COMMENTARY ON THE SUMMA THEOLOGIAE OF THOMAS AQUINAS
In what follows I will provide my own translation of the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. I intend to work my way, slowly but surely, through the entire Summa. Each translated section of the Summa will be followed by a short commentary in which I hope to point out some important interpretative keys to understanding the text. We begin, as is appropriate, with Aquinas's short prologue to the Summa.
Because the true universal [catholicae] teacher must not only instruct the advanced, but those also who are beginning, according as the Apostle [says], in the first letter to the Corinthians 3:1, “just like to small children in Christ, I gave you milk to drink, not meat”, our intention, in this work, is to put forward all that is pertinent to the Christian religion, and to do so in such a way as is adapted to the teaching of beginners.
For, we have observed that many beginners are hindered in these doctrines by the diverse writings on these subjects: this is partially due, no doubt, to the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments; this is also partially because, in those great things which are so necessary to know, they do not submit themselves to an order of instruction, but, rather, pursue commentaries of books, or to whatever debates they may have the opportunity to be exposed to; this is also partially because they are frequently given over to repetition, which has bred contempt and confusion in the soul of the student.
Striving, therefore, to avoid these same things, we will attempt, trusting in divine assistance, to briefly and clearly describe, according as the material allows, all that which concerns sacred doctrine.
“Our intention, in this work, is to put forward all that is pertinent to the Christian religion, and to do so in such a way as is adapted to the teaching of beginners.”
The reaction of most people who open the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, for the first time, is confusion. That is, it appears, to the contemporary novice, that Aquinas’s explanations and articulations of Christian doctrines are so complicated that they are inaccessible, or worse, they cause confusion and misunderstanding. It comes as a shock to many, therefore, to discover that this work was written for the benefit of those who were beginning their studies in theology: “adapted to the teaching of beginners”. Some medieval background might, at this point, be helpful.
The university, as a center of education and research, was a creation of the church, which set up universities in major cities such as Paris and Oxford (the two most important universities). Before the creation of these universities, education was given in monasteries and churches. From the 12th century on, universities multiplied (with more than 75 universities in Europe by 1400), and, after the Protestant reform, the creation of Protestant universities. Cairns reminds us that virtually all the great European universities of our day were founded in this period, and often founded by the clergy of the church from the school they had in their churches. Earle E. Cairns notes, for example, that the University of Paris, one of the most important universities in human history (Peter Abelard was one of the founders of the University of Paris, Thomas Aquinas taught at this university, and Jean Calvin was educated for 3 years at the University of Paris, not to mention some of the great names who also received their education here, such as, Ignatius Loyola, Victor Hugo, Claude Levi-Strauss, Peter Lombard, and Paul Ricoeur), starting as a school in the cathedral of Notre Dame. The University of Oxford was founded because of the conflicts between England and France. These conflicts motivated the Anglophone students, who were studying at the University of Paris, to return to England. Hence, the University of Oxford was founded.
A program of study in a medieval university could be outlined as follows: a baccalaureate was awarded when the Trivium (the study of rhetoric, grammar, and logic-accomplished, in part, by the study Of the great works of literature and philosophy); A master's degree was awarded when the Quadrivium had been completed (the study of mathematics, astronomy and music, which might include the study of geography and other natural sciences); We received the title of doctor when we had completed advanced studies in law, theology or medicine.
The study of pagan literature, and the sciences, had always been important for the church. J. W. Adamson notes that “Christian thinkers from Tertullian in the second century onwards agreed that this pre-Christian learning was necessary to an understanding of the Scriptures.” What pre-christian learning? The writings, both poetical and philosophical, of the great Greek thinkers. Indeed, as early as the fourth century we see Basil of Caesarea writing an important work called On the Right Use of Greek Literature, in which he explains that the study of the great Greek authors (poets and philosophers) is a necessary precursor to the study of theology.
Augustine would later, in his On Christian Doctrine, state that Christians are to appropriate, for the glory of God, anything in the pagan authors (philosophers and poets) that is true and useful. Indeed, Henri-Irénée Marrou, in his Saint Augustin et la Fin de la Culture Antique, states that « This is the cycle of studies that Saint Augustine imposed on future philosophers. Grammar, dialectics, rhetoric; arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy; philosophy. Aside from those which go beyond the limits of the preparatory culture: what have we here, if not the cycle of the seven liberal arts, the outline, theoretical at least, of high medieval culture.” Marrou goes further to point out that the acquiring of Christian culture (which is based entirely on divine revelation in scriptures), is preceded, necessarily, by a “preparatory culture”. Says Marrou, “It is because he saw the rich and complex training that ancient tradition imposed on his studies that saint Augustine thought it necessary to provide the Christian scholar with a certain preparatory culture.” This is not, notes Marrou, something that was unique to Augustine, on the contrary, “In general, from Origen to saint Basil, from Tertullian to saint Jerome, all of the predecessors of Augustine proclaim the necessity of a relationship between the preparatory studies, nourished from the entire tradition of the pagan schools, and the properly Christian activity of the intellect, once formed.”
