January 28th, Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas
The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas is, without question, the greatest work of theology ever written. And yet, because of the length of the treatise – some six hundred fifteen question of up to six or even eight articles, in three (or four) volumes – even the most avid fans of the Angel of the Schools find it difficult to read the whole Summa.
In this post, we intend to give an indication of not only how to read any particular portion of the Summa, but also of how to succeed in reading the whole work.
The structure of the Summa Theologica
St. Thomas’ Summa is divided into four parts: the first part, Summa Theologica I (ST I); the first part of the second part (ST I-II); the second part of the second part (ST II-II); and the third part (ST III), to this is added the “Supplement” completed by Reginald of Piperno from St. Thomas’ early writings.
1) The first part (ST I) considers God, the Trinity, and creation (especially men and angels).
2a) The first part of the second part (ST I-II) deals with morals in general – considering everything from happiness, to virtue and vice, as well as the gifts of the Holy Spirit and grace.
2b) The second part of the second part (ST II-II) is on specific moral theology – dealing with the virtues and vices in particular, and also with vocational callings.
3) Finally, the third part (ST III) considers Christ Jesus himself and also the sacraments he instituted.
4) Lastly, there is the “Supplement” which was added to the Summa, since St. Thomas never finished this work – the Supplement deals with some of the sacraments and also considers the end of time and the second coming of our Savior (it is made up from the commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard which St. Thomas made as a young man).
How to read a portion of the Summa
The Summa is divided into questions, which are sub-divided into articles. Thus, for example, the thirty-fourth question of the third part considers the perfection of the Christ in his conception and is divided into four articles [read the question here]:
ST III, q.34, a.1 – Whether Christ was sanctified in the first instant of his conception?
a. 2 – Whether Christ as man had the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception?
a. 3 – Whether Christ could merit in the first instant of his conception?
a. 4 – Whether Christ was a perfect comprehensor in the first instant of his conception?
When considering any particular article, we notice that there are essentially four parts: Objections (videtur), appeal to authority (sed contra), theological proof (respondeo), and replies to objections (dicendum quod).
Now, it is helpful to the modern mind that, when reading any particular article, we begin first by reading the first words of the first objection: In the case of ST III, q.34, a.2 [read the article here], the first objection begins, “It would seem that Christ as man had not the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception.” Because this is an objection which will be disproven, this means that the basic answer which St. Thomas gives is that our Lord did have the use of free-will even in his humanity from the first moment he was conceived in the womb of his Mother.
Then, without reading the rest of the objections, we proceed to the sed contra, or “On the contrary” (in which St. Thomas will appeal to an authority to settle the issue). In this particular case, St. Thomas appeals to St. Augustine (though really to St. Gregory the Great) who writes (Regist. Ix, Ep. 61): “As soon as the Word entered the womb, while retaining the reality of his nature, he was made flesh, and a perfect man.” St. Thomas concludes, “But a perfect man has the use of free-will. Therefore Christ had the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception.”
From this we clearly see the basic answer of St. Thomas: Our Lord, even as an embryo in the womb, was in full possession of his rational faculties including the freedom of his will.
Next, we consider the “I answer that”, which is the body of the argument. This is the most important portion of the article, since it is here that St. Thomas will explain the theological point in question.
Finally, we return to the objections and consider each together with St. Thomas’ replies.
Thus the over-all plan for each article is as follows:
1) First sentence of the first objection.
2) “On the contrary”
3) “I answer that”, or body of the article
4) Objections and replies
(those interested in a further discussion of the theological point of this article – that Christ, from the moment of his conception, had attained to the use of reason – may consider our previous articles [here] and [here])
Two methods of reading the Summa Theologica
There are two popular ways of attempting to read the Summa of St. Thomas, but neither is often successful.
