#11- Bernard McGinn on Aquinas’s Summa theologiae [MIPodcast]

  • Bernard McGinn recently completed the biography of one of the most influential theological works in Christian history: Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, and he joins us in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast to talk about it. McGinn’s book is part of Princeton University Press’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series in which leading scholars write biographies of the birth and life of religious texts like Genesis, the Yoga Sutra, and the Book of Mormon. Thinking about the Summa theologiae in particular, as we do in this episode, raises a number of fascinating questions like: What does it mean to do theology? What is the value of theology to faith? How does theology relate to philosophy? How do theological views shift over time? These and many other questions are explored with McGinn, who joined me via Skype on June 4, 2014.

    Special Episodes: “Lives of Great Religious Books”

    Additionally, I’m excited to announce that over the coming months the MIPodcast will feature more authors from the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. How do such episodes align with the Maxwell Institute’s mission? The Institute has always been about more than the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies or the Mormon Studies Review. As our mission statement suggests, we perform scholarly study of religious traditions and texts in order to deepen understanding and nurture discipleship among Latter-day Saints and to promote mutual respect and goodwill among people of all faiths. That’s why our work encompasses texts and traditions beyond Latter-day Saint religious borders. Think about the Institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative or CPART’s work on Syriac Christian Texts or the Dead Sea Scrolls—we’re working to place LDS scripture alongside great religious texts of a variety of traditions. Moreover, by looking at other religious texts—worthwhile in their own right—we come to understand other faiths better as well as our own.

    About Bernard McGinn

    Bernard McGinn is the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology and of the History of Christianity at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. His many books include Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil and The Presence of God, a multivolume history of Western Christian mysticism.
  • BLAIR HODGES: This is the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Thanks for joining me for another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m your host, Blair Hodges.

    Have you ever taken a second to read the Institute’s mission statement? Here it is: “Our mission is to deepen understanding and nurture discipleship among Latter-day Saints, and to promote mutual respect and good will among people of all faith through this scholarly study of religious texts and traditions.” In other words, the Maxwell Institute’s always been about more than the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies or the FARMS Review, now the Mormon Studies Review. See, we focus on texts and traditions beyond our own religious borders. Think of our Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, or the work that we do in Syriac Christian Texts, or the Dead Sea Scrolls through CPART. We’re working to place LDS scripture alongside great texts of a variety of religious traditions. So by looking at other religious texts, which are worthwhile in their own right, we come to understand other faiths better as well as our own. I hope this helps give you a sense of why this particular interview, and more like it on the way, fits in to what we’re trying to accomplish at the Institute.

    Over the coming months I’ll be interviewing authors from Princeton University Press’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. This is a series where leading authors or experts write books for general readers that talk about the origins of texts for great religious traditions and trace how their reception, interpretation, and influence have changed over time. So far they’ve done books including The Book of Genesis, The Yoga Sutra, they’ve done one on the Book of Mormon.

    In this particular podcast episode, Bernard McGinn joins me. He’s the author of the biography of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae; one of the most influential theological works in the history of Christianity. In becoming more familiar with the religious texts of other traditions, like Summa theologiae from Catholicism, I hope to give you a greater appreciation for the texts of other religious faiths, as well as texts from the Latter-day Saint tradition. It’s Bernard McGinn on Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae on this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.



    BLAIR HODGES: Bernard McGinn joins me today. He’s the author of a new book in Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. He wrote a book on Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, one of the largest works in Christian history, I would say. But before we get into the book in general, Bernard McGinn, I want to start off by talking about the idea of theology in general. So if you can talk about how you became interested in theology, and what theology means to you, it will give Mormon listeners a good idea. The word “theology” tends to set off some alarm bells for Mormons. They might say we don’t have a theology, we have revelation, or something like that. Since you’re a theologian, given your background I’m really interested to hear what theology means to you, and how you became interested in it.

    BERNARD MCGINN: Yes. Well, all Christians, and many other religions like Judaism and Islam, have a revelation. We all enjoy some revelation from God. Theology means thinking and talking about that revelation, about the faith that you have. In terms of the origin of the word, it’s just a Greek word meaning “logos,” or a word about God.

    Any time that any believer in any tradition is talking about the revelation and the believe that’s fundamental to their lives, talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it, they’re doing theology, whether they want to call it theology or not. So it’s a broad term, and I think there’s a Jewish theology, there’s an Islamic theology, there’s certainly Christian theologies, and I think Mormons who are seriously devoted to thinking and writing about their own revelation are doing theology, Mormon theology.


    HODGES: Now you earned your doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, is that right?

    MCGINN: Right. Actually what’s called a teaching license in theology, and then I earned a doctorate in medieval history. So most of what I’ve done is the history of medieval theology. I’m an historical theologian, that is, I look mostly to the past when I engage in my theological work.

    HODGES: How did you get interested in that to begin with?

    MCGINN: Well I was raised and still am a Roman Catholic within a seminary system, and of course the acme of education in a seminary system is theology, which I was very happy to study. I’ve been doing theology my whole life in one-way or another. Of course Thomas is one of the great theologians, certainly, in the whole tradition of Christianity.


    HODGES: Have you found that work to be fruitful for your religious faith as well? Has there been a good connection between your experience in studying in universities and things and your religious life?

    MCGINN: Certainly in my case, and I think in the case of many of the people that I talk to. You’re called to think about what you believe and how to express it to yourself and to others so that this deepens one’s faith, I think, for anyone who is really seriously engaged in theology. The two go together. They’re not, in that sense, in two different compartments or wearing two different hats. They’re part of the same person.


    HODGES: Now let’s zoom in and look more at Thomas Aquinas in particular. He’s the author of the book that you wrote this book about. The first question that I have is how did you manage to write such a short book on such a huge topic? I mean, you come in at under two hundred pages, and they’re small pages, for your main text.

    MCGINN: Well that was part of the challenge when Fred Appel, who is the editor of this new series, said Princeton asked me to write something. I thought about writing something maybe on some of the mystical texts that I work with, but I’ve been studying Thomas Aquinas and teaching Thomas Aquinas for fifty years, if you really add it all up. So I thought I’d like to go back to Aquinas and see if it’s possible to do a relatively short book on such a gigantic work. The whole Summa, as I point out, contains over a million and a half words. It’s one of the largest books in the Christian canon, certainly, and obviously you’ve got to leave a lot out. You have to be very selective.

    HODGES: Has the whole thing even been translated into English? Has the entire Summa been translated?

    MCGINN: The whole Summa has been translated into English, not once but twice, both times by the English Dominican Province, a group of people worked on it first in the early part of the twentieth century and then again in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s been translated into many other languages, including Chinese, and most recently Japanese, where a Japanese scholar worked almost his whole life, I think forty years or more on doing the entire Summa in Japanese.