What are the things that Augustine proposes as necessary preliminary studies, prior to theology? Marrou provides the following list, along with some of the reasons: (1) “Grammar: because God wished to give us His revelation via a book written in a human language, it is, therefore, necessary to have learned one of the language in which this book was translated.” Latin was the obvious grammar to be learned at this point in time, and for hundreds of years after Augustine. Other languages to be learned were Greek and Hebrew. (2) Next is World History, as it helps to understand the place of human religions in human history, and knowledge of history is necessary to defend the truths of Christianity. (3) Next is Geography and Natural History, then (4) the Mechanical arts. Augustine then mentions (5) Rhetoric, and (6) Dialectic, the art of reasoning. The latter is of great importance for “it is logic, the science of the formal laws of reasoning, that allows the exegete to rigorously treat every question that is raised by the profound study of the Bible, to insure the coherence of the workings of his mind, and to avoid falling into major errors.” The next subject to be studied is (7) Mathematics, and related subject such as music and mechanics. (8) “The cycle concludes with philosophy: the Christian must assimilate all that the ideas that the classical thinkers discovered that agree with true faith.” This is the program of study that any serious student of scriptures must undertake, says Augustine, if they wish to get the most out of their study of scriptures.
Augustine’s approach to Christian education was not unique to him, and it is this approach to education that would go on to influence the course of study in the Medieval university, and would continue to influence the course of study in the early reformed universities. It is this course of study that is presupposed by Aquinas’s comment to the effect that the Summa Theologiae is for beginners, novices, in theology. Aquinas assumes that those who will be reading and studying the Summa Theologiae, as an introduction to Theology, will have already passed through the entire course of studies that we have just outlined. New to Theology, not to education; Novice theologians, but well-educated and cultured thinkers.
“For, we have observed that many beginners are hindered in these doctrines by the diverse writings on these subjects: this is partially due, no doubt, to the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments.”
Aquinas now goes on to explain why his intention, in the Summa Theologiae, is to explain all the doctrines of the Christian faith in a way that will be helpful for the beginner. Thomas sees that many students of theology, as they move from one part of their studies to the study of theology, have difficulty assimilating the truths of Christianity; and, this, since there are so many different writings on the subject, presenting so many different opinions on the various doctrines. This problem is still present today, only now we have the unenviable problem of not only having many different published opinions (many of them as useless as those in the time of Aquinas), but of having many different published “introductory works”. There is now an introductory work for just about every position under the sun. The purpose of the Summa Theologiae was, and still is, to help to the beginner to understand the key subjects and discussions that take place in Christian Theology, and to properly navigate the theological waters which were becoming more and more dangerous, as more and more opinions, and positions, were being made public.
“This is also partially because, in those great things which are so necessary to know, they do not submit themselves to an order of instruction, but, rather, pursue commentaries of books, or to whatever debates they may have the opportunity to be exposed to.”
“Those great things”, refers to the great truths of Christianity. Aquinas here notes that, and this problem has not changed, the students were having difficulty grasping the important nuances of the theological discussions because, rather than follow a rigorous order of learning, they pursued, without discernment, any book, commentary, debate, or teacher that they could find. Rather than submit to a recognized teacher of orthodox doctrine, to follow a well thought out educational program that brought them through those steps that are necessary to move from “novice” to “master”, they unwisely gobbed up whatever presented itself to them, and ran after any theologian or thinker they thought was particularly interesting. No wonder they were confused! There is an order to theological inquiry, and if we truly desire to possess truth, we must follow that order of inquiry. Thomas Aquinas sets out, in the Summa Theologiae, that coherent way that the mind must follow in order to arrive at a proper knowledge of the truths of Christianity.
“This is also partially because they are frequently given over to repetition, which has bred contempt and confusion in the soul of the student.”
Finally, notes Thomas, the teachers that the students sit under do not use a method that is proper for the teaching of theology. This, rather than leading the student to greater understanding and a greater desire to understand, leads the student into confusion and contempt of the truth. Aquinas proposes to provide, in the Summa Theologiae, the proper way to teach the doctrines that he will consider. This is that dialectical method that is well-known to scholastic theologians, and seen in many of Aquinas’s works. After having outlined the specific area of study that we will be examining, the teacher notes the contrary opinions. The contrary opinions are those arguments and conclusions which raise themselves up against the truth. The teacher then quotes an, sometimes more than one, authority who teaches the truth—against the contrary opinions. This is followed by an explanation of the truth of the matter—the respondeo. The teacher then concludes the question by responding to each of the contrary opinions in turn. It is important to understand this method if one wishes to properly understand the Summa Theologiae.
“Striving, therefore, to avoid these same things, we will attempt, trusting in divine assistance, to briefly and clearly describe, according as the material allows, all that which concerns sacred doctrine.”
Having explained why he seeks to write an introductory work of Theology, Thomas concludes by noting that he will seek to avoid these pitfalls, and teach everything that is necessary for a proper understanding of Christian teachings. Note that he trusts his endeavor to the hands of God, Thomas knows, very well, that such a task is certainly not easy, and should not be undertaken in a haphazard manner. Christian theology is a matter that requires great commitment, a desire for truth, and the understanding that we are delving into matters that are beyond us. We also, in our pursuit of knowledge of God, must commit our way to the Lord, as Thomas does, here, in the conclusion of this prologue.
J. W. Adamson, “Education”, in The Legacy of the Middle Ages, ed. C. G. Crump and E. F. Jacob (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), 255.
Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (1967; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980), 260.
Adamson, “Education”, 268.
Basil, On the Right Use of Greek Literature, in Essays on the Study and Use of Poetry, trans. and ed. Frederick Morgan Padelford (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1902).
Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, ch. 40.
Henri-Irénée Marrou, Saint Augustin et la Fin de la Culture Antique (Paris : Éditions E. De Boccard, 1958), 211. My translation. A little bit later Marrou concludes that there is one certain statement that can be made about Augustine, “saint Augustin n’a pas cessé de réserver dans ses projets de culture chrétienne une place, la première place, à la culture philosophique, à la sapientia. (Ibid., 368.) »
Ibid., 389. My translation.
Ibid., 394. My translation.
Ibid., 403. My translation.
Ibid. My translation.
Ibid., 406. My translation.