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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 302

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Summa Theologica is a lengthy religious treatise by Thomas Aquinas, a Franciscan friar who completed this vast tract while teaching at the University of Paris. It is a longer, more comprehensive work of his Summa Contra Gentiles. Aquinas wrote during the High Middle Ages and his treatise was intended for those new to studying Christianity.

It is unique in bringing together Church doctrine and philosophy. It is divided into three parts, but the first part is divided into two parts, and the third part has a supplement, with the result that there are five de facto sections of varying lengths, arranged by subject. Each part is in turn divided into several articles. The articles are phrased as Socratic-style questions, which have objections submitted in reply to them in order to arrive at a conclusion on each point.

The major principles treated and conclusions reached in the first part of Thomas Aquinas' Summa is that God is coeternal with the Son and Holy Ghost, and that man is endowed with a soul that is immaterial and unique to each individual.

His second part address seven virtues (three theological and four cardinal): Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. He expounds on each of these, their opposite vices, and how they are featured in acts of martyrdom.

The third part talks about the sacraments, including Baptism and Confirmation. To Aquinas the sacraments are not symbolic, they impart grace in their practitioners.

His appendix discusses souls after death (on which he states that souls go to different places depending on their level of nobility), institutions of marriage (a cure of concupiscence), and indulgences (which are not sufficient to redeem sin).

Aquinas quotes heavily from Scripture, and also asserts that sacred doctrine is not a science, as it requires Faith, and cannot be fully tested.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 849

When Pope Leo XIII in 1879 issued his encyclical Aeterni Patris (on the restoration of Christian philosophy) urging that the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas be promoted and taught within the Roman Catholic Church, he ratified a view of Aquinas already held by many: that Aquinas is not only the supreme medieval and Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher but also one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Aquinas’s synthesis of biblical teachings with the philosophies of Aristotle and of Neoplatonism reaches its best-known expression in his final major work, the Summa Theologica. Despite its daunting size, intricate structure, and occasionally difficult ideas, this “summary of theology” was actually intended as an introductory text for students.

The summa, or summary form, was quite common in Aquinas’s time; many theologians and philosophers wrote in this encyclopedic, systematic style, and Aquinas himself had previously completed the Summa contra gentiles (c. 1258-1264; English translation, 1923). The Summa Theologica is divided into three principal parts (the second part has two sections): Prima Pars, Prima Secundae Partis, Secunda Secundae Partis, and Tertia Pars. Tertia Pars, left only about half done by Aquinas at his death (up through question 90), was supplemented by his followers with additional material based on one of Aquinas’s previously written philosophical commentaries. Each part is divided into treatises on various subjects, such as the “Treatise on Law” or the “Treatise on Man,” which are themselves divided into several numbered questions (extensive essays). Each question is further divided into articles. These articles deal with a single yes-or-no question, such as whether God exists. Aquinas begins each article with a series of theological and philosophical objections to the yes-or-no answer he has in mind. He follows these objections with a short statement, always beginning with “On the contrary” (Sed contra), presenting his answer, which is based on the authority of the Bible, the Christian fathers of the Church, or a recognized source such as Aristotle.

The heart of the article is then presented in the section beginning “I answer that” (Respondeo dicens), in which Aquinas logically demonstrates his answer. These parts of each article are the parts most often quoted as exemplifying Aquinas’s own philosophical positions and style of argumentation. After finishing his argument, Aquinas addresses and answers, one by one, each of the objections given at the beginning of the article. Thus each yes-or-no question is given not only an answer based on authority but also a philosophical, logical defense of that answer and a refutation of the most common objections raised by Aquinas’s opponents. In this highly formal structure, the Summa echoes the typical form of medieval scholastic debate known as the “disputed question” (quaestio disputata), which would have been well known to Aquinas’s original readers.

Aquinas states in the Summa that he will present the knowledge of God as revealed in sacred doctrine. However, sacred doctrine reveals God not only as he is in himself but also as the beginning of all things and as their final goal or last end. Therefore, Aquinas must write first of God considered in himself, then of God’s creation of rational creatures, including humans, and then of humans in themselves, as he does in the Prima Pars. As the reader must then consider the rational creature’s advance toward God, the Prima Secundae Partis treats humanity’s return to God as its last end or goal. Finally, the Secunda Secundae Partis and Tertia Pars present Jesus Christ as humanity’s way of returning to God; these sections discuss Christ’s Incarnation, perfect nature, divinity, humanity, and so on, as well as dealing with the sacraments of the Christian Church as the way in which Christians participate in Christ’s redemptive life, death, and resurrection. Thus the overall scheme of the Summa is that of a movement away from God in Creation and Original Sin, followed by a return to God in Christ.

However, since they are more specifically philosophical in nature, the first two divisions of the Summa are by far the most extensively quoted and discussed sections in the modern world. Aquinas begins by analyzing the nature and extent of sacred doctrine, its necessity over and beyond philosophical knowledge, and the limitations of theological language. God and his attributes are the proper object of this knowledge, so next Aquinas presents logical arguments for God’s existence and his attributes such as perfection, goodness, unity, eternality, and Trinity (God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The most famous of the treatises that follow include discussions of Creation, human nature, happiness, virtues and vices, Original Sin, and the various kinds of law (eternal, divine, natural, and human).

Because of their profundity and interest, these sections of the Summa have perhaps received disproportionate attention when compared to the plan of the work as a whole. However, much scholarship now focuses on recovering Aquinas’s contribution not only as a systematic philosopher but also as a deeply devout Christian theologian and writer. No matter how it is considered, therefore, the Summa remains one of the most important and influential Christian works in existence.