Tag Archives: Aquinas

Book Review: Thomas Aquinas – A Very Short Introduction by Fergus Kerr

A little while ago, I picked up a whole load of Very Short Introductions (VSIs) about christianity. I have already read and reviewed The Bible VSI. Moving chronologically forward, I now meet Thomas Aquinas. In case you’re interested, the others to follow are the VSIs on Protestantism and Pentecostalism.

Aquinas is not a figure I came to this work knowing an awful lot about. Some things are common knowledge, but one sometimes wonder about the extent of their truth. For example, I have previously understood him to be the person who incorporated Aristotlean philosophy into christianity. This hybrid version went on to form the foundation for medieval catholicism, but his influence has lasted long into philosophy and christianity as well, with Thomas being regarded as the last great philosopher prior to Kant. His Summa Theologica ranks as one of the great ‘large works’ of christian thought, alongside Augustine’s City of God, Calvin’s Institutes and Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It was also ranked recently in the Church Times top 100 books of all time.

So that’s how I approached the book. What of its content?

As is usual with the case when the subject of a VSI is an individual, the opening chapter is an overview of Aquinas’ life and times. It reads like an extended encyclopaedia article, placing Aquinas into his historical context. Following this, there’s a short chapter on Aquinas’ works, other than the Summa Theologica. So a student of Aquinas could well use this as a guide to his lesser known works.

Most of the book is written as a summary of the Summa Theologica. This then gives any potential reviewer a problem. Having not read the Summa from cover to cover, can one really critique how well the summary is done? If I critique the content of what I read, am I then really trying to critique Aquinas through an intermediary who may or may not have given a fair and accurate summary?

It certainly left me with the sense that I had read an overview of the Summa, and it was most interesting to note that Aquinas abandoned his project after his study of the sacraments, so that these read as a kind of culmination of the work. In the more conservative sections of the church, this legacy is evident when christianity is spoken of as being “inherently sacramental” even though the very concept of a sacrament was a post-biblical theological development.

This work then concludes with Aquinas’ legacy and how he is viewed today, in particular the revival of interest in Aquinas through the advocacy of Pope Leo XIII, as well as Aquinas’ influence on the modern human rights movement. Each of these could be expanded much more, so I must say that the ‘Very’ in Very Short Introduction is rather emphasised here. I doubt the experienced scholar who has looked at Aquinas for many years will find much to stimulate them here.

This is a book I think I’ll return to in the future, when I get around to reading Aquinas for myself, as it should serve as a useful guide. If any of you are more familiar with Aquinas’ work and have read this VSI, then your input would be much appreciated.

Book Review: Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth

Anyone who ever looks at theology these days cannot help but notice the shadows of certain figures looming large over them. Arguably, fewer of these are more prominent than Karl Barth. His Church Dogmatics is often cited as one of the greatest works of 20th century theology. It is, however, extremely long and, I might add, rather expensive. So in order to attempt to get to grips with Barth’s theology, I have had his Dogmatics in Outline on my radar for some time. In this book, which is comprised of transcripts of lectures he gave in Germany, just after the Second World War, he condenses his magnum opus into a little over 140 pages, going through the Apostles’ Creed, phrase by phrase.

Before he begins in earnest, he gives us an outline of his plan, as well as some very useful discussions on the nature of faith.  One must not think, though, that because the book is short that it is straightforward. It’s very dense, particularly the early chapters. I think I could re-read the first 30 pages over and over again, get something new out of them every time and yet still not fully grasp the breadth of the vision that Barth was expounding.

As he moves on to look at the various bits of the Apostles Creed, it does become a bit more accessible. Though that may be because I had, by that time, adjusted my reading to suit the cadences present in the text. In many ways, it is particularly hard for me to summarise what Barth’s theology is, because what became clear is how much of an influence he has been on the leaders of the churches I have been a part of. That is, I view my own beliefs as being fairly orthodox and there is very little in this book that is vastly different from the teaching I have largely grown up within baptist, pentecostal and other nonconformist churches. It was then merely a very well-articulated series of sermons in the same vein that I have listened to in each of the last 4 decades.

As I was reading through it, I found myself wondering if his theology was the pinnacle of ‘pre-critical’ thinking. Though there are plenty of theologians before him who have had similar views (I think here of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther & Calvin) Barth was a contemporary of Bultmann, who is one of the others whose shadow across modern theology cannot be ignored. The other figure I thought of was A.W. Tozer. Though the latter was not as theologically astute as Barth, I sensed a similarity in their approach to, and view of, the bible. Interestingly, though, Barth does not go so far as to make any sort of claim to inerrancy, but he does insist on the bible being front and centre of how we understand the christian faith. Though Bultmann is barely alluded to, there is a distinct air of defiance against Bultmann’s school of thinking. For my part, though I would lean towards Barth’s point of view, I would pay more attention to biblical criticism than is evidenced here.

Barth warns at the outset that this is meant to be a careful look at what the church should be and be for from the perspective of those who are part of the church. It’s not a book I would recommend to a non-christian, that’s not the target audience. But for anyone wanting to read a book of pretty solid theology, then this is an excellent place to start.