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Thomas Aquinas’s "Summa theologiae": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books)
Thomas Aquinas’s "Summa theologiae": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books)
Bernard McGinn
Princeton University Press, 2014
272 pp., $24.95

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Joshua P. Hochschild


The Life of the "Summa"

A "biography" of Thomas Aquinas's masterwork.

Much-remarked about Princeton's series on religious classics is the cleverness of offering "biographies" of books. Once upon a time, critical theory taught us to treat everything, even persons, as texts; now we have come to the point that we can treat texts as persons. It is as if postmodernism has turned back on itself and wound up producing old-fashioned historical literary studies. How refreshing indeed, not to deconstruct greatness but to acknowledge it and trace its influence.

Less remarked about the series is what counts as a "religious book." The published and forthcoming volumes treat a very wide variety of works, serving as a reminder of how disparate are things that can be covered by that sociological category, "religious." There are liturgical texts (the Book of Common Prayer, the Haggadah), inspired sacred texts, actual or alleged (Genesis, Job, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Mormon), a book of apologetics (Mere Christianity), meditations and personal reflections (Bonhoeffer, Augustine), a history (Josephus' Jewish War), poems (Rumi's Masnavi, the Song of Songs), and collections of aphorisms (Indian sutras, Confucius' Analects). (Genres not represented: collection of sermons, treatise, Scripture commentary, hagiography, catechism.)

In this whole list, there is not anything else quite like Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae. What sort of "religious text" is the Summa? There is a beginner's mistake, to treat this dense and sprawling work as something like an encyclopedia, a reference work for looking up answers. But answers to what? (An old joke defines a Thomist as someone with an answer to what you didn't even know was a question.) Another mistake is to treat it as a work of apologetics, setting out to prove one or another part of the Christian worldview. (Pity the generations of freshman philosophy students introduced to Aquinas through "the five ways.")

We could call ...

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