Persuaded by friends and teachers, I began to read St. Thomas Aquinas’s Bible commentaries alongside other modern commentaries whenever I studied Sacred Scripture. To my surprise, I found the Angelic Doctor underwhelming.
Sure, there were nuggets of insight to be found in his comments on this or that pericope. But whenever I would dive into Aquinas’s treatment of a given passage in his commentary on, say, Matthew’s Gospel or 2 Corinthians, I would surface feeling underwhelmed. Didn’t Thomas have more to say? After all, as a master of theology at the University of Paris, he didn’t teach the Summa Contra Gentiles in class. He didn’t lead students through Aristotle’s De Anima. Thomas lectured on the Scriptures and held disputations.1
I quickly found the problem was not with the Angelic Doctor, but with me. Jumping into one of Aquinas’s biblical commentaries midstream was like showing up an hour late to a Christopher Nolan film and leaving well before it ends. You can make sense of some of what is happening on the surface. But you’re left with a nagging sense that there is so much more going on that you’re missing.
The heart of the matter is we cannot read Aquinas the same way we are often inclined to read modern commentators. Aquinas has limited returns to offer dabblers, but he has big gains for those who read him holistically. For those of us trying to get more of the Angelic Doctor in our daily lives, there’s a wrong way and a right way to do it.
The wrong way to read Aquinas’s Bible commentaries
It was as a failed and disappointed reader of Aquinas’s Bible commentaries that I picked up Dr. John Boyle’s recent collection of essays on Thomas, The Order and Division of Divine Truth. Sure enough, after just a few chapters, I had found a much-needed course corrective to my reading of Thomas. Boyle explains the folly of a fragmented approach to Aquinas’s biblical commentaries:
The problem is in looking simply to the commentary on specific verses. The genius of the scholastic division of the text is that every lemma has a context, or better, a set of nested contexts. It never stands alone. The comments presume all that has come before and, indeed, what comes after. The skilled commentator need not say as much at the particular lemma because he has already said so much getting there. … Thus such commentaries must be read as a whole. The division of the text not only presumes a conceptual unity but produces a commentary that itself must be understood as a whole. The division of the text is a guide to the biblical commentary as well as to the biblical text. It is a practical point, if not exactly a theological one, for those of us who would undertake the study of these monstrous commentaries.2
I had failed to understand the absolute centrality of the division of the text (divisio textus) as the ordering principle of Aquinas’s commentaries on the inspired Word. I was approaching Thomas as I had so many contemporary commentaries: jumping in to see how he treats a particular passage, and then moving on to see how others have read it. It was my piecemeal approach to the commentary, treating each section (or “lecture”) as self-contained unit, that left me unsatisfied. Boyle elsewhere explains the centrality of the division of the text, with reference to Aquinas’s commentary on Romans:
The stated theme—in the case of Romans, grace considered in itself—runs through the whole of the letter and governs it. This does not mean that St. Thomas appeals to it at every step of the way; rather, he presumes it. Everything stands in relation to it. Because each verse stands in an articulated conceptual relation to all other verses by means of the division of the text, each verse is ultimately to be understood in relation to the whole and all of its parts. Thus, when St. Thomas comments on a given passage of the letter, he has in mind the division of the text that situates that passage in relation to what has come before and ultimately to what is yet to come.3
Boyle helped me to see that I needed a new approach to reading Aquinas’s Bible commentaries. I needed to give Thomas more time to unfold his argument by taking seriously his approach to the integrity of a given biblical book. In short, I needed let Thomas set the agenda. His division of a given book needed to become the lenses through which I would read the entire commentary. In short, I needed to read Thomas the way Thomas wanted to be read.
The right way to read Aquinas’s Bible commentaries
How best to start working through these massive scholastic tomes? Around the same time that I came to understand better the genre of the scholastic commentary, the Read Aloud feature for Verbum was made available on Android. After testing different voices in my text-to-speech settings—ultimately opting for a reasonable sounding English (UK) accent at 1.25x speed—I thought I would try an experiment.
What if I made a first pass through one of Thomas’s commentaries by listening to it? Certainly, many of the finer nuances would pass me by: a close reading offers deeper engagement with the text than listening. But this suggested itself as a worthwhile endeavor precisely because I would keep moving. The primary goal would be to familiarize myself with the text as a whole: a deeper reading would come later. As Boyle had made clear, one must take a commentary in its entirety to understand it. Listening to a commentary with the read aloud feature would allow me to get a handle on the full breadth of Thomas’s treatment of a given book before going back and drilling down on particular passages.
