The Essential Summa Theologiae – A Reader and Commentary: A Review

The Essential Summa Theologiae: A Reader and Commentary, ed. Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 429 pages, $36.99. (Paperback).

It can be hard to know where to start with the Church’s biggest theologians. But often, once you finally get going, they’re not as tricky as you might have thought.

I remember finally opening Calvin’s Institutes for the first time. It felt momentous, given the sheer aura around the thing in my youth (“see that guy? He’s read the whole of the Institutes”). When I did, my overwhelming thought was “…well I know this already.” It was a classic coming-of-age moment: underwhelming. I wondered if I was just incredibly arrogant. Being in my early 20s, I most certainly was, but that wasn’t the issue. Rather, I realised that I “knew” Calvin already because I’d been absorbing it by osmosis for years via Reformed evangelicalism. That, coupled with the realisation that the Institutes is a more free-flowing beast than one first imagines, made the whole thing much more accessible. Similarly Augustine. Confessions loomed over me for years, ever in the footnotes. When I finally opened this great work of the Western canon I found… a prayer. A beautiful, lyrical, scriptural prayer, woven into something just about recognisable as a biography. The spell was broken (although it took me several attempts to get past Book X – if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean).

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), however, is a harder prospect. Anyone who’s begun to study theology relatively seriously soon becomes aware of him, and that his Summa Theologiae is a big deal. And yet cracking open the Summa is a different ball-game to the Institutes or Confessions.

This is due, in part, both to form and content. Form wise, hard copies (always preferable for getting to know something) will set you back an arm and a leg when it comes to the Summa. And, as much of a blessing as the easily accessible online versions are, one has to be somewhat self-taught (and self-motivated) to navigate them well.

Content wise, what you find in the Summa is like nothing else the budding theology student will have encountered. The highly systemised structures of parts, questions, objections, refutations etc. can be dizzying at first. If you do get your head around that, many of the theological questions Thomas asks are, to be frank, not ones that many of us would ever think to ask – and his answers even less ones we would think to give. We could class the Summa as a kind of “high context communication” – it contains a significant amount of implicit information, seemingly requiring the reader to bring a lot of prior knowledge to the table with them. Every sentence does a lot of legwork, and we can feel very conscious that we don’t understand it, even if we’re sure it’s very good and important – rather like being a guest at the opera.

If that’s been anything like your experience, then I could not more strongly commend the new second edition of The Essential Summa Theologiae: A Reader and Commentary, edited by Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt. It presents key sections of the Summa, with an extensive yet highly accessible commentary provided in the footnotes. It’s a true gift.

Anyone familiar with the Summa knows its structure: the prima pars (first part) deals with questions about God and creation (e.g. can we use words literally of God? What is the nature of the soul?); the secunda pars (second part) is divided into two sub-parts addressing first the fundamentals of human action (e.g. is the will moved by the intellect?), and second the nature of vices and virtues (e.g. what is justice?); the tertia pars (third part), famously unfinished, concerns the person and work of Christ (e.g. was it fitting that God should become incarnate?). Bauerschmidt selects the most significant questions and sub-sections from each part, to provide readers with the most significant contours of Thomas’ thought. If your experience of Thomas is somewhat second hand, but your impression is that he mainly seems to have important things to say about the doctrine of God and about ethics which are worth knowing about, then Bauerschmidt’s selections will be ideal for helping you to engage further.

The concise introduction will be a great help too. Bauerschmidt gives a short biography, pointing out that the significance of Thomas’ life and times are hugely underplayed – attention to both makes clear that, in his day, Thomas was something of a radical (a fact unsurprisingly overlooked given he is now a foundational part of Western theology). Bauerschmidt also helpfully dispels two notions which make it hard for many evangelical Protestants to get into Aquinas: that he was primarily a philosopher, and that he was an uncritical disciple of Aristotle. Against the first, Bauerschmidt stresses Thomas was “a theologian through and through… a master of the Sacred page – an interpreter of Scripture” (xxiii-xxiv). Against the second, Bauerschmidt notes that Thomas reconciled Aristotlelian philosophy with Christianity “only through a fundamental transformation of Aristotle” (xxiv).

The first edition of this work was published in 2005, under the title Holy Teaching, and Bauerschmidt notes in the introduction that the second edition contains a greater focus on Thomas’ moral teachings. This began initially from a desire to redress the bias against seeing Thomas as merely a theologian and not an ethical thinker. However, he came to see that “the second part of the Summa is just as theological as the first and third parts, and in a sense the first and third parts give a capacious theological context for the second part” (xxvii). Given that the Reformed evangelical world has become increasingly conscious in the last 15 years of its need for greater depth in both theology proper and ethics, Bauerschmidt’s change is a welcome one.

The commentary is perfectly pitched for uninitiated readers who are keen to know more, and would likely be a helpful aid for anyone teaching the Summa to others. Bauerschmidt is an ideal guide: his mastery and expertise are evident, but his delivery is always accessible.

Let’s take an example from the commentary on Question 1.13.5: “Is what is said of God and of creatures said of them univocally?” Bauerschmidt notes that this is “one of the most pored-over articles in the Summa” (44), but goes on to provide a breezy, yet immensely helpful description of the difference between equivocal and univocal language:

A term is used univocally when it has the same precise meaning in reference to different things. Thus, in saying “the knife is sharp” and “the sword is sharp,” we are using “sharp” in exactly the same way. We might also note that the quality of “sharpness” is brought about in the same way: through honing the blade.

A term is used equivocally when it has a different meaning when used in reference to different things. Thus, in the statements “the knife is sharp” and “the note is sharp,” the word “sharp” has two different meanings, and the quality of sharpness is brought about in two different ways: in the former case by honing the blade and in the latter case by raising the pitch by (if you’re playing a string instrument) increasing tension on the string.

The commentary is replete with gems like this, which, once absorbed, will help readers to become conversant first-hand readers of the text of the Summa itself.

I’m sure that there will be plenty of Thomists outraged that their favourite question (which they doubtless think is a neglected lynchpin of Thomas’ thought) has been snubbed. I for one was surprised that more of Thomas’ questions on law (especially natural law) weren’t included, given both Bauerschmidt’s desire to highlight Thomas’ moral teaching and the resurgence of interest in natural law theory in recent years. I’m also sure that people will find things to argue about in the interpretations Bauerschmidt offers in the commentary. But such criticisms are inevitable, and to his credit Bauerschmidt makes a point in his commentary of directing readers to secondary literature which offers alternative interpretations to his own.

Inevitable arguments aside, as someone who has been getting to know Aquinas for a few years now, I couldn’t be happier to have Bauerschmidt’s book to hand. It certainly contains the articles I know I’ve most frequently referred to – usually because they’re cited by someone else – and accompanies them with a commentary which has provided clarity to things which I’ve puzzled over. If you’re looking to become more conversant with Aquinas yourself, or to know the essentials so that you can navigate the rest of the theological tradition, then you won’t go wrong with this book. It will stay close at hand on my desk for a long time.

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