    HODGES: That’s dedication.

    MCGINN: Yes.


    HODGES: So for you, you had to make a lot of decisions then about how to approach the text to distill it down into this small work. Were there any big obstacles that you had to confront in that process?

    MCGINN: Well I tried to set the context of why Thomas wrote the Summa and the world in which he wrote, the university world of the medieval ages, the kind of theology we call scholastic theology, and then why specifically he needed a new textbook, because that’s what the Summa was. It was a new textbook. Thomas wasn’t satisfied with the old textbooks at all.

    The challenge of course was to try to take those million and a half words and give the modern reader some sense of not only the outline, which is relatively clear, but the content of some of the major themes that ride throughout the Summa. This was a rather long chapter three, which was originally much longer, but for the interests of this series I had to keep distilling it down.

    Then of course also, given the nature of the series as a biography of classics, to talk about the reception. The reception over seven hundred years of the Summa of course is remarkable. Thousands of commentaries have been written on the Summa, let alone the influence of the Summa on other thinkers who didn’t want to write commentaries. Some of the commentaries on the Summa, believe it or not, are longer than the original. Of course I cannot pretend to have read them all. No one ever has.

    HODGES: Have you read the whole Summa itself?

    MCGINN: I put it this way. I’ve been through the whole Summa. There are sections of the Summa where you don’t have to read word for word sections that relate to things that are no longer theologically important. Those are sections I kind of leaf through looking for things. I think I’ve read all the important sections of the Summa.


    HODGES: So we’re talking about a man who wrote over a million words here in this massive work that’s still talked about in theological circles today. This Thomas Aquinas. Who was Thomas Aquinas?

    MCGINN: Well he was a child of a noble family, born south of Rome in 1225. As a younger son of his noble parents he would have been expected to become a clerk. He was actually sent to a Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, which was within his father’s to be raised. He was a very clever young man, and they sent him off to the new university of Naples to higher studies, the Benedictines sent him.

    While there he met the Dominicans, the new order dedicated to poverty, preaching, and study. He felt immensely attracted to this new order. He joined the Dominicans, much to the chagrin of his family, who wanted him to be a rich Benedictine abbot and the like. So at one stage the family kind of kidnaps him and holds him under house arrest for a year, but he continues in his persistence and they allow him to join the Dominican Order, where he’s trained in Paris.

    He spends his whole life as a theologian; a teacher of teachers would be the best way to describe Thomas. He dies an early death in 1274. He not yet fifty years of age. It’s possible he just wore himself out with his tremendous teaching, especially his writing. So it’s not what we call an adventurous life in a public sense, it’s an adventure of the mind and Thomas is one of the great minds certainly in the history of western thought, and even non-believers of course, philosophers and other thinkers, will read Thomas Aquinas because of the quality of his thought and engage it, whether to refute it, to learn from it, to comment on it, etc.

    HODGES: So this is an interesting man. This is a deeply intellectual man. But you also paint a picture of a man who also has a very deep and sincere prayer life and sort of the life of his spirit was also quite important to Thomas, right?

    MCGINN: Yes. It was important to the Dominican Order in general, but I think Thomas, well we have a lot of stories about Thomas. Some of them were put together for his canonization, so they may have an element of exaggeration, but the general flavor of the lives really gives us this impression of a very pious, very prayerful, very humble person, but a person that I describe as living in his mind. They speak of Thomas as wrapped in contemplation. I think today we’d call him an absent-minded professor. He is so concentrated on the problems that he’s dealing with in theology that in many cases he was kind of oblivious to what was going on around him. All the Dominican teachers had a companion to help them out, a man called a socius companion. Thomas’s socius, Reginald as he was called, probably often had to remind Thomas, “Well, we have to do this now, we have to do that now,” etc.


    HODGES: Give us a sense of his output in terms of his writing. You said he was a teacher, maybe a teacher of teachers given his huge footprint. In addition to the Summa he seemed to have been a prolific writer in general, right?

    MCGINN: Oh, he’s an amazing writer would be the best way to describe him. He wrote long commentaries on the Bible. He wrote long commentaries on Aristotle, a philosopher that he used extensively. He wrote three large syntheses of theology, first the commentary on Peter Lombard’s sentences, the second the thing he called the Summa against the Gentiles, Gentiles here meaning the Pagan philosophers, and then the Summa theologiae. 

    Plus he wrote about a hundred other works, pamphlets, treatises, etc. There’s millions and millions of words in Thomas’s corpus, which has well over a hundred works, ranging from works that are short, maybe a few pages, to works like the Summa that take two thousand five hundred pages of double columns in the English translation.

    HODGES: So in the 1200s how widely would those texts have circulated? Were they pretty widely read or was it more an elite class that would be involved in reading those texts?

    MCGINN: They were certainly widely read theologically. There was a kind of publishing house or system in the University of Paris in the 1250s, 1270s, where scribes would take these sections of Thomas’s works as they come out and they would copy them, multiple scribes would copy them, begin distributing them, and we know that the sections of the Summa were distributed pretty broadly, and certainly read by all the theological students or theological students would certainly want to read them. Some early commentators from the early 1300s tell us even lay-people like to read Thomas Aquinas, etc. Now whether that’s true or not, that’s what’s in some of the sources. Of course he is then widely read in the later tradition, commented on extensively for hundreds and hundreds of years.


    HODGES: Was he in a comfortable position in general with the church at the time in terms of his writings? Was there any point of controversies that came up where church leadership would maybe be questioning of certain things? Or maybe questions of orthodoxy in what Thomas was writing? Were there any controversies in regard to his publications that way?

    MCGINN: Well there were certainly controversies. Thomas himself was totally loyal to the medieval church and the medieval papacy. Like many medieval theologians on his deathbed, he said, “I leave all my writings to the bishop of Rome to determine whether they are authentic writings and doctrinally correct,” etc.

    HODGES: Is that like a sincere sort of deference then, and not just some sort of—

    MCGINN: I think it was very sincere, given Thomas’s whole life. He was a papal theologian for a number of years in the 1260s and the Dominicans of course were very much devoted to the papacy. So I think it’s totally sincere, but Thomas’s theology was controversial. There were other schools of theology, particularly among some of his contemporary Franciscans, who felt that Thomas had given away too much to Aristotle, and therefore accused Thomas not of heresy so much but of doctrinal error.

    So there are condemnations right after Thomas’s death of the dangerous excerpts, more in philosophy than in theology. Some of these excerpts are condemned at Paris and Oxford. Some of these excerpts are obviously positions taken by Thomas Aquinas. So he’s a controversial figure as well because of the originality of his theology, and he remains that way, even though he gains a particular status in Roman Catholicism in later centuries. Thomas was a controversial figure. More in the theological infighting, you might say, than in doctrine itself.


