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Thomistic theology is poised for a new flowering

Matthew Levering is professor of Theology at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan. In this interview he shares with us his views on Aquinas, Thomism and announces a new journal, the English edition of Nova et Vetera, of which he is one of the co-editors.
Who are you and where do you work?

I am 31, married with three children, and teach theology at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Before coming to Ave Maria College, I earned a Master’s degree from Duke Divinity School, a Methodist institution where I studied with Fr. Edward Mahoney, Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanley Hauerwas, and the patristics scholar Susan Keefe. At Duke Divinity School I developed a lasting and fruitful friendship with Michael Dauphinais, then also a Master’s student, who is now my colleague and dean at Ave Maria College. I earned my Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston College. Boston is blessed with numerous theological institutes, and I was privileged to study with such scholars as Stephen F. Brown, Fr. Matthew Lamb, Fr. Romanus Cessario O.P., and Khaled Anatolios.

What courses are you teaching at the moment?

I am teaching three courses: seminars on the sacraments and on moral theology, and an introduction to the Bible. All these courses are for undergraduates.

What research on Aquinas are you doing now?

I have begun researching his theology of the Eucharist, in connection with his theology of the Church. I would like to write a study of aspects of his theology of the Eucharist in connection with his understanding of the Mystical Body. However, I cannot say that I am very far along. I’ve only barely begun. So it may or may not come to fruition!
Secondly, I am planning to work during the summer on editing English translations of Aquinas’s Commentary on Colossians and his Commentary on 2 Corinthians. Both have been translated by Fr. Fabian Larcher O.P., but neither has ever been published in English.

We understood that the first edition of a new journal, the English edition of Nova et Vetera is soon to be published. You are one of the co-editors of this review: Can you tell us something about it?

The original Nova et Vetera was founded in Switzerland (in French) in 1926 by the future Cardinal Charles Journet. Due to the good offices of Fr. Georges Cottier O.P. and Fr. Charles Morerod O.P., it became possible to publish an English edition of this philosophical and theological journal. There is also an Italian edition.

This first issue is quite exciting. To subscribe, or to receive a free trial issue, contact me by email or write to Nova et Vetera Subscriptions, 300 W. Forest Ave., Ypsilanti, Michigan 48197, USA. The journal is published twice a year, Spring and Fall. It costs $20 for an individual and $40 for an institution. Rather than list all the contributors to the first issue, I’ll simply say that the contributors and articles are impressive and well worth the subscription, and that the future of the journal looks great.

Perhaps I could say a little about why we have founded an English edition at this time. I believe that Thomistic theology is poised for a new flowering, a new renaissance, in English-speaking countries. French Thomistic theology is, at present, extraordinarily rich. The generation of Fr. Torrell, Fr. Pinckaers, and Fr. Cottier, masters of theological wisdom, has been replaced in teaching positions by a number of superb speculative theologians who have revealed themselves to be contemporary Thomist masters. I am thinking of theologians such as Fr. Gilles Emery (Sapientia Press, which publishes the English edition of Nova et Vetera, will soon be publishing in English a volume of magnificent essays by Fr. Emery, entitled Trinity in Aquinas), Fr. Serge-Thomas Bonino, Fr. Charles Morerod, Fr. Gilbert Narcisse, Fr. Benoit-Dominique de La Soujeole, Fr. Michael Sherwin. There are numerous others. These Dominican thinkers are reminding us what speculative Thomistic theology can and should accomplish, and it will soon be no longer possible to imagine that Thomistic theology is not contemporary theology.

While all of these thinkers have some historical training, what unites them is their speculative power. They are certainly not ignorant of intellectual history, but they are not intellectual historians of Aquinas or keepers of a nostalgic flame. Rather their work has a speculative energy and metaphysical vigor which marks it out and makes it a great joy to read. It does not dilute the faith, but rather displays the beauty and intelligibility of what we believe as Catholics. One can rightly compare their work, taken as a whole, to the burst of creative speculative energy among the Jesuits in the generation before the Council.

