Thomas Aquinas and Contemplation
- ISBN: 9780192895295
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: April 2021
Contemplation is of primary importance in Thomas Aquinas’ thought. For Aquinas, contemplation is the very goal of life, a foretaste of heavenly beatitude. Despite its importance, however, Rik Van Nieuwenhove notes that contemplation has not received due attention in scholarly studies—an academic lacuna that Thomas Aquinas and Contemplation aims to fill. Such a project entails more than merely analyzing the concept of contemplation in Aquinas’ work. As Van Nieuwenhove explains, it requires an interdisciplinary approach that engages Thomistic philosophy (epistemology, philosophy of the mind, and metaphysics), moral and trinitarian theology, and spirituality. Taking up this task of interdisciplinary engagement, Van Nieuwenhove provides a helpful introduction to the thought of Aquinas while maintaining the center of his focus on contemplation.
This book begins with a presentation on the nature of contemplation. Because Aquinas’ notion of contemplation occupies a wide semantic space, Van Nieuwenhove carefully takes the reader through necessary nuances. Broadly speaking, contemplation is the consideration of truth, especially divine truth—an integral aspect of the Christian life. The strict sense of the term refers to theoretical contemplation, which can further be subdivided into theological and philosophical, both of which are strictly speculative, in contrast to the practical and experiential nature of the broader sense of contemplation. Engagement in philosophical contemplation requires cognitive virtues, while theological contemplation also requires faith. Christian contemplation in particular requires theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit—a theme which Van Nieuwenhove insists on throughout the chapters that follow. Sorting through the different references to contemplation in Aquinas’ writings, Van Nieuwenhove dissolves any apparent tensions and contradictions that may arise due to the different employments of “contemplation.”
The book is divided into three main sections. The first section reflects on the epistemological and metaphysical foundations that sustain Aquinas’ understanding of contemplation. Without an elementary knowledge of Aquinas’ epistemology and metaphysics, Van Nieuwenhove argues, any notion of contemplation in his writings becomes incomprehensible (16). Chapters 2 and 3, therefore, lay out the philosophical basis necessary to conceptualize the Thomistic idea of contemplation. The second chapter argues that contemplation culminates in the simple, non-discursive intellective apprehension of the truth (23), and the third sketches Aquinas’ treatment of transcendentals, the fundamental properties of reality such as oneness, being, truth, and goodness (49).
Part 2 is comprised of a single chapter (chapter 4) on the active and contemplative lives, a differentiation based on Aquinas’ distinction between the practical and theoretical intellect. Van Nieuwenhove navigates through the various works of Aquinas to show that, although he initially argued that the ideal life is not purely active or contemplative, he eventually acknowledged the inherent superiority of contemplation (74). Building on the foundation of Gregory the Great, who associated the contemplative life with love for God and the active life with love for neighbor, Aquinas viewed the love of neighbor as a reflection and manifestation of the love of God (89). Chapter 4 thus serves to bridge the philosophical foundation of part 1 with the reflection on theology and the Christian life presented in part 3.
Chapters 5 through 8 conclude the book by moving from the theological virtues of faith and charity to the consideration of the gifts of Holy Spirit, prayer and wisdom, then closing with a discussion on happiness and the beatific vision. Van Nieuwenhove views this progression in the study of contemplation in Aquinas as a broadening of concentric circles, where “the feature of contemplation as a simple, non-discursive insight into truth is being retained and deepened” (19). The contemplation of a sanctified theologian with a living faith, infused with charity and equipped with spiritual gifts, represents the highest form of contemplation possible this side of heaven, anticipating (albeit in a limited way) the perfection of the beatific vision to be enjoyed in heaven.
In sum, Van Nieuwenhove provides a reliable introduction to critical elements of Aquinas’ thinking while also highlighting the central role of contemplation (conceptualized philosophically, theologically, and spiritually) in his system. Even though Van Nieuwenhove does not engage in an in-depth comparative study, a fact that he acknowledges from the start (2), his careful work in tracing the development of thought and semantic nuances in the writings of Aquinas is exemplary. Anyone interested in epistemology, metaphysics, theology, spirituality, or general Thomistic studies will benefit from the meticulous analysis presented in Thomas Aquinas and Contemplation.
Lucas Sabatier M. Leite is a PhD candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.Lucas Sabatier Marques LeiteDate Of Review:September 27, 2022