    HODGES: Yeah. So what would the difference be between heresy and, say, incorrect doctrine? What would the distinction be?

    MCGINN: Well for one thing heresy is a matter of the will, not of the intellect. One of Thomas’s later students, he didn’t actually study with him, but Meister Eckhart in 1326, Eckhart read Thomas extensively and I deal with the relationship of Eckhart and Thomas in the book there. Eckhart is accused of heresy towards the end of his life in 1326. In his defense he says, “I cannot be a heretic, because heresy is a matter of the will. That is, it’s persistence in error.” He says to his accusers, “Point out where I’m in error, and if it really is an error, I immediately will retract it because I don’t want to be a heretic. I don’t want to persist in that.”

    So in the medieval period at least, heresy is not any error that might come along, it’s a persistence in error even when it’s pointed out to you. That can’t be correct, that’s against the Christian faith, and a person can say no, but I’m going to still maintain that. They have a very clear sense between error and heresy that sometimes has been lost I think in the more modern period.


    HODGES: So we’ve kind of looked at Thomas Aquinas as this deeply intellectual but also deeply spiritual man who’s deferent to the church who spent his life writing and teaching to the point of exhaustion. Let’s take a look at this stew in which Aquinas was cooked, I mean his cultural context, and his relationship to the church and to the culture a little bit more specifically. Now you lay this out really well in the book. You identify three main areas.

    MCGINN: Right, contexts, in a sense.

    HODGES: That’s the papal reordering of medieval western Christianity, the rise of the university in general and scholastic theology, and then the beginning of the mendicant religious life. I want to touch on all three of those. So let’s start on papal reordering of the west. A lot of people thing medieval times were these dark ages where nothing ever happened and—


    MCGINN: Right. Well they were actually immensely creative period, of course I say that as a medievalist, but I think anyone who reads history of the Middle Ages will see that. Where we take the position of the papacy, I mean, a bishop of Rome from at least the second or third century of the Christian era always had a rather unique position, very special position, but it wasn’t really what we would call a jurisdictional or administrative position. He was first among equals frequently in the early church.

    In the early medieval period frequently the papal office was fought over by local nobles and not very powerful throughout Europe and dominated by others, like the German emperors, etc. It’s not until the late eleventh century and into the twelfth century that a reform of the church takes place, spearheaded in Rome, called the Gregorian Reform because of its association with Pope Gregory VII that reorganizes the church, gives the pope a unique position in terms of legal power and jurisdictional power, and we talk about then the era really of the high-papacy in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, where the pope is certainly the chief administrative and CEO of the entire western church, the decider, the arbiter of orthodoxy, and a very political powerful figure as well. That’s the context within which Thomas was born and raised, this papal medieval church, which hadn’t been the case really in the early middle ages.

    HODGES: And how did that impact the writing of the Summa? I suppose Thomas obviously was on board with those changes.

    MCGINN: Right, very much so, because the University of Paris was a papal university. It’s the center of the theological education because it is papally sponsored as the major theological school in all of western Europe so that the degrees that it gives are papal decrees and the orders under which it lives had to be approved by the papacy, etc. so there’s obviously a lot of politics that go on as well but the way in which the theology of high scholasticism is organized would not have been possible without the papal church of the thirteenth century.


    HODGES: Okay, and that’s point number two, then, is the rise of this type of university and scholastic theology in general. That’s coupled with the credentialing of the new papal—

    MCGINN: Right. But I think the way in which I teach medieval theology, which I’ve done for many, many years, I took about three kinds of theology. The first kind is the monastic theology, done by the monks within the context of the cloister. That’s the dominant theology in the early medieval period down to the twelfth century at least. That’s basically very biblical, it’s organized around sermons and biblical commentaries, etc. It’s meant for monks because so few people outside the monasteries even could read and write.

    Scholastic theology, which begins to come about in the late eleventh century and grows in the twelfth and thirteenth century, is a specifically academic form of theology taught within universities to train clergy to take positions of authority, teaching authority, and legislative and judicial authority within the church. It’s a classroom exercise that’s much more organized, much more philosophically grounded, and has different modes of writing, and different modes of teaching than the monastic theology.

    For years of course in the modern period we thought that scholastic theology was the only form of medieval theology. Now we know we had a medieval monastic theology and then in the late Middle Ages we began to get the development of what I’ve called vernacular theology. Vernacular theology is produced by people out in the world. It’s produced in the vernacular languages and not in the learned Latin of the monks or the schoolmen, and it’s often a theology deduced by women. It’s much less technical. It’s much more varied in terms of its interest and the modes of writing that it involves, but it is a real theology. So to study the fullness of medieval theology, one needs to look at the monastic, the scholastic, and then the vernacular theology. The vernacular theology is most often a mystical theology.

    HODGES: Something that could be more readily understood or embraced by just regular worshippers rather than—

    MCGINN: Meister Eckhart, whom I mentioned before, is the first example of someone who really puts together the new vernacular theology and its middle-high chairman sermons, with technical scholastic theology, because Eckhart, like Thomas Aquinas, was twice a master of theology at the University of Paris. So with Eckhart you get this unique combination of scholastic and vernacular theology. With Thomas Aquinas we have a master of scholastic theology. We have a few of his sermons that he originally probably preached in his native southern Italian Neapolitan dialect, but he doesn’t write really in the vernacular mode in the course of his lifetime.

    HODGES: This is sort of when theology was such a fundamental part of the university it was thought of as the queen of the sciences, right?

    MCGINN: Yes. It is. The acme of the medieval university is the teaching of theology. Many other things of course were involved were teaching of the liberal arts, the teaching of medicine, the teaching of law, etc. But theology is seen as the acme of the whole university system.


    HODGES: I like how you laid out the different types of writings that cropped up within scholastic theology, and sort of the different roles that they played. If you can touch on these, and I’ll probably mispronounce them, but there’s glossa, quaestio, dissertassionis, and then summe, like textbook compendium type things. So what were these different types of writings?

    MCGINN: Well the medieval schoolmen, the scholastics, were like the monks in that they always started with scripture. They started with scripture because that’s the basis, that’s where we find revelation, and the basis to our faith. So they were great commentators, and they wrote commentaries on scriptures, or they glossed scripture. Glosses are really just explanatory comments added to the Bible to help explain passages and difficult words. So you have glossed bibles, but then you also have something else that Thomas and all the scholastics used. They have this thing called the Glossa Ordinaria, the ordinary gloss. It’s a huge book which contained the Bible and all around the texts of the Bible were numerous small commentaries, snippets of passages from the fathers, St. Augustine—

    HODGES: Were they like signaled by footnotes? Or were they just sort of stuck in around them?

