Aristotle in Aquinas's Theology

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Gilles Emery, Matthew Levering
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It probably goes without saying that if Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering put a book together on Thomas Aquinas, it will make a substantial contribution to research and reinforce promising recent shifts in the interpretation of the great Dominican master. This is indeed the case with Aristotle in Aquinas’s Theology. A collection of ten essays ranging from twenty to thirty pages each, it is impressive in its effort to describe and clarify in exactly what ways Aristotle was employed in Aquinas’s reckoning with basic Christian doctrine. The book’s various independently authored chapters demonstrate that in matters directly concerning objects and articles of faith, Aquinas does not cite Aristotle as an authority, but rather relies on biblical, patristic, and liturgical sources. Aquinas does cite Aristotle, however, and he does so for conceptual support at key moments in his handling of Christian theology’s most fundamental doctrinal material. It is precisely this aspect of Aquinas’s work that the book addresses. Rather than attempting to excuse or explain away Aristotle’s presence in Aquinas’s treatment of Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, grace, and the sacraments, the authors show when, where, and how “the Philosopher” makes his appearance. They do this through patient engagement with Aquinas’s theological system, diligent analysis of his sources, and counting his citations and examining how they are employed. As such, the book is filled with first-rate scholarship, but is nonetheless a pleasure to read.

The editors’ preface, though brief, does a fine job setting the stage for the necessity of the volume. It also rightly points out how Aristotle figures into Aquinas’s role as a resource for ecumenical theology, lest we forget the Protestant scholastics who employed Aristotelian thought to systematize the theology of the Reformation or the varied influence of Aristotelian thought on the theology of the Christian East. Further, it duly notes criticisms of Aristotle’s role in Christian theology, not only with reference to Aquinas, but among the Church Fathers and in modern theology as well. The preface concludes with a brief but helpful summary of the intellectual history of recent interpretation of Aquinas with respect to Aristotle.

Aristotle in Aquinas’s Theology itself follows the topical ordering of the Summa Theologiae, thereby providing a compelling account of the general shape of Aquinas’s theology as a whole. It does seem somewhat ironic that there is no explicit treatment of the role of Aristotle in Aquinas’s famous Five Ways, and the relation between the Five Ways and Aquinas’s Trinitarian theology as whole. However, both Emery and Levering have treated these topics variously in their other recent writings, and it is unquestionable that modern theology has focused on this one element of Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotle to the neglect of most of the others. In any case, given the deep thematic unity in the book as a whole, the essays themselves are not all the same in style and purpose. The chapters by Emery and Serge-Thomas Bonino give analytical accounts of Aquinas’s use of Aristotle in the doctrine of the Trinity and angelology, respectively. This is helpful, since both of these topics have been well covered in the authors’ work elsewhere, making the more analytic presentations here a worthy supplement. By contrast, the chapters on grace by Simon Francis Gaine, charity by Guy Mansini, justice by Christopher A. Franks, contemplation and action by Mary Catherine Sommers, and the sacraments by John P. Yocum are broad enough in their exposition of the topics they engage to be made required readings for courses on Aquinas.

The remaining articles cover their particular topics with the necessary breadth and depth. Given the recent and promising return to prominence of the practice of theological interpretation of scripture, Levering’s chapter on Aristotle and the Mosaic law is significant. Levering sketches how Aquinas uses Aristotle to interpret the Mosaic law as law, though within the framework of sacra doctrina. Here we find Aquinas doing some of his most compelling, and, from a post historical-critical perspective, interesting work as a biblical interpreter. The paper on Aristotelian hylomorphism by Raymond Hain does an excellent job of engaging the central elements of Aquinas’s anthropology and raises important questions for contemporary constructive theology. Corey Barnes’s paper on christology begins with a helpful examination of Summa Theologiae 1, q 1. a. 8 on the role of argumentation in theology, which provides an excellent entry point for understanding Aquinas’s christology, and Aristotle’s role in it.

Some of the essays in this book are rather technical, but the volume is nevertheless well suited to serve as a secondary resource for students engaging in their first writing projects on Aquinas and medieval scholastic theology. And, considering the increasing engagement with the theology of Aquinas by many Protestant theologians, this volume will also make its contribution to contemporary constructive theology. In this regard, all of the essays contained in this volume can be seen as working towards that absolutely necessary point in which contemporary theology breaks out of the modernist mold of pitting theory against practice, soul against body, grace against nature, and theology against philosophy. The authors do so by demonstrating that one powerful resource for overcoming these unnecessary oppositions is actually to be found right where they are often (wrongly) considered to have arisen in the first place: Aquinas.

Taken collectively, the ten essays suggest that Aquinas’s use of Aristotle can be captured in three words: sub ratione dei, or “by reason of God.” And by this “God” is meant the triune God of the Bible and related belief and practice, not the abstract God of the philosophers. Discredited is the older characterization of Aquinas the philosopher constructing a theological system like a medieval cathedral on top of reason, one in which, at least to the modern eye, the Trinity was strangely out of place, and the whole was ultimately indistinguishable from the rationalist metaphysics of the Enlightenment. Instead we have here a revised and expanded version of Aquinas the theologian and spiritual master of the medieval church, one who all contemporary Christian theologians can look to for wise council in matters theological.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Andrew Gilland is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Leuphana Universität Lüneberg.

Date of Review: 
December 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gilles Emery, O.P. is Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Matthew Levering is the Perry Family Foundation Professor of Theology at Mundelein Seminary.



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