- Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait by Denys Turner
Introductions to St. Thomas Aquinas, which have been legion in recent decades, fall into three categories—the historian’s, the philosopher’s, and the theologian’s—although there is inevitably a degree of overlap among them. This study by Denys Turner (Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology at Yale), despite a chapter of contextualization of Aquinas the Dominican and subsequent references to such controversies as the Parisian quarrels over mendicant university chairs and the crisis over Latin Averroism, does not fall into the category of the historian’s book. Although the only slip noted was the (seeming) identification of Hugh of St.-Victor as a monk rather than canon regular, the weakness of the “portrait,” historically considered, lies in its relative inattention to Aquinas the biblical commentator (although the interesting suggestion is made that a Thomasian synthesis might be constructed from Aquinas’s lectures on St. John’s Gospel) and its almost complete silence on Aquinas the eager collector of patristic texts. This of itself may alert the reader to the fact that Turner’s Thomas Aquinas is not a theologian’s study either. It is, in fact, a philosopher’s book—although one of an unusual philosopher passionately wedded to Christian orthodoxy and greatly stimulated by theological themes.
Turner’s own intellectual odyssey is unusual. It involved a training in Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy combined with an early commitment to Marxism and more recently a delight in exploring the experiential claims, or assumptions, of the medieval mystics. These tools—and concerns—surface in Turner’s treatment of Aquinas that emphasizes the logical defensibility of some of his characteristic positions such as the “materialism,” or high doctrine of matter, found in his writing and the apophaticism of his account of God. More specifically, the book is much [End Page 814] indebted to the late-twentieth-century English Dominican Herbert McCabe, whose inspiration is suitably noted. The notion of human beings as linguistic animals, the dislike of assertoric theologies of divine being, the minimalization of the Platonist elements in Aquinas’s thought, the presentation of grace as divine friendship, the robust rejection of logical critiques of the two-natures doctrine of Chalcedon, the account of the Eucharistic conversion as trans-signification or transformation of meaning, even the downplaying of the monastic (or “canonical”) elements in the Dominican life—these are hallmarks of Herbertianism even if Turner gives some of them original twists such as that on the rationale of the Incarnation (an especially fine section).
A less attractive feature shared with the same source is the rhetorical trope whereby the reader is knocked off balance by some maximally radical statements in the hope that he or she will not recover in time to establish its implausibility. A good example runs: “It is, for sure, no overstatement to say that for Thomas theology is but an extended meditation on the meaning of bread and wine, a reflection on what they really are” (p. 268, emphasis in original). Overstatement is, of course, exactly what this assertion is.
With some help from the publisher (according to the author), the style adopted aims at accessibility to a general audience beyond the academy. In this aim Thomas Aquinas. A Portrait succeeds very well indeed. The book buzzes with excitement, but its relentless exclusion of so many of the biblical and creedal topics of sacra doctrina in Aquinas’s work makes it more of a personal testimony to a twofold debt (Thomas and McCabe) than a rounded account of a thirteenth-century divine.