Plato and the Body

“If human existence sans bodies is better, could you blog about why God made us with bodies and why we will be raised with them?”

The question was posed to me on twitter. The request was to answer on my blog.

I’m happy to blog.

Have I said human existence without bodies is better? I do not remember having done so. I am looking forward to the resurrection because I’ll have a better body. Let me also say, I prefer Plato and I think he is defensible. But I’ll abandon Plato if it can be demonstrated that he is incompatible with Christianity. I defend Plato, also, because I think he is ignorantly dismissed. You can be very learned and ignorantly dismiss Plato. Plato is not easily dealt with.

The assumption, I am guessing, is that because I’m a Platonist I believe existence without bodies is better. For the pagan Platonist, the body is a prison. Even for Origen, the body was a punishment. But Origen was disciplined by Scripture, and this changed his Platonism; a punishment is not the same as a prison. I got the sense reading him that 1 Cor 15 was a very important passage for him. He believed in the resurrection very much, and thought hard about how the body of the resurrection differs from the perishable body that is sown. Just there we can see a development of Platonism, and that is an important thing to remember.

Some persons who are not sympathetic to Platonism, or ignorant of it, find it convenient to take a view that allows for no development. This is what they think Plato said (which may or may not be right), and this, then, must be what Platonism actually is. Is there more than a superficial acquaintance with the more popular and less technical of Plato’s writings? I have often not found that there is not. If Platonism is allowed to be Platonic, however, it is an idea, it is formal, it is a principle of intelligible coherence which can be grasped more clearly as we learn more about it. If you are not a Platonist, you may not believe that about Platonism. It is just a concept, you may think, that Plato invented. But a Platonist must be allowed to believe it is something independent of Plato to which we can have better access than Plato did. It can be seen more clearly, apprehended better, since it is, after all, an object of knowledge. We must be allowed to believe that Platonism is the Form of philosophy (as I suppose Hegelians believe Hegel’s is philosophy come of age).

If Platonism may develop (that is, if our apprehension of a better philosophy may proceed on the assumption that Plato first discovered the broad outlines of what we hold), then pagan Platonism may be corrected by Christian Platonism, and Christian Platonism become more robust and consistent. I believe Platonism is true, and so I think the Christian appropriation leaves us with a better Platonism than Plato held. Did Aristotle get things right? Is he valuable? Of course. But Plato is fundamental in a way Aristotle can never be. Do I believe in the transmigration of the soul? I do not. I do believe I’ll transmigrate from this old body into one that is better, and therefore different. I’ll take Aquinas’ description of the resurrected body, for example. I find it eminently Platonic. That is not the same as the reincarnation which Plato believed.

Platonism and Gnosticism

Another thing to consider about the conditional above, is that unexamined views of Platonism tend to get distorted by views on Gnosticism. It is assumed that Gnosticism is Christianity ruined by Platonic thought. If you think that, then you get a debased view of Platonism. Let me counter that view with three names: Irenaeus, Origen and Plotinus.

When the church needed champions to take on Gnosticism and defeat it, who did it call on? The most obvious name is Irenaeus. According to Eric Osborne, a qualified and respected historian of the early church, Irenaeus was a Platonist. That is how Osborne characterizes Irenaeus in his monograph on the same. So who did the church call on to write a manual in tedious detail listing all the many wrong teachings of this variegated phenomenon later designated as Gnosticism? A man whose philosophy is clearly identifiable as Platonic. It was not a bad move. Irenaeus is still our main source and the main argument against Gnosticism.

The other person the church called on repeatedly was Origen. Origen traveled to debates against Gnostics, was valued for refuting them, and probably knew them very well. I say this because he lived in the epicenter of the more reputable Gnosticism, Alexandria, and even went to some of their secret meetings when he was young. Was Origen a Platonist? There is little doubt on that score. Platonism sometimes overwhelmed his Christianity. No Christian of his day would have called him a gnostic though (except for Clement who also resisted the Gnostics and called himself the true gnostic). Yet he was called on to debate Gnostics and refute them. He understood and repudiated them without, obviously, repudiating Plato.

