Wednesday, March 7, 2012

St. Thomas Aquinas, Master of the Sacred Page

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].


Rob B. said...

As a teacher, I consider Aquinas to be one of my patron saints. What I find fascinating about him is that he was both a rationalist and a mystic. He combined the two great paths to spiritual knowledge in his own life, especially when he said, "I can write no more. Compared with what I have seen, what I have written seems as straw."

Michael1 said...

You are right to stress the significance of work on Scripture in obtaining the degree of Master at Paris. Nevertheless, the most significant part of work for the final degree was to provide a commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. It was Aquinas' detailed - and absolutely massive - Commentary, a theological rather than exegetic work, which earned him both his degree and his European reputation. I have always felt sorrow for later students at Paris who were still required to say something new in their theses. The Sentences remained the compulsory text for several hundred years.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, you are right to emphasize the importance of the Sentences of the Master ... still, do not forget that St. Thomas' inaugural lecture as a Master was on Scripture (namely, on the unity of the whole of Scripture) ... Fr. Torrell points this out.

Further, the dogmatic work and systematic study of the Sentences was principally taught to beginners ... but the expert and most advanced classes would generally deal primarily with Biblical Exegesis.

[this is why his Summa Theologica is for beginners, and the commentaries on Paul's Epistles were for the more advanced students]

But, as I say, thank you for pointing out the importance of the Sentences as well.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Pope Pius IX; Studiorum Ducem,
“We so heartily approve the magnificent tribute of praise bestowed upon this most divine genius that We consider that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic, but also the Common or Universal Doctor of the Church; for the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own, as innumerable documents of every kind attest. It would be an endless task to explain here all the reasons which moved Our Predecessors in this respect, and it will be sufficient perhaps to point out that Thomas wrote under the inspiration of the supernatural spirit which animated his life and that his writings, which contain the principles of, and the laws governing, all sacred studies, must be said to possess a universal character"

George Weigel, “Witness to Hope,”... "John Paul did not appoint a medievalist or a patristics scholar as Prefect of CDF. He appointed a theologian who had been deeply and critically engaged with contemporary philosophy and ecumenical theology.
Cardinal Ratzinger was the first man in his position in centuries who did not take Thomas Aquinas as his philosophical and theological master. The Pope respected Thomism and Thomists, but he broke precedent by appointing a non-Thomistic Prefect of CDF...."

Prudential Error to appoint as Prefect of The CDF a man who was not a Thomist?

Riverside said...

Is there a realiable English translation of the Sentences?

Shandon Belle said...

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William J Quinn said...

This man has been my life-long delight, for in disputation and analysis, scripture trumps. But above all that is the Church in the final analysis, for he said that if the Church told him to he would instantaneously put a match to all his writings. Viva Thomas!-the quintessential Catholic.

Rob B. said...

@I am not Spartacus,

Well, most of what passes for modern philosophy these days is anti-rational. Perhaps John Paul II figured that in order to fight the enemy, he needed someone who knew the enemy.

Steven R said...

I am Not Sparticus,
I don't think it's necessarily bad that then Cardinal Ratzinger and now Pope Benedict XVI is not a Thomist, but I would not state that he is anti-Thomist or rejects Thomism. Pope Benedict XVI was more thoroughly interested in St. Bonaventure and St. Augustine, two Doctors of the Church, and the Pope's addresses to the people strike me as particularly Augustinian in their emphasis on the new life to be had in Christ, and the deep life in prayer that transfigures us into what we must become. I do not think this sort of thought is absent at all in St. Thomas, but I know the Pope has been quite a blessing to me in his very faithful and cogent addresses.

You can find a Franciscan website that has a project of translating the Sentences of Peter Lombard into English. They are free online:

If you want to purchase an English translation you can find some on, but they are not cheap:

The Sentences Book One: The Mystery of the Trinity

The Sentences Book Two: On Creation

The Sentences Book Three: On the Incarnation of the Word

The Sentences Book Four: On the Doctrine of Signs

I post all these long links because it's very hard to actually find these books on unless you put in the titles of each of the Four Books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard.

God bless,
Steven Reyes

Derek said...

Fr. Ryan,

As a lover of philosophy, theology, and the Scriptures; as a fan of the Angelic Doctor; and as a student of virtuous living effected by prayer, thank you for this post. You have reminded me, again, why clear philosophy, theology, and the Bible are core elements of my spirituality.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

It is certainly true that Our Holy Father was not trained as a Thomist for no Thomist would make the following startling assertions:

God and the World, Believing and Living in Our Time (2000)

In their discussion of the Real Presence, Mr. Seewald makes the following statement concerning Cardinal Ratzinger’s proclaimed belief in transubstantiation and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “But anyone can see that the wine remains wine…”

Cardinal Ratzinger’s reply is as follows:

“But this is not a statement of physics. It has never been asserted that, so to say, nature in a physical sense is being changed. The transformation reaches down to a more profound level. Tradition has it that this is a metaphysical process. Christ lays hold upon what is, from a purely physical viewpoint, bread and wine, in its inmost being, so that it is changed from within and Christ truly gives himself in them

God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, The Heart of Life (2003)

“The transformation happens, which affects the gifts we bring by taking them up into a higher order and changes them, even if we cannot measure what happens. When material things are taken into our body as nourishment, or for that matter whenever any material becomes part of a living organism, it remains the same, and yet as part of a new whole it is itself changed. Something similar happens here. The Lord takes possession of the bread and the wine; he lifts them up, as it were, out of the setting of their normal existence into a new order; even if, from a purely physical point of view, they remain the same , they have become profoundly different.”

That certainly reads more like the doctrine of of one Martin Luther than Catholic Dogma.

So, maybe there was a prudential error made by Pope Blessed John Paul II when , for the first time in more than 100 years, he chose as the Prefect of The CDF a Prelate who had not mastered the basics of Thomism and Being, and Substance, and Accidents, etc etc

Steven R said...

I am Not Sparticus,
Ah, yes it might seem as though our blessed Pope Benedict XVI has made an error regarding our most Holy Sacrament, Christ Himself, the Way, the Life, and the Truth; however, as you may like to see Fr. Erlenbush so well puts it in his post:

The only difference between Christ's body in heaven and Christ's body in the Eucharist

that Pope Benedict XVI's quote on the Body and Blood of Christ not effecting a purely physical change is quite correct, however this does not mean it is not a real change as our good priest has mentioned in his post, it is a metaphysical change wherein the species, the appearance, of the bread and wine remains, and even the physical properties may remain but they have been changed metaphysically, they have mysteriously been taken up and transformed into Christ's Body and Blood.

Perhaps I am wrong regarding this matter, because the Eucharist is a very mysterious Sacrament to me. I defer to Fr. Erlenbush's wisdom on the matter.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Steve R. and I am not Spartacus,

While I do believe that Pope Benedict (now and in the past) is no Thomist, and further that he is in many respects quite anti-Thomistic and anti-Scholastic (hence, he is no Bonaventurian either [whatever anyone may say]); he is most certainly not a heretic.

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