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Chapter 1

Why Are There Three Parts


of the Summa?
Saint Thomass Introduction (ST, I, 1, 1)
In order to establish a scientific procedure for theology, Saint
Thomas was always careful to proceed from the more to the
less common, from causes to the caused, and from the more
known to the less known. Therefore, in the very first and
introductory question, he considers the science itself, explaining its necessity, dignity, specification, and mode of proceeding. Second, he considers the object of this science, discussing
the various matters with which the science is concerned and
the order among them, an order needed just because they are
various and diverse. As for the formal object, no ordering is
needed, since it is one. The formal object of any science is that
which orders, not that which is ordered. But it was necessary
for him first to treat the science itself and then its object, since
beginners in any science must first be taught the usefulness
and worth of that science before disputes about particular
matters can be treated.

Division of the Material Object of Theology


Having discussed in the prefatory question the science
itself of theology, Thomas sets out to plumb the depths of the
object to be explained. This is to set out upon the deep, as
Ambrose explains1 when discussing Christs words to Peter,
1

Commentary on Luke, Book IV, chap. 5. Patrologia Latina, 15, col. 1693.

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Book One: The Three Parts of the Summa and Their Treatises

Put out into the deep, and lower your nets for a catch.
(Luke 5, 4) The object of theology is profoundly deep, for it is
God himself, God as God, in all the fullness of his being, that
is, not just this or that attribute, for example, wisdom or justice, but the very essence and formality of deity along with all
his attributes, for God is an infinite ocean of being, as Saint
Gregory of Nazianzus put it.2
Given an object so deep and profound, Thomas first
divides it into two aspects: its being and its causality, and fittingly enough, since activity follows on being. As Saint
Thomas remarks elsewhere:3 Although knowledge of the
created effects of God comes before knowledge of God for the
natural theologian, for the theologian, consideration of the
Creator takes precedence over the consideration of creatures. Although the principal theological concern is Gods
being, the theologian spends more time discussing God as
causing and the things caused by him, since in this life we
know God through the mirror of creatures and the darkness
of his effects.
The treatment of God as causing, as the cause of creatures,
fittingly excludes two of the four kinds of cause, namely,
material and formal (in the sense of informing and constituting a nature). The material cause is excluded because it is
based on potentiality, which is repugnant to the pure act God
is; the formal or informing cause is excluded because it
implies dependence and inferiority, either to the whole it constitutes (the whole is greater than its part) or to the subject in
which it inheres. Since God is the most perfect being, and
pure act, he is inferior to nothing, nor does he depend on anything. As for the other two causes, namely, the efficient and
final, Saint Thomas considers three modes of causing which
provide a division of the whole theological order.
First, God is an efficient cause, insofar as he produces,
conserves, and governs things.
Second, God as final cause, not just the universal end of
2
3

Second Prayer for Easter. Patrologia Latina, 36, col. 626.


Prologue to the Exposition of Boethiuss On the Trinity.

CHAPTER 1: WHY ARE THERE THREE PARTS OF THE SUMMA?

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all creatures something Saint Thomas treats briefly when he


considers the way things proceed from God (See First Part,
q. 44) but much more importantly as he is the particular end
of the rational creature, by whom he is attainable and for
whom he is an object of joy through acts of intellect and will.
Thus it is that creatures not only proceed from God but return
to him from whom they have come. But the rational creature
fell from his proper dignity by sin and became like irrational
creatures in not returning to God, stuck in the enjoyment of
created goods and turned away from God. Man living in
wealth and not understanding, is like unto the beasts that
perish. (Psalm 48, 21)
That is why in a third way God causes and acts as repairing the effects of sin which turned man from his ultimate end,
something only God can do. Just as to be separated from the
first efficient cause is annihilation, which only God can prevent, who sustains all things by the word of his power, so
to turn from the ultimate end, which is to sin, is something
only God, who cleanses us from our sins, can repair. These
two are opportunely conjoined by the Apostle when he says
of the Son of God, by whom also he made the world; who
being the brightness of his glory and the image of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power,
has effected mans purgation from sin . . . (Hebrews 1, 3) His
efficient causality is signified by upholding all things and
his role as redeemer by has effected mans purgation from
sin.
So it is that Saint Thomas, by this threefold consideration
of God as cause, namely as effective principle (Part One), as
finalizing happiness (Part Two), and as redeeming Savior
(Part Three), divides the whole Summa theologiae. (This is clear
from the second question of the First Part.) Thus from God
considered in himself and in his being, we pass to God as efficient and redemptive cause, in order to come back to him as
the object of happiness after the glorious resurrection. So it is
that the golden circle of theology is closed.