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Doing theology today with 'master' Aquinas. An interview with Gilles Emery OP

Gilles Emery teaches Dogmatic Theology at the Theological Faculty of Fribourg University (Switzerland). He is a member of the editorial board of Revue Thomiste and specialized in Trinitarian Theology. He tells us how studying Aquinas can be more than 'just' doing theology.
1. Who are you, what do you do and where do you work?

I am a Dominican friar living at Fribourg, Switzerland. I was born forty years ago in the Swiss Alps. I was a seminarist for some years, then I entered the Dominican Order (before I came to know Aquinas!). I might say that St. Dominic led me to St. Thomas: the latter is the spiritual son of the former, and for me they cannot be separated. As a priest, I worked some years in a parish in Geneva. After a dissertation on Aquinas I began to teach some courses at Fribourg University in 1995, and I became a professor for Dogmatic Theology at the Theological Faculty of Fribourg University in 1997. I am a member of the editorial board of the French Revue Thomiste (Toulouse). As a Dominican, I share the daily life with the brethren of my priory and I work at the University.

2. What courses are you teaching this semester ?

This year (both semesters) I am teaching a course on the doctrine of the Triune God, a course on the doctrine of Creation, and a course in reading Aquinas (I read some texts of Aquinas with the students : the first chapters of the third book of the Summa contra Gentiles in the first semester, and some questions from the Summa theologiae on the Angels during the second semester). My teaching includes 2 seminars as well: a seminar on the Trinity in the Biblical Commentaries of St. Thomas Aquinas and another seminar (with my assistant, Nicole Giroud) on the main themes of the theologies of liberation.

3. Are you doing research on Aquinas now ? If so, what are the results of this project so far ? Has part of it been published already ?

The main part of my research is dedicaded to Aquinas. At present I am writing two short papers on Aquinas (one on the treatise on God, the other on Pentecost in Aquinas), but I am working at a broader study. I have been studying Aquinas' Trinitarian Theology for more than 12 years, and I think that it is time for me to write a synthesis of this research. So I am preparing a book on the teaching of Aquinas on the Trinity. I want to do for the Trinitarian treatise of the Summa Theologiae (Ia Pars, Questions 27-43) something similar to what Father Jean-Pierre Torrell did for the treatise on the Life of Jesus (IIIa Pars, q. 27-59 : Le Christ en ses mysteres, Paris 1999). The book I am preparing is a historical and systematic approach of the Trinitarian thought of Aquinas. I am trying to integrate the study of Aquinas' other works on this topic into my study of the Summa Theologia. I am just at the beginning and I hope to complete this book by March or April 2003.

4. Whom do you considere to be our master in Aquinas ?

My master in Aquinas ? I have to name two of them: Father Jean-Pierre Torrell and Father Francois von Gunten. Father Torrell was one of my professors when I studied theology. Then he was the director of my doctoral thesis, and I was the assistant of Father Torrell at Fribourg University. He taught me how to read Aquinas historically, and how to read him as a theologian, as a master in Sacred Scripture. But, first of all, Father Torrell taught his students how Aquinas can help us to do theology today, that is to say how we can do theology with Aquinas. In a few words: I consider myself as a disciple of Father J.-P. Torrell. Father François von Gunten is maybe less known. He was granted with a very high mind and a deep insight into Aquinas' speculative thought. He was a professor at the Angelicum in Rome, but when he retired he came back to Fribourg. Before I began teaching at Fribourg, I had the privilege of meeting Father von Gunten every day for a kind of private seminar in our priory, and we discussed some pages of Aquinas: we did so for one year and a half. Father von Gunten helped me to read Aquinas, word after word, sentence after sentence. Sometimes, he could spend two hours discussing a single word, and he raised so many questions that at the end we had far more questions than answers. Well, Father von Guten taught me how the reading of Aquinas is an act of speculative thought. I cannot say how much I owe to Father von Gunten.

5. What is the most important thing you learned from Aquinas ?

The most important thing I learned from Aquinas is how to be a theologian, that is to say what theology is and how theology should be done. I mean not only the method of theology (how to read Scripture with the help of the Fathers, how to integrate philosophy and so on), but the contemplative and pratical nature of theology. In other words: Aquinas helped me to find the unity of my life as a Dominican (theology, prayer, study and religious life, teaching and preaching). I would add that Aquinas helped me to look at the (secularized) culture of my country in a positive way, in the manner of a constructive dialogue ; in other words, he helps me to understand how Christian life is a vocation for people living with God within their world. Aquinas is for me the model of a 'thinking Christian'.

