Summa contra Gentiles

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The Summa contra Gentiles, also known as the Summa contra Gentes, is one of the best-known books by St Thomas Aquinas. It has traditionally been dated to around 1260-1264, though more recent scholarship places it towards the end of Thomas’ life, 1270-73 (see Murphy), around the same time as his best-known work, the Summa Theologica. The work has occasioned much debate as to its purpose, its intended audience and its relationship to his other works. Thomas' works are divided into several categories: Scriptural commentaries, Aristotelian commentaries, opuscula (smaller works), disputed questions and theological syntheses. The Summa contra Gentiles is usually classified as a theological synthesis[citation needed] along with his earlier Commentary on the The Four Books of Sentences of Peter Lombard and the Summa Theologica, although there are significant differences in scope and intent between all three of these works.

The Summa contra Gentiles is often portrayed as an early missionary's manual or handbook. Whereas the Summa Theologiæ was written to explain the Christian faith to theology students, the Summa contra Gentiles is more apologetic in tone, as it was written to explain and defend the "Christian truth" in hostile situations against unbelievers, with arguments adapted to fit the intended circumstances of its use, each article refuting a certain heretical belief or proposition. Instead of a mere elucidation of the length and breadth of "Christian truth", Aquinas explains specific core articles of Christian belief.[1]

It was probably written to aid missionaries in explaining the Christian religion to and defending it against the Muslims and Jews, both of which, especially the former, had a strong Aristotelian philosophical tradition at the time.[1]

Structure of the work

The Summa contra Gentiles is split roughly into two sections, books I-III (which cover truths that naturally are accessible to the human intellect), and book IV (which covers truths for which natural reason is inadequate, like the Trinity, Incarnation, Sacraments, and the Resurrection). More specifically, the first part of the work treats truths about God that are known by the natural capacities of the human intellect. Thomas argues that we can know that God exists, that God is one, that God is good from the power of unaided reason. Each of the three first books embodies a different way of exploring humanity's natural knowledge of God. Book I treats God in himself (his knowing and willing). Book II treats God in his so-called transitive action (action that goes out from him) and thus is a study of creation. Book III shows how, for Thomas, all created things have their end in God. Book IV can be seen to mirror the basic structure of books I-III, although it treats the issues from the perspective of revelation. Thus the first part of book IV treats God in himself (the Trinity), then God in his transitive action (the Incarnation and Sacraments), and then God as the end of all things (the Resurrection).

The structure of the work has caused some controversy. Some Christians see an unnecessary division between divine truths and human truths. Thomas asserts, however, that the twofold division is solely due to the condition of human knowledge. In itself there is one truth, God's knowledge of himself. Humans, since we rely necessarily on the senses for natural knowledge, have two kinds of knowledge about God. One is exemplified by the gentiles' knowledge of God (what can be known by natural reason) and the other, those things that can only be known in the light of Christian revelation. Since Thomas treats what can be known about God in this bifurcated manner, many have called the Summa contra Gentiles (at least the first three books) his most philosophical work, insofar as we would understand that term today.

Purpose and title

Motivation of its composition

Until the early 20th century there was a good consensus about why Thomas wrote it. A legend had been passed down saying that Raymond of Peñafort, the head of Thomas' religious order the Dominicans, had asked Thomas "to compose a work against the errors of the infidels, by which both the cloud of darkness might be dispelled and the teaching of the true Sun be made manifest." From this legend, most understood that the work had a missionary or apologetic intent. Thomas famously says in the prologue to the Summa contra Gentiles that in debating Christian heretics one can make recourse to the entire Bible to show them their error. If one is debating with the Jews, then one can use the Old Testament as a basis of understanding. With Muslims and pagans there is no such recourse to a common authoritative text and one must then "have recourse to natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent" (Book I, Chapter 2). It was thus seen that the Summa contra Gentiles was written to show unbelievers certain philosophically compelling arguments, arguments to which all are forced to give their assent, in order to prepare their way to assent to the Christian faith. Thomas clearly states that the revealed truths of Christianity cannot have the same recourse to reason. To try to argue for things like the Trinity and Incarnation within the limits of natural reason would open Christianity to ridicule, since these truths go beyond what may be realized through natural reason, and thus must be revealed by God.