These two are the main champions of the church against Gnosticism that I know of, and both can accurately be described as Platonists. The problem with Gnostics is not that they used Plato. It is that they got two things wrong: Plato and Christianity. Nobody orthodox will deny they fiddled and took liberties and distorted Christianity. We need to realize they were doing the same with Plato—a popularized, bowdlerized, irresponsible appropriation of some Platonic elements.

After Plato, the next greatest pagan Platonist was Plotinus. He had some Gnostic students attending his teaching sessions in Rome. The way Plotinus taught, we are told by his pupil Porphyry, was this. His students would read a portion of some philosopher (Aristotle say, or Numenius) and then discuss the philosophy. Or they would present papers about things. There would be a discussion which Plotinus would observe, mostly in silence. After a few days, when the discussion was winding down, Plotinus would pronounce himself. Porphyry encouraged him to write these pronunciations down, which Plotinus did. One of them was a treatise against Gnosticism. The Platonic Plotinus was decidedly against Gnosticism, and if his manner of teaching is accurately described by his pupil, then he no doubt had some familiarity with the Gnosticism his students embraced. He hated it.

Plotinus criticized Gnosticism on three points. (1) It was disordered in its metaphysics. For Plotinus there is the One, there is Mind, there is World Soul, and that is all. This was a reasoned and for Plotinus non-negotiable metaphysical structure. It made sense of the forms, it provided a Divine Simplicity, it mediated eternity to the world. He has whole treatises that argue cogently for his structure. The Gnostics had a chaos of inelegant and, what is worse, unreasoned emanations. Plotinus hated the lack of philosophically sophisticated dogma about the structure of reality. I think it made these students gawking adherents rather than real intellectual companions, for Plotinus. Hard to be an intellectual companion to Plotinus, but he was a serious guy and I think expected much of his pupils. (2) He also rejected Gnostic teaching on the ground that it despised the physical world, the created order. This is something people nowadays struggle with. To believe something is inferior is not to believe it is evil. I just read in an otherwise reputable history book something implying that people in the past were misogynists because they believed women were inferior. Some people in the past obviously have made the mistake people in the present make: inferior = bad. Inferior, however, can be morally neutral. A dog is inferior to me, but not therefore a mistake or somehow evil. Gnosticism believed the created order was evil, but Plotinus was shocked by such a non-Hellenic attitude. The world was good, its order was marvelous and intriguing, and it was all because this beauty was derived from, and therefore manifested, a greater transcendent order: that of the forms. That it was derived made it inferior, but not therefore bad. Everything turning toward the forms and participating in them aspired toward them, toward the Good, and this is good. (3) Plotinus also rejected the Gnostics for their irreverence: they made things up, they were incoherent, they ascribed too much to personal creativity without rigorous examination and thought. I think when it comes to defining the variegated phenomenon of Gnosticism, attitude is what really defines them, not dogma. They were the manifestation of a pagan attitude in a Christian context. Not only was Christianity at war with the pagan attitude and its irreverence, Hellenic philosophy was its other historic nemesis and one of the great causes weakening the totalitarian pagan consensus which was collapsing in late antiquity.

If that surprises you, go read his treatise and you’ll see what I say. Plotinus is tough to read, I’ll warn you. I tried and was unable to make sense of him without first reading a few very difficult introductions. But once you get what is happening, he is admirable and amazing. The rigor he expected he practiced, and he wrote his treatises all at one go without revision because of his weak eyesight. His weak physical eyesight, I should say. The mind of Plotinus is wondrous. What he writes against the Gnostics should put to rest the notion that Gnosticism made responsible use of Platonism. Neither in the church nor in philosophy did Gnosticism find acceptance. To think of Platonism through the lens of Gnosticism is to be irresponsible about a serious philosophy, and ignorant.

Which is all to say: do not assume unexamined conclusions about Platonism in order to deal with it.

What is the Body?

