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The life and times of the most important theological work of medieval Christendom This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, the Summa was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide f The life and times of the most important theological work of medieval Christendom This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, the Summa was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church. It synthesizes an astonishing range of scholarship, covering hundreds of topics and containing more than a million and a half words--and was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas's death. Here, Bernard McGinn, one of today's most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity, vividly describes the world that shaped Aquinas, then turns to the Dominican friar's life and career, examining Aquinas's reasons for writing his masterpiece, its subject matter, and the novel way he organized it. McGinn gives readers a brief tour of the Summa itself, and then discusses its reception over the past seven hundred years. He looks at the influence of the Summa on such giants of medieval Christendom as Meister Eckhart, its ridicule during the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of Neothomism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of the Summa in the post-Vatican II church, and the book's enduring relevance today. Tracing the remarkable life of this iconic work, McGinn's wide-ranging account provides insight into Aquinas's own understanding of the Summa as a communication of the theological wisdom that has been given to humanity in revelation.


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The life and times of the most important theological work of medieval Christendom This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, the Summa was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide f The life and times of the most important theological work of medieval Christendom This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, the Summa was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church. It synthesizes an astonishing range of scholarship, covering hundreds of topics and containing more than a million and a half words--and was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas's death. Here, Bernard McGinn, one of today's most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity, vividly describes the world that shaped Aquinas, then turns to the Dominican friar's life and career, examining Aquinas's reasons for writing his masterpiece, its subject matter, and the novel way he organized it. McGinn gives readers a brief tour of the Summa itself, and then discusses its reception over the past seven hundred years. He looks at the influence of the Summa on such giants of medieval Christendom as Meister Eckhart, its ridicule during the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of Neothomism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of the Summa in the post-Vatican II church, and the book's enduring relevance today. Tracing the remarkable life of this iconic work, McGinn's wide-ranging account provides insight into Aquinas's own understanding of the Summa as a communication of the theological wisdom that has been given to humanity in revelation.

30 review for Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    John Jr.

    Reading this book is like standing on a plain and having features of a mountain range pointed out by an expert guide. In the distance to the left rises an aged peak, craggy and formidable; a line of lesser prominences runs from there, passing before us and seeming to extend beyond, to the right and into the mist-shrouded future. The massive peak is the Summa theologiae, written by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, which totals more than a million and a half words; the rest is commentary, influ Reading this book is like standing on a plain and having features of a mountain range pointed out by an expert guide. In the distance to the left rises an aged peak, craggy and formidable; a line of lesser prominences runs from there, passing before us and seeming to extend beyond, to the right and into the mist-shrouded future. The massive peak is the Summa theologiae, written by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, which totals more than a million and a half words; the rest is commentary, influence, reaction. Bernard McGinn, a scholar of medieval Christianity at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, is our expert guide in this book. His approach is chronological: he sketches the world in which the Summa was created, narrates Thomas’s life and his work on the book (which was incomplete at his death), plunges in for a tour that discusses a few notable portions, surveys its reception for the next six hundred years, and reports on the rise and fall of the Neothomism movement. The last is in a way the most intriguing. It shows the Catholic Church in the latter half of the 19th century, faced with varieties of new thought—among them historicism and the critical philosophy established by Immanuel Kant—responding with an attempt to turn back the clock and insist on the absolute primacy of Thomas’s approach to theology and philosophy. A 1914 decree by Pope Pius X, for example, declared, “All teachers of philosophy and sacred theology should be warned that if they deviated so much as one iota from Aquinas, especially in metaphysics, they exposed themselves to grave risk.” This effort wasn’t abandoned until the early 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council threw open a few windows and tossed out some exceedingly old practices. But McGinn’s tour of Summa theologiae is also appealing, for bringing before us the particular kind of rigor with which Thomas, like other scholastics, approached his task. Though McGinn doesn’t say so, it appears from the multipage outline he provides that the entire work is structured like what he says of its first part: “Like a series of Chinese boxes, each of these sections opens up to reveal other boxes and yet smaller boxes within.” It’s the method of reduction or decomposition, breaking down a large subject into smaller components. Thus, in considering human action, Thomas addresses “Acts peculiar to humans” along with “Acts common to humans and other animals.” Thomas’s treatment of the components is likewise highly methodical. McGinn explains that the three parts of the Summa “consist of no fewer than 2668 articles, or mini-disputations. Each of these mini-disputations follows a standard form: (1) posing the question to be examined (e.g., ‘Was it fitting for the Word to be incarnated?’), (2) giving a series of arguments against the answer that Thomas intends to support (usually three or four, sometimes more), (3) citing an authoritative text (most often from the Bible) as the proof or principle of the position to be taken (called the sed contra), (4) arguing for his own position in what is called the body of the article (corpus), and finally (5) answering the objections one by one.” The approach sounds sensible in a way, but also exhausting and even strange considering the vast scale of the work. Yet Wittgenstein, unquestionably a modern thinker, employed a similar overall structure, hierarchical and logically analytic (though without the argumentation and at nowhere near the length) in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as you can see by playing around with the version here. A few other notes from McGinn’s thoughtful survey: As a modern commentator put it, Thomas’s work was “resisted at its birth, and even condemned.” But once the resistance was overcome, Summa theologiae achieved a position of high and lasting eminence. McGinn writes, “A sign of the importance of the Summa is that it was printed early and often. If the Gutenberg Bible can be dated to circa 1455, it is noteworthy that by circa 1463 the earliest printing of the most popular part of the Summa…appeared in Strassburg.” Finally, Thomas, like thinkers before him, and unlike modern-day literalists, recognized that, though the Bible was the word of God, it had to be taken as a sort of intermediary. “The Bible is filled with stories and metaphors.… But, Thomas responds, it is quite fitting for God to use metaphors and corporeal language in conveying his message, both out of necessity, because the Bible is directed to all people (not just philosophers), and because it is useful for drawing people to the knowledge of higher intelligible realities through lower sense images.… Metaphorical language…was important for indicating God’s transcendence.” This reminds me of a Buddhist lesson. If we see before us a finger pointing at the moon, our attention is supposed to be directed toward the moon. Literalists are looking only at the finger.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    A wonderful introduction to the Summa by Bernard McGinn. Highly recommended to those who are just starting to read St. Thomas and need an able guide.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Steven Rodriguez

