The theologian as Jacob wrestling with the angel (Chenu)

A colleague in the American Theological Library Association wrote its listserv ATLANTIS as follows:

I’m looking for the source of a statement by Thomas Aquinas [to the effect] that delving into the doctrine of the Trinity is like Jacob wrestling with the angel. Can someone suggest where this might be from? I’m assuming it’s in [the] Summa Theologi[ae] somewhere, but that’s not very specific. Thanks.

After much free-searching of Index Thomisticus, I’ve had to settle for the following, which I discovered via Google, and which I would like very much to track to its source. A major problem is that Chenu gives not the slightest indication where (in Aquinas?) he encountered it:

In a very suggestive allegory, St Thomas gives a symbolic description of the theologian confronted with the mystery of God [(note: not specifically the Trinity, as requested)]. Calling to mind Jacob’s struggle with the angel he writes:

The whole night they wrestled [(s’affrontèrent)], muscles straining, neither yielding [(muscles tenus, sans que l’un ou l’autre cédassent)]; but at daybreak the angel disappeared, apparently leaving the field clear to his adversary. But Jacob then felt a violent pain in his thigh [(un douleur vive à la cuisse)]. He was left wounded and limping [(blessé et claudicant)]. It is thus that the theologian grapples with the mystery [(le théologien affronte le mystère)] when God brings him face to face with it. He is taut, like a bent bow, grappling with human language [(tendu, comme arc-bouté à ses expressions humaines)]; he struggles like a wrestler [(en saisit les objects à bras-le-corps)]; he even seems to win the mastery [(s’enrendre maitre)]. But then he feels a weakness, a weakness at once painful and delicious [(une faiblesse douloureuse et delectable à la fois)], for to be thus defeated is in fact the proof that his combat was divine [(de son divin combat)]

(M. D. Chenu, Is theology a science?, 47). Fragments of the original French I insert not from La théologie est-elle une science? directly, but from The Trinity: an analysis of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Expositio of the De Trinitate of Boethius, by Douglas C. Hall, who treats Chenu as a gloss on a passage from the commentary on Genesis by Peter John Olivi, which he (Hall) attributes erroneously to Aquinas himself.

Treating the Chenu as a possible loose rendition of chap. 32 of Olivi’s (not Aquinas’) commentary on Genesis seems a promising lead at first, given especially certain echoes, e.g. “neither overcoming the other, neither yielding” (trans. Hall; cf. Chenu, above), the potential bow-language (flectendo, “bowing [it]”; cf. Chenu on the “bent bow”, above), and so forth. But the most important of these, the former, is, so far as I can tell, a mistranslation, indeed, probably the result of Hall reading Olivi in the light of Chenu, rather than the Latin actually before him (those of you who know Latin better please correct me, as I’m a rank amateur). I give first the Hall, then the Latin, then my own fumbling translation:

‘No longer will you be called Jacob, but Israel. For if you have placed your strength against God,’ by means of violence, that is, he grasped God and fought with God, neither overcoming the other, neither yielding… . ‘And you ask my name, which is marvelous?’ The sense of this can be that here it is said that his name is marvelous, or that his name is marvelous in that it is not comprehensible for us.

Nequaquam Jacob appellabitur nomen tuum, sed Israel. quia si contra Deum fortis fuisti, per violentiam scilicet detentivarum precum et importunarum pulsationum cum Deo pugnando, ejusque rigorem superando, sive flectendo: quanto magis contra hominess praevalebis? … Cur quaeris nomen meum, quod est mirabile? Sensus potest esse, quod … mirabile est nomen ejus: vel quod nomen suum est mirabile, quod non est nobis comprehensibile.

Your name shall be no longer Jacob, but Israel. because if you have been strong against God, contending with God and overcoming his rigidity or [at least] bending/bowing [it] through violence, namely [etc.] … Why do you ask for my name, which is wonderful? The sense can be [either] that … his name is Wonderful, or that his name is wonderful, i.e. to us incomprehensible.

Translated in this way, the phrase “neither overcoming the other, neither yielding”, so reminiscent of Chenu’s “muscles taut, neither yielding”, simply vanishes. Add to this the lack of any reference in the Latin here to Jacob’s being “taut, like a bent bow” (here it is the Lord whose muscular inflexibility is ultimately bent or bowed by Jacob), the lack (in the rest of this chapter, at least) of any interest in the work of the theologian specifically, or his/her grapplings with the limitations of human language, so central to the passage quoted by Chenu, etc., and this, too, falls away as probably a false lead.

This is not to say that there is not some other passage in this pseudo-Thomistic commentary on Genesis or even Aquinas himself (or some other Father) to match the Chenu, or even something other than the Chenu that I should be trying to trace back to a source in Thomas, but only that it doesn’t seem to be this one (chap. 32 of the Olivian commentary on Genesis), despite this suggestive juxtaposition (but also misleading translation?) in Hall. Perhaps the fragments of the original French I give above will help someone else search Index Thomisticus more effectively than I have done.

I would be grateful for any further input.

Steve Perisho
Theology/Humanities/Fine Arts Librarian
Seattle Pacific University