Rewritten Theology: Aquinas After His Readers. By Mark D. Jordan


Pp. xiv, 205 , Oxford , Blackwell , 2006 , $40.00 .

There was a time when the discipline of rhetoric was taught as part of the ordinary curriculum in preparation for a degree in theology. Sadly no longer, which means that while no less a quantity of rhetoric abounds in the theological discipline, very few recognise the forms and registers of the speech they deploy. A case in point: after giving a paper on St. Thomas Aquinas, I congratulated a celebrated British theologian by saying what an interesting interpretation she had advanced. ‘Oh no,’ came the reply ‘that was Aquinas’. She would have done well, had it then been published, to have read this book. Early on in the text Mark Jordan notes in Rewritten Theology: Aquinas After His Readers (p. 6) ‘The claim of every monumental Thomism is that it is a faithful copy. The fact of every monumental Thomism is that it rewrites Thomas while denying its rewriting’. Unreflective rhetoric quickly turns into ideology (the fate of much contemporary speech), and ideology, as Jordan reminds us here and in his other recent works, requires coercion to succeed, and coercion requires the police.

So often when he writes, and with the gentleness and subtlety which are personal hallmarks as much as those of his scholarship, Jordan teaches us not only about the matter in hand, but also how to read texts (and what we are doing when we read them) and how to comport ourselves as theologians. Jordan is not only an accomplished (and mellifluous) rhetor, he is self-conscious in his art, and a master explicator of the rhetoric, and rhetorical devices, of both contemporary and earlier times. For just one instance of his acuity we find Jordan noting that (p. 80) ‘the impression that ‘Aristotle is everywhere’ whenever Thomas turns to ethics has to be corrected by noticing that Aristotle is not everywhere the same’.

In all his writing Jordan exhibits a rare virtue among contemporary writers, for his is a theological voice in reserve – cautioning, cajoling, provoking us to care for the matter in hand, rather than enforcing with thinly disguised polemic the tub-thumping opinions that too much pass for theological discourse. St. Thomas Aquinas has, as Jordan himself notes, been co-opted for more causes and schools of interpretation (if schooled they are – there are those I doubt) than perhaps any other theologian – save possibly St. Augustine. Since Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Æterni Patris confirmed St. Thomas as the theologian of the Catholic Church, too many who want to demonstrate how faithful they are to the Church (or how far the Church has strayed from real faith) have felt it necessary to claim St. Thomas as authorising underpinning for their every word (whether ‘for’ or ‘against’ the saint himself). Jordan repeatedly exposes us to the context of the texts he explicates, and so explains not just what it means to cite St. Thomas, but from what site and so from whence, and to whom, St. Thomas speaks, and why.

There are few more accomplished Anglophone readers of Aquinas. Two widely available texts stand out – his early (and superb) Ordering Wisdom: the Hierarchy of Philosophical Discourses in Aquinas (Notre Dame, 1986), and his later translation and introduction of a part of Aquinas's Summa Theologiæ, published as On faith : Summa theologiae 2-2, qq 1–16 of St. Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame, 1990). He has written no great systematic work, no ordered treatise, for reasons that become clear in this book. Rather, Rewritten Theology contains eight less widely known articles by Jordan on Aquinas, which in rewritten form constitute a compelling pedagogy and introduction, but not a hermeneutic key. The title itself constitutes an invitation into the history of interpretation of St. Thomas, and as well an explanation of the book itself, for while adding a new Introduction and Conclusion, the main eight chapters from across near fifteen years of reading and writing have been substantially and significantly rewritten to appear in the cool, mature voice that guides the reader through the text. The first, introductory, chapter mentions arguments and texts from St. Thomas barely at all, and, as so often with Jordan's work, functions as a careful and demanding call to hermeneutic self-awareness for the reader.

This opening chapter –St. Thomas and the Police– emphasises the uses to which St. Thomas has been put (and by whom – the bodies of police in question). If Aquinas's texts have ever appeared under police escort, not least among the attendant ranks of gendarmes, dear reader, are you warned you might be found yourself – whether wittingly or not. This is good preparation for what is to follow. I will not rehearse the themes of each chapter in turn – I lack the space, and as copyist or forger my skills are poor. As well, I hate to spoil a good plot (which is tantamount to saying you really should read this book). Jordan exposes us to the impossibility of reading texts. He comes close to saying (I think he does say it, but I cannot find again the line) that every reading of a text – in this case the texts of Aquinas – is a misreading. By doing so he warns us of the difficulty and precariousness of every claim from St. Thomas we might wish to make.

