Apr 24, 2014

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Liberating Aquinas from his aristotelian mask - an interview with Jean-Pierre Torrell o.p.

Placed on the web: 1998-04-14

What are you doing at this moment? Are you teaching any courses?

Since the academic year 1997-1998 I am no longer teaching. Now that I have arrived at the age of 70 I am permitted to retire and so I do not lecture anymore, except for occasional sessions. Until now most of all I have lectured on fundamental theology and dogmatic theology: first at the Dominican house of study at Toulouse, subsequently at the Gregoriana University at Rome (working at the same time, during that period, for the Commissio Leonina at Grottaferrata from 1973 till 1981) and finally at the university of Fribourg since 1981. The most important fields I taught were ecclesiology and christology-soteriology. A certain number of related subjects were treated in special courses. My teaching on Aquinas was done mostly in the form of seminars and of course in supervising doctorates.

What research on Aquinas are you doing now?

There are many things going on! Confining myself to the most important, I have just finished a small introduction book which is simply called The Summa Theologiae of saint Thomas. I have indeed become aware of the fact that since the study of Grabmann in 1925 there has not been anything on this subject available on the market. The idea is not only to present the work in its structure and content, but to situate it in its literary and doctrinal environment (the contemporaries and the sources of saint Thomas), considering its destiny in history and sketching the contemporary situation. It should appear during this year 1998 in Italian, at Jaca Book, and in French, at Cerf. An English translation is also planned, but I do not know exactly which publisher will take care of it. At this very moment I am doing research on the priesthood of Christ in q. 22 of the Tertia Pars, for a colloquium on the same subject which is organised by Revue Thomiste, which should take place at Toulouse at the beginning of June. I think that almost all young French speaking thomistic theologians will be united on that occasion and I am eagerly looking forward to see them again. Many of them are actually my former doctoral students. (If any other person should wish to participate, it suffices to write at Serge-Thomas BONINO, Revue Thomiste, 1 Allées Lacordaire, 31078 TOULOUSE-CEDEX 04, France.)
The most important field I am working on since three years now is the preparation of a book on the mysteries of the life of Christ (STh III 27-59). This is a part of the Summa which is too much neglected until now and that really is a shame, for Thomas reveals his knowledge of the Bible and the patristic tradition in an astonishing way here. In combination with the books which I have already published, this one must fill a gap and contribute to liberating the image of saint Thomas from the exclusive aristotelian mask which neo-thomism has given him.

What is the most important thing you learned from Aquinas?

It is hard to avoid common places answering this kind of questions! Nevertheless let us give it a try. Undoubtedly there are many things I learned from him of which I am not aware. Confining myself to two points which seem most important to me, I think in the first place one should mention ‘the concern of synthesis’. Our time knows much more things than the Middle Ages did (even if we limit ourselves to the strictly philosophical and theological areas), but we do not know very well how to organise them.The power of Aquinas is exactly to propose an organic vision of things departing from the highest cause and in relation with which one can appreciate the rest. This is precisely the difference between science(s) and wisdom. One can only imitate this rather feebly and with respect to relatively modest areas, but I made a guideline of it for my own oral or written teaching: I really believe in the pedagogical power of synthesis.
The second thing which seems to be left from saint Thomas is in direct relation with the first one. One of his disciples, Sylvester of Ferrare, said of him: 'A man for all hours'. Let us put it slightly different: he is 'a man of complete knowledge'. He is philosopher and theologian, speculative and positive, well versed in exegesis and patristics, and all this - reckoning with the state of science of his time, simultaneously well. In our day one cannot be equally competent in all domains, but due to certain circumstances I have worked in entirely different areas and I realize the incontestable richnes of vision which is the result of this. It seems very important to me not to let oneself be taken up by too limited specialties and to keep interest in the whole of the domain in which one works - and even in other domains! This is not meant as praising superficial incompetence, but conscious interdisciplinarity.

What works of Aquinas are you most familiar with?

The Summa Theologiae of course! For the very simple reason that my first steps in theology were made in its trend. For four years, between 1955 and 1959, in the audience of P. Labourdette for moral theology and P. Leroy for dogmatic theology, all courses were given departing from the Summa Theologiae, five hours weekly for both of each fields. Even if I would not have been very much devoted, this leaves some marks! From hereon I have taken up the habit to work on Aquinas according to the method of parallel places ('Sanctus Thomas sui ipsius interpres') and thus I know more or less the entire oeuvre, but I must confess that I like De veritate very much where the thought of the young Master makes decisive progress, and also the third book of Contra Gentiles where one can see the dialogue between man and God, and the respect which God has for his creature, at best. There is also Thomas the preacher, too little known, but so fascinating.

What is the importance for Aquinas-research for our times?

One should be modest. Aquinas does not give answers entirely made for the problems of our time. Not even for those which directly concern his favorite domains. As I just said, what he brings us is in the first place the possibility of judging new situations thanks to his synthesis. Even if he has not spoken about this or that problem, it is often possible to approach this problem departing from the thomistic synthesis and thus situate it with respect to other questions which are already known with regard to Christian faith. A thought, a consciousness formed in the school of Thomas is at best defined, so it seems to me, by his manner of working and his capacity of receiving all that is true and good in the world, because one knows that, if it is authentic, it cannot but come from the Holy Spirit.

What are your expectations of the Thomas Instituut?

I must say that I am impressed by the number of works which are published by and departing from your institute. I am certainly far from having read everything, but the quality of what I have managed to read or consult seems praiseworthy to me as well. If I could express a wish, I would say that you should cultivate Aquinas as a theologian even more. He certainly is a philosopher of first rank; contesting this is not the point, but I think that one fails to appreciate his originality if the theological dimension of his work is ignored. There is still a lot to do in this respect. It seems to me that the Instituut would find a distinctive mark in the contemporary renewal of thomistic studies.

Which of your books/articles do you consider the most important?

Another embarrasing question! Until now I have written a dozen of books and dozens of articles in different areas. If I pretend that some are more important, I risk to devaluate the others! I would find that unfortunate. Confining myself to what I have written about Thomas Aquinas, my two books cannot be seen apart from one another. I like the Introduction to saint Thomas very much because it not only takes stock of the research (which has not been done since Weisheipl in 1974), but also because it displays who Thomas was as a human being (which I believe has never really been done). Allow me to mention that it is available in English, German and Italian; the translation into Portugese and Croatian is on the way; the Polish one is planned. Concerning the second book, Thomas Aquinas Spiritual Master, I also really love it because it not only treats the whole of the Thomistic synthesis, but because it also tries at least to give an idea showing that it concerns not a construction purely of the brain, but a share in a vital experience: that of Christian faith, lived in the Holy Spirit, which brings along a certain way of behaving oneself in front of God and in the world. The book appeared only two years ago, but there is already an Italian translation, and the English translation is on the way.
If I had to make a choice among my articles on saint Thomas, I think that I would keep at least two: 1) 'The pastoral practice of a theologian of the 13th century. Saint Thomas Preacher' (Revue Thomiste 82, 1982[in French]) which gives access to a world so rich of the preached work of Thomas; 2) The salvational causality of the resurrection of Christ (Revue Thomiste 96, 1996[in French]), which initiates my reflection on the mysteries of the life of Christ and which may give a good impression - so it seems to me - of a fruitful method for working on Aquinas nowadays.


Carlo Leget


Previous related articles:

  • David B. Burrell on the relation between Creator and creatures as the key to Aquinas
  • Doing theology is no excuse for not using your head
  • The modesty of the theologian