"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


The importance and significance of the Theological Summa of St Thomas

Since this volume is an explanation of the first part of the Theological Summa of St. Thomas, it is expedient by way of introduction, first to show the importance or value and the significance of this work from two points of view, historical and theoretical. Our reference to the history of theology concerns only those matters about which one is not allowed to plead ignorance.

I) In the history of theology generally three periods are distinguished. First we have the patristic period, which extends from the first century to the eighth, and this is chiefly apologetic, polemic, and positive. Then we have the period of the Middle Ages, from the eighth century to the fifteenth, and this is the scholastic period. Finally there is the modern period, from the sixteenth century to the present time, and this period is chiefly positive and critical.

In each successive age the progress of theology is clearly seen, since, whatever period we take, a certain function of theology comes particularly into prominence, according to the necessities of the times. In this evolution we have the manifestation of something that is truly providential.

Thus in the patristic period, theology is primarily apologetic (second century) for the conversion of the world from paganism to Christianity. It afterward becomes chiefly polemic in tone, being directed particularly against the heresies cropping up within the fold of the Church, and these heresies, such as Arianism, Nestorianism and Monophysitism, are concerned with the more important dogmas, such as the Trinity, Incarnation, and Redemption. Theology must then defend the principles of faith from the very sources of revelation, namely, from Holy Scripture and tradition. Thus theology gradually assumes the form which is called positive, that is, it gathers together the various points of revealed doctrine as contained in Holy Scripture and divine tradition. But a systematic theology, combining all that is of faith and what is connected with it, so as to form one body of teaching, did not yet exist in the patristic period, except in certain works of St. Augustine (1) and St. John Damascene.(2)

But in the second period, the Middle Ages, we find systematic or Scholastic theology definitely established, which didactically and speculatively expounds and defends what is of faith, and which deduces from it theological conclusions. Thus there is gradually formed a body of teaching which, though subordinate to what is strictly of faith, includes the science of theology, as it is commonly accepted in the Church, and which transcends, by reason of its universality and certainty, the various theological systems more or less in opposition to one another. In this age the theological Summae were written, which are so called because each is a complete treatise on all subjects pertaining to theology, and according as these various subjects are considered under the light of the higher principles of faith and reason.

In the third or modern period, theology again becomes chiefly both polemic and positive against the Protestants, and apologetic against the rationalists. We may call this third period critical or reflexive, and in this period, too, we see clearly the progress made in theology, since critical reflection normally follows direct knowledge. As St. Thomas says: "human reasoning, by way of seeking and finding, advances from certain things simply understood, namely, the first principles; and again, by way of judgment returns by analysis to first principles, in the light of which it examines what it has found." 3 Thus in this third period, we find developing a more critical knowledge and defense, against Protestants and rationalists, of the very foundations of the faith or sources of revelation, namely, Holy Scripture and divine tradition, and as a result of this we have the fundamental treatises on revelation, the Church, the de loci's (theological sources), this last being a scientific method of sacred theology.

In this we readily see the progress made in theology which, like a tree, grows and is perpetually renewed as a result of the more diligent efforts made in acquiring a knowledge of the sources, these being, as it were, the roots from which it proceeds.

2) We should note in the history of theology three brilliant epochs, each following immediately the close of an ecumenical council. Thus, after the First Council of Nicaea (325) against Arianism, in the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth century the greater Fathers of the Church flourished. In the East, in the Greek Church, we have St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Cyril of Alexandria. In the West we have St. Hilary, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Leo the Great.

Similarily, in the second epoch, after the Fourth Lateran Council, held in the year 1215 against the Albigenses and Waldensians, the thirteenth century saw the rise of the great theologians St. Albert the Great, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas.

Finally, the third brilliant epoch in the history of theology is at the time of the Council of Trent (1545-63). Even before this time there had been some celebrated theologians, such as Cajetan and Sylvester of Ferrara, and during the period of the council and afterward we have Soto, Bannez, Tolet, Medina, the Salmanticenses, John of St. Thomas, and Suarez in speculative theology. But all these theologians are commentators of the Summa of St. Thomas, even Suarez, although he pursues his own eclectic method. During the same period Cano, St. Robert Bellarmine, Natalis Alexander, and Bossuet are prominent in the art of controversy; and in exegesis we have Maldonatus, Cornelius a Lapide, and others.