    MCGINN: Stuck in around, both in the margins and around the scriptural text, it’d be in the middle and the marginal gloss would be written around the top and bottom and sides, and then it would be inter linear glosses, little things that would be written between the lines of scripture.

    So that’s how they studied scripture and how they taught it, but then also of course this schoolman commented, Thomas commented, on the Book of Job, he commented on the Gospel of John, he commented on the Pauline Epistles, he commented on the Psalms. That was the foundation of education and the first two years of Thomas’s teaching career he was what’s called a baccalaureus Scripturum, that is, he was teaching scripture, taking a book of the Bible and going through it and explaining it to his students. Then he would pass on to comment on the textbook of the day, which was Peter Lombard’s Book of Sentences. He would be lecturing on the Book of Sentences, only then would he promoted to master of theology, where he’d begin his own teaching, and he’d begin to write his own treatises, and eventually then when he got unhappy with commenting on Peter Lombard he decided to write his own textbook.

    So you have commentaries on scripture, you have commentaries on Aristotle, which Thomas would do for his students to teach them philosophy, you have then these great summe, and then you have whole series that you mentioned before, quaestionis, questions that will be grouped according to disputations. Every Paris master would have to publicly dispute several times each year, and these disputations were on difficult questions in theology. That’s what quaestionis means, what is the nature of truth? How do we arrive at truth, for example?

    Thomas and his students would conduct public disputations on these issues, which then would be written down in these series of quaestionis. Thomas always chose the most difficult issues. So we have disputed questions on the nature of truth, disputed questions on the nature of evil, disputed questions on the power of God, disputed questions on the nature of the soul. These are some of Thomas’s most technical writings where he worked out a lot of the issues that later on are briefly summarized in the Summa. These quaestionis are, if you put them all together, they’re well over a million words, maybe several million words, I don’t know whether I’ve ever counted them up. So that was part of the whole lifestyle of the medieval scholastic master like Thomas.


    HODGES: So the third category then is the beginning of the mendicant religious life. This is something that members of the LDS church in particular are probably not very familiar with at all. So talk about the mendicant religious life and how that came to be, what it was, that sort of thing.

    MCGINN: Yeah. Well at least from the twelfth century, late eleventh and twelfth century on there’s a lot of desire in western Christendom to live what they call the “apostolic life.” The life that Jesus and his disciples lived. Now the monks say that they’re living an apostolic life because they live in a community, a common worship, etc. and it’s like the picture of the Jerusalem community in the Book of Acts. But other people said if you look back at Jesus and his disciples they’re wandering the roads in poverty, preaching the good news, preaching the gospel, and that’s the real apostolic life. A wandering, poor preacher who’s conveying the gospel to everybody in society, not somebody who’s just sitting behind monastic walls in prayer.

    So we have these apostolic movements and throughout the course of the twelfth century some of them run into difficulty and get condemned, but others are kind of absorbed by the church and among these most important are the mendicant orders that come from two of the great religious geniuses of the medieval period. Francis of Assisi, who is of the origin of the Franciscan movement. Dominic Guzman, Dominic is a Spanish priest who was at the origin of the Dominican Order’s start. Both of them start around the same time, shortly after the year 1200, slightly different cares they might say today, but they emphasize poverty of life, form of preaching, and outreach beyond monastic walls to the whole community, and in the case of the Dominicans the necessity for learning good theology in order to refute error and heresy, because there’s a great deal of error, particularly the dualistic error of the Manicheans in France, in Italy, etc. that Dominic was especially concerned with.

    So these two mendicant orders, mendicant means “begging,” because they had no sufficient funds they basically begged for their livelihood, these two mendicant orders while there are tensions between them, there weren’t tensions between Dominic and Francis. While they do have tensions between them, both represent uniquely new powerful forms of religious life that revolutionized thirteenth century church in so many different ways, and soon become the leading intellectuals of the church, as we see in the case of Thomas and his contemporary, Bonaventure, and in so many other of the mendicants.


    HODGES: So why would Thomas choose, say, the Dominican Order rather than the Franciscan? What would the difference be?

    MCGINN: Well, it may be a question of accident because there were Dominicans present at the University of Naples when he was a young man there in the 1230s, but I also think it’s because the Dominicans right from the beginning stressed what we today would call the intellectual life. That is, the necessity for study and the study of both philosophy and theology, and therefore for teaching and preaching that was based on careful theological study.

    Francis was kind of hesitant about study, although he sponsored some very important intellectuals in the early Franciscans. He really felt the Franciscan way of life was not necessarily a learned way of life. After his death the Franciscans turned very much into a learned academic order as well, but in the early days there’s a lot of tension between Francis’s original followers who say theology is not really for us, we’re for poor preaching and witnessing to the gospel, and then the later Franciscans come along and say no, we have to study the best theology too. So I think Thomas could have been still conscious of the fact that Dominicans were far more open to the study of theology than most of the Franciscans.

    HODGES: Alright. So kind of putting all these things together then, Aquinas was in the process of becoming something of a theological authority for the Roman Catholic church—and if I get any terminology wrong here, please don’t hesitate to correct me.

    MCGINN: Yeah. It takes Thomas a while to become the authority, and it really is not until the nineteenth century and Neo-Scholasticism, Thomas becomes the authority and I think we’re past that year now. Thomas, for many centuries, was one of the greatest theologians and everyone still admits that, but there’s no single theology in Roman Catholicism as even contemporary popes like John Paul II have said there’s no single form of theology. Theology is a symphony, as a very theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar used to say, you need a lot of instruments in a lot of different sections of an orchestra; you can’t have just trombones or one trumpet.


    HODGES: Right. I think that’s what’s interesting. There’s a certain caricature of theology, and especially scholastic theology, and that is that it’s sole purpose is to nail down the answer to every single question or to have this system in place that’s all perfect and well and good, but it seems that within Catholicism there was always then at least a certain recognition that there would be open questions, that there would be things to be discussed. They did have certain boundaries obviously and there was orthodoxy and heterodoxy, but also there seems to have been the ability of different perspectives within the church. Is that accurate?

    MCGINN: I think that’s very accurate. Thomas always considered himself a theologian. He always tried to be the best theologian he could be. He was always willing to engage in discussion about his use of one stage. He writes and he says, “If you don’t agree with what I’ve said, write against me because the only way to get to the truth is by really good discussion and arguments,” etc. So he’s always willing to be corrected if necessary, or to learn something new.

    The structure of the Summa of course lends itself to the idea that somehow this is all cut and dry, because it’s so academic. It was designed as a specific form of textbook. But as you begin reading it you see how many open questions there are, both in terms of Thomas’s own views, and also in terms of how we interpret some of the things that Thomas said. Thomas is marvelously clear, but we’re not always quite sure what the best interpretation of his thought may be.

