Teaching Bodies

Teaching Bodies

Moral Formation in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas

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Mark D. Jordan
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , December
     224 pages.
     For other formats: .


There are few studies on the thought of Thomas Aquinas that are as accessible and penetrating as Mark Jordan’s Teaching Bodies: Moral Formation in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas. In this work, Jordan provides a new reading of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae as a type of pedagogical curriculum structured to guide its readers on the path of moral formation through the embodied scenes of the incarnation and the sacraments. Consequently, Jordan is not interested in the evolution or mutations of Thomas’s moral theory over time, and he intentionally bypasses many of the conventional debates that dominate Thomist studies. Instead, what one will find here is a sustained reflection on the theological composition of the Summa that is designed to unsettle many of the fixed assumptions about the purpose of this text. To this end, Jordan recommends reading the Summa, which is divided into three sections with four parts—the prima pars, the prima secundae and secunda secundae, and the tertia pars—backwards (14). Although he is not the first to propose reading the Summa in reverse—Brian Johnstone, “The Debate on the Structure of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas: From Chenu (1939) to Metz (1998),” in Aquinas as Authority,(Paul van Geest, Harm Goris, and Carlo Leget, Leuven: Peeters, 1998)—Jordan is, to my knowledge, the first scholar to organize a study around this principle, which does result in a unique perspective on the importance of the discussions in the tertia pars for the interpretation of the whole work.

By beginning with the final section of the Summa, Jordan demonstrates from the lessons given on the incarnation and the sacraments that, according to Thomas, moral education does not rely on an “assent to abstract ‘principles’” (15), but on the lived narratives, a notion not commonly associated with the Summa, of Christ and the church given that human beings, as embodied creatures, learn best through scenes of bodily instruction (61). For Jordan, Thomas’s commitment to the embodied character of moral education takes the form of arguments from convenientia (fittingness), which he identifies as the animating principle of the Summa’s final section (24). While many scholars have acknowledged the significance of convenientia for Thomas, Jordan establishes that these arguments ground the coherence of moral instruction in the continuity of divine teaching through the embodied narratives of the incarnation and the church’s sacramental participation in the life of God. Thomas’s arguments from convenientia, consequently, remind the reader that moral formation ultimately depends on divine action (96). The implications of this interpretive connection between Thomas’s vision of moral pedagogy and his trust in the continuity of divine teaching culminate in Jordan’s reflections on themes addressed in the second part of the Summa.

In the final chapters of his book, Jordan considers a number of questions raised in the second section of the Summa. The two most notable, or, perhaps, most unexpected, are his discussion on the gifts of the Spirit, in chapter 9, and his reflections on the states of life, in chapter 10. On Thomas’s account of the gifts, located in the prima secunda, Jordan notes that, “A modern reader of the Summa can be tempted to regard the gifts of the Holy Spirit as a merely obligatory topic— a relic of authoritative moral schemes past” (137). Following the inverted interpretive approach outlined in the earlier chapters, however, Jordan insists that this discussion reflects Thomas’s prioritization of divine action in moral formation (139). Thomas maintains this prioritization when he considers different states of life in the final questions of the secunda secundae. Again, for many modern readers, Thomas’s discussion on the different ecclesial offices and states of life may appear to be just a product of his medieval heritage; however, Jordan diligently works to show that the answers to these questions draw out the “imperative of moral formation” for every reader of the Summa (161). This imperative marks out a path, according to Jordan, between the Summa and the modern reader, which is rooted in Thomas’s commitment to the continuity of divine teaching across all time.

Jordan returns to this connection between the Summa and the modern reader in his conclusion, where he exhorts his readers to extend the practice of reading the Summa backwards beyond the conclusions he reaches (167). This final appeal to the reader is important in that Jordan does not attempt to provide an exhaustive application of the interpretive approach to the Summa that he defends. For example, he leaves the entire prima pars unexplored. It appears, then, that Jordan, in the spirit of Thomas himself, leaves it to the reader to consider how Thomas’s thoughts on the embodied instruction of moral formation through Christ and the sacraments informs and shapes the discussions on God and creation in the first part of the Summa. Nevertheless, Jordan’s book will be valuable for both those taking their first steps into the Summa and those that are already well-versed in the complexities of Thomas’s thought.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin R. DeSpain is an adjunct professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark D. Jordan is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including, most recently, Convulsing Bodies: Religion and Resistance in Foucault and Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality.


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