In like manner, after the Vatican Council (1869-70) there is a revival of theology in the works of Joseph Kleutgen, S.J., Scheeben, Schwane, Hefele; and in the revival of Thomism we have Sanseverino, Cornoldi, S.J., Zigliara, O.P., and others. In several of his encyclicals, especially in the Aeterni Patris (1879), Leo XIII highly recommends the doctrine of St. Thomas.

From the fact that these three golden ages of sacred theology hollow in the wake of ecumenical councils, it is seen how the Holy Spirit directs, by the living voice of the authoritative teaching of the Church, the progressive knowledge of dogmatic truths with regard to those matters that are of faith, and the progress of theology in questions subordinate to faith. For God, by His special providcnce, watches over His science, that is, theology, which in the strict sense is the science of God proceeding from divine revelation. On the other hand, in these three generally accepted periods preparations were somehow made for the ecumenical councils then held by reason of the inquiries of the theologians during these times of preparation. Thus human labor is the disposing cause, and God assisting the Church teaching is the principal cause, of the progressive understanding of dogma in matters of faith, and also in consequence of this of the progress itself made in theology.

3) It is to be observed that in each of these three periods there is time of preparation, a time of splendor, and a stationary time when compendiums and compilations make their appearance. Finally, there is the period of more or less pronounced decline, as in the seventh, the fourteenth, and the eighteenth centuries.

In the time of splendor, the wonderful harmony in the various functions of theology is particularly in evidence, a harmony which the human mind cannot attain suddenly. Generally speaking, during the time of preparation there are two tendencies to some extent opposed to each other, because of a certain excess in each case. Some, for instance, exaggerate the necessity of speculation, as the Alexandrian school does; others devote themselves exclusively to the positive study of Holy Scripture, as the school of Antioch does. Likewise, in the Middle Ages, in the twelfth century, Abelard, assigning too much to the role of reason, falls into many errors, while, on the other hand, several of the school of St. Victor stress too much the mystic element and do not rely sufficiently upon reason.

Contrary to this, in the golden age, especially in the thirteenth century, the doctors succeed in effecting a marvelous reconciliation between the various functions of theology, which is then perfected in its positive, speculative, and even affective aspects. For we then see all the great theologians writing commentaries on Holy Scripture; they have a profound knowledge of the teaching of the Fathers, and they are conspicuous for their wisdom or exalted perception of the mysteries that are most productive of fruit in the Christian life.

This we see is the case in the thirteenth century, in which we detect notable differences as to genius, inclination, and method among the greater theologians.

Thus St. Bonaventure in his works is generally faithful to the teaching of St. Augustine. His preference is for Platonic instead of Aristotelian philosophy, giving precedence to the will over the intellect, and he devotes himself more to mystic contemplation than to speculative theology. At the same time St. Albert the Great, who is profoundly versed in philosophical subjects, purges Aristotelian philosophy of the errors injected into it by the Arabian commentators and accommodates it to the uses of theology as an instrument that is more precise and exact than Platonic philosophy.

Finally, St. Thomas completed what St. Albert had begun. He showed the value of the foundations of Aristotelian philosophy with regard to first ideas and first principles of reason, as also in determining the constitutive principles of both natural things and human nature. Thus hie determines more accurately what is the proper object of our intellect and hence what absolutely transcends our natural knowledge, and even the natural knowledge of any created intellect. Better, therefore, than any of his predecessors, St. Thomas distinguished between natural reason and supernatural faith, though he showed how they are interrelated. With wonderful logical order he expounded the various parts of theology according as it treats of God as He is in Himself, how all things proceed from Him, and how He is the final end of all things. Thus he collected all the theological material so as to form one body of doctrine, and this he did by a display of qualities rarely united in one individual, namely, with great simplicity as well as profundity of thought, and also with great rigor of logic as well as with a deep sense of the inaccessibility of the mystery. Therefore his doctrine was praised in the highest terms by the Supreme Pontiffs. Leo XIII wrote as follows: "Among the scholastic doctors, the chief and master of all, towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes,(4) because "he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all." The doctrines of those illustrious men, like the scattered members of a body, Thomas collected together and cemented, distributed in wonderful order, and so increased with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith. . . .

