What can be discovered about the origin of Thomas Aquinas's Summa of Theology suggests that it was a masterful improvisation in the face of very Dominican circumstances for the teaching of Christian theology. In June of 1259, at the age of 34 or 35, Thomas left Paris to attend the general chapter of Dominicans at Valenciennes, where he served as a member of a commission working on the promotion of studies within the order. In the months after that chapter meeting, and perhaps in response to it, Thomas returned to his ecclesiastical home, the "Roman" or Italian province of the Dominican order.3 He had behind him a brilliant if occasionally controversial career as a student and regent master of theology in the University of Paris, but his work in Italy would be within the houses of his order and not at a university. Modern readers tend to forget this institutional setting. They picture Thomas teaching always in the streets of Paris, in the midst of the university and its turmoils. He spent more time as a licensed teacher outside the university, in houses of religious formation. After some five or six years of such service, in September of 1265, Thomas was assigned to open a house of studies for Dominicans in Rome - perhaps as a result of his own lobbying.4 There was no university in the city and no previous academic establishment for the Dominicans. The new venture may have been the province's attempt to create a middle step between its conventual schools and the order's international houses of study (studia). The Roman school looks to have been the first attempt anywhere for an intermediate Dominican school of theology. It was centered on the theologian Thomas as lector or teacher. The way was open for his pedagogical invention. What he invented was a reform of Dominican theological education.
3 See the summary chronology in Torrell, Initiation, p. 480. The exact date of Thomas's departure from Paris and his exact whereabouts in the surrounding months are still uncertain (Torrell, pp. 145—148).
4 See Leonard E. Boyle, Setting of the Summa theologiae, pp. 9—12; Torrell, Initiation, pp. 207—211; M. Michèle Mulchahey, "First the Bow is Bent in Study . . .": Dominican Education before 1350 (Toronto: PIMS, 1998), pp. 278—306. The arguments against Boyle's thesis put by Jenkins seem to me to rely too much on contemporary evaluations of the work's scope or difficulty — as on an over-reading of the importance to it of Aristotelian paradigms of scientia. See John I.Jenkins, Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), especially pp. 79—97.
The prevailing theology curriculum in Dominican houses relied on Scripture and books of Scriptural history, of course, but also on collections of texts for sacramental doctrine, manuals of the moral life, and some reference works of canon law and the church Fathers. Thomas had other plans at Rome from the start. During his first year, he tried revising his earlier Parisian commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. He began not with the fourth Book, often used by Dominicans for teaching on the sacraments, but with the first, with its doctrine on God as unity and trinity. After revising and supplementing parts of the first Book, Thomas set the project aside. He turned instead to what we call the Summa,5 which begins much as the Lombard's Sentences does, but goes on to a more rigorously ordered consideration of the whole of theology. In short, the evidence we have from Thomas's writing at Rome suggests that his main effort was directed at expanding the pastoral and practical curriculum of Dominican houses by placing it within the frame of the whole of theology. The frame is the Summa. It is a frame meant to reform the Dominican tendency to separate moral manuals from theological or Scriptural treatises.
To view the Summa as Thomas's remedy for a defect of Dominican education in no way reduces it.6 I have already argued that Thomas had a habit of conceiving occasions for writing in the widest terms. My two best examples come from the period immediately before his assignment to Rome. So if Thomas answered in Rome the needs of his Dominican students or the mandate of his provincial chapter, that does not mean that he gave them what they expected - or that the work he wrote has no wider usefulness.
There are other complications in my telling of the story. I have so far interchanged Thomas's writing with Thomas's teaching. They should be distinguished. The Summa was the centerpiece of Thomas's effort to counteract the neglect of studies often lamented by his provincial chapter, but the text we have of it is not the script or the record of what Thomas said in the Roman studium. It has been objected that if Thomas actually taught the first 40-odd questions of the Summa, he would have covered much of the same ground during his second year that he had already covered in
5 It is important to remember that this most familiar title may well not be Thomas's own. See the variety of early testimonies in Angelus Walz, "De genuino titulo Summae theologiae," Angelicum 18 (1941): 142-151. Nothing can be deduced about Thomas's work from speculations as to what a "summa" is supposed to be.
