Doubting Thomas

'Thomas Aquinas'

A Portrait
Denys Turner
Yale University Press, $28, 312 pp.

Not being a historian of medieval philosophy, I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of Denys Turner’s account of Thomas Aquinas’s thought. But as a philosopher appreciating careful and creative thinking about Christian teachings, I can and do recommend Turner’s book as an impressive achievement. His Aquinas is a lucid and rigorous philosopher, following every argument wherever it leads, showing enormous ingenuity and unflinching integrity. Unfortunately, Turner’s discussion also shows—though he wouldn’t agree—that in most cases the final result is not deeper understanding but unintelligibility.

Given the space available, I’ll focus on just three key Christian doctrines where Aquinas’s arguments lead to perplexing conclusions: immortality, creation, and the nature of God as both one and triune. Turner covers much else, including stimulating discussions of Aquinas on grace, divine love, the Incarnation, and transubstantiation, as well as an ingenious view of how Aquinas the philosopher and theologian relates to Aquinas the saint. But, throughout, the specter of unintelligibility—or, if you like, “mystery”—looms large.

Turner emphasizes that there is an important sense in which Aquinas’s view of human beings is materialist. It is not a reductive materialism: Aquinas doesn’t claim, for example, that consciousness itself is nothing but a flux of neurons...

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About the Author

Gary Gutting is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is What Philosophy Can Do (Norton), and he writes regular columns for “The Stone,” the New York Times philosophy blog.