Now to the heart of the matter. What about Platonism and the creation of man as an embodied soul. That the body is a prison is not altogether true, but I don’t think it has for the Christian to be altogether false. Platonism is first of all an epistemology, and then it is everything that follows from that. If you do not understand that, you do not understand Plato. Plato was first concerned with certain knowledge. What can we know? Can we know this mutable world? No, you can’t know something that is always changing. So if we know, there has to be a realm of certainty, an immutable world. Is this consistent with Christian teaching? Yes it is. There is a realm of certainty; there is truth; we can know; and it is an invisible realm. The visible realm manifests it, but is not identified with it. The relation is of symbol to the meaning of a symbol.

Our body is a symbol. That is not to say it is unreal, but what it is derives what it is from something greater. I don’t know how you can be a Platonist and escape from language of levels of being. Is the created world real? Of course. Is there a higher reality? Oh yes, and one, therefore, more real. If you look for ultimate reality in the material order you will go crazy. It is beyond it. So we have material bodies, but matter only acquires anything by form. Is there a form of Body? There must be, and that is true bodiness. My body is me in a derivative way. It gets my meness from what I am essentially: my immaterial part. It is me in the mutable realm, but when I am resurrected will my body be corruptible or incorruptible? Is this a more material body? A more substantial one? (It has to be at least as substantial.) Is it made of superior matter? I am not sure. I am sure it will be incorruptible, and the Platonic epistemology leads me to conclude that this present matter is not incorruptible.

Angels do not have physical bodies, we believe. They have bodies though, just not made out of physical matter. Some might say it is a subtler substance. What is this? I am not sure how you can have subtler atoms. Do they use subatomic particles exclusively, and not in compounds that we know as atoms and molecules? I think that kind of thinking is just barking up the wrong tree. They are spiritual beings with bodies that are constituted by a higher reality, not a differently physical reality, but that is a preference making me say that. What, after all, can a higher reality be? Not sure, though I am sure it exists. C. S. Lewis suggests it two ways: one in The Great Divorce (a hardness that makes our present hardness looks like softness, or a substance that makes our present substance seem more insubstantial) and another in The Last Battle (I like this one, and not just because he acknowledges Plato as the source: all the best parts are present in greater abundance and nothing else). We can only speak of it in terms of what we presently know. We can only gesture at what we haven’t yet experienced. Just because we can’t imagine something clearly, doesn’t mean it is not within the realm of possibility.

Which is to say: I affirm the resurrection of the body. I conceive of it in Platonic terms in so far as I can. I do refuse to think of it as a slightly enhanced but essentially similar state to the present condition. I’d like more. I realize that is what makes me weird, but the alternative to me is to be flat-footed, uninteresting, plodding and dingy of both mind and heart. Still, if Platonism can be demonstrated to deny that (which an intelligent Platonism to date has not been demonstrated to require), then cheerio to Platonism. I’m doubtful, having understood Christian history to be full of Christian Platonists who were powerful, consistent, penetrating thinkers, that my Christian Platonism is under any real threat. I have found that even attacks from learned people are based on ignorance.

So Why the Body to Begin with?

We are lower beings than angels. Inferior, but not therefore evil. Good, after our kind, like dogs are good after their kind. One day, however, we shall judge the angels, and I think that is because we will be greater than them. We will transcend their order of being because unlike them we have been made to grow. Growth, mutability, change—do these belong to all finite beings or to some? You can be made to occupy your place forever: not bored, not weary, perfectly capable for you responsibility and endlessly satisfied with it. I do not think that is how we are. I think we are made to grow, and this requires the material where all is change. So we must begin there, become conscious there, almost like animals, as we are when we are young. If Angels grow, we do not know about it, but I think to grow you have to start out how we do, in matter which is the most mutable. But we do not remain there. And we will have incorruptible bodies.

John Eriugena was the greatest Christian Platonist ever. In his book on the divisions of nature he begins with the division that gives us nature: God on the one hand, and everything that is not God on the other. Everything that is not God is nature. What is the principle of coherence of nature? That which is not God is image of God. And what is the image of God? Man. Man is like Plotinus’ Nous in Eriugena’s scheme. Is that not grand? I think it is. Do you know how much room to grow that provides creatures who begin in the epitome that is practically an infinity of finiteness?




