Aidan Nichols, O.P., prior of Blackfriars and a leading British theologian, has written a masterful, elegant study of the theology of Thomas Aquinas and its enduring significance for today. Though described as an introduction, Nichols's book is truly a significant and substantive contribution to the burgeoning scholarship on Aquinas of the last several years. Discovering Aquinas opens with a chapter exploring the life and vocation of Aquinas and rightly emphasizes the genuinely apostolic aim of all of Aquinas's scholarship. This is followed by chapters that explore Aquinas's teachings on revelation, God and creation, the Trinity, the meaning of the Trinity for human beings, angels, grace and the virtues, and Christ, Church, and the sacraments. The final three chapters examine Aquinas's influence on Catholic theology, his contribution to Christian philosophy, and his theological methodology.
The most important contributions of this excellent book can be summarized in three themes. First, when studying the theology of creation, Nichols highlights the crucial importance of Aquinas's insight that God is the source of all being and that everything that exists has its being only insofar as it participates in the perfect being of God. This central metaphysical claim, unfolded biblically in the Genesis account of creation, is the foundation for the inherent value and goodness of all creation and, Nichols argues, the only convincing response to the temptation of nihilism. Too, the absolute dependence of all beings on God led Aquinas to understand God's immutability not as "the immobility of a crystal," but as eternally unceasing actuality continuously pouring forth life into everything that lives. In short, the essence of God is perfect, complete energy, what Christians have called "the fullness of life and love."
Second, in his chapter on the Trinity, Nichols underscores the personalist and relational character of Aquinas's theology of God. For Thomas, "the God of life enacts his being in vital relational acts."This means each person in God is constituted and identified by its relations; God is eminently personal because God is definitively relational. If this is true for God, then the image of God in human beings is indeed a Trinitarian image and the goal of life is to nurture and develop that image not only that one might share God's life more completely, but also be more fully conformed to it. Aquinas, Nichols argues, had a dynamic, unfolding understanding of the imago Dei in persons. The most fully human person is the man or woman in whom that Trinitarian image has been most perfectly actualized.
Third, Nichols affirms the inescapable moral dimension to Aquinas's theology of grace. For Aquinas, grace should have a "divinizing effect" on the whole being of a person, particularly one's actions. The gift of grace envisions a new way of existence complete with new habits, dispositions, and ways of being. Thomas named these the theological virtues and the infused moral virtues. Together they expressed how grace is meant to so transform one's moral agency that everything he or she does is oriented to the overarching end of human life, namely, communion with God and the saints. Thus, for Aquinas grace and the virtues can be described as "resources for good living" because through them human beings are able to achieve the fullest possible excellence of their nature. Ultimately, for Aquinas, the perfection of human agency is life in the Holy Spirit. When this occurs the Christian is so completely united with God that God's Spirit moves with perfect freedom within her so that she does the will of God in all things. "For Thomas," Nichols explains, "the distinctive characteristic of Christianity is a new inward principle or power active within us. He defines this principle or power as the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ."
Discovering Aquinas is an exciting and challenging book that not only unlocks the core principles of Aquinas's theology, but also demonstrates why a growing number of scholars are returning to Aquinas to discover anew how this thirteenth century theologian can illumine so many questions facing us today. Nichols's book may be too advanced for the typical undergraduate classroom, but it is surely an essential companion to theologians studying Aquinas and to graduate students who may be meeting this master for the first time.