Book Review: Aristotle in Aquinas’s Theology

on May 20, 2017 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

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Aristotle in Aquinas’s Theology

Gilles Emery, O.P., and Matthew Levering, eds. Aristotle in Aquinas’s Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, 336 pp. $110.00.

Reviewed by Luke Zerra


When reading about Thomas Aquinas one must always ask, “Whose Thomas? Which Thomism?” One prevalent view of Thomas is of the great schoolman as essentially a philosopher. This Thomas rediscovers Aristotle, takes him to new heights, and interacts with Scripture primarily as a source of proof texts for his philosophy. This was the prevalent view of the neo-Thomist revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which “Thomas as philosopher” was deployed to buttress Catholic truth against the cultural upheavals of modernity. An alternative view arose in reaction to this by those associated with or influenced by the Nouvelle Théologie that informed Vatican II. These Thomists emphasize Thomas as an Augustinian, a Platonist, and—importantly—a biblical theologian. Whereas the first sort of Thomism sees Thomas as a philosopher—and an Aristotelian one at that—the second sees the Angelic Doctor as a theologian first and foremost, perhaps preferring not to address his Aristotelian inheritance.

The essays collected in Aristotle in Aquinas’s Theology—edited by Gilles Emery, O.P., of the University of Fribourg and Matthew Levering of Mundelein Seminary—attempt to navigate both these viewpoints, showing the role that Aristotle plays in Thomas’s theological thinking. As such, each chapter reveals the role Aristotle and Aristotelian categories play in Thomas’s thought on a specific doctrine. The pattern of the book follows the Summa Theologica itself—although by no means covering every topic addressed in the Summa.

We find contributions from Gilles Emery on Thomas’s Trinitarian theology and Serge-Thomas Bonino on angelology—both topics from the Prima Pars. Six chapters related to the two volumes of the Secunda Pars follow this. From the Prima Secundae, Raymond Hain explores Thomas’s Aristotelian hylomorphism, Matthew Levering treats the Mosaic Law, and Simon Francis Gain writes on grace. In regard to the Secunda Secundae, Guy Mansini focuses on charity, Christopher Franks on justice, and Mary Catherine Sommers writes on the contemplative and active lives. The last two chapters address topics from the Tertia Pars, with Corey L. Barnes writing on Christology and John P. Yocum addressing sacramental theology

An exemplary chapter in the volume is Matthew Levering’s contribution on the Mosaic Law. Levering makes the striking claim that “Aquinas’s use of Aristotle helps him appreciate the law of Israel as law in a way that most modern Christian theologians are unable to do” (71). Levering shows how Aristotelian frameworks help Thomas demonstrate why the Mosaic Law regulates both inner and social life, to argue for the clarity of the Decalogue, and to interpret precepts in light of contextual circumstances. Hence, Thomas uses Aristotle to show that the Mosaic Law is a wise law, and “to argue that a law is wise, and not merely arbitrary, inevitably requires philosophical tools for evaluating the goodness of laws” (92). Levering thinks this is an advantage of Thomas’s thought over much contemporary theological thought, which Levering worries often views divine law in terms of voluntarism (i.e., as arbitrary commands) and thus cannot account for the goodness and wisdom of divine laws. Levering’s chapter excels in terms of the book’s purpose, as he is able to show that Thomas is at once a biblical theologian and a student of Aristotle. The two sources are not inherently competitive: Thomas’s goal is to interpret scripture, and Aristotle helps illumine the text.

Another noteworthy chapter is Christopher A. Franks’s essay on Aristotle in Thomas’s account of justice. Franks—Associate Professor of Religion at High Point University—argues that the context of the Christian narrative determines Thomas’s treatment of justice, resulting in a relational view of justice and rights as informed both by our status as embodied creatures and by God’s providential care in the divine law. Justice is neither an internal harmony of the soul as in Plato nor recognition of inherent rights as in modern thought. Rather, Thomas “holds together an Aristotelian attentiveness to the concrete shape of human life and the temporal character of human knowledge with a conviction of the naturalness of God’s providential action to assist human beings toward their true end” (165). While humans have knowledge of the divine and natural law, the application of these precepts depends on the discernment of particular contexts and relationships. Justice lies at the intersection of what is “graced” and what is “natural,” as Thomas weaves God’s providence in directing us toward a telos with the reality of embodied relations (139). Like Levering’s contribution, Franks excels in showing that Thomas does not subordinate Christian doctrine to Aristotle but rather critically uses Aristotle to better understand divine revelation.

This volume is most suited for advanced students of Thomas’s thought rather than those seeking an introduction. Theologians, philosophers, and ethicists who have spent time with Thomas will find the volume a valuable help in interpreting the great doctor, especially since each chapter is significant due to the novelty of the inquiry. That said, new readers of Thomas will find the “Editor’s Preface” of much help in navigating the landscape of twentieth- and twenty-first-century interpretation of Thomas. Here, Levering and Emery have provided an insightful and thorough historiographic narrative that will give the reader a foothold in the complex world of Aquinas.

The main criticism is the number of topics left unaddressed in the volume, some of which seem critical for a work on Thomas and Aristotle. Missing, for example, are chapters on creation and the intellect. This is significant given the controversy surrounding “radical Aristotelians” who taught the unity of the intellect and the eternity of the world, a controversy which led to certain positions of Thomas’s being included in the Condemnation of 1277. That said, the chapters in this volume each accomplish the goal of showing us how Thomas uses Aristotle to clarify and explicate Scripture and Christian doctrine. It is set to become an important point of reference to theologians and philosophers alike who seek to understand Thomas better.

Luke Zerra, PhD Student, Princeton Theological Seminary