    Thomas, I have always insisted, is what we call a negative theologian in a negative or apophatic theology. He says we can have no knowledge of God’s essence; we cannot know what God is. We know that God is, and we know that God has told us certain things in the scripture that we know are true, but we cannot really know what God is or what these deep mysteries are. We can, however, try as far as we are able to gain some slight understanding. We can also try to see what views are erroneous when they’re ascribed to God or to the things that God have said. Despite the million and a half words in the Summa, Thomas has some very powerful notions of the limitation of all theology.


    HODGES: We’re talking with Bernard McGinn. He’s the author of a volume about Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae in Princeton’s “Great Lives of Religious Books” series. I want to talk about sapiencia, this wisdom. You said you were sort of guided in this particular interpretation of the Summa with this idea of wisdom. So let’s have a basic idea of what the concept is.

    MCGINN: Well, wisdom essentially means that there’s higher truth beyond human reason. There is truth that reason can deal with in terms of the first principle, which is God, and that’s human wisdom, which is higher than just human reasoning. But there is also then a wisdom that can be revealed by God in revelation, imminent scripture, and even a kind of wisdom that can be given by the Holy Spirit. This is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition, that is a wisdom that gives you a kind of, what they would call, connatural knowing of God, what we might call a kind of total, iatrical, human knowing.

    For Thomas wisdom is the highest form of all human understanding and intellection. He talks about the science, for example, sciencia as he called it, which is what we would call philosophical reasoning. He talks about understanding intellectus, but the highest of all the gifts and the exercises of human mind is wisdom. Wisdom is the highest because it borders everything that we can know in terms of the first good, the first principle, which is God. So that the science itself on its own level is fine, but wisdom gives you a higher form of understanding because it orders everything in relationship to God, who is the ultimate principle.

    So for Thomas the Summa is a scientific book, in the sense of Aristotle’s notion of science, and he argues that in the first question of the first part. But more than a science, it’s a wisdom. It’s a sapiencia, because it’s based on the wisdom found in Revelation, it makes use of the natural wisdom of philosophy, and it also uses the wisdom that is the special gift of the Holy Spirit. So wisdom is essential to all of Thomas’s thinking, and this is something that’s been known certainly in the past, I’m not in any sense discovering it, it’s right there in the text, but it often hasn’t been sufficiently emphasized by those who’ve studied Thomas. There are exceptions to this, Jacques Maritain, and various others, have written about wisdom and Thomas and say, “Yes, wisdom is what’s really essential, I fully agree with that.”

    HODGES: So what’s interesting then is Aquinas is working through theological questions. He’s drawing on the Bible, he’s attempting to adhere to the ongoing tradition of the church, but he’s also appealing to classic philosophy and Aristotle, and making that a part of it. So this is really interesting because… Did Aquinas have a sense that he was taking religious beliefs and maybe trying to match them up with respectable philosophical ideas? Or maybe did his allegiance to God or revelation might come into question to the extent that he adopted the categories of philosophy?

    MCGINN: Well this was, as I pointed out before, this was controversial because there are some aspects of Aristotle’s teaching that seemed to be in conflict with Christian faith. Aristotle seems to argue that the universe is eternal. There’s no real creation. Aristotle also seems to say that the first principle, or the first cause is not really exercising providence over this universe, etc. These are just two of the examples of things in Aristotle’s teaching that seemed to be in serious conflict with Christian teaching.

    So when Aristotle’s full philosophy begins to be used in the late twelfth century, early thirteenth century, it’s condemned actually. The local decrees, the papal decrees, say you can’t teach the higher forms of Aristotle’s philosophy. They couldn’t keep it out. It’s too useful a tool because it’s so systematic and so complete. So by the 1240s when Thomas Aquinas is studying philosophy in Paris with Albert the Great and others they’re moving Aristotle back in. This was controversial. How far can you move Aristotle in before you create problems with Christian thinking?

    Thomas Aquinas, like his teacher Albert, insisted that we can make heavy use of Aristotle, although certain corrections are going to be needed. Bonaventure and the Franciscans said no, Aristotle’s logic is very important and there are aspects of his thinking, but Aristotle’s metaphysics is dangerous, it’s in conflict with Christianity. Throughout his career, Thomas argues strenuously with Franciscans and others on this case and in one place in one of his early works he says, “There are people who accuse us of mixing the water of philosophy into Christian teaching,” and he says, “We’re not mixing it in. We’re transforming the water into wine that the true theologian can use philosophy, but in the course of using it under the ageist revelation under the guidance of revelation as taught in the Bible, what Thomas called sacra doctrina, of course in doing that you transfuse that philosophical thinking into the wine of the theology.

    So while the Summa theologiae makes heavy use of philosophy throughout, it’s not a philosophical book. It’s not even a philosophy of religion, etc. It’s basically what he called sacra doctrina, sacred teaching, it’s doctrinal teaching, which can use philosophy extensively to help clarify, deepen, and organize its own teaching.


    HODGES: What would the difference be? If the text had been written more as philosophy, as you said.

    MCGINN: Well, I mean, the difference would be that certain things that are essential to the Christian teaching wouldn’t be there. A good case is the whole question of creation, questions forty-four through forty-six of the Prima Pars. As Thomas analyzes this he says there are two things about creation to be understood, two basic principles. First of all, creation means that the whole of all that is, the whole of the universe, is dependent upon God. He said that’s a truth that’s open both to philosophy and it’s also taught in scripture. So you can make philosophical arguments that the universe doesn’t explain itself, it needs a first cause. Then he said there’s another thing that we believe about creation, and that is that creation had a beginning. This is what we’re told in the Book of Genesis, in the beginning God created heaven and earth.

    Now what kind of a truth is that, that creation had a beginning? Thomas Aquinas insists that’s a doctrinal truth. We only know it because it’s in Revelation. Natural arguments, philosophical arguments on either side, it has to be eternal or it has to be temporal don’t work, says Thomas Aquinas. Thomas’s opponents, including Bonaventure and Bonaventure’s students like John of Peckham say, “Oh no, no, no, wait. We can create philosophical arguments to say that the world must have begun in time.” Thomas says, “No you can’t.” And he argues that very extensively against Bonaventure and John of Peckham. All the arguments that they give for the temporality of the world he said, “These don’t work philosophically. They’re not legitimate arguments. They fall apart.” So therefore, to give a full teaching about these two fundamental principles regarding creation, you can make use of philosophy, but you also have to use sacra doctrina and you in a certain sense fuse the two together to make the most powerful kinds of arguments for what is the nature of creation, which is what he’s laying out there in questions forty-four through forty-six.