First, there is the “curious” or “casual” approach to the Summa. This is the habit of picking up the Summa at random and opening to a particular question without reading anything of the immediate context. For example, one might hear that St. Thomas believes that war can sometimes be justified and so turns to ST II-II, q.40, without considering anything of the context of the question (that, for example, St. Thomas deals with war as a vice contrary to the theological virtue of charity).
Now, I do not intend to completely discredit this first approach to the Summa – even if it is a bit “curious” (which, according to the Angelic Doctor, is a vice contrary to temperance [cf. ST II-II, q.167]), at least the reader is exposed to something of St. Thomas’ thought!
There is a second approach which goes to the opposite extreme: Some will attempt to read the whole Summa by starting at the very beginning and reading word for word through the whole work. Generally, such an approach becomes extremely laborious, and the individual gives up somewhere around the discussion of man’s spirit and nature (in ST I, q.75 and following).
While this second approach respects the internal structure of the Summa, and is surely the best method, as following the system intended by St. Thomas himself; it can tend to be a bit dry and very tedious.
Another (better) way of reading the Summa
I would like to present one way of reading the Summa which combines something of a methodological system together with topics of interest to the modern man. It is possible to read the Summa from back to front – many would find the Summa much more interesting if they began with the end and read backwards to the beginning. Let me explain.
I would suggest starting with the third part, questions twenty-seven through fifty-nine, which deal with the life of Christ and are closely related to the Scriptures. This portion of the Summa (a part which many people do not even realize exists) deals with the various events and mysteries in our Savior’s life, death, and resurrection. Thus, it is far more interesting to the modern man than the more theoretical discussions of the first part.
Now, starting with the treatise on the life of Christ, one could read the Summa backwards by taking the time to look up all of the references which St. Thomas makes to earlier questions and articles – the Angel of the Schools regularly references earlier portions of the Summa and, when reading the questions dealing with Jesus’ life on earth, one could pause after each article and take the time to look up all the citations to earlier articles in the Summa.
In this manner, one would be reading the Summa backwards – but the study would be very interesting, since it would be driven by the Scriptural account of Jesus’ life. Each time an earlier portion of the Summa is cited, one could go back and read that article, and then could continue to go back further still to read any previous articles which are cited.
Let us take an example: ST III, q.34, a.2 – Whether Christ as man had the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception? In this article, St. Thomas refers to a.1 of the same question, as well as to ST III, q.33, a.2, and ST III, q.11, a.2. Taking the reference to the question immediately previous (q.33), which refers to an article in which St. Thomas shows that our Lord possessed a human soul from the first instant of his conception, we then are directed to ST III, q.6, a.1 and 2). In the second article of question six, one is directed to the first part of the Summa (ST I, q.62, a.8; q.64, a.2). Thus, we have been led from the consideration of the life of Christ to the treatise on the Incarnation (III, q.6) to the treatise on the angels (I, q.62 and q.64). From here, we could continue to proceed further back still!
A plan for reading the Summa
Personally, I would recommend beginning with ST I, q.1, a.1-10. This question serves as a prologue for the rest of the Summa and stands on its own.
After the first question, one might proceed to ST III, qq.27-59, which deal with the life of Jesus (and are particularly Scriptural in nature). Looking up the citations to previous questions in the Summa would cover well the treatise on the Incarnation (III, qq.1-26) and also a good portion of the first part of the Summa.
After the treatise on the Incarnation, I recommend proceeding to the treatise on the Sacraments: ST III, qq.60 – Suppl. q.68.
Then, fall back to the treatise on virtues: ST II-II. If one were to look up all the references in the second part of the second part of the Summa, the first part of the second part would be well covered.
After all of this, looking up references all along, it would be good to skim through the whole of the Summa from start to finish, taking extra time with any article or question which is unfamiliar.
Special attention should be given to the treatises on the Trinity (I, qq.27-43), on the angels (I, qq.50-64), on grace (I-II, qq.109-114), on the Incarnation (III, qq.1-16), and on the Eucharist (III, qq.73-83).These portions of the Summa contain the most significant insights of the Angelic Doctor.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Pray for us!