6. Which works of Aquinas are you most familiar with ?

The works of Aquinas I am most familiar with are the commentary to books I and II of the Sentences, the Summa Theologiae (Prima pars et Tertia Pars), the Summa contra Gentiles, the Quaestiones disputate de potentia, the commentary on St. John, and some short treatises (De rationibus fidei, De articulis fidei). Well, this seems to be much, even too much. I think that I am more or less familiar with the theological works of Aquinas, or parts of these works, dealing with what we call today Dogmatics.

7. What is the importance of Aquinas-research for our times, especially for the discipline you are working in ? What results has the research in your discipline yielded that is relevant to research on Aquinas ?

Your question is so vast that I do not know how to answer it. Let me point out only two aspects of a possible answer. First, I think that research has rediscovered Aquinas as a theologian. This is not meant against philosophy (philosophy is not only an essential part of Aquinas' thought, but it is absolutely necessary for us today), but I do not share the opinion of scholars thinking that the originality of Aquinas lies in the way he contextualized philosophy. I am happy to note today a rediscovery of the leading role of theology in Aquinas: he did theology, and when he did philosophy, he did philosophy without ceasing to be a theologian. Second, I am happy to note not only that the time of neoscholasticism is over, but also that the time of interpreting Aquinas against neoscholasticism is over as well. This makes us free to read Aquinas in a renewed way, withouth depending on problems foreign to him (and foreign to us!). Regarding the last part of your question, I think that research on the Trinity in Aquinas has established that Trinitarian thought is not only a theme among others, but that it furnishes the very frame and foundation of St. Thomas Aquinas' entire theology.
Here I want to express a concern. There are courses and research projects on Aquinas in many Theological and Philosophical Faculties everywhere. But, most of the time, the research and the teaching are limited to Aquinas himself, or to Aquinas in the history of theology and philosophy. It is a good thing, but in that case Aquinas is considered as a part of our inheritance from the past, or as a good subject for specialization. Students attending these courses know little about what they can do with Aquinas when they do theology (or philosophy) today. We need such courses and research projects on Aquinas, of course (and I do so myself), but in my opinion what we should offer is the thought of Aquinas, or a reflection based on Aquinas, within the research and courses on other subjects. It is what I have received when I was a student at Fribourg. I did not attend courses on Aquinas, but Aquinas was present in the courses on God, Christology, the Sacraments, and so on. So Aquinas was not the topic of a special course, but a master with whom theology can be done today. Otherwise we shall never succeed in bringing Aquinas into our theological debates. So, we need a specific research on Aquinas, but what we need above all is theology and philosophy tout court on the basis of (or with the help of) Aquinas.

8. Do you know about the Thomas Instituut te Utrecht ? If so, what do you think of it ? To what matters should the Thomas Instituut lend priority ?

I know the Thomas Instituut first of all through its publications, which I find of great interest. I have several volumes of the 'Publications of the Thomas Instituut te Utrecht' on the shelves of my library. They can also be found at the Library of Fribourg University (the Jaarboek as well). I was happy to meet some of the scholars involved in your Instituut at a conference in Toulouse some years ago, and then in the US last year. Now, regarding the contribution of the Thomas Instituut te Utrecht, I note an interest for theology and theological themes in Aquinas, which I share. I would add that the Thomas Instituut has a kind a 'freshness' in the approach of Aquinas, it looks free from the weight of controversies of the past. So I just hope that the Thomas Instituut goes on !

9. What do you expect from the Internet in the future ? In what way should the Thomas Instituut anticipate these developments ?

I expect much and little from the Internet. Much, because the Internet can provide us with texts, bibliography, news on the present research projects, and forums. Little, because nothing can replace the personal and careful reading of Aquinas with the book in the hands, the Bible and other sources on the desk, and nothing can replace a teacher. What the internet can offer are tools. So I expect good tools from the Internet, but little more.

10. Can you give the titles of some of your publications so that readers may get to know more about your work ?

I published my dissertation under the title: La Trinité créatrice. Trinité et création dans les commentaires aux Sentences de Thomas d'Aquin et de ses précurseurs Albert le Grand et Bonaventure (Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, Paris, 1995). I wrote a translation, with an introduction and notes, of two short treatises of Aquinas: "Thomas d'Aquin, Traités : Les raisons de la foi, les articles de la foi et les sacrements de léEglise, Introduction, traduction du latin et annotation" (Ed. du Cerf, Paris 1999). Last year I published a collection of papers with Pierre Gisel, my collegue at the Theological Faculty of Lausanne: "Le christianisme est-il un monothéisme?" (Labor et Fides, Genève 2001).

January 23, 2002
Carlo Leget