Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason, and Following Christ

Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt
Published by Oxford University Press in 2013

Reviewed by Christopher A. Franks, Religion and Philosophy, High Point University

This is quite simply one of the most helpful books on Aquinas I have ever read. It does so many things well. It gives a compelling historical reconstruction of Aquinas. It shows the immense resources Aquinas offers for contemporary theologizing. And it demonstrates, practically and theoretically, how to take seriously our historical distance from Aquinas and to sift the various Thomisms that have filled that distance. In short, it is a model of historical theology done right.

The volume is part of the Christian Theology in Context series from Oxford University Press, which aims to set theologians and movements in their historical context in such a way as to bring out “the close relationship between knowledge and social practice.” Bauerschmidt’s book does that by highlighting the close relationship between Aquinas’s intellectual efforts and the communal way of life he took up when he cast his lot with the followers of Dominic. Thus, some of Bauerschmidt’s greatest debts are to the scholarship of Leonard Boyle and his student, Michèle Mulchahey. Those two more than anyone else have uncovered the character of early Dominican education, and Bauerschmidt brings their harvest to the field of historical theological work on Aquinas. The fruit includes some well-known truths that bear repeating, such as that Aquinas was not a creature of the University of Paris whose career there was interrupted by his work in Dominican settings, but quite the reverse. The fruit also includes some rare gems, as when Bauerschmidt imaginatively takes the reader inside the bodily and spiritual disciplines of thirteenth-century Dominican life to open up a new vista on the Summa Theologiae not as a detached academic discourse but as one instrument alongside many others at home in a Dominican convent designed to form people for the building up of the Church.

In a number of dimensions, the book achieves a balance that would make Aquinas proud. It covers the major loci of Aquinas’s mature thought while also attending to how Aquinas’s thought developed. It leans heavily on the Summa Theologiae while also giving due weight to other writings, including disputed questions, sermons, biblical commentaries, other summae, and liturgical works. It offers close readings of well-chosen passages while also conveying the grandeur of the architecture of Aquinas’s thought as a whole. And at the heart of what Bauerschmidt is trying to do, it honors Aquinas’s affinity for the sort of rational inquiry he found in Aristotle, while also showing how each move Aquinas makes, no matter how Aristotelian, is at the service of his evangelical mission to cultivate the goals for which the Order of Preachers was founded.

Bauerschmidt begins with a succinct but judicious overview of Aquinas’s biography set against the twelfth- and thirteenth-century context. Among the chapter’s sources are the excellent biographies by Jean-Pierre Torrell and Simon Tugwell, but Bauerschmidt grasps the heart of their portraits and presents it with such clarity that he taught me things I should have learned from them and did not.

The bulk of the book is divided into two parts, “Faith and Reason” and “Following Christ.” The first of these focuses on the role of philosophical thought and of rational inquiry more generally across three chapters: one on defining the character of holy teaching as a field, one on the “preambles of faith,” wherein theology discusses truths about God and the world that can be ascertained apart from the preaching of the Christian gospel, and one on the more properly theological activity of probing the act of faith and the revealed Truth that is its object. Much of the material here corresponds to questions in the First Part of the Summa Theologiae that are often considered quite “philosophical.” But by including in this section a discussion of faith, of reasoning “from fittingness,” and of the aesthetics of Dominican preaching in general and of Aquinas’s preaching in particular, Bauerschmidt draws connections that illustrate one of his primary assertions, that although Aquinas distinguishes between reason and faith, and between the natural and the supernatural, these are distinctions that “he is constantly blurring in practice” (142).