Many today doubt the veracity of the legend regarding Raymond of Peñafort, and, even if the legend is accepted, that Thomas intended the work as a missionary manual either to be put into the hands of unbelievers so that they might read it, be convinced of the truth, and convert or as a training manual for Dominicans to learn how to argue for the truth of faith. The arguments are many and convincing. One of the more convincing arguments states that missionary manuals were a known form of Dominican writing, for which there were certain standards of knowledge of the opposing point of view. Due to the standards of the day it would not have made a good missionary manual.[citation needed]

Title of the work

Another point to be made goes beyond the historical contingencies that may have occasioned its writing to what the text actually treats. Some of the earliest manuscripts have a different title from 'Summa contra Gentiles'. It is also called The Book on the Truth of the Catholic faith against the Errors of the Infidels (Latin: Liber de veritate catholicae fidei contra errores infidelium). There is a significant difference between a book and a 'summa'. The less well known title would make the work a book primarily about truth, albeit the truth of the Catholic faith. It is more common today to see the work as a treatise on truth, how humans come to know the truth of material things which then lead to knowledge of the divine.

Hebrew translation

Giuseppe Ciante (d. 1670),[2] a leading Hebrew expert of his day and professor of theology and philosophy at the College of Saint Thomas in Rome was appointed in 1640 by Pope Urban VIII to the mission of preaching to the Jews of Rome (Predicatore degli Ebrei) in order to promote their conversion." In the mid-1650s Ciantes wrote a "monumental bilingual edition of the first three Parts of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles, which includes the original Latin text and a Hebrew translation prepared by Ciantes, assisted by Jewish apostates, the Summa divi Thomae Aquinatis ordinis praedicatorum Contra Gentiles quam Hebraicè eloquitur…. Until the present this remains the only significant translation of a major Latin scholastic work in modern Hebrew."[3]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gilson, Etienne (1994). The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. p. 502. ISBN 978-0-268-00801-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Galletti in Vat. Lat. 7900 f. 106; Hierarchia Catholica Medii Aevi, Vol 4, 233, Accessed 21 February 2013
  3. "Kabbalah and Conversion: Caramuel and Ciantes on Kabbalah as a Means for the Conversion of the Jews", by Yossef Schwartz, in Un’altra modernità. Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz (1606-1682): enciclopedia e probabilismo, eds. Daniele Sabaino and Paolo C. Pissavino (Pisa: Edizioni EPS 2012): 175-187, 176-7, Accessed 16 March 2012. See Summa divi Thomae Aquinatis ordinis praedicatorum Contra Gentiles quam Hebraicè eloquitur Iosephus Ciantes Romanus Episcopus Marsicensis ex eodem Ordine assumptus, ex typographia Iacobi Phaei Andreae filii, Romae 1657.

English translation

  • Summa contra Gentiles. Book One, God, Translated by Anton C. Pegis; Book Two, Creation, Translated by James Anderson; Book Three, Providence, (Part 1 and Part 2) Translated by Vernon Bourke; Book Four, Salvation, Translated by Charles J. O'Neil; 1955; rpt. Notre Dame, Ind.: U. of Notre Dame Press, 1975. 5 volumes.


  • Matthew Kostelecky: Thomas Aquinas’s Summa contra Gentiles: A Mirror of Human Nature. Leuven: Peeters, 2013. ISBN 978-90-429-2747-6
  • John Tolan: "Thomas Aquinas: Summa contra gentiles", in D. Thomas et al., eds., Bibliographical History of Christian-Muslim Relations, vol. 4, Leiden: Brill, 2009–12.
  • R. Schönberger: Thomas von Aquins “Summa contra Gentiles”. Darmstadt, 2001.
  • C. Chang, Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine & Aquinas. Downers Grove, IL, 2000.
  • H. Hoping: Weisheit als Wissen des Ursprungs: Philosophie und Theologie in der "Summa contra gentiles" des Thomas von Aquin. Freiburg, 1997.
  • R. R. Burns: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Crusader Kingdom of Valencia. Cambridge, 1984.
  • J. Waltz: "Muhammad and the Muslims in St. Thomas Aquinas." Muslim World 66 (1976): 81–95.
  • T. Murphy: “The date and purpose of the contra Gentiles.” Heythrop Journal 10 (1969), 405-15.
  • J.-M. Casciaro: El diálogo teológico de Santo Tomás con musulmanes y judíos. Madrid, 1969.
  • A. Huerga: “Hipótesis sobre la génesis de la Summa contra gentiles y del Pugio fidei.” Angelicum 51 (1947), 533–57.
  • M. Asín y Palacios: “El averroísmo teológico de Santo Tomás de Aquino.” Homenaje á d. Francisco Codera en su jubilación del profesorado, estudios de erudición oriental. Zaragoza, 1904, pp. 271–331.
  • L. Getino: La Summa contra gentiles y el Pugio fidei. Vergara, 1905.

External links