Thomas Aquinas – Theologian of the Christian Life

When Kyle and I began working together on a theology of the Christian life project, Nicholas Healy’s edition to Ashgate’s Great Theologians series shot to the top of my list: Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life (2003; many thanks to Ashgate for a review copy).  I was not disappointed.

healythomas-aquinasHealy’s Thomas Aquinas is a concise and highly accessible introduction to Thomas’ theology, surveying his historical context and development, reception history, and the major doctrines of the Christian faith in Thomas’ Summa Theologiae (henceforth ST). Though a good introduction, likely its most noteworthy contribution is the proposal for a particular kind of reading of ST that makes transparent the evangelical, pastoral and theocentric character of Thomas’ premodern theology. Healy wants to recover a reading of Thomas in which his theological method, his hermeneutics and metaphysics, his conception of the Christian doctrine and practice and pedagogy, as well as the material claims of his theology, are seen to be guided by the principles and norms that ‘reflect the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’ (p. 23).

The book unfolds in six chapters beginning with an historical overview of Thomas’ life and career followed by subsequent chapters addressing Thomas’ Dominicanism (specifically its Christocentric orientation and emphasize on obedience to Christ), doctrine of God, Christology, and conception of the Christian life in light of its ground in the Trinity and in the work of Jesus Christ.

The early material related to Thomas’ identity as a Dominican is actually quite significant for grasping Healy’s interpretative proposals. To be a Dominican was to view the Christian life as a ‘radical’ life, one having a deeply rooted desire to follow Christ and to engage the world by bringing to it the fruits of contemplation, following the example of Christ. For Thomas the Dominican, the practice of theology serves the preaching of the gospel and forming its members into faithful followers of Christ, and this, Heally contends, directly impacts Thomas’ presentation of Christian doctrine in ST and the manner of its interpretation.

Although brilliantly conceived, Healy argues that Thomas’ order of presentation easily leads to misunderstandings for contemporary readers, and should therefore be reordered for interpretive purposes. Toward more clearly displaying the role of Jesus Christ in Thomas’ theology, Healy departs from Thomas’ ordering in ST and begins with his exposition of the doctrines of the economic Trinity and creation in general, and then turns directly to his Christology, to the mission of the Son for our redemption. The purpose of this flows, Healy believes, directly from Thomas’ Dominicanism: Everything in his theology is oriented around enabling Christians to follow Christ and proclaim him effectively in the world.

aquinasExamples of  how Healy’s interpretive decision influences his method for approaching ST are ready at hand. His reading of Thomas’ doctrine of God, Christ’s person and work , and the Christian life as well all evidence Healy’s desire to make evident Thomas’ concern to show the ‘reasonableness, coherence and wisdom of what Scripture says about Jesus Christ’ so that readers are enabled to preach the Gospel fruitfully and without misleading the faithful’ (p. 94). On Healy’s view, we simply miss the thrust of ST when it’s read primarily as a philosophical, apologetic, or systematic work rather than a work of scriptural exegesis intended – above all – to serve the preaching of the Gospel. Thomas must be read, then, as a theologian first and foremost of the Christian life.

When his attention finally to the Christian life specifically, Healy’s methodological angle shines through again in returning to Thomas’ Christology. Here related to divine grace and the role of the Holy Spirit:

Grace is that action of the triune God that brings us into relation with God that so transforms and perfects the created relation that we may live a new life in the Risen Christ. Grace originates with, and remains entirely dependent upon, the person and work of Christ, but it is appropriated by us and works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit, who draws us to the Father in the Son (p. 111).

As I said before, Healy’s book is a concise and well-reasoned introduction to Thomas’ theology broadly and to his theology of the Christian life more specifically. Whether or not his proposal for interpreting ST according to Thomas’ Christology, and indeed reading it in that order, holds true remains an open question for me but he makes a compelling case for considering it.

I would be interested to hear the opinions of more seasoned interpreters of Thomas. Does Healy hit the mark? What might be the gains and losses?

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