On my “to read” list: Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa theologiae”: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books), by Bernard McGinn.
Princeton University Press (May 25, 2014). 272 pgs.
In full disclosure, I promised that I would give it mention on my blog while the review was forthcoming. McGinn is distinguished for his extensive scholarship of Christian mysticism and does not identify himself as “a card carrying member of any Thomist party.” Nevertheless:
“… I’d been reading Thomas for almost sixty years and teaching him for over forty. When I was studying a dry-as-dust version of neo-Thomist philosophy from 1957 to 1959, I was rescued from despair by reading the works of Etienne Gilson, especially his Being and some Philosophers. . . . between 1959 and 1963, I was privileged to work with two great modern investigators of Thomas, Joseph de Finance and Bernard Lonergan. It was then I realized that no matter what kind of theology one elects to pursue in life, there is no getting away from Thomas. So the opportunity to come back to Thomas and the Summa was both a challenge and a delight.” [From the Preface]
Suffice to say I am intrigued, and will have more to report once I get into it.
This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, the Summa was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church. It synthesizes an astonishing range of scholarship, covering hundreds of topics and containing more than a million and a half words–and was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas’s death.
Here, Bernard McGinn, one of today’s most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity, vividly describes the world that shaped Aquinas, then turns to the Dominican friar’s life and career, examining Aquinas’s reasons for writing his masterpiece, its subject matter, and the novel way he organized it. McGinn gives readers a brief tour of the Summa itself, and then discusses its reception over the past seven hundred years. He looks at the influence of the Summa on such giants of medieval Christendom as Meister Eckhart, its ridicule during the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of Neothomism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of the Summa in the post-Vatican II church, and the book’s enduring relevance today.
Tracing the remarkable life of this iconic work, McGinn’s wide-ranging account provides insight into Aquinas’s own understanding of the Summa as a communication of the theological wisdom that has been given to humanity in revelation.