Theology, Philosophy and History

One of the important discussions taking place in the centuries of the Reformation had to do with the nature of theology. Is theology wisdom? Is theology science? Does theology exist to give us instruction about God so that we can have correct understanding, primarily, or does it exist so that we can behave accordingly? The reason these questions matter is that the way you answer is going to shape the theology you do. If you emphasize one thing at the expense of the other, you will end up paying for that over time (you can breed error in unattended places, for instance). So the best definition of theology is the one that leaves nothing crucial out of consideration.

Wisdom is obviously an Old Testament theme. That it is a theme of the whole Ancient Near-East is acknowledged, and that the Old Testament’s concern was a part of this wider concern would be hard to dispute. From what I can gather, the writers of the Old Testament were involved in the context of international wisdom. They participated in it by reading and examining, by studying and appropriating from it. You can find a large number of Proverbs that had their origin in Egyptian lore, to name just one example. What the writers of the Old Testament seem to have done is taken things and put them in the context of Israelite monotheism. Here these shards and pieces lost their rough edges and found their place in a coherent pattern. If international wisdom offered patterns, Hebrew wisdom contributed positively by offering a distinctive pattern which we know to be true.

Wisdom was also a concern of Hellenic civilization. All the wisdom of the Old Testament is the wisdom of a pre-speculative people. There are no real abstractions, no dealing with geometrically pure abstract arguments. Greek philosophy sought to move beyond the manipulation of analogies and physical entities into a purely mental realm because the Greek philosophers believed the purely intelligible was either more fundamental or at least key for acquiring wisdom. This became a very important influence in the development of Christian doctrine.

The Ancient Church was also an international movement. It arose in the sheltered context of Judaism, appropriating the institution and order of the synagogue and Jewish education methods. But these institutions and methods alone were not sufficient for Christianity. It had to grow beyond the limited ethnic bounds of Judaism. It had to be much more of a phenomenon of the wider world. So you see men wrestling with interpreting the Old Testament differently from the Jews, seeking an education that could yield better answers to their questions. Like the Old Testament appropriators of an international culture of wisdom, Christians grappled with the international philosophy of the Greco-Roman culture. They sought ways to expand their own understanding, to appreciate Scripture better, to defend themselves in that sophisticated context, and to explain the wonder of what they possessed. If philosophy begins in wonder, it is no wonder ancient Christians turned to philosophy to grapple with the wonder of their religion.

Stoicism was a much admired philosophy. It lacked robust metaphysical development but was strong on logic and ethics. Many ancient Christians appropriated it, and it has influenced people as distant from it as John Calvin. Stoicism is more of a practical wisdom, and therefore more rudimentary—we might say. It is a good beginning, but it had to be left behind. In the third-century collapse of the Roman Empire, a more otherworldly philosophy became dominant: Neoplatonism. And it was this metaphysically sophisticated philosophy that most influenced Christianity for the next thousand years.

It is true that in the collapse of the pagan consensus and the end of the Greco-Roman culture of antiquity, ancient Christians disparaged philosophy. But what must be acknowledged is that these disparagements came only after it had been so thoroughly absorbed that the Christian Platonists who were disparaging Plato and Proclus were quibbling about in-house matters, much as today Presbyterians debate whether or not the Covenant of Works is republished in the Mosaic Law: you have to be a covenant theologian to appreciate it. To appreciate what the Fathers were reacting to, you’d have to be a Platonist to begin with. All the advantages of classic antiquity thoroughly shaped not only Origen and the Cappadocians, but also Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great. These were all Christian Platonists.

The millennium of Christian Platonism was a millennium of deep and fundamental theology: the doctrine of the Trinity, the Christological controversies, the elaborate Christian metaphysics, cosmology and ontology of Eriugena’s system, the deep-theological-space contemplation of Anselm, the cosmic-liturgical symbolism of Maximus Confessor and Rupert of Deutz all speak to this. It was a millennium of theology as wisdom. (What is wanting today is an appreciation, a way to understand and enter these difficult things. The wonder is so distant from contemporary experience and sensibility that it is difficult for people to grasp it. It requires someone with the sensibility of Charles Williams to do so, and someone with the appreciation for a Charles Williams such as C. S. Lewis to promote it. Which is to say, this is very difficult to appreciate. You would have to cultivate the imagination as a way of knowing, and who does that?)

