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Summa Theologica 2.0

When John Calvin titled his handbook of Christian doctrine, he chose to call it an institutio (“[elements of] instruction, principles”). In doing so, he demurred from other contemporary options, such as Melanchthon’s loci communes (“commonplaces”), and also bypassed the popular medieval title summa (“summary”), used by writers such as Thomas Aquinas, Henry of Ghent, Albert the Great, and William of Auxerre. Instead, Calvin employed an ancient title, found in works such as Lactantius’ Divinae Institutiones and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria.

And yet notice what the fifth word is in the opening paragraph of the Institutes:

Tota fere sapientiae nostrae summa, quae vera demum ac solida sapientia censeri debeat, duabus partibus constat, Dei cognitione et nostri.

Nearly the entire sum our our wisdom, which ought exclusively to be reckoned true and solid wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

I may be over-reading; but it is striking to find the word summa used so prominently in the work’s first sentence. And so it is perhaps not without plausibility to see this as a gesture toward the entire medieval tradition of compendia–though it would be a gesture of a polemical sort, a sort of correctio, for the Institutes is a work very different in style, conception, and approach from something like the Summa theologica (which is not to say that its main and fundamental conclusions are necessarily at odds with the scholastic tradition).

The gesture would signal, I think, a radical simplification of the theological enterprise, reconfigured in radically non-speculative terms (he is interested only in what is verum et solidum, after all): a true summa sapientiae, a “summary of wisdom,” has two parts, inextricably linked with each other, driven (as the reader sees as the work unfolds) primarily by the exegesis of Scripture and set out according to the pattern of the simplest of the so-called “ecumenical” creeds, the Apostles’ Creed.

What is an institutio, then? A summa 2.0, if you like, rebooted, streamlined, rigorously and transparently rooted in the principium cognoscendi externum, Holy Scripture, seen with the eyes of faith, the principium cognoscendi internum, corresponding to the two parts of which our wisdom consists.

Incidentally, this is why learning the languages matters: Calvin’s use of the term summa is obscured–or, rather, elided completely–in both the Beveridge translation and the Battles translation. The moral of this story is that, the next time the Davenant Latin Institute offers courses in theological Latin and advanced early modern Latin, you should sign up!

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

One reply on “Summa Theologica 2.0”

You might possibly find confirmation for this notion in some of Calvin’s other writings, letters, sermons, etc.

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