One clear mission of the English edition of Nova et Vetera is to bring this vibrant theological movement into more thoroughgoing contact with English-speaking theologians, graduate students, and educated readers. English-speaking countries at present have very few Thomistic theologians. This situation is going to change rather quickly. Like Augustine’s thought, Aquinas’s theology is continually jumping the boundaries set for it with a burst of new speculative energy. The present movement is not “conservative” in the sense of frozen in the past, but is fresh, contemporary, and richly Catholic.

The English-speaking theological world is ripe for a transformation for another reason as well, namely the rediscovery in the 1970s and 1980s of virtue theory. The virtue ethicists found in Aquinas an account of the moral life that was dynamic without dissolving the radical character of Christian morality. Kantian moral theology, with its emphasis on obligation and duties, paled in comparison to the virtue-ethicists’ rich account. Thanks in large part to the success of virtue ethics and the influence of its teachers, the same transformation is now happening in speculative theology. Fr. Fergus Kerr O.P., Fr. J. A. DiNoia, Fr. Romanus Cessario, A. N. Williams, John Boyle, Fr. Richard Schenk O.P., Fr. David Burrell, Fr. Bob Barron, Fr. Michael Dodds, Fr. Thomas Weinandy O.F.M. Cap., Thomas Hibbs come to mind as leaders. Numerous members of the Utrecht school come to mind as well. I will mention especially Carlo Leget since he is a good friend.

What is the most important thing you learned from Aquinas?

First, the unity of theology: the relationship of Trinitarian doctrine to the theology of creation, Providence, anthropology, the moral life, Christ, the Church, the sacraments, eternal life.

Second, how to integrate speculative theology, historical researches, the Church’s authoritative testimony, and the witness of the Bible.
Third, the importance of extending one’s theological dialogue broadly.
Fourth, the importance of metaphysics.

With which works of Aquinas are you most familiar?

The Summa Theologiae and his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John.

What is the importance of Aquinas for contemporary theology?

To be a contemporary speculative theologian, it is of great value to be a Thomist. This is so because of the biblical freshness, speculative rigor, patristic breadth, and metaphysical intelligence of his thought. Theologians trained in these attributes will be able to write theology that offers insight to the contemporary world.

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

I am a great admirer of the Thomas Instituut. When we started our Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal at Ave Maria College, we had Utrecht for a model. Unfortunately, we have yet not come anywhere near the standard you have set.
I am not sure to what matters the Thomas Instituut should lend priority. It depends, I suppose, upon the talents of the members, upon their interests. I see the Thomas Instituut as not merely a research center devoted to the thought of an ancient thinker, but rather a contemporary (Catholic) theological think-tank. As such, it will grow by developing its connections with contemporary theology, particularly Catholic theology. In doing this, the Instituut must be sure that in the interest of becoming a respectable (which in the United States means tacitly secular) academic body, it does not lose touch with the necessarily radical teachings of Catholic Christianity. To my knowledge, the Thomas Instituut has thus far done a wonderful job.

What do you think of the Internet in general and the site of the Thomas Instituut in particular?

The Thomas Instituut is my favorite site other than Amazon.com. Otherwise, I do not use the internet much.

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

I have published Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple: Salvation according to Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002). This is a revision of my doctoral dissertation. With Michael Dauphinais, I authored a short introduction to Aquinas’s theology intended for classroom use: Knowing the Love of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas(Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002). Also with Michael Dauphinais, I am the editor of Reading John with St. Thomas Aquinas: Theological Exegesis and Speculative Theology (under consideration for publication at Catholic University of America Press). I am also most recently the author of Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas’s Theology of the Triune God, forthcoming in Blackwell’s Challenges in Contemporary Theology series.
In addition, I am glad to report that the Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal is sponsoring a scholarly conference this August 8-9, 2003, entitled “John Paul II and the Renewal of Thomistic Theology,” with a wide variety of well-known speakers.

If readers want to contact you, how can they do that?

I have two email addresses that I check: mlevering@avemaria.edu and mjlevering@yahoo.com.
Otherwise, write to me at Nova et Vetera/Ave Maria College, 300 W. Forest Ave., Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA or tel. 734-337-4605.

Allow me to conclude by thanking the Thomas Instituut for this opportunity to introduce my work.


Stefan Mangnus