McGunn on the Summa Theologiae

July 25, 2016

Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae
A Biography
Bernard McGunn
(Princeton, 2014)
272 p.

The idea of writing a “biography” of a book is an odd but interesting one. Books, like persons, originate in a particular time and place, have a particular character and range of interests, and exert a certain influence in the world. Unlike the life of an individual person, the life of a great book continues over many generations, and the book has the potential to become a permanent cultural possession.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is an especially daunting book. The edition I own runs to about 3000 double-columned pages in small type, and though I have often entertained the idea of reading through it in a systematic way — it is structured in such a way as to accommodate brief, step-by-step encounters — yet to this point I have done little more than dabble. Probably I’ve spent more time reading about the Summa than reading the thing itself.

mcgunn-summaMcGunn discusses Thomas’ life and the circumstances under which the Summa was written. He talks about Thomas’ motives in undertaking such a massive effort and about the readers for whom it was written. He discusses several important questions relevant to our understanding of the Summa as a whole, such as Thomas’ understanding of the nature of theology, and of the relationship between philosophy and theology. Although many books on Thomas and the Summa focus on Thomas’ contributions to philosophy — his epistemology, his metaphysics, his ethics — it is fair to say that McGunn is at least and possibly more interested in his contributions to theology. This is fitting; the Summa is a book of theology.

A middle section of the book gives a superb overview of the structure of the Summa, outlining the content of its various parts. Embedded in the pages of the Summa are a variety of focused investigations of specific topics: law, ethics, creation, sacraments, Christ, and so on. McGunn helps us to see how these pieces fit together into the overall logical structure of the work.

The last half of the present book is devoted to the “biography” — that is, the history of the book and its reception after it was completed (or, in the case of the Summa, not completed). Initially Thomas’ Summa faced serious obstacles, mostly on account of his decision to couch his thought in Aristotelian terms, which were viewed with suspicion in some quarters, and certain of Thomas’ propositions were condemned by some ecclesiastical authorities. But the Dominicans took a special pride in Thomas’ accomplishments, and adopted the Summa for educational purposes from an early date. By the sixteenth century Thomas’ star had risen high enough for Luther to designate the Catholic Church as “the Thomistic church” (and, with his usual perspicacity, he identified St Thomas as “the source and foundation of all heresy, error, and obliteration of the Gospel”). The rumour (repeated by Pope Leo XIII) that the Summa was on the altar next the Bible at the Council of Trent McGunn says is false, but Thomas did continue to accumulate honours: in 1567 Pope St Pius V named him a Doctor of the Church — the first person to be so honoured since the patristic period — and toward the end of the sixteenth century the Jesuits adopted Thomas as their official theologian; several of the most important commentaries on the Summa were written by Jesuits (viz. Suarez). But with the passing of time the Summa eventually fell on hard times. The work itself was eclipsed in the scholarly mind by commentaries upon it, and these eventually grew so weighty and dry that they became, in the early modern period, objects of scorn. The rise of modern philosophy occurred without the Summa being a point of reference (except perhaps for Descartes, at second or third hand). McGunn says, incredibly, that when, in the mid-nineteenth century, John Henry Newman wanted to read it, he couldn’t find a copy.

These declining fortunes were reversed by the election of a Thomist to the papacy in the latter-half of the nineteenth-century. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, in which he praised St Thomas as the Christian philosopher par excellence and recommended not only his example but also his particular ideas as of special and enduring value to the Church. From this point, Catholic intellectuals began to engage with the thought of St Thomas again in an especially intense way. Intense, but far from uniform. The hope of Leo XIII that Thomism could provide a united front with which the Church could contend against the manifold errors of the modern world was not realized, for there turned out to be not just Thomism, but Thomisms, and an interesting section of the book traces these different schools over the course of the twentieth century. There were those who saw Thomism as a kind of trans-historical philosophical vantage point, such as Garrigou-Lagrange. There were those who sought, on the contrary, to understand St Thomas and his contributions in historical context while retaining an interest in his modern relevance (Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain). And there were others who sought to put Thomas into conversation with modern philosophy (Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner). These names are all familiar — I am especially fond of Gilson — but it is helpful to see them placed on a map.

Vatican II, inadvertently or not, brought about a decline in the centrality of St Thomas for Catholic thought. It is tempting to see this as another instance of the oft-repeated pattern whereby the post-Conciliar Church, by a kind of infallible clumsiness, allowed her treasures to fall into neglect. I don’t think it healthy that the Church’s intellectual life be identified strongly with one particular framework, but of all possible frameworks which could maintain a lively presence in the Church’s intellectual life, that of St Thomas is a rich and worthy one. In Fides et Ratio, Pope St John Paul II taught that the Church has no official philosophy, but recommended St Thomas as an exemplar of Catholic intellectual life.


I read the book at a leisurely pace, and enjoyed it very much. McGunn is not himself a Thomist, so he brings an outsider’s perspective, which might be advantageous in some respects. Of course, nobody is free of prejudices, and some of his do come through, not all of which were appealing to me. I got the general feeling that McGunn doesn’t love Thomas quite as much as he ought to. But overall I did find it a worthwhile and interesting book.

The cover of the book, shown above, reproduces Filippo Lippi’s The Dispute of St Thomas, which one can see in the Cappella Carafa at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, a chapel which I have visited every time I’ve been to the Eternal City and which is dear to my heart.


This volume is part of an ongoing series issued by Princeton University Press of “biographies” of great religious books. Other entries in the series include the Book of Common Prayer, Augustine’s Confessions, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and books from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition too, such as the Bhagavad Gita. I expect many of those would be worthwhile too.

2 Responses to “McGunn on the Summa Theologiae”

  1. I was terminally daunted about Thomas until I heard a priest remark th a Thos says, when we go off the rails, we fall for pleasure, possessions, prestige and, devastating discovery about myself, power. I then approached the author under the premise of St. Thomas for Airheads, or for Dummies. I accidentally settled upon Peter Kreeft as a most understandable interpreter, and have used him within the past several days to speculate “Is Allah Arational?” I was led to your blog by your review of Chesterton’s Flying Inn.

  2. Mac Horton Says:

    “…the post-Conciliar Church, by a kind of infallible clumsiness…”

    Ha. I’m going to be quoting that.

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