Speaking with Aquinas

A Conversation about Grace, Virtue, and the Eucharist

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David Farina Turnbloom
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , February
     198 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Speaking with Aquinas: A Conversation about Grace, Virtue and the Eucharist, David Farina Turnbloom engages in the fruitful practice of illuminating one part of Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica by reading it alongside another part of the work. The Treatise on the Eucharist found in the Tertia Pars, he argues, requires the context of the Secunda Pars, particularly the Treatise on Grace and questions on the moral and theological virtues. This practice, which he calls a retrieval of the grammars of grace and virtue, rehabilitates Aquinas from the critique of Louis-Marie Chauvet, who objects that in his disproportionate attention to transubstantiation, Aquinas allows the relationship between Christ's historical body and his eucharistic body to eclipse the relationship between Christ's ecclesial body and his eucharistic body. This minimizes the Eucharist's role as a sacrament of charity meant to unite the church. Turnbloom grants that Aquinas's eucharistic theology is "marked by an individualism and sacramental minimalism" (133). Yet if the res of the Eucharist is charity (ST IIIa q. 79 a. 4c), he counters, then the Secunda Pars, in which the Holy Spirit's charity infuses and increases grace and virtue in individuals within a community, shows that "Aquinas has not removed the Church from his eucharistic theology. On the contrary, the spiritual life of the Church is the context without which Aquinas's eucharistic theology cannot be understood" (26). 

As Turnbloom unpacks the Secunda Pars in chapters 2, 3, and 4, three points emerge as critical for contextualizing Aquinas's eucharistic theology. First, Aquinas presents a "pneumatological soteriology of theosis," the participation in divine life through the action of the Holy Spirit. This pneumatological focus forms a complement to Aquinas's Christocentrism in the Tertia Pars, which Turnbloom has set aside, lest we lapse into Christomonism (57 fn 26). 

Second, Turnbloom emphasizes the embodied character of grace. The Holy Spirit moves a person from without, but this process requires human action, which is the "underlying possibility of our movement" (40). Grace begins in human action (the proclamation of revelation) as well as divine action (the self-communication of God), and culminates in human action (participation in divine life) and divine action (the operation of the Holy Spirit) (48). As embodied, the spiritual life is also a concrete, historical experience, for the Holy Spirit acts through the medium of signs, both verbal and nonverbal.

Finally, while the theological virtues show that participation in the divine life is a gratuitous gift, the moral virtues emphasize the cooperative nature of this participation. That is, exercising the virtues from a place of charity, ex caritate, brings about a historical manifestation of charity that is not only salvific grace for an individual—gratia gratum faciens—but makes that individual a revelatory instrument of God's grace for the community—gratia gratis data. "Simply put," Turnbloom writes, "to operate ex caritate is to be a sacrament" (92). Grace is not only embodied, it is communal: "My union with Christ is inseparable from and ordered toward the community's unity as Christ" (73). 

In chapter 5, Turnbloom applies the pneumatological, embodied, and communal dimensions of grace and virtue to the Treatise on the Eucharist. The Eucharist makes present the passion of Christ, a visible act of charity, which gives us knowledge of God's love and stirs us (provocatur) to love God in return. Turnbloom emphasizes this word provocatur: Christ's passion gives a "provocative knowledge" of God's love, and the Holy Spirit moves us from within to respond in love. Yet since we were not historically present before Christ's passion, the sacraments are the medium for this encounter. Applying his interpretation of the Treatise on Grace, Turnbloom reasons that the sacraments are at once a work of the Holy Spirit and of human operation. Thus, the celebration of the Eucharist is an act of moral virtue, specifically the virtue of religion, a subset of the virtue of justice (ST II-IIae q. 81). 

In light of this moral dimension of the sacrament, Turnbloom exhorts us to recognize the elements of the Eucharistic rite besides the transubstantiated host that make Christ present and give context to the Eucharist, such as the kiss of peace and the Lord's prayer. Because of this, the faithful must consider how they exercise the virtue of religion and "write Christ" in the Eucharist. In chapter 6, Turnbloom develops a liturgical theology of right religion; drawing on James Keenan's distinction between goodness and rightness, he suggests that communities must progress towards practicing right religion by liturgical reform. As Jesus interacted with diverse people in various ways, communities experience the Eucharistic presence of Christ diversely. "The Real Presence of Christ is not always the same" (150). The standard Turnbloom proposes: "If the community is formed into the Christ that lives the way Jesus Christ would have lived for that community's time and place, then that eucharistic celebration was an act of right religion" (149). 

With Christ of time and place as the standard for right religion, the community cooperates with the Holy Spirit, whose gift of prudence helps shape the liturgy: "In cooperation with the Holy Spirit, we must choose what the unity of the Church will look like by choosing the Christ we will write in the Eucharist" (154). One question that emerges is whose prudence determines the means of making Christ present. Is it "the religious prudence of worshipers" (150), "the congregation" (151), "the prudent pastor" (154), or committees of liturgists and worship planners he appoints (154)? The "Real Presence of Christ" becomes not only diverse, but tenuous, and a weighty responsibility for a community whose perfect practice of right religion is aspirational. We might recall here that Christ possessed all the virtues and gifts perfectly, including prudence (ST IIIa q. 7). Perhaps this relationship between ecclesial Christ and Eucharist is grounded in the historical Christ in whom we are perfected, such that the shape of the liturgy unfolds from a particular moment of Real Presence—the consecration—much like salvation unfolds from a particular event—the Incarnation. Aquinas's careful work on transubstantiation provides a crucial context for understanding the community's conformity, in the Spirit, to the one who is substantially present at each Eucharist, and who can be the foundation of a eucharistic celebration which is dignum et iustum.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jane Sloan Peters is a doctoral candidate in Historical Theology at Marquette University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Farina Turnbloom is assistant professor of theology at the University of Portland. He has published numerous articles focusing on the relationships between Christian worship and ethics. He is a board member of the ecumenical group The Liturgical Conference. He holds a PhD in systematic theology from Boston College.


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