Stephen J. Pope

Aidan Nichols presents a brief, accessible and clear introduction to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. The prior of Blackfriars in Cambridge, England, Nichols communicates the sweep and texture of St. Thomas’s thought in a remarkably direct and simple (but not simplistic) manner. He follows a long line of distinguished English Dominican Thomists but is also indebted to French and American expositors of Thomistic theology.

Discovering Aquinas begins with a compact and helpful biographical sketch. Nichols’s account stresses Thomas’s vocation as a Dominican friar and theologian committed to contemplata aliis tradere, to give to others the fruits of contemplation. This emphasis will come as a surprise to undergraduates who are under the impression that St. Thomas was primarily a philosopher.

The second part of the book provides a careful exposition of Thomas’s major theological concerns and themes: revelation, the unity of God and creation, Trinity, the image of God in humanity, angelology, grace and the virtues, and Christ, the church and sacraments. It is helpful that Nichols treats Thomas’s theology not as a static system but as the starting point of a powerful and distinguished tradition of theological inquiry. Though he is deeply inspired by Thomas, Nichols by no means holds that all the questions that have ever been generated by thoughtful minds have already been answered in the Thomistic corpus. Hence the third part of Nichols’s text addresses Thomas in history, and the final part takes up his ongoing relevance to the practice of philosophy and the idea of theology, respectively.

Nichols certainly achieves his goal of providing an accurate and concise introduction to the whole of the theology of St. Thomas. One might wonder why such a volume is needed at the present time, when so many introductory texts are available. The answer is that none of the other introductions offer the kind of synthetic theological and historical summary provided by Nichols. He devotes primary attention to the Summa Theologiae but also draws upon many other Thomistic works when relevant to his discussion. He notes the proximate historical context of St. Thomas’s writings but explains his position in ways that make sense to 21st-century readers. His treatment of angelology is a case in point.

The topic of angels strikes most contemporary readers as an amusing expression of a (supposedly) medieval fascination with magic and the occult, but Nichols shows that Thomas’s rather extensive treatment of this subject was rooted in Scripture, theologically sophisticated and consistent with his larger theology of revelation and theology of creation. A brief introduction to angelology cannot answer all the relevant questions that might be put to this topic, but Nichols provides serious grounds for pursuing it in more detail through a study of the primary texts. This, of course, is what every introductory text strives to do.

Discovering Aquinas also has another strength: it allows one to see both the forest and the trees (at least some of the most important ones). Nichols does a superb job presenting the big picture of God as loving Trinity sending the Son and Spirit to redeem humanity and providing the church as a community within which salvation can be pursued through communion and sacrament. The proper accent is placed on grace healing but also elevating human nature, a position that makes possible the integration of the cardinal virtues within a life infused with the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

While his text clearly stresses the coherence and internal consistency of Thomas’s theology, Nichols also makes sure readers understand that Thomism is a tradition with its own ups and downs. He rehearses the well-known three waves of Scholasticismbeginning with the high middle ages, then rising again in an early modern resurgence and finally re-emerging in the 19th centuryand then he goes on to suggest that we are in the midst of a Fourth Scholasticism due in part to the prompting of Pope John Paul II working in tandem with the scholarly research and writing of both European and American professors.

Informed readers might find themselves shifting a bit in their seats toward the end of the book, since some of the candidates proposed for such a Thomistic renaissance are at times as influenced by Wittgenstein, Kant or Scheler or, for that matter, Ockham or even Barth as they are by Thomas. How these thinkers are to be interpreted and how they are related to one another are the subjects of major debates in the field of theology that one could hardly expect the author to explore in a primer. Nichols is to be thanked for providing an excellent introduction to his subject matter. It is to be expected that those who are committed to studying Thomas in a sustained way will find that this book whets the appetite more than it satisfies it. Specialists will wish the book were closer to the length of Jean-Pierre Torrell’s magisterial treatment of Thomas’s life and spiritualitybut this would be another kind of book addressed to a different audience.

We ought to be grateful to this author, for his book provides a superb, clear and attractive introduction to the theology of a great genius.

Stephen J. Pope is an associate professor of theology and department chair at Boston College.