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Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait.

Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. By Denys Turner. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 300. $28.00.)

When this reviewer was in college, Etienne Gilson used the "hook" of "Christian existentialism" to attract readers to Thomas Aquinas. Now, a long generation later, Denys Turner offers the hook of "materialism," the idea that matter bears meaning, to gather new readers to the Angelic Doctor. In both cases, a current popular terminology was seized on to highlight something distinctive to Aquinas, in the first case the centrality of the act of being to his thought and in the second the importance of his use of the concept of matter. One hopes that the book has an impact on our times like Gilson's had on his. Turner's book is that of a mature scholar, a biography that treats its subject as an integrated human being in whom mind and soul, prayer, and the exploration of the range of reason are united.

An introduction presents this book as a "caricature" (Turner likes to use such striking and startling terms) that omits much about Aquinas, to the point of stressing the union in him of mind and soul, behind which is an almost invisible saint. This is partly the result of Turner's attempt to present an Aquinas not specifically for scholars but for the general reader. Chapter 1 explains the differences between a Benedictine and a Dominican life and Thomas's difficulties with his own family, who expected him to pursue the kind of ecclesiastical ambitions open to a Benedictine. Turner shows very well how Aquinas's developing idea of theology was a response to the commission his Dominican superiors gave him "to reform the theological training of Dominican preachers" (30). Though Thomas in effect showed that there was more than one way to study theology, by conceiving this as a university subject he also revealed the inadequacies in all the ways twelfth-century theologians had treated theology. Turner shows how Aquinas's lucidity flowed from his humility--from his never showing off--and how in turn his lucidity rose from his realization that theology aims at that which always dwells in silence: God himself. In this regard, he gives a very satisfactory account of the silence of Thomas's last three months, his return home "to the house of contemplative silence" (43).

The entrance into Turner's very important discussion of Aquinas's "materialism" is through a couple of the propositions condemned in the years immediately following Aquinas's death by the bishop of Paris and the archbishop of Canterbury: the proposition that God could not create matter without form, and the proposition that there is only one substantial form in humans, the intellectual soul. The latter especially was taken to embody an unspiritual view of humans. Turner proceeds by explaining Aquinas's view that we know God from his effects. The chapter "The Soul" makes clear why the doctrine of the immortality of the body is so central to Christianity. Chapters on "God," "Friendship and Grace," and "Christ" are followed by a stunning exposition of the Eucharist as bringing together many of the themes of the earlier chapters.

Glenn W. Olsen

University of Utah

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Author:Olsen, Glenn W.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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