Rediscovering Thomas Aquinas in the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) earned the title "Doctor Angelicas" from his students' admiration for the treatise on angels in his monumental Summa Theologiae. More recently, he has merited the title "Doctor Communis" for the powerful influence his theological and philosophical works have exerted, not only on Roman Catholic scholarship, but also across a broad spectrum of Christian faith communities. Despite a temporary lapse in Thomistic studies during the years after Vatican II, the twentieth century witnessed the rediscovery of Aquinas in his historical context, beginning with the work of Martin Grabmann, M.-D. Chenu, O.P., Etienne Gilson, the Dominican schools of le Saulchoir in France and Blackfriars Hall in Oxford, the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, as well as the work of the Lutheran scholar Per Erik Persson, and the Reformed theologian Arvin Vos, to name only a handful.1 These scholarly endeavors have continued to bear fruit in the first decade of the new century, with several biographical studies and a number of new investigations into Aquinas s theological method and the historical setting of his work. It is the intention of this review article to survey some of these publications, highlighting their distinctive contributions to the field of Aquinas studies, thereby making them more accessible to the nonspecialist.

In the past year, several introductory biographies have appeared in English both in Great Britain and in the United States. Foremost among these is a translation from the French by Paul J. Philibert, O.P., of M.-D. Chenu's St. Thomas d'Aquin et la theologie, first published in Paris in 1959 (English title: Aquinas and his Role in Theology [Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2002]). Following the completion of his doctorate in Rome in 1920, Chenu (1895-1990) was appointed professor at the Dominican house of studies called "le Saulchoir," and rapidly distinguished himself in the nascent discipline of medieval studies. He led the way among Roman Catholic scholars in the application of historical method to the study of Thomas Aquinas, but also involved himself in worker-priest activities and the Young Christian Worker movement,2 all of which rendered him suspect in the eyes of more conservative churchmen during the 1950s. Philibert s choice of Aquinas and his Role in Theology to reintroduce Chenu's contribution into the contemporary study of Aquinas is particularly apt, since it was originally written with a view to introducing Aquinas to young men and women of the working class, by making an exciting story of the saint's life, and explaining the theological principles of his thought in clear and simple terms. Philibert's translation is equally clear and eminently readable, and includes numerous black-and-white illustrations that convey a vivid sense of the visual appearance of Aquinas s world in art, architecture, and samples of the saints own near-illegible script.

Aidan Nichols, O.P., is one of Britain's most distinguished Roman Catholic theologians, specializing in Thomistic studies. Like Chenu, he offers a guide to Aquinas for the beginner, Discovering Aquinas: An Introduction to his Life, Work, and Influence (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2002). The first chapter, "Thomas in his Time," describes the brief and busy life of Aquinas in the context of thirteenth-century academic and political life. Nichols then addresses key themes in Aquinas s theological works, including revelation, God and creation, the Trinity, the image of the Trinity in the human person, angelology, grace, the virtues, Christ, the church, and the sacraments. His style is conversational in tone, and he packs astonishing quantities of information into a clear and readable presentation. He devotes a single, transitional chapter to Aquinas's legacy in history, after which he concludes with chapters describing Aquinas s practice of philosophy and his method in theology. As with Chenu, the reader is left with a sense of the deep affection and enthusiasm which Thomas still inspires in the hearts of his modem Dominican brethren. …