6 For a review of the historical evidence and an argument about its pertinence to the Summa, see Mark F.Johnson, "Aquinas's Summa theologiae as Pedagogy," in Medieval Education, eds. Ronald Begley and Joseph W. Koterski (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2005), pp. 133-142.
"reading" the first book of the Sentences.7 But there are other issues here, more interesting ones. What exactly would it mean to say that Thomas "taught" a text like Summa 1 to his students in Rome, whether in toto or from q. 45 on? We cannot really imagine him conducting each article before the students as a separate disputatio. Thomas did conduct a number of disputes at Rome.8 They look like his other disputed questions - and unlike the articles of the Summa, which are much simpler and more tightly sequenced. The Summa's articles form part of a structure promised in its main lines from the beginning - and not in the terms used to justify the stringing together of disputed questions.
If Thomas did not dispute the articles of Summa 1 at Rome, how might he have taught them? Do we imagine Thomas writing out sections and then reading them aloud? Or Thomas giving an oral summary that was copied down by his assistants and then redacted into finished form? Absent direct archival or anecdotal evidence, we can only reason from the texts. The articles of the Summa are unlike not only the questions Thomas disputed at Rome, but also both the notes of the Roman "reading" of the Sentences or the first redaction of the expositions of Paul and the expositions of PseudoDionysius that may also have been written in Rome. To find a structural parallel to the Summa, we must go back a few years. The articles in the Summa most resemble those chapters of Against the Gentiles written as condensed disputes, except that the Summa's articles are more condensed still and more rigorously ordered. There is no evidence that Thomas taught Against the Gentiles verbatim to anyone. The resemblance suggests that he did not teach the Summa verbatim either. Against the Gentiles is, I have already argued, an ideal pattern of persuasion to Christian wisdom. The Summa is also an ideal pattern, though different in conception and end.
The Summa is not a transcript of Thomas's teaching nor is it a teacher's script for immediate classroom use. It is a single sequence of illustrative topics and typical arguments. It is not meant to "prep" the student for higher study, but to lead the student from the beginning of theology to its end along a single inquiry. The sequence is ideal in so far as it is exemplary -and in two senses. First, the Summa does not pretend to be comprehensive and, indeed, invites particular extensions or applications. Second, the Summa's ordering of texts, terms, and argument is non-exclusive in the way that Christian wisdom is. It offers itself with a kind of universality to all "beginners" in "Christian religion." Perhaps that is why Thomas chose not
7 Torrell, Initiation, pp. 233—234; compare Mulchahey, "First the Bow," p. 294.
8 Mulchahey, "First the Bow, " p. 303, provides a summary of her own conjectures about the debates. Everyone would agree at least to the disputation of the 83 articles De potentia.
to be more explicitly Dominican in his prologue, his rhetoric, and his acknowledged sources.
The Summa is not so much the report of Thomas's classroom performance or his script for future teachers as it is the pattern for an ideal pedagogy, a pedagogy for middle learners in a vowed community of Christian pastors. When enriched by adaptation to a particular classroom, the pedagogy teaches the place of moral learning within theology in the only way anyone can (on Thomas's account of teaching). Learners are invited to study morals through a clarifying reminder of arguments about God as creator and governor; they are habituated into moral knowledge not only through practice with its disputative elements, but through dialectical narration of patterns for lived virtues and ways of life; and they are then shown, in the great disclosure at the turn from the second part to the third, that the power moving their inquiry back to God has been the power of their incarnate Lord. When Thomas began to write the program of the Summa at his Roman studium, and however exactly he adapted or amplified it in his own daily teaching, he invented it as a curricular ideal, not as a daily lesson plan. It is a strictly unified curricular ideal meant to guide moral teaching in various Dominican communities or other Christian schools. The teaching is to be a single, continuous solicitation to acquire and exercise the habit of theology in all of its parts.9
Was this article helpful?