In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve come to Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. The only systematic theology in the original Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia |Britannica, 1952), it occupies two volumes (19 and 20) of the 54 books in the set even though parts of it are omitted. (The 1990 edition of the set also includes selections from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.) It constitutes the sixth reading in the fourth volume of The Great Ideas Program, Religion and Theology, by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961).
Adler and Cain conclude their introduction to Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in The Great Ideas Program by observing that although it was questioned and even attacked as heretical in some of its doctrines in its day, “this synthesis of reason and revelation has become in modern times the accepted intellectual structure of the Roman Catholic Church” (Adler and Cain, Religion and Theology, page 86). They go on to consider: (I) its sources and form of exposition; (II) First Part, Question 1: The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine; (III) Second Part, Part II, Treatise on Faith, Hope, and Charity, Question 1: Of Faith; (IV) Second Part, Part II, Treatise on Faith, Hope, and Charity, Question 2:Of the Act of Faith and Question 3: Of the Outward Act of Faith; and (V) six questions which they ask on the reading.
Here I’ll sketch Aquinas’ life, summarize the first section in Adler and Cain’s guide, pose the questions which they ask on the reading, and summarize briefly how they answered the questions.
Thomas was born in 1224/25 near Naples and entered the University of Naples in 1239. In 1244 he joined the Dominicans, who immediately assigned him to study theology in Paris. Opposed to his doing so, his family abducted him on his way to Paris. However finding that nothing could shake his determination, they released him the following year.
Arriving in Paris in 1245, Thomas began studying theology at the Dominican convent under Albertus Magnus, a champion of Aristotle. When Albertus was appointed to organize a Dominican house of studies at Cologne in 1248, he took Thomas with him. After four more years of study, Thomas received his bachelor’s degree in 1252 and returned to Paris to teach and to train to become a master in theology, which he became in 1256.
Although only a little more than thirty-one, Thomas was appointed to fill one of the two chairs allowed the Dominicans at the university. However, in 1259, after three years of theological teaching there, he returned to Italy, where he remained nine years, teaching and writing. Suddenly, in 1268, he was called back to Paris to combat both those who were opposed the use of Aristotle in theology and those who were presenting an Aristotelianism seemingly incompatible with Christianity.
In 1272 Thomas was recalled to Italy to reorganize all the theological courses of his order. He went to Naples, where he taught at the university and continued to write. However his writing career came suddenly to an end on December 6, 1273. While saying mass that morning a great change came over him, after which he stopped writing. Urged to complete Summa Theologica, which he had begun in 1267, he replied: “I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems as straw, and I now await the end of my life” (quoted in Great Books of the Western World, volume 19, page vi).
The following year Thomas became ill on his way to attend the Council of Lyons, stopped at the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova, and died on March 7, 1274.
“The Summa Theologica is a systematic exposition of theological knowledge, compiled from all available sources with the master purpose, of course, of setting forth and defending Christian doctrine” (Adler and Cain, page 87). Theological knowledge includes knowledge about man and the world as related to God as well as knowledge about God. The sources of Summa Theologica include classical Greek (especially Aristotle) and medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophers as well as Christian thinkers.
Summa Theologica consists of three parts divided into treatises. (The Second Part is also divided into two parts.) Each treatise is divided into questions, which are divided into articles. The title of each article gives the question in affirmative form. It is followed by a general negative answer, introduced by “We proceed thus to the [number of the article] Article,” and a listing of specific negative points called “Objections.” Then Aquinas summarizes the opposite view, introducing the summary with “On the contrary.” The body of the article, introduced by “I answer that,” gives Aquinas’ judgment on the various views. Finally Aquinas replies to the numbered objections in order. According to Adler and Cain, this form was typical of the day.
Is the God of philosophical reason the same as the God of religious faith?
Adler and Cain give three possible answers‒the first affirming that “philosophy provides an objective norm for the religious view,” the second affirming that “religious faith gives the only true picture of God’s nature and attributes,” and the third affirming that “both the philosophical and religious views do justice to the divine reality” (Adler and Cain, page 102)‒and ask which view Aquinas takes. In Question I, Article 1, of the First Part Aquinas speaks favourably of both the philosophical doctrine and the divine revelation about God, suggesting that he takes the third position. However in the same article he affirms that “besides the philosophical sciences discovered by reason there should be a sacred science obtained through revelation” for “man’s salvation, which is in God” (Great Books of the Western World, volume 19, page 3), suggesting that he takes the second position.
Is a man free to refuse the gift of faith?
Adler and Cain suggest seeing Question VI, Article 1, of Part II of the Second Part. In it Aquinas says that two things are required for faith: that the things which are of faith be proposed to a person and that the person assent to the things which are proposed to him or her. He also says that for a person to believe his or her will needs to be prepared by God with grace. However he doesn’t specify whether or not a person can refuse the gift of faith.
How can sacred theology be a science if its origin is faith, and its aim salvation?
Adler and Cain note that Aquinas deals with this question in Question I, Articles 2 and 4, of the First Part. In Article 2 Aquinas compares sacred theology, which draws its first principles from divine revelation, with the sciences of perspective and music, which draw their principles from mathematics, and in Article 4 he decides that sacred theology primarily provides theoretical knowledge about God rather than practical knowledge about what people should do. However Adler and Cain claim that “the question is still an open one for us, since Aquinas’ answers are in terms of medieval notions of science and are inconclusive” (Adler and Cain, page 103).
How does a believer know that what he believes is divine revelation?
Adler and Cain observe, “The traditional answer is that he knows this through faith,” but continue, “But faith involves the gift of divine grace. How do we know that it is a genuine faith we have, and not mere conformity to what has been handed down to us?” (Adler and Cain, page 104). Aquinas claims that miracles and “the inward impulse of the Divine invitation” confirm the authority of Divine teaching but admits that the believer “has not…sufficient reason for scientific knowledge” (Great Books of the Western World, volume 20, page 399).
Is it legitimate for theology, as a scientific discipline, to use figurative expressions?
Adler and Cain note that Question I, Articles 9 and 10, of the First Part deals with the interpretation of scriptural symbols. In Article 9 Aquinas argues, “It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths under the likenesses of material things” (Great Books of the Western World, volume 19, page 9). In Article 10 he considers different senses that a word may have in the Bible‒historical or literal, allegorical, tropological or moral, and anagogical.
Does “faith” mean anything besides intellectual assent to propositions?
In Question II, Article 1, of Part II of the Second Part Aquinas concludes that “to believe is to think with assent” (Great Books of the Western World, volume 20, page 391; on the previous page he defined “to believe” as “the inward act of faith”). However Adler and Cain distinguish between faith as intellectual assent to propositions and as personal trust in God.