Thomas Aquinas Theologian

Thomas Aquinas Theologian

Vogel, Arthur A

Thomas Aquinas Theologian. By Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P. Notre Dame, IN and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. vi + 302 pp. $36.00 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

In this book Thomas O’Meara seeks to redress the centuries-old error of over-emphasizing Aquinas’s philosophy at the expense of his theological concern with life in the order of grace. The author’s goal is to rehabilitate St. Thomas as a theologian who used the best knowledge of his time to express his faith, rather than being a metaphysician who only used the Bible to illustrate his philosophy.

The opening chapter on the life and career of Aquinas helpfully leads the reader to an understanding of both the man and his time. The nature and intention of scholasticism are sympathetically and helpfully presented. Throughout the book the author insightfully opens the religious intentions of St. Thomas to the concerns of our world.

Stressing Aquinas’s theology rather than his philosophy, O’Meara focuses primarily on the Summa theologiae, written in the last ten years of Aquinas’s life. In his theological exposition, Aquinas drew heavily from John of Damascus, Augustine, Plato, Aristotle, and the Gospels of Luke and John. He was the first thirteenth-century scholastic to quote from Chalcedon. Although using the best thought of his day to express his faith, the central theme of Aquinas’s thought was always life in the order of grace.

In our day Aquinas is often represented, and consequently misunderstood, as an essentialist. O’Meara rightly stresses the radical primacy of the existential act in Aquinas’s understanding of God and human life. God is always God-in-act, and the activity of God pervades the Summa. O’Meara sees the flow of the Summa as “the vast roiling activity of God pouring forth within the life of the Trinity which then acts outward, setting forth a universe of natures, human life, incarnation in Jesus Christ, and sacraments of grace” CP 87).

God, whose sovereign power produces other beings, is both the source and destiny of the universe. The goal of Christian living is happiness, and happiness, an activity, is attained only through action. God’s life is joyful, and that life is our end. God is active in every created act by sustaining it in being, but, in addition to such presence, he calls human beings to a richer mode of existence in grace, where we live with God as his friends and members of his family.

The author sees predestination in Aquinas’s thought as God’s predestining us to a higher, supernatural order of life rather than a predetermination of what we will do and what will happen to us. In the incarnation, the divine Word uses Jesus as the Word’s human agent-an instance of instrumental causation in the action of God. Ministers of the church are also instrumental causes, moved through their free wills by the command and presence of Jesus. St. Thomas died before treating the sacrament of Orders in the Summa; he did not discuss the possibility of women being ordained, but what he did write about the role of women showed him to be a man of his time greatly influenced by the Old Testament. O’Meara agrees that, when Aquinas speaks about the priest acting in persona Christi, that role is fulfilled by the priest’s reciting Jesus’ consecratory words in the eucharist rather than the priest’s being male.

Discussing the problem of evil, Aquinas is said to offer more a metaphysical than a theological answer, viz., that “the perfection of the universe requires a certain inequality in beings so that all levels of good can be present. . . .” (p. 103). For this reviewer, the discussion of the Trinity in the Summa and in O’Meara’s contemporary explication of it offer the greatest inadequacies in the study. Trinitarian processions are described as “emanations” and it is said “that the Son as Word is generated out of the Godhead” (p. 127). Any understanding of the Persons of the Trinity emanating from an impersonal Godhead somehow prior to them is totally antibiblical and antirevelatory. It is a case where the primacy of being qua being denies revelation instead of sustaining it.

Discussing “Thomas Aquinas Today,” Fr. O’Meara says the reason Aquinas’s thought has allowed different applications of his ideas for seven hundred years is that the thrust of his thought, in spite of being culturally conditioned, is so radically incarnational. His insights invite us to pass beyond his own culturally limited expression. Thomas’s theology is a theology of encounter with different perspectives and worldviews; it is a dialectical theology and becomes sterile only when isolated and protected from what is new to it.

Chapter 4 describes the expansion of Aquinas’s thought over the centuries into Thomism, or rather into the various neo-Thomisms which developed from it. The author contends that a number of readings of the Summa are legitimate. The greatest damage, he maintains, was done at the beginning of this century when many used Aquinas “as a judge ruling against what was new or different” (p. 171). In that period Aquinas’s thought was held to be timeless and was almost identified with revelation itself. The Chapter concludes with a brief discussion of fourteen different twentieth-century theologians who have been influenced by Aquinas, a list including such familiar names as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Yves Congar, Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx.

The study concludes with the statement that “Aquinas’s thinking offers insights and principles but it does not give final systems or universal conclusions” (p. 251). To the great credit of the author and of his appreciation of his subject, at the end of this book, the reader feels a lived familiarity with a person-with Thomas’s lived ambitions and goals-not the relief of having finished an involved academic presentation. Though chapters are long, this study of Aquinas generates enthusiasm of living religious insight, not the tedium of formal, abstarct philosophical analysis.


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