Rik Van Nieuwenhove and Joseph Wawrykow have put together an invaluable resource in The Theology of Thomas Aquinas. Already much lauded when it was first published as a hardcover in 2005, it is now being released in paperback, increasing its accessibility and usability in the graduate classroom and elsewhere.
The book is a collection of essays written by nationally and internationally reputed scholars (American academics will recognize names such as Marshall, Emery, Burrell, Porter, O’Meara and Walsh, to list a few) covering the full array of topics in Aquinas’ theology, generally following the order of the Summa Theologica. A few of the essays are revisions or translations of previously published articles, but most are newly written for this volume. Every one is well worth the read for the student of Aquinas, and most will be enlightening also for the advanced scholar, which can only rarely be said of collections such as this. However, this is not a text for most of today’s undergraduates; those little familiar with Aquinas and scholasticism in general will be best served by a more basic introduction.
The editors’ desire for consistency, clarity and usability is evident in that each article begins with an overview of the article’s scope and main points, is divided by descriptive subtitles and ends with a conclusion that summarizes key ideas and sometimes advances its thesis in a new way or suggests lines of further development. Each article has extensive notes and the volume also includes a thorough index. The essays as a whole bear several characteristics in common. First and foremost, they are marked by a careful reading and exposition of St. Thomas’ own thought, understood in its historical, cultural, developmental, academic and literary contexts. Each essay provides a relatively detailed explanation of his theology that situates it within the development of his thought over several decades and within the body of his entire theology. All of the authors are very aware that no aspect of Aquinas’ highly synthetic thinking can be understood correctly in isolation. They are also clear, in the spirit of the universal doctor himself, that his theology is not beyond critical evaluation and further development, some lines of which are suggested as the occasion warrants.
Additionally, the essays are all attentive to contemporary concerns and scholarly debate. For example, the two chapters on the Trinity deal with the question of the controverted division into de deo uno and de deo trino, the interrelation of immanent and economic Trinity, the changed notion of person today from its original theological meaning, and the relation of the doctrine of the Trinity to other areas of theology, among other matters. The authors are attentive to the depth and relevance of Aquinas’ thought for theology today, and some suggest particular insights applicable to modern problems or questions. Most do not become mired in the fine points of scholarly debate, but they do consciously acknowledge areas of disagreement among scholars, adroitly navigate the turbulent waters and arrive safely at clear, reasonable, nuanced and textually-grounded positions (or explain how the debate does not in the end affect the author’s thesis).
The essays as a whole also interrelate well and regularly reiterate important Thomistic themes. Such themes include: Aquinas’ understanding of theology as scientia and the interrelation of faith and reason, the genuinely biblical and theological (not merely philosophical) character of all of his work, the power as well as the limits of the human intellect to grasp and articulate the mysteries of the faith, God’s transcendence and thus the nature of theological language as analogical, and the novelty of Aquinas’ adaptation of Aristotelian concepts for various purposes (e.g., his use of the category of relation to discuss the Trinity, of right reason to organize his moral theology and of form and matter to think about the Sacraments).
For the careful summaries of the various areas of Aquinas’ theology alone, The Theology of Thomas Aquinas is well worth its cost. But even more importantly, throughout this book the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas comes alive. It is not a dead letter of merely “historical or antiquarian importance” (37), but a synthetic, insightful and relevant body of theology that is able to contribute substantially to contemporary theology and speak helpfully to our modern questions. Not all will agree with every point in every essay (e.g., Burrell’s attempt to rescue some of Meister Eckhart’s formulations), and certainly not all of the essays accomplish their purposes equally well, yet in each chapter a leading thinker on the subject has with depth and verve provided the best of today’s Thomistic scholarship in a manner that is accessible, useful and relevant. Every Catholic library and theologian and a great many Protestant ones as well should have a copy of this book on their shelves.