Bernard McGINN. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae: A Biography. “Lives of Great Religious Books.” Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014. pp. 260. $24.95 hb. ISBN: 978-0-691-15426-8. Reviewed by Keith J. EGAN, Saint Mary’s College/University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556
Some of us are old enough to have lived through the quick collapse of Neo-Thomism, but then we have also been around to witness the exciting return of the vigorous and varied research that has challenged the ahistorical character of Neo-Scholasticism that had tolerated no challenges to the absolute authority of Thomas Aquinas. The book at hand is a clear and concise investigation of the truly magnanimous wisdom of the Summa theologiae of the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas, saint and doctor of the church, whose adherents have vigorously acclaimed him as the church’s doctor communis.
Princeton University Press has in process a series in which great religious classics are being introduced to readers by noted scholars; in this case, by the highly respected scholar Bernard McGinn whose “life” of Aquinas’s Summa theologiae is a truly excellent introduction for newcomers and a quick and lively review for seasoned scholars of what has to be, after the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, one of a handful of Christianity’s most important classics.
McGinn begins in chapter one with a review of the world in which Aquinas’s Summa theologiae was composed. Then comes chapter two on the creation of this theological masterpiece followed by chapter three which is a “tour” of this Summa. Almost half of this book, chapters four and five along with the Epilogue, consists in an insightful history of the nachleben of the Thomas’s Summa theologiae. This historical study, in fact, amounts to a bird’s eye view of the history of Western Catholic theology from the time of the birth of Thomas’s two great Summae. Thomas’s work have been, even when at times not in the forefront of Catholic theology, texts that cannot be ignored or, if ignored, it is done so at the peril of presenting an unbalanced investigation into Catholic theology.
Despite what seems like a fairly long book of two hundred and sixty pages, this study of the Summa theologiae is not what at a quick glance the page numbers seem to indicate. This book is only seven and three quarter inches by four and three quarter inches. I mention this fact, because I think that McGinn’s study is an excellent introduction to Thomism for upper class undergraduates as well as for graduate students. The former often seem to have a prejudice against overly long books.
As with all of Bernard McGinn’s works, there are very informative endnotes that offer a select entrée into particular issues relevant to understanding Aquinas’s corpus of writings. There is a brief bibliography followed by two indices, one of Name and Title along with a Subject index, making this work a handy resource for the study of the theology of Thomas Aquinas. As one expects from Professor McGinn, the text is always lively, and it is an accessible introduction to the study of this thirteenth theologian who made amble use of not only Aristotle but also of the Platonic tradition.