What Christian Aristotelianism brings (arising in the very Christian Platonist 12th century) is a new sense of theology. Theology is not only wisdom, it is also something lower which we call science. Science means knowledge, and knowledge is something that wisdom contains, but wisdom is the greater category. It was the genius of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas to see how theology could be something lesser (a science) without ceasing to be something greater (wisdom). The result of thinking of theology not only as philosophy but also as something more specialized, science, is systematic theology.

Why do you only get theological prolegomena, then, in the centuries of the Reformation? Not because Protestantism somehow lends itself to a more self-conscious approach. The reason you get these discussions on method is that theology was only approached with a method when it began to be regarded as a science. In the fullness of time, as a result of the interchange of the crusades, because plundering Constantinople had a precedent from the fourth crusade, thanks to Aristotle’s more crabwise, horizontal approach—to name a few influences—we start reflecting on whether theology is principally a science, whether it is aimed at knowing or aimed at doing, and all those questions.

What is the best definition of theology? What is theology? And what philosophical principles undergird it? After the first millennium of Christian Platonism we had what Richard Muller is willing to describe as a half-millennium of Christian Aristotelianism. This epoch includes the Reformation and Reformed Scholasticism. This last collapses as the new Rationalist Cartesian influence become prevalent. It is something to wonder about Edwards—to what extent was he an empiricist, to what extent old-school? What were his philosophical principles? There follows also a Kantian Christianity (which I do not call Christian Kantianism) and Idealist Christianity. Modern Christianity, we might say, and Post-modern as well, and now post-Christian. That is why classic theism (besides having the catholic—which is to say historic—appeal) appeals: it is based on pre-modern philosophical principles. I have found that theologians moving back prefer to move to Christian Aristotelianism. Christian Platonism is too confident in Reason, too much a pure discipline of Wisdom for people attempting to recapture a pre-modern outlook. Method is what you get when you do not have Anselm’s soaring confidence and use of Reason. When you just write reason and not Reason, one might say. Christian Aristotelianism, however, is a move in the right direction.

Of course, there will always be the Christians saying that we don’t need philosophy. These I name smugglers. They smuggle in unexamined philosophical assumptions because philosophical principles are necessary, speaking unphilosophically about that which is philosophical. This produces incoherent theology.

Next time you use a book of theology, look at the definition and think about it.

All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, by James E. Dolezal

James Dolezal is a Baptist theologian who has already published a book on the difficult subject of Divine simplicity. This is his second book. His subject is a contemporary theological phenomenon he calls theistic mutualism. The book is a kind of sequel to the book on simplicity. “The chief problem I address in this work is the abandonment of God’s simplicity and of the infinite pure actuality of His being.” Dolezal’s object is to define theistic mutualism, show how it is different from the doctrine of God confessed throughout the ages by the church, how it is actually opposed to said doctrine, and why, therefore, it ought to be rejected.

Theistic mutualism is related to process theology and open theism. Unlike these, it affirms that God is simple, unchanging, eternal and one in substance. What theistic mutualism then does, however, is affirm that while God remains unchanged by external causes, he can nevertheless will change in himself in relation to his creatures. Theistic mutualists believe there is a mutuality between the creation and the Creator, a back and forth—hence the designation Dolezal coins. They want to have the changing, responsive God of process thought without the theological problems. What Dolezal does is show that this is substandard theology. “Unfortunately this sort of confusion with respect to the language of being abounds in the God-talk of many modern evangelicals,” he says on page 66 and note 7. I suspect he uses the hideous term “God-talk” advisedly.

What modern evangelicals? John Feinberg, Kevin Vanhoozer, D.A. Carson, John Frame, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, Donald Macleod, K. Scott Oliphint, Wayne Grudem and of course B.Ware. (That’s a lot! The remaining evangelical scholars are used to support his argument by being quoted positively, so the book is balanced in that aspect. All joking aside, it is worth saying that his support is catholic in the best sense of the term, not just evangelical.) Ware gets the most attention, and Eternal Functional Subordination makes it into the book, but only at the end. Dolezal mostly steers clear of that controversy with canny citations of material published prior to the debate, but this argument is the next logical step in that confrontation. Dolezal is far more concerned with Ware’s polemics against open theism. These, he argues, concede too much to the open theists, confirming the old warning about how we can become like our enemies.

