March 7th, 1274 – The Angel of the Schools, completing his earthly pilgrimage, is born to his eternal reward
St. Thomas Aquinas, the Common and Angelic Doctor, once called the Dumb Ox, is known today primarily as a dogmatic theologian. However, in his own time, St. Thomas was recognized as a Magister in Sacra Pagina, a “Master of the Sacred Page”, that is to say, a biblical scholar.
Considering that his primary work in the University of Paris was commentary on various books of the Bible – especially the Pauline Epistles – and recognizing that the true mark of a theological master in the Scholastic period (perhaps more then than in any period before or after) was the exegesis of Sacred Scripture, we are not surprised to learn of the pious legend (which, I believe, is also an historical fact) that, on his death bed, the greatest son of St. Dominic dictated a commentary on the Song of Songs.
Scholastic Theology as Biblical Theology
In the opening pages of St. Thomas’ most comprehensive and influential work, the Summa Theologica, the student of Sacred Theology is directed by the Common Doctor not primarily to the philosophers of ancient Greece, nor to the learned Fathers of the Church, nor even to the Ecumenical Councils, but to the text of Sacred Scripture. While the science of theology does indeed make use of the authority and teaching of philosophers, St. Thomas warns us that these only provide extrinsic and probable arguments. Rather, theology properly uses Sacred Scripture as the sole authority for certain and incontrovertible arguments.
Fr. Jean-Pierre Torrell, among others, has noted the important place which Scripture occupied in the medieval schools. The “master” of the scholastic period was given the title of Doctor Sacrae Scripturae or Magister in Sacra Pagina – witnessing to the close union between the study of Sacred Doctrine and the study of Sacred Scripture. The university master was entrusted with the triple function of legere, disputare, praedicare – to comment on the Scriptures, to dispute dubious questions, to preach.
Nor can these three functions be separated for, as Peter Cantor wrote: “It is after the lectio of Scriputre and after the examination of doubtful points thanks to the disputatio, and not before, that we must preach.” Of these three functions, legere, the verse-by-verse commentary of the sacred text was the primary task of the master of theology.
St. Thomas, the exegete
Though St. Thomas’ biblical commentaries, which are in large part the fruit of his school lectures, have in the past often been neglected in favor of his systematic works, this biblical teaching method (commenting on Scripture, verse-by-verse) was his ordinary work.
Thus Fr. Torrell admonishes contemporary students of the Angelic Doctor, “If we wish, therefore, to get a slightly less one-sided idea of the whole theologian and his method, it is imperative to read and use in a much deeper fashion these biblical commentaries in parallel with the great systematic works.”
Ralph McInerny, in agreement with Fr. Torrell, offered a similar appraisal of St. Thomas’ work: “There was a time when students of St. Thomas did not accord his biblical commentaries the importance they have. By training, Thomas was magister sacrae paginae, a master of Holy Writ. His inaugural sermon as a master dealt with Scripture. In Scripture is the fons et origo of all his theology. […] One comes from the biblical commentaries to Thomas’s theology with a far better chance of appreciating the depth of his knowledge and above all its ultimate source.”
Getting a first taste of Angelic Biblical Exegesis
So, we recognize that, in order to appreciate St. Thomas, we must appreciate him as a biblical theologian. Still, we ask, How can a beginning student of Thomism get a first tastes of St. Thomas’ biblical work?
Certainly, there is the popular, Catena Aurea – in which St. Thomas arranges various commentaries from the Church Fathers on the four Gospels, uniting these diverse Patristic texts into a single harmonious and, indeed, “golden” chain. It never hurts to read this “gloss”, this collection of biblical commentaries from the early Church – and there is an English edition which was translated by Bl. John Henry Newman, available [here].
On the other hand, St. Thomas’ genius is more clearly seen in his own commentaries – especially that on the Gospel of John [here].
Further, we might recommend the commentaries on the Pauline Epistles, some of which are available [here].
But, truly, all of this might be a bit much for the beginner. Hence, I would first recommend getting a taste for the biblical commentaries of St. Thomas by jumping into the exegetical portions of the Summa Theologica.
Biblical Commentary in the Summa Theologica
Many people do not even realize that, hidden away in the third part of the Summa, St. Thomas has an extensive commentary on the life of Christ as presented in the Gospels. Take a look at ST III, qq.27-59.
Though this is not verse-by-verse exegesis, it is clearly biblical theology, for St. Thomas studies such details of Scripture as: Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? How long did it take for the Wise Men to arrive? Was the changing of water to wine the first miracle? And why? Why did our Savior prefer Peter, James and John? etc.
Another highly exegetical portion of the Summa is found in ST I, qq.65-74, in which St. Thomas offers an extensive commentary on the creation of the world as recounted in Genesis 1 (and 2).
When reading these portions of the Summa, we become convinced of the profoundly biblical foundation of St. Thomas’ thought. Once we recognize the Angelic Doctor as a true Master of the Sacred Page, we will see this exegetical impulse throughout all his writings.
For a better way of reading the Summa (that is, better than simply trying to slog through it page by page, from the beginning to the end), consider our earlier article [here].