    The concept of a biography of a book is very attractive to me (as a bibliophile), so I was very excited to see that a new brief overview of Thomas's reception history had come out. I am sad to say that I was disappointed.  The book is so brief and is written at such a high altitude that very little of real use or importance is actually said. He offers tantalizingly short comments on the ways that a thinker such as Cajetan deviated from Thomas, but then states bluntly that he does not have the spa The concept of a biography of a book is very attractive to me (as a bibliophile), so I was very excited to see that a new brief overview of Thomas's reception history had come out. I am sad to say that I was disappointed.  The book is so brief and is written at such a high altitude that very little of real use or importance is actually said. He offers tantalizingly short comments on the ways that a thinker such as Cajetan deviated from Thomas, but then states bluntly that he does not have the space to actually address what those differences were. I wished the book was long enough to fit synopses of how each thinker wrestled with Thomas. Even though it is also frustratingly short, one of the best passages of the book was the section on Meister Eckhart's idiosyncratic reading of Thomas. The final chapter, entitled "The Rise and Fall of Neothomism," is by far the most interesting and useful chapter of the book. It clearly sounded like McGinn was more energized about this period of Thomas's reception, and the chapter was much more engaging than the rest of the book. Though McGinn does still get bogged down with distracting details, this chapter is an extremely helpful summary of the different streams of Thomism in the late 19th and 20th century. I often have a very difficult time keeping different Thomisms apart in my mind, and I think I will return to this chapter in the future when I need a refresher. Perhaps most helpful for me was his unpacking of the difference between the Thomisms of Maritain, Gilson, and the nouvelle theologians.  This is admittedly nitpicky and not fair to his project, but I was also disappointed that McGinn did not comment on how many key protestant theologians interacted with Thomas. Owen, Edwards, Kuyper, Bavinck and Barth are all ignored in McGinn's summary of the reception of the ST in history. I understand that these theologians are well outside of McGinn's research interests, and that some of them were antagonistic to Thomas. But still, especially in the case of Owen and Barth, key figures in the history of Protestantism have engaged in prolonged and important readings of Thomas, and I was hoping McGinn would mention even tiny examples of the ways they read Thomas. (Also, as a humorous sidenote, Calvin only gets a passing mention, with the epithet 'predestinarian' attached to his name, like an insult.) I suppose that the Protestant reception of Thomas is the subject of another book. The book on the whole gets three stars from me (it was both too light in its engagement of the real issues in Thomism, and too heavy in useless bibliographic side trails.) But, the final chapter is excellent and is very worth reading.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Arnold

