Sunday, May 19, 2013

Introductory Post

Many Christians try at some point in their lives to read the text of Sacred Scripture from cover to cover. They start with gusto, moving steadily through the creation narratives, the flood, Babel, and the patriarchs, slogging through the occasional genealogy, but assured of eventual success. Then they finish Genesis. For a while, Exodus seems like more of the same, until Sinai, and the first statement of the law. For those strong enough to make it through Exodus and its dizzying array of covenantal precepts, Leviticus awaits, revealing untold possibilities of obscurity and tedium. By the time the reader reaches chapter 14 (with it's fascinating set of mildew laws) the project has almost certainly been abandoned.

Among intellectually inclined Catholics, a similar phenomenon sometimes occurs with the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas. Good Catholics know that St. Thomas's great handbook of theology has been held up by the church as the single best synthesis of Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers, and philosophical analysis for the better part of seven centuries. They read the prologue, where St. Thomas says that he intends to treat "whatever belongs to the Christian Religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners." "Excellent!" they think, "I am a beginner! I will read the Summa and know theology from beginning to end!" Little do they know that Thomas's "beginners" are seminarians beginning their study of theology after having completed several years of philosophical training. The book is designed for what we would call advanced graduate study, not for young people in search of a more thorough catechesis.

Still, they begin in earnest. At first, they struggle through the distinctions being drawn, the intense focus on the division and subdivision of topics, and the strange initial questions, expecting things to get more interesting rather quickly. But after Aquinas has proved the existence of God, he sets out to answer a long series of questions the reader has probably never thought to ask, with incessant references to obscure philosophical principles. If, by some miracle, the reader makes it through the first two dozen questions, even more confusing analyses await in the treatise on the Trinity, and the project will eventually be abandoned. (cf. this blog)

I am a beginner in theology, having just completed a master's degree at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. I would like to read the Summa, an article a day, and work through some of the difficulties it presents. I realize that at such a slow pace it will take me nearly a decade to finish, and I'm not entirely certain that I'll make it. But I intend to try, and I hope you'll join me in the endeavor, perhaps reading faster than I do.

A few logistical concerns. The text of the English Dominican Fathers translation of the Summa can be found here. The summa is divided into Parts, Questions, and Articles. There are three parts, and the second part is divided into two sub-parts. So, the four major sections of the Summa are:

1a = Prima Pars (the first part)
1a 2ae = Prima Pars Secundae Partis (the first part of the second part)
2a 2ae = Secunda Pars Secundae Partis (the second part of the second part)
3a = Tertia Pars (the third part)

Each part is divided into a large number of questions, each of which deals with some particular topic (e.g. the union of the soul with the body, the procession of the divine persons, the essence of law). Each question is divided into a few articles, each of which aims to settle some disputed question about the topic (e.g. Whether angels know the future, Whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son, Whether all men were equal in the state of innocence). In each article, St. Thomas first lays out a series of problematic arguments (Objections), then a short argument usually from authority (On the Contrary / Sed Contra), then an extended analysis of the problem ("I answer that", usually referred to as the Corpus), and finally resolutions of the initial arguments (Responses to the Objections).

In each of my posts I will run through points that seem to be particularly noteworthy in the day's text. The title of the post will contain a description of the subject matter, and a reference to the article discussed. I will standardize these to make the blog more easily searchable. They will be in the following form: "1-2.34.4" for Ia IIae q.34 a.4 (Whether pleasure is the rule by which to judge the goodness or evil of an act?)

This should do for the inaugural post. The next will cover the proemium.

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