The second part focuses on the person and work of Christ, which for Aquinas communicates God’s goodness in order to bring humans to their true end with the aid of the Spirit. One chapter outlines the fundamental features of Aquinas’s Christology, and the other traces how grace is applied through virtue and sacrament in the lives of God’s people. This arrangement helps to underscore another of Bauerschmidt’s major contentions, that Aquinas’s Christology and sacramental theology are not afterthoughts, but are central both to his personal spirituality and to his theology. Bauerschmidt makes a compelling case that Aquinas’s Christology is not a half-hearted rehash of standard medieval positions, but is the culmination of his distinctive metaphysics of the Creator-creature relationship, and that for Aquinas, Christ is not an awkward appendage to moral theology. Christ defines the very character of the path of the wayfarer that is traced both in the account of the virtues and gifts of the Spirit in the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae and in the account of the sacraments in the Third Part.

The book depicts an Aquinas who refused to choose between an intellectual ministry (a better term for Aquinas’s work than “intellectual project,” 81) relevant to the work of everyday preachers and a serious engagement with the most rigorous distinction-making of philosophers. Bauerschmidt, a self-described “Hillbilly Thomist,” follows the example of his subject. The book is one of those rare scholarly works that can truly serve as an introduction while also satisfying more advanced students of Aquinas with its thoughtful treatment of debated issues. When the book aims at beginners, it does not forget scholars, for even while laying down well-known background circumstances or defining well-worn terminology, it does so with a freshness and penetration reminiscent of a Herbert McCabe, from whom Bauerschmidt has clearly learned much. When the book wades into more contentious scholarly waters, it does not forget beginners, for it is careful to recount where debates came from and to explain competing views in such a way that readers may appreciate why each side has its advocates.

This is not to say that Bauerschmidt aims at any kind of neutrality. The book sets its bearings in chapter 2 by contesting those, such as Fernand Van Steenberghen and Ralph McInerny, who have labored to portray Aquinas as a philosopher who constructed a philosophical system that could, in principle, be detached from theology. For Bauerschmidt, Aquinas is a theologian with evangelical purposes from first to last. Against the long and still lively tradition of those who insist on the theoretical possibility of a complete but un-elevated humanity that would have had only a purely natural end, Bauerschmidt clearly favors the notion of a dynamic natural desire for God such that the human being paradoxically needs supernatural help “even to be itself” (133). Perhaps Bauerschmidt’s most programmatic stand is to insist on the importance of Aquinas’s image of the Christian as viator, as wayfarer. The book does justice to Josef Pieper’s characterization of Aquinas’s “theologically founded worldliness,” but it reminds us that this world-affirmation proceeds from the position of a pilgrim whose home was elsewhere, a pilgrim who recognized that this beloved world is also estranged from God, so that Christians “must renounce the world and its love of pride and material pleasure and become wandering beggars for whom the crucified Jesus is the exemplar” (288-89).

As concerned as Bauerschmidt is to draw resources from Aquinas for contemporary theologizing, the book does not deny the difficulties modern readers sometimes have appropriating Aquinas’s thought. The book regularly showcases those difficulties, from the five ways of demonstrating God’s existence, some of which seem tied to an outdated physics, to the eschatological depiction of the blessed occupying the empyrean heaven, which is obviously linked to a superseded cosmology. Highlighting these difficulties is not only honest; it reminds the reader that Aquinas is no perennial philosopher, but a creature of his time and place—a lesson that is crucial to the sort of historical theology this book seeks to do.

The book ends with a chapter on Thomas’s legacy that not only provides an excellent brief overview of the various Thomisms, but also charts an agenda for historical theology. It becomes clear from this chapter that one of the ironies of Aeterni patris was that the very renewal of attention to Aquinas it mandated blossomed into a rapprochement with certain forms of historicism against which Aquinas’s thought was initially assumed to be an antidote. This turns out to be a good thing for those inclined to walk with Aquinas theologically, because such historical sensitivity saves us from the trap of treating Aquinas’s thought as a static system of timeless truths and allows us to see Aquinas instead as a fellow traveler following Christ, using the intellectual tools of his age in ways that help us see better how to put our intellects to the service of Christ in our own.

Cite this article
Christopher A. Franks, “Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason, and Following Christ”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:4 , 380-382

Christopher A. Franks

High Point University
Christopher A. Franks is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at High Point University.