    I've been fascinated with Aquinas' book ever since I read brief extracts of it when I was in confirmation class, and then longer stretches in grad school covering some of the ethical sections (I've never read the whole thing, but considering it's 3,500 pages I bet few have either). Religion has never had much of a hold on me, so it was more of an intellectual fascination, but I'm still fairly impressed that someone could generate such a rigorously systematic framework for proving what I consider I've been fascinated with Aquinas' book ever since I read brief extracts of it when I was in confirmation class, and then longer stretches in grad school covering some of the ethical sections (I've never read the whole thing, but considering it's 3,500 pages I bet few have either). Religion has never had much of a hold on me, so it was more of an intellectual fascination, but I'm still fairly impressed that someone could generate such a rigorously systematic framework for proving what I consider to be definitively unproven and unprovable. The quinque viae, where Aquinas tries to prove not only that God exists but must exist based on logic alone, are the equivalent of debating with both hands tied behind your back, and while I'm not convinced by them, I think Aquinas gave an impossible task as good a shot as you could ask for. Still, whatever your personal stance towards faith and its relationship to reason, an account of who Aquinas actually was and how he came to write this massively influential tome should be of at least mild interest. The book is divided into 5 chapters: - The World That Made Thomas Aquinas - Creating the Summa Theologiae - A Tour of the Summa Theologiae - The Tides of Thomism, 1275-1850 - The Rise and Fall of Neo-Thomism The first chapter talks about the religious environment Aquinas grew up in, and what his intellectual influences were, as a Benedictine specifically and as a Catholic more generally. The second discusses his decision to embark on the project of writing the Summa, his working style, and how he was able to write the treatise while carrying on incredible amounts of correspondence with other important figures of the day. The third is a high-level overview of the Summa, his almost lawyerly approach to argumentation, and how he organized such a gigantic work. The fourth traces the impact of the Summa on theological debates, and how it fared over such a long time period as a work that had to be either affirmed or argued against, but never ignored. The fifth introduces the 19th century Neo-Thomist/Neo-Scholasticist movement that attempted to resuscitate Aquinas' general approach to theology in a post-enlightenment world, to varying degrees of success. At first it might seem necessary to be religious, and more specifically Catholic, to fully enjoy the book, but McGinn approaches his subject with the air of a historian and not a religious partisan, so it remains accessible to people of any persuasion. The source material retains its place as one of the most thought-provoking works of theology ever written, and this is a welcome overview for those who, like me, aren't up to summiting the whole thing.

  5. 5 out of 5

    BHodges

    Princeton's "Lives of Great Religious Books" series continues to knock them out of the park. McGinn manages to give a reasonable overview of one of the most important and perhaps largest works in Christian history in under 300 small pages.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Molly

    This is a good book. It is well written, easy to understand, and it covers a whole lot of scholarship. I am not familiar with St. Thomas, so as a neophyte I learned much appreciated the categories of McGinn. It was a place to begin exploration, and made me desire to read more.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bryan

    An excellent introduction to the thought of Thomas Aquinas and how it has been understood (and misunderstood) throughout the centuries. McGinn is a first-rate scholar. His insights into key themes in the Summa alone make this book worth reading.

  8. 4 out of 5

    John

    I appreciated the read, even if I found it less than I had hoped. McGinn is just doing something here that wasn't as much an interest to me--tracing the history not only of the production and contents of the Summa, but also its reception. Nearly half the book concerns the Summa's reception over the past 700+ years. And while this is an interesting historical subject, I had hoped for a greater and more detailed focus on the Summa itself. The first three chapters are quite good in this regard, off I appreciated the read, even if I found it less than I had hoped. McGinn is just doing something here that wasn't as much an interest to me--tracing the history not only of the production and contents of the Summa, but also its reception. Nearly half the book concerns the Summa's reception over the past 700+ years. And while this is an interesting historical subject, I had hoped for a greater and more detailed focus on the Summa itself. The first three chapters are quite good in this regard, offering a brief treatment of Aquinas' biography, and then a discussion of the creation of the work. Chapter 3, on the contents themselves, is the book's strongest contribution--but I would have appreciated even further detail there rather than such a large focus on how the book was received in subsequent centuries.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Ed

    This lucidly written book provides provides a biography of Aquinas. It places the Summa in historical context and provides a summary of the book. It then discusses reactions to it over the centuries. For someone like me, with little background in the history of Christianity, but an interest in the history of ideas, this book was very helpful.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ci

    An excellent introduction book on ST's creation and influence. I plan to re-read it again in my own study of certain parts of ST.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Nick Spencer

    quite interesting but verged on the encyclopedia entry towards the end

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jordan

  13. 4 out of 5

    Alan

  14. 5 out of 5

    Pat

  15. 5 out of 5

    Peter G. Epps

  16. 5 out of 5

    Bruce Paolozzi

  17. 5 out of 5

    Magne Martin Haug

  18. 5 out of 5

    David

  19. 5 out of 5

    Steve

  20. 4 out of 5

    Charles C. Starr

  21. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  22. 4 out of 5

    E

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Tomes

  24. 4 out of 5

    David Anderson

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jae Kim

  26. 4 out of 5

    Paul

  27. 5 out of 5

    Natalia

  28. 5 out of 5

    David Anderson

  29. 5 out of 5

    James Widdicombe

  30. 5 out of 5

    Brian Scarffe

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