    It’s a perfect example of what I call Thomas’s balancing act between what philosophy can do and what it can’t do, where it needs sacra doctrina, and yet how important philosophy will be then for explaining and exposing the truths of the Christian faith for deeper understanding.


    HODGES: Okay. So it wouldn’t necessarily be fair or accurate then to say that for Aquinas he was allowing the philosophical tail to wag the theological dog?

    MCGINN: He would strongly resist that. He would say no. He would say theology, sacra doctrina, is what’s fundamental. Philosophy is useful. Philosophy, as he called it, is the servant of theology, famous phrase that’s used elsewhere. In other words, it’s a very useful servant, you’d do much better with it than without it, but that the sacra doctrina, the revelation, is what’s fundamental to what Thomas Aquinas is trying to do.

    Thomas was a professor of theology. He knew a lot of philosophy, and he used philosophy, and he respected philosophy, but he knew it had its limits and he himself was a theologian using philosophy. But in his own time, I mean, that was controversial because some theologians said, “Oh, no. Philosophy is kind of dangerous.” Some philosophers of his contemporaries used the other thing and they said, “Well, philosophy is always correct and philosophy is Aristotle, so if Aristotle says the universe must be eternal, it’s gotta be eternal from the viewpoint of reason, even if that conflicts with faith.” So they held a strange view, it’s often been called a double truth view, but they themselves didn’t use that kind of language. But they held if something could be true in philosophy, but not true in theology. For Thomas that’s impossible because good reasoning has the same source that revelation does. The source is God.


    HODGES: So the difficulty then pops up in terms of whether sacra doctrina is being interpreted or understood correctly. So who gets to arbitrate there? If Thomas wasn’t going to use philosophy to arbitrate, maybe to say whether or not creation was eternal, he just took that for granted because that’s his understanding of scripture and of church tradition.

    MCGINN: Well, scripture for him says that the world began in time. So he says, “Yes, this is what I believe.”

    HODGES: So what about figurative readings? Couldn’t someone say that’s a figurative reading and we can still… maybe this would be close to the double truth type people where they could say that’s true what scripture says, but Aristotle is also right.

    MCGINN: Figurative readings are interesting because Thomas also in the use of scripture tends to be a literalist. That is, he recognizes that figurative readings are useful, but they’re more useful for what we could today say would be moral instruction and devotion, when he argues doctrinally in sacra trinity, he wants you to use the literal sense of the scriptural text.

    Now we sense of the letter of the text is a very nuanced one and would take a while to explain it, but he doesn’t want to argue doctrinally from figurative senses of the scripture. They’ll sneak in from time to time in places where he needs them, where its peripheral, but the major issues for Thomas you need to argue from the scriptures, and from the tradition of the church, the belief of the church is the scripture as interpreted by the church. Thomas makes that quite clear. It’s not just you open your bible and you start reading, it’s the Bible as it has been taught by the fathers, by the councils, by papal authority, etc. It’s the Bible in the church, which is the source of sacra doctrina.


    HODGES: Okay. There’s a quote here from the book from chapter two that I want to read and get your comments about. It pertains to your view of the Summa as growing out of Thomas’s belief that our being embodied impacts our thinking about God. So here’s what you write.

    You say, “Few, if any Christian theologians, made more of the fact that our thinking about God is tied to our existence as embodied subjects. Human attainment of truth is in and through the body, and it senses, though the intellect abstracts the intelligible form from the matter perceived by the senses.” Expand on that.

    MCGINN: Well Thomas fundamentally agrees with Aristotle here and breaks company with many of the platonically inspired theologians because Thomas insists that the soul is the form of the body. It’s not kind of a separate thing that exists somehow distinct from the body, so that everything that we know intellectually in what they would call our soul comes to us through our embodied existence that is through our, it has to start in the senses. We always must insist in that.

    It’s also part of the whole economy of Christian salvation, that the second person that took on flesh took on the whole human situation, body as well as soul, so that for Thomas epistemologically as well as theologically, human embodiment is absolutely essential, both for belief and then also for what we do with our belief in our theology.

    So as I said, epistemologically he says Aristotle’s right about how we come to know. Theologically he says the whole Christian belief is that God became man, and therefore the body is essential to human nature, to human salvation; it’s not a flight from the body and rescuing of the soul; no it’s the restoration of the entire human person. This is why something like the resurrection of the body is so crucial for Thomas Aquinas as well.


    HODGES: In terms of the resurrection, was that a difficult philosophical issue? Because today that’s one of the more difficult Christian beliefs I think is the idea that once we die and our bodies decay and they—

    MCGINN: Well actually it’s always been a difficult issue from Christianity on. This is why many of the Greek philosophers found Christianity so bizarre, because they thought certainly that the immortality of the soul, because the soul was pure and separate from the body, but resurrection of the body, what does that mean? But I think it’s crucial to the Jewish tradition because it starts of course in the Hebrew Bible, and it was also crucial to the earliest Christians whose faith is founded on that yes, Jesus rose from the dead in a bodily form and in some way that’s going to be our destiny as well.

    Now the “in some way” is the sticking point because obviously the resurrection of the body, which part of the Christian creed by the way of all major Christian churches is the resurrection of the body, there are different ways of understanding what that’s going to mean, and there’s no single theology of the resurrection of the body. Some interpret resurrection in more of a spiritualizing way, others like Thomas is very much bound to the whole issue of the significance of embodiment. They’re not going to be crudely literal, but they do believe in the future there will be a restoration of our embodied form in some way.

    So I mean that’s another long issue. Thomas’s own theology of the resurrection of course we don’t have its finished form in the Summa because he died before he did that. What we do have is students put together something called The Supplement, they put together some of his earlier reflections from his commentary on Peter Lombard’s sentences. What Thomas would have done with that had he lived to finish the whole Summa would be an interesting question. Would he have advanced his theology there? I think he would have, but we don’t know.


    HODGES: Yeah. How about apophatic theology and how that played a role? If I understand correctly, that’s negative theology. That’s sort of saying what isn’t rather than saying what is. It seems like Aquinas employed that, but he also used philosophy to critique philosophy and sort of say, look, philosophy has blind spots as well, so talk about that for a minute.

    MCGINN: Yeah. Well I think we have to remember that the human mind, wonderful as it is, and Thomas had a fantastic appreciation for the powers of the intellect, is finite, it’s a creative mind. God is by nature infinite so that God alone can understand God’s self. God can reveal aspects of his being to us, but he reveals it to us insofar as our minds are limited as well. This is why Thomas strongly insists that we can never know what God is. We can never know what God is because only God can know what God is, only an infinite mind can appreciate the nature of the infinite being of God. Hence everything we know about God, even naturally through philosophy or theologically through revelation, is always geared to the kind of mind that we have, which has necessary limitations.

