The Cambridge Companion to the Summa Theologiae

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Philip McCosker, Denys Turner
Cambridge Companions to Religion
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , June
     382 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Works as generative and influential as Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae call for able guides to lead readers through complex questions, interpretive debates, and possibilities for further reflection. The Cambridge Companion to the Summa Theologiae excels on all these counts. Philip McCosker and Denys Turner have assembled an exceptional line-up of contributors whose essays take up the Summa’s central topics, patterns, and influence in a fairly comprehensive manner. While there already exists the 1993 Cambridge Companion to Aquinas edited by Norman Kretzmann and Eleanore Stump, McCosker and Turner’s volume focuses more explicitly on Thomas as a theologian than as a philosopher, with most of the chapters treating central doctrinal loci and Thomas’s engagement with them in the Summa.

Aside from the editors’ introductory essay, the work is divided into three parts. The first deals with questions of structure, approach, and method. Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt provides a helpful chapter on how to go about reading the Summa, Timothy Radcliffe discusses how Dominican spirituality informs the Summa, and Mark D. Jordan comments on the structure and organization of the Summa. The next three chapters delve more into Thomas’s methodology, with Pim Valkenberg and Karen Kilby writing, respectively, on Thomas’s use of scripture and philosophy. John Marenbon then comments on Thomas’s integration of both these sources into the quaestio method of Summa. Several of the chapters in this first part make clear that the Summa is not a collection of disparate treatises on various topics, but that it is an integrative pedagogical text, mean to habituate the novice into certain way of thinking about theology.

Part II moves to Thomas’s treatment of specific theological topics, with fourteen chapters arranged in roughly the order their subjects appear in the Summa, from the triune God to the sacraments. Space does not permit adequate discussion of each of these chapters, but key observations from a few can be raised. Eugene F. Rogers Jr.’s chapter on the trinity shows that Thomas’s God is not simply an unmoved mover in the ether. Rather, God is a God in act, a point seen in Thomas’s privileging of the triune relations. As a movement of love between the persons and toward creatures, the Triune life is “dynamic all the way down, never reducing to bare possession—because it remains a movement” (126). Another compelling chapter is Kathryn Tanner’s essay on creation. Tanner explores the relation between natural causality and artisan causality, showing how Thomas avoid many of the problems of an emanationist account of creation by talking about God’s productive agency in terms of an artisan cause—that is, as an idea in the mind executed through love in the will. The divine Intellect and will, rather than natural necessity, thus become central to creation for Thomas. Finally, it is worth noting that the editors have included a previously unpublished lecture from the late Herbert McCabe on eternity. In this engaging chapter, McCabe suggests Thomas views eternity in apophatic terms. Similar to how Thomas would have us speak of God, eternity is “a notion we arrive at by a negation of what we understand, a negation of time (itself a sufficiently mysterious idea)” (116).

The third and final part addresses the influence and relevance of the Summa in various theological traditions. Paul Griffiths addresses the Summa’s reception in Catholicism, focusing on its dissemination in Latin and vernacular versions, its shift in status from condemned to canonical, and its role in Catholic theology as pedagogue and site for intellectual controversy. An interesting point Griffiths raises here is that despite its status as a standard textbook for theological students, the Summa has in fact been “veiled” from learners through an extensive commentary tradition, keeping students from encountering the text itself. Next, Andrew Louth looks at Orthodox engagements with the Summa. Louth not only notes the Summa’s role in the 14th century Palamite controversy and modern Orthodox theology, but also highlights Thomas’s own Eastern influences, drawing attention to the authoritative status of Dionysios the Areopagite and John Damascene in the Summa. Christoph Schwöbel provides a particularly interesting chapter on the Summa in Reformed traditions. Schwöbel shows that the Summa was not simply viewed with suspicion or derision by the Reformers, but played an important role to Reformers such as Peter Martyr Vermigli and Richard Hooker. Schwöbel then traces the Summa’s reception from 17th century Protestant scholasticism through Barth to its contemporary retrieval as a source for Protestant theology. Finally, Francis X. Clooney takes up the Summa in non-Abrahamic traditions. Clooney focuses specifically on Hinduism, “the major religion least noticed in Christian theological discussions” (348). As a systematic text, the Summa embarks on a program analogous to various Hindu “summa-like” systems according to Clooney, being a ripe partner for interreligious conversation by testifying “that clear thinking and proper distinction remove key obstacles to an affirmation of God’s existence and nature properly understood” (350).

McCosker and Turner have given students of theology, not just of Thomas, a great gift and resource with this volume. The editors are to be commended for selecting contributions from scholars of a range of ecclesial traditions and from both Thomists and non-Thomists. The contributors tend toward certain Anglo-American readings of Thomas—call it analytical or grammatical Thomism—influenced by G.E.M. Anscombe and Victor Preller amongst others. Although this tendency is not exclusive, it may leave some readers desiring representation from a broader range of interpretative schools. Of course, there are any number of topics which could have been included—angelology or the Summa’s Jewish and Islamic sources readily come to mind—but the work serves as a relatively comprehensive companion to the Summa and Thomas’s thought, especially when paired with Kretzmann and Stump’s above-mentioned sister publication. In closing, The Cambridge Companion to the Summa Theologiae has the potential to become a standard textbook for courses on Thomas, whether for graduate students or advanced undergraduates, given its keen attention not only to the Summa’s content, but to its form and influence.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Luke Zerra is a doctoral student in theology and ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
December 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip McCosker is director of the Von Hügel Institute and Fellow of St Edmund's College, University of Cambridge, and departmental lecturer in modern theology, University of Oxford. He is the editor of What Is It that the Scripture Says? (2006) and author of Christ the Paradox: Expanding Ressourcement Theology (2016). He is also the editor of the journal Reviews in Religion and Theology.

Denys Turner is Horace Tracy Pitkin professor emeritus of historical theology at Yale University. His most recent publications include Julian of Norwich, Theologian (2011) and Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (2013).


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