Taken together, the essential thesis of these essays is to show how St. Thomas's writings, above all else, are two things that are hardly ever claimed he is, and one, routinely claimed, he is not at all. First, St. Thomas's purposes in writing are moral. As he writes he performs the theological virtues in what he writes: he writes to reform his readers. If St. Thomas is attended by police, to enter his language is to enter a house of correction. Second, he writes as a theologian– not in the modern sense of one who has gained a degree or two and set up shop in a theological faculty of a secular university, but as one who reflects ecclesially on the mediation of God's proclamation of salvation to humanity. If this is a Church theology (dare I say dogmatics) par excellence, then important caveats are sounded about the relation of Church as institution to Church as sacrament of Christ (my own distinction). Thus if we take certain claims about St. Thomas (that, for instance, he is ‘Aristotelian’) then (p. 88) ‘Thomas's ‘Aristotelianism’ means Thomas's availability for recent ecclesiastical projects of intellectual security’. St. Thomas, as moralist, and as theologian, demonstrates (p. 125) ‘theology is the unique science that cannot be made either theoretical or practical. It must be both.’

Finally, St. Thomas is not, and never considered himself to be, a philosopher. St. Thomas, baptist of Aristotle, borrows freely from pagans he calls philosophers, but never gives the title ‘philosopher’ to a Christian. The corollary of this (despite the whole edifice of Neo-Thomism) is that there is no ‘Thomistic Philosophy’, even if there is a philosophical vocabulary deployed freely and extensively through an essentially theological corpus.

Indeed, Neo-Thomism gets the proper assessment it has long deserved (p. 87): ‘Many neo-Thomisms have dreamed of an apodictic and autonomous philosophy more beholden to Cartesian or neo-Kantian curricula than to Thomas – or for that matter, Aristotle. (The Aristotle in neo-Thomisms little resembles other Aristotles, and he speaks Latin much more fluently than Greek.)’ And if there is a philosophical vocabulary, it is not the vocabulary of system. Jordan says (p. 24) ‘one product of the covert entry of Cartesianism into Scholastic circles was the fantasy of a Thomistic method’. Jordan concludes from St. Thomas ‘a Christian theology done well ought to speak more and better about matters of concern to philosophy than philosophers themselves can’.

Another exploded shibboleth is St. Thomas on ‘natural law’– (p. 57) ‘no section of the summa has been abused so regularly as the discussion on law’. More potently (p. 145) ‘God reveals natural law precepts after human beings have experienced their own humiliating impotence’. Rather than have the police enforce the ‘natural law’, should we seek after it in God after having failed to find it in and for ourselves. This ‘natural’ law is only divine when self-policing (through the practice of the virtues), in pursuit of what God revealed in Christ. A very odd phenomenon indeed if supposed as ‘natural’.

Which brings us back to the police. For if my admiration for this book is unreserved, it leaves me (properly) with questions. If (p. 16) Jordan says ‘the impossible ambition is to think that you could write a moral theology, for example, without attracting the police’, I wonder, can we – or even should we want – to live without the police? Do not (as Jordan knows so well) the police afford protection to some of us who – in order to be able to speak in the accusatory environment of the modern prosecution of religion – require them to exist, just to hold the peace so we can speak and be heard? More pertinently, given how alert Jordan to reading as misreading, could he not in this function as a kind of police himself? If every reading is a mis-reading, then surely there is no difference between reading and misreading – they are the same? But isn't interpretation a better name than misreading, so that every reading is an interpretation, which makes us think about who we are in the readings that we undertake? Mustn't we learn to interpret (isn't this what a reader of Jordan's stature has to teach us?) so that there is a way of reading St. Thomas within a gentle, virtuous, correction that will allow us to learn how to read, and so interpret, properly and well?

Jordan shows how St. Thomas points up that the condition in which his texts must be read is one of infused, not innate, or acquired, or habituated virtue. Infused grace is by divine gift, and so not taken or acquired: this gift alone insulates against the police and at the same time cures the failings of human reason. We moderns seek some standard against which the infusion can be measured (how much is granted? how effective is it? is it really infused?). St. Thomas himself knows all too well that such a mean is never available in the passage of time itself – only at the end of time and after the last things will the answers to these questions be revealed, at which point the revealing of the answer is at the same time the diagnosis of our redemption.

But for St. Thomas there are safeguards: the walls of the priory, the sacraments, the actual acquisition and practise of the virtues, the stabilising structure of hierarchy – the very things that have disappeared, or lost their force, or had to acquire brute force, and for which the police substitute. The delicacy of the conditioning framework, the possibility of reading, in a place that can be open to infused virtue (a believing community, living in harmony [plainchant] even if not always simply or happily at peace) is replaced by enforcement, the codification of belief. The vitality of the religious house of prayer is exchanged for codes of conduct or measurable orthodoxies – catechisms, professions of faith: the apparatus of denunciation and correction can be set up everywhere.

Jordan does not seem to help us in how we can make ourselves available to St. Thomas's texts (I choose my words, and the implied direction of travel, with great care) and even seems to hope that we might just open the text and thereby receive what St. Thomas expected infused grace would allow to be received. But wouldn't a genuinely ecclesial reading of St. Thomas lead to a love for the form in which salvation is communicated, even if tainted by a melancholy with respect to its limitations and even ruinations?

In this book Mark Jordan makes available the fruits of twenty years or more of the most careful, perspicacious interpretation of a master of the Christian life, which, if misreading it is, is of the very best kind.