Metaphysics of Theism: Aquina's Natural Theology in Summa Contra Gentiles I

By Burrell, David | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Metaphysics of Theism: Aquina's Natural Theology in Summa Contra Gentiles I


Burrell, David, Anglican Theological Review


Metaphysics of Theism: Aquinas's Natural Theology in Summa contra gentiles I. By Norman Kretzmann. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1997. xi + 302 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

There is considerable drama in this work, which certainly recommends an explicitly metaphysical text! The principal protagonist is Aquinas, of course, with the author serving as drama critic of his performance as a natural theologian in one of his own prose works: the Summa contra gentiles, now rendered in English by its other title: On the Truth of the Catholic Faith. The Summa Theologiae offers a clear example of the disputational form of oral teaching, but Norman Kretzmann chose the first three books of the other Summa for its attempt to present the truths of faith without explicit recourse to premises gleaned from revelation, though these effectively guided the entire enterprise. His goal is to show how a master like Aquinas developed a "systematic natural theology. . . designed to show that reason unsupported by revelation could have come up with many-not all-of just those propositions that constitute the established subject matter of revealed theology" (p. 7), in the hopes that we might learn something from that effort.

So the aim is expressly philosophical, and he plays close attention to Aquinas's arguments, allowing them in the process to stretch his own presumptions regarding key philosophical issues-presumptions which many of us presumably share, and so can participate in the unfolding of this conceptual drama. What is missing is any care to acquaint us (or himself) with the provenance of Aquinas's key notions, of his debt to Neoplatonic sources for crucial notions like esse; the working presumption is that he is beholden solely to Aristotle, and that we can understand his text while deliberately insouciant about his context. Yet here is where the protagonist succeeds admirably in gradually deconstructing the critic's preconceptions to draw him into Aquinas's world of thought. Note the contrast, for example, between his supposition that "any entity that could count as the first source of being for all things would have to be breath-takingly extraordinary, but even breath-takingly extraordinary isn't yet divine" (p. 86), and his realization, after following Aquinas's elaboration of the perfection proper to a cause of being, that "the uniquely necessary being of the kind that ultimately explains all existing" (p. 128) would have to be "radically different from the all the contingent existence it explains" (p. …

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