"Moreover, the Angelic Doctor pushed his philosophic conclusions into the reasons and principles of the things which' are most comprehensive and contain in their bosom, so to say, the seeds of almost infinite truths, to be unfolded in good time by later masters and with a goodly yield. And as he also used this philosophic method in the refutation of error, he won the title to distinction for himself: that single-handed he victoriously combated the errors of former times, and supplied invincible arms to rout those which might in after times spring up.

"Again, clearly distinguishing, as is fitting, reason from faith, while happily associating the one with the other, he both preserved the rights and had regard for the dignity of each; so much so, in(feed, that reason, borne on the wings of Thomas to its human height can scarcely rise higher, while faith could scarcely expect more or stronger aids from reason than those which she has already obtained through Thomas." (5)

In the same encyclical various testimonies of the Sovereign Pontiffs are quoted, and we would draw especial attention to the crowning point of these, which is the judgment by Innocent VI, who writes: "His teaching above that of others, the canons alone excepted, possesses such an elegance of phraseology, a manner of ,statement, and a soundness in its propositions, that those who hold to it are never found swerving from the path of truth, and he who dares to assail it will always be suspected of error."(6) After the thirteenth century scholastic theology gradually begins to decline, just as following the age of the greater Fathers, after the fourth and fifth centuries, we have that of the minor Fathers, from the sixth to the eighth centuries.

Even after the beginning of the fourteenth century, John Duns Scotus in many of his metaphysical questions receded from the logical method of St. Thomas and established a new school of thought. Duns Scotus disagrees with St. Thomas on two points.

1) He admits a new distinction, namely, an actual-formal distinction on the part of the object, which he considers a possible distinction between the real and the logical, whereas the Thomists say that distinction either precedes the consideration of the mind, and is real, or else it does not, and then it is logical. There is no possible intermediary. Scotus substitutes this formal distinction sometimes for the real distinction which St. Thomas holds, for instance, between created essence and existence, between the soul and its faculties, and between the faculties themselves, and thus he paves the way for nominalism. But sometimes Scotus tends toward extreme realism, substituting the formal distinction for the logical distinction which St. Thomas admits, for instance, between the divine attributes, and between the various metaphysical grades in the created being, for instance, between animality, vitality, substance, and being. Hence being is conceived as univocal, for the distinction between being and the substance of both God and creatures is formal, before any consideration of the mind. This new teaching in metaphysics does not, according to the Thomists, escape the danger of pantheism; for if the created substance and the divine substance are outside of being, since they are formally distinguished from it as objective realities, then they are non-entities, because outside of being is not-bcing; and so there would be but one thing.(7) Moreover, by such formalism, Scholasticism ends in subtleties and a war of words.

2) Voluntarism is another innovation introduced by Scotus. Thus he maintains that the distinction between the orders of nature and grace depends upon God's free will, as if grace were not supernaturally essential, but only actually so. This same voluntarism makes Scotus affirm that God could have established another natural moral law regulating the duties among human beings, and so He could revoke such precepts as "thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal." Thus Scotus paves the way for the contingency and positivism of the nominalists of the fourteenth century.(8)

Index Top


1. Cf. De Trinitate, PL, XLII

2. Cf. De fide orthodoxa, PG, XCV.

3. Summa theol., Ia, q. 79, a.8

4 Cf. Cajetan, Com. in Summam S. Thomae, IIa IIae, q. 148, a.4 in fine. (Tr.)

5. Aeterni Patris, Aug, 4, 1879.

6. Sermon on St. Thomas.

7. Cf. Vacant, Etudes comparees sur la philosophie de saint Thomas et sur celle de Duns Scot, 1891, p. 25

8. Ibid., pp. 14-16, 19 f.


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