31 July 2001

which aquinas?

St. Thomas Aquinas has had a hard time of it. For over five centuries he was left mouldering beneath various layers of misinterpretation and distortion, perpetrated often by those claiming to best represent his interests. Then, finally, in the 19th century, at the height of Thomistic neo-scholasticism, there began to be a systematic questioning of the tradition. Scholars like Maurice Blondel, Erich Przywara, Joseph Maréchal, Henri de Lubac, Étienne Gilson, and others began to retrieve Thomas' authentic teaching, a project that continues unabated to this day, even if no full consensus has emerged.

Of particular note in this connection are two books, one recently published and the other to be released shortly (though I've seen parts of it already).

The first is Truth in Aquinas by John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock (Routledge, 2001). In a brief hundred pages or so they present a dense and exquisite account of Thomas Aquinas' theory of truth, building on the recent work of Michel Corbin, John Jenkins, Mark Jordan, Rudi te Velde, and others. It is difficult and technical reading, but the results are stunning. They argue, in part, the following:

[1] Truth, for Aquinas, is not merely an epistemological notion, but an ontological one, involving a real proportion between being and intelligence and their transcendental interconvertibility.

[2] In the case of the human mind, this means we need a model of truth as known in the act of mind - an event between knower and known - and not just as reflected in the mind as if in a passive mirror.

[3] Such an account of truth is irreducibly theological, rooted, as it is for Thomas, in the eternal intra-relations of the Trinity.

[4] Reason and faith, it follows, are not two different kinds of operations, but simply different degrees of human participation in the one divine light of illumination.

[5] Thus proper reason, for Thomas, requires faith since it presupposes the gift of grace and so there is no philosophical approach to God independent of theology and revelation.

[6] The rest of Milbank and Pickstock's book explicates these views of Thomas Aquinas in terms of his theology of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the liturgy, particularly the Eucharist.

The second book is due to be released in November - Aquinas: Conflicting Versions of Thomism by Fergus Kerr, OP (Blackwell Publishers). Kerr's book is, in large part, a survey of the recent revival of interest in Thomas Aquinas' thought, gathering together a wide variety of interpretations that are not all readily available in English or in any one place. In surveying these interpretations, however, Kerr produces his own, somewhat revisionist interpretation of Thomas, one that in many ways will complement the treatment already given by Milbank and Pickstock.

For those of us interested in early Christian and medieval theology and how that theology might speak to the post-modern academy, Milbank, Pickstock, and Kerr have made important contributions.