challenges to appreciating it today as the crowning work of the medieval scholastic intellectual synthesis.


Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.


The Cambridge Companion to the “Summa Theologiae”

Philip McCosker and Denys Turner, editors

CUP £19.99


Church Times Bookshop £18



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