    So we know we’d better speak about God by saying what God is not than by saying what God is. Thomas repeats this over and over again. We still have to say of course what we can, but we have to recognize that fundamentally anything that we can say is infinitely less than what could be said by God himself. So Thomas is deeply negative or apophatic in all of this theology. As I pointed out before, one way of raising this is Thomas said that we can know that God is, we can argue that God is, but we can never try to argue what God is. What we have are hints, and, if you will, traces of the fact that we know that God is an intellect, we know that God has a will, but how do the divine will and intellect really operate? We can’t know because our minds, our intellects, and wills are finite, and his is infinite.

    HODGES: That’s Bernard McGinn. He’s the author about a biography about a book, a biography of the Summa theologiae, it’s part of Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. This is the Maxwell Institute Podcast. We’ll take a break and come right back.


    BLAIR HODGES: Hey, this is Blair Hodges. First I want to thank you for listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m interrupting my own interview to invite you to help me out. I’m not asking for a lot, I’m just asking you to take a moment to rate this show in the iTunes store, even better write a review in the iTunes store, and tell us why you listen to the podcast, or share a link to the episode on your Facebook wall, Tweet it, burn a CD for your folks, send up smoke signals. If you rate the Maxwell Institute Podcast in the iTunes store that’s the simplest way you can help us, but I also hope that you enjoy these interviews enough to let a few of your friends know about us too. Thanks again for listening.



    HODGES: We’re back with Bernard McGinn. He’s the author of a biography of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae as part of Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. You mentioned just a moment ago that Thomas didn’t get to finish the Summa. What happened there?

    MCGINN: What happened is a very puzzling event. December the sixth of 1273 was the feast of Saint Nicholas. Thomas is living in Naples and trying to finish the Summa. He’d been to the third part of the Summa. Something happens and Thomas never wrote again. When his friend and companion Reginald notices that he’s not himself really and he says, “You haven’t been writing,” Thomas said, “I cannot. I cannot write,” he says, “Everything that I’ve written seems like straw to me.” The account—

    HODGES: That’s a lot of straw then.

    MCGINN: That’s a lot. Exactly. So the medieval hagiographers, the people who wrote the lives of Thomas as a saint, say he had a vision of God and this vision of God told him that he can’t write about God and you’re just going to have to stop.

    Modern interpreters, famous biographers of Thomas like the Dominicans, Jean Pierre Torrell, and James Weisheipl, and others have said if you look at Thomas’s life he had been working himself at an un-human pace for ten or fifteen years, in all of his writing and his journeying and his teaching, and maybe had a breakdown of some description, either a physical or a mental breakdown, or a stroke, because some of the descriptions seem to describe him maybe having had been impaired in some way. Now I don’t think that those explanations are necessarily opposed. He might have had some kind of physical thing, as well as some kind of spiritual experience. But he gave up writing, he’s dead within three months.

    HODGES: Wow. It’s interesting that the end was so, historically speaking, cloudy. That someone at that moment didn’t, or at least that we have a record of—

    MCGINN: Yeah, well even the medical people of that time really didn’t know much about any of these things. Modern conceptions of the stroke, they might have said Thomas needs to rest and he needs to be bled, which is what they did to people then, and etcetera. So what I said to myself it was kind of a combination. He was a man devoted to deep prayer throughout his life, and he might have had a unique prayer experience, contemplative experience, a vision of God in some way, but he also might well have had some kind of a stroke or even some kind of a mental impairment for a while because he worked himself into exhaustion.

    HODGES: So the quote about how he said, “Everything I’ve written is like straw to me,” was that written quite a bit later or was that more contemporary—

    MCGINN: Well it comes from stories told by Reginald and others, so we don’t know.

    HODGES: So it’s at least traced to people who knew him, and it’s not something that appeared out of whole cloth when the hagiographies are being written.

    MCGINN: No. Exactly. We do have accounts of him being more abstracted than ever and is not feeling well so that when he’s journeying to the Council of Pell in Southern France and he has to sit on a mule and then he hits his head against a tree limb or something like that. It sounds like somebody who really was impaired.


    HODGES: That’s really interesting. So then he died, but his work obviously stayed with the church.

    MCGINN: It’s important here to talk about the time immediately after his death in 1274, it’s very controversial the next twenty or thirty years. The Franciscans mount a campaign against him, writing what they call corrections of the Summa. Everybody was reading the Summa, but a number of Franciscans, particularly one English Franciscan, sat down and wrote a correction of the Summa where he goes through and he lists all the places in the Summa that are incorrect or erroneous and gives you the correct view from the Franciscan theologians. Dominicans obviously respond to that and they correct the correction, etc.

    So everybody’s reading Thomas I think because he was so important, but it was very controversial, and it was very controversial until 1323 when he is canonized by—

    HODGES: Briefly describe what that means for my listeners too about canonization.

    MCGINN: Well this means that he’s officially declared a saint by papal authority. Early on in the church people became saints by martyrdom or by kind of general acclimation or local acclimation. Part of the papal organization of the church was to say only the pope can declare a saint, and this is what it’s becoming in the beginning of the thirteenth century, and of course what’s still in Roman Catholicism today, canonization means declaring somebody as saint, putting them in the canon of recognized saints, is a papal prerogative and this is what Pope John XXII does with Thomas Aquinas in 1323. That stops criticism. People are going to continue to disagree with Thomas Aquinas but the notion that there’s a lot of error in there and dangerous stuff, that pretty much is going to be ruled out by the fact that Thomas is recognized as a saint.


    HODGES: So that must have helped in terms of reception history, keeping him a live option. If you can talk briefly about the reception of Thomas, where you talk about Thomists and neo-Thomists. What are those?

    MCGINN: Well from early on, that is from the beginning of the fourteenth century, people begin to talk about Thomists, people who deliberately say, “We’re following the theology of Thomas Aquinas,” now of course they understood that in different ways, so not all Thomists are going to be holding exactly the same views, but the Dominicans for the large part, not all, but most Dominicans, and many of the medieval teachers called themselves Thomists. They were followers in general of the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

    Thomas Aquinas is not the only theologian or the only theological school in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. There were Scotists, who followed the theology of Duns Scotus. There were people who called themselves Albertists who followed the theology of Albert the Great. There were people who called themselves the Moderniste, who followed the critical theology and philosophy of people like William of Ockham and others.

    So there are many schools of theology and I think continue down well into the early modern periods. At the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century the legend is that they put the Summa on the altar at Trent next to the scriptures. That’s the legend. There were Thomists there at the Council of Trent but there were also Franciscans who followed Bonaventure, there were Scotists, there were Augustinian theologians, there were other theologians, and there was a lot of discussion and argument among these various theological schools. Most of the decrees of the Council of Trent try to tread a middle path that would be open to interpretation by the different school according to their own viewpoints.

