Summa Theologica


Summa Theologica
(Summa Theologiae)
   by Saint Thomas Aquinas
(1265–1272)
   The most successful medieval attempt to compile an integrated and systematic Christian philosophy is Saint Thomas AQUINAS’s Summa Theologica (Summa [or Compilation] of theology). Aquinas began the Summa in about 1265, and left it unfinished upon his death. In it, he attempts to reconcile Christian theology with Greek philosophy, in particular the philosophy of Aristotle. For this task, he was able to rely on new Latin translations of the philosopher made by his fellow Dominican friar William of Moerbecke.
   Aquinas indicates that his Summa Theologica is intended as an orderly synthesis for beginning students of Christian theology (thus it is not intended, for example, as an argument addressed to nonbelievers). It reiterates some of the ideas from his earlier and less systematic Summa Contra Gentiles. To some extent, Aquinas is countering some of the issues raised at the University of Paris in the 13th century by the study of the Muslim philosopher AVERROËS’s commentaries on Aristotle. These ideas, particularly Averroës’s denial of individual immortality, had led to the doctrine of the “double truth,” that certain things might be proved true by reason, but that their opposite should be believed true as a matter of faith. For Aquinas, truth was indivisible, and the truth of philosophical reason must be in accord with the truth of divine revelation. The Summa demonstrates that human reason can prove some of the tenets of faith, such as, for Aquinas, the existence of God; reason can also illuminate some of the truths of faith that cannot be proven; and sometimes, the assumptions of philosophers that contradict those of faith can be shown to be unsupported by reason. Thomas divides the Summa into four major sections: part one deals with questions of sacred doctrine, the unity of God, the holy Trinity, the created world, angels, the six days of Creation, man, and on divine government. The first part of the second part considers questions of man’s end, human actions, passions, habits, vices, and sins, followed by questions of law and of grace. The second part of the second part reflects on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and finally acts pertaining to certain men. The incomplete third part looks at the incarnation and the life of Christ, the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, extreme unction, holy orders, and matrimony, and ends by considering the resurrection. The complete Summa comprises 38 tracts divided into 631 questions, subdivided into about 3,000 separate articles.
   Each individual article of the Summa follows the dialectic method advocated by the scholastic philosophers of the high Middle Ages. The article is worded as a question, such as, for example “Whether the Natural Law Can Be Changed?” (the fifth article of Question 94 in the first part of the second part). For each article Aquinas first enumerates some “objections,” or arguments against his own position, such as “the slaying of the innocent, adultery and theft are against the natural law. But we find these things changed by God: as when God commanded Abraham to slay his innocent son” (Thomas Aquinas 1947, I, 1011).He then says “On the contrary,” and cites a quotation that supports his own view, usually from the Scriptures, from Aristotle, or from one of the church fathers like St.AUGUSTINE. In this particular article, he cites the Decretals (the most influential work of medieval canon law) as saying “The natural law dates from the creation of the rational creature. It does not vary according to time, but remains unchangeable” (Thomas Aquinas 1947, I, 1012). He always follows this assertion by the main body of his argument, beginning with the phrase “I answer that. . . .” Finally, he ends the article by explicitly countering each of the opposing arguments with which he had begun the question; for example, his reply to the above objection, while somewhat lengthy, ends with the contention that “in natural things, whatever is done by God is, in some way, natural” (Thomas Aquinas 1947, I, 1012). Although several of its conclusions were officially condemned by the church in 1277, shortly after Aquinas’s death, in subsequent centuries the Summa Theologica became essentially an expression of the official theological position of the Roman Catholic Church. It remains to this day the most influential book of its kind ever written.
   Bibliography
   ■ Clark, Mary T., ed. An Aquinas Reader. Rev. ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.
   ■ Davies, Brian. Aquinas. London and New York: Continuum, 2002.
   ■ Eco, Umberto. The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. Translated by Hugh Bredin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.
   ■ Thomas Aquinas, Saint. Summa Theologiae. Cambridge: Blackfriars, 1964ff.
   ■ ———.Summa Theologica. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 3 vols. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947.
   Malene A. Little

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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