Book Review: Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide

Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide. Randall B. Smith. Renewal Within Tradition. Matthew Levering, ed. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Academic, 2016. xxxiv + 342 pages. $44.95. Hardcover. ISBN 9781941447970

Thanks to recent publications of the sermons of St. Thomas Aquinas, Randall B. Smith has delivered on a magnificent contribution to help build a bridge across a once-yawning chasm in Thomistic scholarship with his Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide. Such a text has been necessary for quite some time; so this text represents something of a historical marker in an already eventful period of Thomistic biblical theology. Thomas’s biblical theology is a much-underappreciated facet of his theology, but the increasing availability of his commentaries are bringing his biblical theology more to the fore. Smith's text will further illustrate Thomas’s mode of exegesis within the context of preaching the faith.

The collection of Thomas’s sermons is quite small compared with his other writings—Smith outlines 20 authentic sermons in the first appendix (21 sermons are listed, but Smith argues that sermon 10 is to be judged inauthentic). By comparison, many of the Fathers, such as Augustine, Jerome, Caesarius of Arles, Leo the Great, and others, left scores or even hundreds of sermons. I imagine that Thomas would have done the same had he lived beyond his fiftieth birthday.

Another aspect to consider when purchasing this text is that one should have the English translation of the homilies (Thomas Aquinas: The Academic Sermons, tr. Mark-Robin Hoogland, C.P., FOTC: Medieval Continuation 11, CUA Press, 2010). alongside Smith’s Beginner’s Guide. The author emphasizes the necessity of having both books (cf. xxxiv). For serious academics, the Dominican L.J. Bataillon has recently produced a critical edition of the sermons, vol. 44.1 in the Opera Omnia (Rome: Commissio Leonina, 2014). For those interested, the Dominican J.-P. Torrell also published a French translation of the sermons (Cerf, 2014).

Smith outlines those sermons deemed authentic very thoroughly in the first appendix. This is a valuable piece of the book in its own right, considering that this section comprises nearly a third of the volume (229–325). Perhaps before taking on the main body of text, this might even be the first place a more novice reader could start because it gives such a helpful overview of all the authentic sermons. This first appendix also has the effect of reinforcing the evidence presented in the main text of the rhetorical mastery of Thomas. The second appendix is also quite useful to the reader in that it pinpoints in a more condensed way the place in the liturgical cycle wherein Thomas would have given this sermon and whether each sermon contained a collatio, which was a part of the sermon given in the evening at university.

In the main body of the text, Smith begins with a specific sermon and then proceeds to unpack the intricacies of Thomas’s genre of preaching. The first chapter he devotes to giving an in-depth exposition of Thomas’s sermon 5, Ecce Rex Tuus (Thomas’s sermons, like church documents, have come to be titled by the first few Latin words.) Smith shows how Thomas uses the Old Testament scriptures in ways that might seem odd to contemporary commentators but which flow naturally from his Christocentric understanding of the Bible. In the second chapter, he takes up the specific sermon genre in which Thomas was schooled, the sermo modernus, that is, “the modern sermon” (a genre often prejudiced as a not-so-modern sermon). In this sermon style, the preacher begins with a Biblical thema, a verse often taken from the liturgical readings and upon which the sermon is based. This is easily illustrated by thumbing through the appendix. Thomas often joins the thema to a prothema, a different Scriptural verse which the preacher will connect with the thema. The preacher then goes back to the thema and divides its parts (divisio) before expanding upon them (dilatatio). Chapter three Smith devotes to the divisio and four to various methods of expansion in the dilatatio. But this text is not merely a text of medieval ecclesiastical rhetoric; it is thoroughly theological and conveys the blessedness it must have been to have heard this great preacher. It sets Aquinas before the reader as a true master of preaching, whose facility with the Sacred Page leaves little doubt as to why he has become the example for theologians to this day. As one can see, in addition to its theological and historical value, this text could also be used very well in college rhetoric classes or in homiletics classes in seminaries. Thomas, as Smith shows, employs the liturgical reading of the day in a way that leads to dogmatic exposition and exhortation of the faithful. And against a number of criticisms, Smith defends Thomas’s use of the sermo modernus, which, upon Smith’s examination proves to be a very effective mode of sermon preparation.

My biggest difficulty with this text is in its title, which I find somewhat misleading. In my opinion, such an academic tour de force should not be called a “beginner’s guide.” “Beginner’s guide” says more about the reader than it does about the text. The book is an introduction and then some: full of academic-level prose, rigorous research, lengthy footnotes, plenty of Latin, occasional Greek, and other features that restrict the intended audience of such a text to Thomistic scholars and graduate students (all of whom, of course, should have a copy of Smith’s book). In no sense does that take away from the text, but novices and younger students of theology may find themselves in over their heads. The table of contents is very thorough, which is most appreciated and nearly makes up for the regrettable absence of an index, which would be welcome should there be future editions. Leaving those criticisms aside, the cover is very attractive, the text is masterfully written, and it seems well edited with few noticeable errors. The spectrum of research into the sermons of Aquinas has been relatively small up until the past decade. This book opens the door to those sermons and clarifies their style for future scholars. In doing so, Smith ensures that scholars will take up those sermons and get to work. For my part, I hope to see more from this author on this topic.

Reviewed by Kevin M. Clarke, adjunct professor of theology, Ave Maria University.


Kevin Clarke

Kevin Clarke (biblical theology, Ph.D. Cand.) is writing his dissertation on Maximus the Confessor's Christological exegesis. He has edited and introduced a book for CUA Press on the Fathers of the Church and the capital vices, which he hopes to see in print in 2017. Before coming to Ave Maria, he taught Biblical Greek at John Paul Catholic University and high school in Southern California for five years. He has published in Nova et Vetera and has an article forthcoming in the Polish journal Vox Patrum. He has written in popular venues such as First Things: On the Square, Lay Witness, and Zenit News Agency. Before getting his master's in theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Kevin was once a copy editor at The Roanoke Times in Virginia.