The most interesting chapter is the one in which Dolezal inquires how this came about. He suggests that theistic mutualism arose in the 18th century when the full range of Aristotelian causality became uninteresting or implausible due to the philosophical climate of opinion. David Hume + Immanuel Kant = Enlightenment = Junk Philosophy = Junk Theology (Dolezal manages it more grandly than I; he’s more of a historian than systematic theologians tend to be). If final and formal causality are no longer considered useful, who needs an unmoved mover? He then traces the erosion of classic theism through some very interesting places. It runs through Charles Hodge and R.L. Dabney. The question is, how did we get to a point where so many orthodox theologians can do such bad theology? The answer Dolezal sketches out is that it happened gradually over the last 300 years.

Dolezal, as I have already indicated, defines and defends the classic formulations of the doctrine of Divine simplicity, eternity, immutability, and the unity of the Godhead. He argues that these need no change and ought not to be changed. He is good at getting to the heart of difficult matters such as these are and making the point clear. The book is worth it just for the lucid (and catholically supported) explanations of these doctrines. Theistic mutualists, he demonstrates, end up denying outright or misunderstanding and therefore jeopardizing these crucial doctrines. The result of the misunderstanding is that they do not use them for their intended purposes, and instead of denying, affirm, or instead of affirming, deny. The result, in short, is denying the God that the church has always confessed. The statement theistic mutualism cannot get around is his title: All that is in God is God. If you believe that statement is true and your theological gurus have been mentioned above, read this book. If you don’t know what that statement means, consider reading this book.

Dolezal’s aim is to show how alarming the ignorance of correct doctrinal formulation in contemporary evangelicalism now is. It needs to be exposed, it needs to be considered carefully, and it needs to be rejected. This book is a calm, reasoned, researched, readable and in no ways acrimonious statement of a problem that cannot be left alone anymore. If you don’t want to take my work for it, take Richard Muller’s. It’s the foreword.

Complaint: I heartily wish Dolezal was less given to using the inane phrase “the reason is because.” So much does he enjoy it that he actually finds a translation of Turretin where the great theologian is reduced to that turn of phrase. Dolezal sometimes uses borderline archaisms such as “suffice it to say” in his prose. One can’t complain about that, however. Suffice it to say, he actually talks that way. To what could this be owing? I think he is monotonously steeped in theological discourse to the exclusion of any other. And for what he’s doing, he needs to be.

Luther:Man between God and the Devil, by Heiko A. Oberman

LutherThis is a book to be read with careful attention. It is not ordered strictly chronologically. Rather, it is structured around certain strands of the story Oberman wishes to emphasize. The main events of Luther’s life have several layers, and by treating individually, Oberman can give a greater sense of the complexity of the whole. The result is a deeper take on a familiar figure.

If you look at the table of contents you will see three parts. The first explains the events in which Luther figured as German, Medieval and elemental. For example, the reformation as a German event is a look at the politics of the situation. The reformation as a Medieval event is a look at the continuities with the past–that from which this new thing arose. In the second section Oberman goes into Luther’s influences more, and shows how his thought changed over time. The third section deals with the problems facing Luther once the break was made and there was no return. He still deals with individual issues diachronically, such as Luther and marriage, a most interesting chapter. And in the end he evaluates the reformer.

It is hard to think how any biography of Luther can be more readable (a good English translation), more intelligently ordered to provide the facts a maximum of meaning, or, curiously enough, better illustrated. Rather than include a section of glossy paintings and woodcuts in the center of the book, the illustrations are lavishly scattered at the point of the text with which they have to do. It dampens the effect of some of the paintings, but since most of the illustrations are woodcuts and frontispieces, it works.

