Denys TURNER. Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. pp. 312. $28 cloth. ISBN: 9780300188554. Reviewed by Ella JOHNSON, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, Rochester, NY 14618
Denys Turner declares his Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait as the “last monograph” he “will write as a full-time teaching professor of theology” (xi). Turner certainly ends on a good note, as his book vividly depicts the often obscure portrait of Thomas as a man of both reason and prayer in an accessible way.
Turner’s book is comprised of eight chapters and an epilogue, which each cover the following aspects of Thomas’ person, spirituality and thought, individually: a Dominican; A Materialist; The Soul; God; Friendship and Grace; Grace, Desire and Prayer; Christ; The Eucharist and Eschatology; The Secret of Saint Thomas. Throughout the book, Turner situates these topics within the cultural context and thought of Tomas’ contemporaries, and also against the background of the man of Thomas.
Noting Thomas’ “portrait” in the way that Turner does, helps to clear away the haze and misconceptions around some of the ideas attributed to this Roman Catholic Doctor of the Church. In the chapter, “Eucharist and Eschatology”, for instance, Turner draws attention to the way that subsequent Catholic theologizing may be loaded onto Thomas’ pedagogical use of “transubstantiation”, in a way which the author did not intend. Turner points out: “[I]n the sense that the term exists solely for the purposes of explaining the singular case of Eucharistic change, and otherwise serves no explanatory purposes, theological or secular, it is clearly a term of art, a device of explanation of a purely technical kind—the word “transubstantiation” has no meaning whatsoever outside of the explanatory context for which it was devised” (259).
Turner also does well to elucidate some of most abstract concepts and complex nuances entailed in Thomas’ thought. For example, Turner’s chapter on “The Soul” discusses Thomas’ controversial Aristotelian account of the human soul as the single form of the body. Turner reveals the significance of this idea and the integral role it plays within the whole of Thomas’ thought. He does so by skillfully making connections between this and other abstract ideas in Thomas’ writing with his students’ insights and contemporary analogies. In this regard, Turner writes a book on Thomas that is accessible enough for introductory undergraduate courses.
Throughout, Turner also reveals how the order of Thomas’ questions in the Summa follow a brilliantly designed pedagogical learning curve. For instance, Thomas believes that there are many “erroneous consequences” that may “ensue from the failure to get things right from the outset in the doctrines of God and of creation” (156). Thus, Turner does well to reveal the often neglected accounting for the Summa’s genre. “It is easy to forget that the meticulously structured linearity of the Summa is in a fact a solution…. The man is a magister, a master-compiler of the syllabus for a degree course in theology—designed, as we will see, especially for mendicant preachers” (29).
In my view, Turner’s real contribution, in regards to the book as a whole, is the way he brings to the fore the way Thomas’ Dominican influence and his holiness bear on each of the topics treated in the book. In fact, Turner claims that
Such an insight into Thomas’ pedagogy and the discovery of this “secret” offers ripe material for further inquiry and discussion. The book may be useful for any scholarly and general audience seeking to deepen its understanding of the whole person of Thomas Aquinas.