The Oxford Handbook of the Reception of Aquinas
Series: Oxford Handbooks
- ISBN: 9780198798026
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: March 2021
In recent years there has been a renewal of interest in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, especially among Protestants and Roman Catholics. Once thought to be the exclusive purview of Thomists, the Angelic Doctor’s thought has been rediscovered as a significant resource across theological divides. The Oxford Handbook of the Reception of Aquinas offers a wide-ranging survey of the various ways Aquinas’ theology, philosophy, and scriptural interpretation have been received.
Matthew Levering and Marcus Plested, the editors of the volume, introduce the book with a survey of the ways Aquinas has been received. They note that a volume such as this could not have been written fifteen or even twenty-five years ago, not only due to the lack of scholars with the required expertise, but also due to the lack of interest among readers (xv). The rise in appreciation of “reception history” by philosophers, coupled with theological movements such as ressourcement (return to the sources) and the emergence of other theologies of retrieval, have made this renewed appreciation of Aquinas possible (xvi). The book is divided into eight parts organized around periods of time, beginning with the medieval period and ending with parts 7 and 8 on the contemporary reception of Aquinas’ philosophy and theology, respectively. The first chapter, by Jean-Pierre Torrell, opens the volume as an introduction to Aquinas’ thought and the sources from which he drew.
A standout chapter within the second part is David Systma’s discussion of Aquinas’ reception by the Reformed Tradition in the 16th century. Overturning commonly held misconceptions and building upon the work of the great historical theologian Richard Muller, Systma proves that far from being treated as suspect, Aquinas was viewed as one of the “sounder scholastics” with whom the Reformed Tradition frequently engaged and often used as support for their own position (122). This engagement can be seen particularly in relation to the doctrine of God, including the divine attributes, and the doctrine of the Trinity (135).
One of the longest and most provocative chapters in the book is Benjamin Mayes’ discussion of the 17th-century Lutheran reception of Aquinas. While this period is often overlooked, Mayes shows that even when Aquinas was not being directly engaged in the 17th century, his way of doing theology was often used by Lutherans. While Lutherans, especially since the 20th century, have often been portrayed as “anti-scholastic,” Mayes demonstrates that scholastic metaphysics, particularly late-medieval receptions of Aristotle, made a comeback within Lutheran universities later in the 16th century, which resulted in a “modified Thomism” becoming popular in Lutheran circles by the 17th century (243). So, contrary to some modern portrayals, “Lutherans happily and freely appropriated medieval scholastic theology and philosophy from Thomas and many others” (247).
Kenneth Oakes shows us a complex and surprisingly positive reception of Aquinas by the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth. Barth viewed Aquinas as the official representative of Roman Catholic theology, of which he had many criticisms (468-9). But at the same time, Barth found in Aquinas a “witness and sympathizer” of the Reformed wing of the Reformation, as well as a “counter-witness” to theological problems he sees within Roman Catholic theology (468). Within the Church Dogmatics (T&T Clark, 1936-1969) alone, Barth agrees with Aquinas on many issues, including the Trinity, divine transcendence, providence, and much more (474).
I have focused almost exclusively on the various Protestant receptions of Aquinas to highlight one of the strengths of this handbook. There are many excellent chapters on various Catholic receptions of Aquinas, but the chapters covering the Reformation, post-Reformation, and modern theological receptions are where this volume breaks new ground. Many older paradigms of Protestant thought, especially regarding its relation to scholasticism generally and Aquinas specifically, are overturned in these chapters.
In addition, throughout the volume various essays seek to explore Aquinas’ reception within Russia, Greece, and Eastern Orthodoxy more generally. Many of these essays also include references to primary sources translated into English for the first time. With few exceptions, each of these chapters concludes by remarking on the generally polemical stance taken against Aquinas by the Orthodox. Aquinas’ scholastic methodology, his advocacy of the papacy, and his embrace of filioque (the clause “and the Son” added to the Nicene Creed) are usually seen as the culprit. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that independent and non-polemical readings of Aquinas’ thought began to emerge within Orthodoxy (240).
Most chapters in this volume are readable, clear, and informative. However, in a few cases the chapters appeared to be nothing more than large block quotes strung together with transitional sentences, and in at least one case, the chapter was so technical and filled with specialized jargon that it was incomprehensible. Overall, though, this volume succeeds in its goal of tracing the Angelic Doctor’s reception from the medieval period down through the present. May this work inspire a new generation of theologians and Bible scholars to thoughtfully receive Aquinas in their own day.
The Reverend David M. Svihel is priest associate for Christian Formation and Outreach at Church of the Redeemer (Sarasota, Florida), and a PhD student in divinity at the University of Aberdeen.David M. SvihelDate Of Review:August 26, 2023