So, during my commutes to and from work, I started listening to Thomas’s Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. In short order, I found this new approach fruitful. After a brief exposition of St. Jerome’s prologue to Matthew, Thomas gets down to business in the first lecture, dividing and distinguishing the text according to his understanding of the unifying theme of Matthew’s Gospel: the humanity of Christ. With the principal theme established, Thomas outlines a threefold division of the Gospel:
Now, it is through his humanity that Christ entered, advanced in, and left the world. And for this reason the whole Gospel is divided into three parts. For the Evangelist treats first of Christ’s entrance into the world through his humanity; second, of his advance; third, of his departure. The second part begins at and in those days came John the Baptist preaching in the desert of Judea (Matt 3:1). The third part begins at and when they drew near to Jerusalem, and had come to Bethphage, unto Mount Olivet (Matt 21:1).4
Whenever I would come back to the car and tune back into the commentary, I would begin by quickly reminding myself of these two aspects of Thomas’ approach to Matthew:
- This Gospel is fundamentally concerned with Jesus’s humanity.
- The Gospel unfolds according to Christ’s entrance into, advance in, and departure from the world.
By moving at a steady clip through the commentary, it became easier to see how this basic division of the text (and the further subdivisions that followed in any given section) provided a fuller context and interpretive lens for Thomas’s comments on any given passage.
Take, for instance, his treatment of the call of the first apostles in Matthew 4. “While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen” (Matt 4:18). Aquinas makes an interesting observation about Christ’s action at the opening of this verse:
He says then, walking by the sea of Galilee. A fitting place, because, as the Gloss says, about to call fishermen, he walked by the sea. Moreover, as regards the mystery, one should know that God’s standing signifies eternity and immobility; his walking, the temporal birth. Therefore, the fact that he called his disciples while walking signifies that he drew us to himself by the mystery of his incarnation.5
Why the particular focus on the incarnation here? Quite simply, because it is through Christ’s humanity that he called disciples to himself and that Christ and his teaching advanced in the world. While a more detailed study of Aquinas’s treatment of Matthew 4 certainly pays the close reader back tenfold, listening to this lecture with the primary theme of Christ’s humanity in mind immediately flagged this small but intriguing detail. Throughout the commentary, Thomas shows a heightened awareness of the mystery of Christ’s humanity as the instrument of his divinity.
I have since found added benefit in listening again to lectures from the Commentary on Matthew, not only in the car, but also when at my desk, taking notes as if I was sitting in class with Master Thomas. I offer these experiences primarily by way of suggestion and encouragement. For those like me who have had a strong desire to become much better acquainted with his writings (especially on the Scriptures), but who have struggled when opening up one of these “monstrous commentaries,” as Boyle calls them, perhaps it is time to switch from podcasts to the Dumb Ox. Just get listening.
The single greatest benefit I have found is to establish a baseline familiarity with Thomas’s treatment of a whole book of Scripture without getting bogged down in the details. No doubt, the Read Aloud feature would also be of great benefit for tackling the writings of any of the Fathers or Doctors of the Church that one has in Verbum. Tolle, audi!
The Order and Division of Divine Truth: St. Thomas Aquinas as Scholastic Master of the Sacred Page (Renewal Within Tradition)
Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work, 3rd ed. (St. Thomas Aquinas In Translation, vol. 1)
Aquinas Institute Opera Omnia Project: Bible Commentaries (10 vols.)
Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew
Commentary on Romans
Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers, Volume 1: St. Matthew
On Creation [Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei, Q. 3]
Commentary on the Book of Causes
- See John F. Boyle, The Order and Division of Divine Truth: St. Thomas Aquinas as Scholastic Master of the Sacred Page, ed. Matthew Levering, Renewal within Tradition (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic, 2021), 8.
- Boyle, Order and Division of Divine Truth, 27–28.
- Boyle, Order and Division of Divine Truth, 80.
- Saint Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew Chapters 1–28, ed. The Aquinas Institute, trans. Jeremy Holmes and Beth Mortensen, Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas 1 (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic, 2018), 5.
- Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 118.