    So it’s not a Thomist council in any way. Thomas Aquinas doesn’t become a kind of universal or supreme—universal probably would be wrong, supreme would be better—he doesn’t become a supreme teacher until the middle of the nineteenth century when as a revival of Thomas thought that starts about the 1850s or so and for various reasons gets adopted by the papacy. So the famous encyclical of Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris of 1879, declares that Thomas is the teacher, the fundamental and supreme teacher of Roman Catholicism. This was done for a number of political and intellectual reasons that I discuss in the book. So the Catholicism that I grew up in in the 1940s and 1950s was basically the theological world of neo-Thomism.


    HODGES: What sort of doctrines made it neo-Thomism? What were the actual teachings that were characteristic of that?

    MCGINN: Well interestingly enough, most of the teachings that characterized neo-Thomism are actually philosophical teachings more than they were theological teachings. It was also more, in a certain sense of an academic end, educational pattern because Pope Leo and many of his successors in the early twentieth century say you have to teach Thomas Aquinas or you have to teach textbooks based on Thomas Aquinas. Frequently these textbooks however were not very true to Thomas himself. They were often influenced by other interpreters of Thomas. So a lot of the stuff that was taught as Thomism were textbooks that really weren’t adequate to Thomas himself.

    HODGES: Was this like ideas about how creation happened? Or what kind of—

    MCGINN: Sometimes ideas about creation, sometimes ideas about the nature of the human soul, ideas about the relationship of the essence and the existence of things. There were a whole list of more philosophical than theological—

    HODGES: So did it really get down to the Catholic in the pew then?

    MCGINN: What got down to the Catholic in the pew was that Thomas was the great thinker. So most people who went to a Catholic college in those days would have to have read some Thomas Aquinas which is certainly a good thing. Not a lot of the Summa, but some parts of the Summa. All Catholics would know that Thomas Aquinas is our guy.

    HODGES: So he’s kind of looked to like an intellectual powerful figure, or—

    MCGINN: Well he had the answers to all the errors. Part of this you see was a counterattack against modern philosophy, modern science, modern secularism, Thomas was such a comprehensive thinker and such a carefully organized thinker that the neo-Thomists say, look, Thomas is our guy, he’s got all the answers to all these errors that are kind of out there. So it was as much a political event as it was an intellectual event.

    HODGES: That’s interesting because rather than having like a new Thomas like appear on the scene at the time when neo-Thomism became prominent, they looked back to Thomas.


    MCGINN: Yeah. Thomas is an amazing thinker and he does give you a sense of a synthetic and universalizing perspective from which to argue certain kinds of cases. The problem is that both philosophically and theologically Thomas is a great thinker, but there’s no “greatest” thinker. There never has been a greatest thinker. You can say Plato and Aristotle will always be read, but is Plato the greatest philosopher? It’s a mistake. It’s a category error in terms of thought to say somebody is the greatest.

    So Thomas is a great thinker, certainly one of the greatest theologians that Christianity has ever had, but he himself would say that he’s just one theologian among others trying to do his best. So what happened in a certain sense with neo-Thomism then, it was self-defeating because it put Thomas in a position that no one should ever be put in. The second reason why we felt that being that it had a very unhistorical view of Thomas Aquinas, that is that he’s kind of a mind that floats free of all time, giving the answer to all questions. We know that questions change. Things develop. Modern philosophy takes up issues that Thomas had never thought of, nor could he have thought of in his own time.

    So to de-historicize Thomas and to put him in this position as the supreme teacher was actually a big, big mistake that eventually was more or less realized. By the 1930s and 1940s you know, despite the fact that papal authority’s still saying Thomas is our guy, great thinkers are already saying, “Well, Thomas is a wonderful thinker, I’m very inspired, but I have to take up these new questions, philosophical and theological.” So neo-Thomism was hollowed out from within already in the 1950s, and then when the Second Vatican Council came along everybody—

    HODGES: In the sixties, right?


    MCGINN: In the 1960s, 1963-1965. Suddenly people say, “Thomas is great. But there’s all this other theology, and there are all these other important issues that Thomas could never have thought of that we need to confront.” So neo-Thomism collapses. Some people say, “Oh, that was awful.” There are still people who were running around saying this was the worst thing that ever happened. I think it was the best thing that ever happened for Thomas Aquinas because it enabled the new generation, now two generations of theologians and philosophers, to go back to Thomas himself and to see what’s really still useful and what’s important in what he said, and what is time-bound and also not even perhaps correct.

    One of the great German scholars of Thomas described the situation since Vatican Two as, “Thomas is finally released from house arrest.” Because he had been kept under house arrest, and now he’s free to be himself.

    HODGES: So it’s more of a springboard now, rather than someone who you have to basically just say, “I affirm everything he affirmed” sort of thing.

    MCGINN: Exactly. I think what’s made is a very creative period for the study of Thomas Aquinas because we can study him now on his own, we can see him back in his historical context, we can study him for the wonderful things that he does and still worth thinking about, we don’t have to say everything he said was right, or that he’s the ultimate answer to all problems. We need to recognize theology has always been a rich symphony and that issues develop that need to be spoken of in today’s language and with today’s modes of thinking that are very different from what Thomas Aquinas’s were.


    HODGES: Since they are different what would you say to your average Catholic in the pew, or to people from different religious traditions about why it would be worthwhile to still engage with the Summa?

    MCGINN: Well it’s like engaging with any great thinker. In Christianity we think of Augustine’s Confessions, or we think of some of the writings of Luther’s on the freedom of the Christian, or you can think of writings of Jonathan Edwards, or William James, in the tradition of American theological and philosophic writings. These are great thinkers. To engage with really great minds like that, even when they’re far from us historically, or when we might not necessarily agree with everything that they say, is an opening up of mind and I think that’s why I find Thomas so inspiring and engaging for me. It gives me energy, energizing, I guess is the word.

    I would say to others I invite you to try that as well. Thomas is difficult reading because it’s very spare and very scientific and articulate, but if you penetrate beyond the letter and the structure, you see one of the great minds at work, and a mind worth thinking along with.

    HODGES: I think that’s great. People who are interested in that can, rather than trying to digest the entire Summa, maybe they can begin with this short book that’s part of Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. It’s Bernard McGinn’s Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. It’s a great book. I really appreciate you taking the time today to talk to me.

    MCGINN: Okay. Thank you, Blair. I wrote that book as an introduction to try to inspire people to pick up the Summa.

    HODGES: Well in my case your book was a success.

    MCGINN: Okay, that’s great. I really appreciated talking with you.

    HODGES: Yeah, this was great.