Book Review

"Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction" by Fergus Kerr

Michael Allen
Fergus Kerr
Wednesday, September 1st 2010
Sep/Oct 2010

Few Protestants spend time with Thomas Aquinas. He is verbose, antiquated, and "Catholic." He left us over eight million words in print, so the interested may quickly become the intimidated. He did write long ago in a specific milieu, and his theology fits the context and thus requires some knowledge of the era in order to grasp the doctrine. Finally, he is both a doctor of the whole church as well as the chief theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, so reading Thomas as a Protestant involves negotiation of some ecumenical questions. Put these all together, and we must say that reading Thomas Aquinas is not easy. Yet we are the worse off when we ignore this great theological master.

Fergus Kerr has helped make him more accessible now by penning this Very Short Introduction to Thomas. Like other volumes in this series from Oxford University Press, a snappy little volume introduces the reader to a figure, topic, or movement by offering an expert's guidance and commentary. Indeed, Kerr brings a wealth of knowledge to the task, having already written a remarkable scholarly volume called After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism. That volume stands at the forefront of Thomistic scholarship, offering a magisterial treatment of recent debates among those claiming to represent Thomas today. Here that same scholarly rigor is paired with accessible writing in the best possible way, offering a remarkably clear and brief entry into the life and thought of this learned theologian. Interested readers should take note and gain familiarity with a famed doctor of the church.

Kerr's book includes six chapters: his biography (chapter 1), his literary works (chapter 2), the three parts of his magnum opus (chapters 3-5), and Thomism (chapter 6). Kerr helpfully describes the key phases in his life and work, and he walks the reader through the various texts of his literary oeuvre. The real center of the book is the discussion of Thomas's Summa Theologiae, a work that has dominated theology for several centuries. The ST comes in three parts (with the second part itself having two parts), and its macrostructure reflects Thomas's reading of redemptive history. Kerr ably explains the major sections of each part, and he shows how the broader project fits together. These three chapters serve as a very brief synopsis of Thomas's approach to most every tenet of Christian theology, and they always point the reader to specific places where they can read more in the ST.

Especially helpful discussions include Kerr's unpacking of the claim that "grace does not destroy nature but perfects it" (33), the practical reasons for knowing the Trinity (50-1), the relationship of human purpose to happiness (67-8), the relationship of virtues to Christian character and growth (71-3, 78-85), natural law (75-8), the function of the sacraments (96-7), and the doctrine of transubstantiation (98-100). In all these places, he exposits Thomas clearly and succinctly. He concludes the book with a wonderfully accessible account of recent debates regarding the place of metaphysics in theology: Why should we talk of "being" (and a number of other metaphysical terms such as "simplicity") in thinking about God? Kerr describes the approach of Adolf van Harnack and others in rejecting metaphysics as a "Hellenizing" of the gospel, and he then depicts the Thomistic argument that the gospel requires us to think about the world in metaphysical categories (113-19). In a world where various classical attributes of God are being disputed left and right, this historical sketch alone is worth the price of the book. Perhaps here Thomas can be of most help to children of the Reformation, showing us the exegetical roots of creedal and classical Christian language for describing God's character.

The book might have been made stronger by an explanation of the microstructure of Thomas's ST, which is divided into three parts–each made up of a number of questions and each composed of various articles. Such a discussion would better prepare readers to engage Thomas themselves. In other words, Kerr is especially strong in showing the macrolevel form of the ST, namely, how his doctrine of creation relates to his doctrine of law or his teaching on virtue; yet he is less helpful in showing how the book functions from page to page–that is, explaining how counterarguments, replies, and rebuttals work in Thomas's theological rhetoric. Both aspects of Thomas's work are unfamiliar to most Christians today, and so introduction is really needed to help us read as well as reflect on the work of this theologian.

Thomas was not a Protestant, but he was a father figure of the Protestants. Many doctrines held dear by Luther and Calvin were best described by Thomas (for example, predestination and providence, on which see Kerr's illuminating exposition of "divine government," 62-5). Later Reformed theologians such as John Owen and Herman Bavinck make special use of Thomas in thinking about God and creation; for example, Bavinck ruminates on the implications of the Thomistic principle "Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it." This has shaped the ongoing development of Reformed eschatology and soteriology against the strong Gnostic trends of our culture. In our own day, some of the finest work on the doctrine of God has been written by modern-day Thomists (Gilles Emery or Matthew Levering), in ways quite agreeable to the theology of the Protestant churches. These contemporary theologians are trying to express the central impulses of Thomas in a new day. While we will have disagreements about soteriology and other issues, we cannot turn our back on such careful thinking about the nature of God in the Thomistic tradition. We believe Thomas is our father, and we must seek his wisdom. Laypersons in Reformation churches now have access to the basic structures of his thought, the key patterns of his exegesis, and the lingering debates among his pupils. In the best sense, Kerr has given us a very short introduction to a very major theologian.

Wednesday, September 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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