Still Spinning

Evangelical biblical scholar Denny Burk signals that as a result of the Trinity Debate his church is now reciting more of the Apostle’s Creed than formerly (and than there is, actually). If this can be construed as a move, then this is a move in the right direction. Perhaps one day they’ll even give the Nicene Creed a try.

“If last summer’s trinity debate did anything, it raised awareness among evangelicals about the primary importance of eternal generation in distinguishing the persons of the trinity.” I’d like to object to that statement. But I find that I can’t object to that statement because that is probably all it actually did among evangelicals.

So that’s the big take-away from all the Trinity Debate after all the dust and acrimony, all the hand-wringing about tone, all the solemn meetings, protestations, unctuous bluster and epiphanies. How about reciting the Ten Commandments, Denny Burk? Can’t get more Biblical than the Ten Commandments. The first couple and maybe also the ninth might be useful in connection with the Trinity Debate.

Guides to Aquinas

I find that I need to be oriented to an author before I can really make intelligent use of primary texts. It will help you to understand Aquinas if you get a sense of when he lived, what people were doing, what he was trying to do, what he did and did not have access to, and what in general he accomplished. Here are seven guides.

Chesterton, G. K. St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘The Dumb Ox’. Someone somewhere says that it is remarkable how right Chesterton is on Aquinas while being so inaccurate. Chesterton is good for making you interested in Aquinas, rather than being someone you consult for getting details straight or understanding something difficult.

Pieper, Josef. Guide to Thomas Aquinas. I’m not even sure that I’ve read this, but I’ve read enough of Pieper to know he will be good on Aquinas. I read The Silence of St. Thomas most recently. If it is in the Guide that Pieper makes the wondrous suggestion that in the end Aquinas turned from Aristotle to Plato, then I’ve read it. Pieper is concise, easy to read, clear, and the most platonic of all the Thomists I’ve encountered.

Copleston, F. C. Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker. Copleston’s is not the most recent or the most thorough, but it is reliable and shorter than those who are more detailed and more thorough. You may wish to start with one who is more simple. People still swear by his multivolume history of philosophy. This is a very decent book you might easily find used.

Davies, Brian. The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. If you were only to get one, this one may be it. If your criterion is detail, scope, and not the loveliness of the font or the niceness of the binding, if, in short, substance over style is your thing, Davies is the man. Aquinas was a thinker, and this gives you access to his thinking.

Kenny, Anthony John Patrick. Aquinas. Kenny is the odd atheist who appreciates Aquinas, to a point. It is quite short, it is not altogether always helpful, but it exists.

Shields, Christopher John, and Robert Pasnau. The Philosophy of Aquinas. Second Edition. This can function as a reference work. Need to look something up that is accurate and recent? This is topical.

Turner, Denys. Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. If I only got one of these books and I cared about having an enjoyable book, this would be the one. It is not as detailed as Davies, it is not as consultable as Shields & Pasnau, but it is elegant in font and binding, reads like a novel, is amazingly substantial, and explains why it distorts. His aim is a caricature, but it is a useful, sympathetic, illuminating caricature. I’d say it was the best book on Aquinas I’ve read.

Getting Around in Aquinas

If you are going to use Aquinas, you should know your way around what he wrote. Here is a page where you can find most of what you need in English translation.

Here is how I’d describe it.

His Summa Theologiae is considered his main work. It is not the most detailed, but it is the most extensive. He quit before completing it, but he didn’t have a long way to go. It was finished by his pals. In some ways, the ST can be considered the main source on Aquinas: it is his most famous work. But if you want to get to the details, to write careful papers and figure something out better, you need to move beyond it.

The Summa Theologiae is laid out in a particular way. It has a first part, the first part of the second part, the second part of the second part, and a third part. So you have to understand that layout. You also have to understand that in each part there are sections that can be called whole treatises and can be consulted independently. He has a section on Christ and his work, a section on law, and so on, and each of these can be used as individual treatises.

Beyond that, each part is composed of questions, and each question is subdivided into articles (which are also questions—they are the larger question broken down into its component questions). Why does he ask questions? Because of his method. After you get the question addressed in the article, you then see this: various objections to the positive answer to the question, then a statement of the positive answer with some elaboration, which is the heart of the article, and then replies to the original objections.

So you get the title of the section which is the question—very important to read this if you are like me and usually skip titles. Then you have the objections leading off the article. These are the next-to-least important part, for all they come first. Then you have the heart of the matter, the answer to the question stated, then the explanation. Then you have the least important part last, the answers to the objections. All the parts can be useful, but you can make sense of what Aquinas is doing if you read the question first, then the response, then the explanation, then the objections, and then the answers to the specific objections. Or you can proceed in order, but I find it tedious and confusing to do so.

That is his method. Let me also say this about method. With method you get theology as science, and so you get systematic theology. Before Aquinas there was no systematic theology as such. If you look for method, you will not really find it; after him it becomes so foregrounded that eventually you get theological prolegomena, and beyond. When you start the ST, you will see him proceeding according to scientific method with two questions: (1) does it exist, and (2) what is it? Does God exist in order to be studied, and then, what is he. That is where he starts, and then proceeds to develop everything else from there. So much, then, for the ST.

His Summa Contra Gentiles is intended to provide theological answers to people dealing with unbelievers. It covers the same broad categories that the ST does, but it does so with a particular angle. Because it is not assumed that unbelievers will accept arguments based on Scripture’s authority, you will find arguments that avoid Scripture as much as possible. This is not because Aquinas thinks all doctrine can be rationally derived, it is because when you show up at a debate with an atheist or someone of another religion, you may not want to plan simply to preach a sermon.

The SCG is not laid out in the pattern of the ST. Instead, you just have the arguments for whatever he is affirming, and you don’t have the objections, response, and replies to objections. You can get straight to the issue, but in the ST you may get more detail. The SCG may, on the other hand, bring you into more detailed reasoning. And you can interpret one in light of another. If you click on one of the books that form the broad divisions of the SCG, you’ll get a list of the topics he deals with, and a sense of the order in which he proceeds. You can read his own statement of intention in the first book, and that is illuminating, and Scriptural.

An abbreviated version of both Summas is the Compendium Theologiae, which is classified in his Opuscula, his minor works. I think it is the place to start on any topic. This is the most concise statement of his theology, and from there you can move on to the broader statements in other works.

The opposite of the CT are his various Questiones Disputatae. In these disputed questions you have treatises which are the most detailed form of his theology, and if you want to deal with Aquinas seriously, you have to get into these. De spiritualibus creaturis, De Unione Verbi Incarnati, De veritate, De potentia – this is where it is at, the Aquinas of Aquinas, De anima, De malo, De virtutibus, Quodlibetales.

In all these works, keep clicking on the divisions until you get a list of propositions or questions, and this is what will give you a real sense of the scope of the work.

Aquinas of course commented Lombard’s Sentences. That is just how you started teaching theology in the 13th Century, and that work will illuminate his thinking in other works. Besides all these, you have the Opuscula, which include letters and sundry minor treatises, such as one on the eternity of the world. That one got him in trouble with the Platonists of the U. of Paris.

When doing systematic theology, you need several ingredients. You can find several of these ingredients unmixed in other of Aquinas’ works. One of the ingredients is obviously revelation. If you wonder how he arrives at some of his conclusions about particular texts, or are interested in a kind of glimpse of him doing his primary job (he was first of all a preacher, dedicated to preaching, and all his writing was intended to make the job of the preacher better), then you could look at his commentaries. He has commentaries on many of the books of the Bible.

Another crucial ingredient for Christian theology is philosophy. Good philosophy, that is. If you want to understand philosophy as Aquinas understood it, you can read his commentaries on Aristotle, which are numerous and weighty. This aspect of his thinking is crucial, of course, and anybody pretending to master Aquinas has to deal with his interaction with Aristotle. What is not so easy is that you have to understand the neoplatonic context in which this new appropriation of Aristotle arises. You’ll just have to study history for that.

You can find another useful translation of the ST here. It includes linked words you can click on to get definitions or even short treatises on, but not the parallel Latin. The layout of the various sections is stated in paragraphs, so it helps you also get a sense of the contents of each treatise within each division (1st, 1st of the 2nd, 2nd of the 2nd, and 3rd, remember).