Review: Speaking With Aquinas, by David Turnbloom

Speaking with Aquinas: A Conversation about Grace, Virtue, and the Eucharist

David Farina Turnbloom, Speaking With Aquinas: A Conversation about Grace, Virtue, and the Eucharist, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2017.) ISBN: 978-0-8146-8780-2. $29.95 paper.


This critically-important voice in contemporary sacramental theology, offered by David Turnbloom, a theologian at the University of Portland, attends to a problem that will be familiar to Pray Tell readers: How do we talk about the church’s tradition across different grammars of the faith? The problem exists everywhere in theology, and presented a difficulty since the beginning of Christianity, as Paul’s letters and those of Clement of Rome make clear. The situation becomes particularly fraught when one of the participants insists on its own grammar as the marker of the Christian faith and cuts off all who speak differently.

Turnbloom argues that such a thing has happened with Thomas’ eucharistic theology, and that this situation not only impedes real dialogue between Scholastic and other modes of discourse, but that it does violence to Thomas’ own position. When we declare that his work is a theology for all times and places, Thomas is robbed of his own context, and loses his ability to be a dialogue partner with any other contextualized theology. Context implicitly becomes a marker of a  theology of secondary importance.

In order to undo this problem, Turnbloom proposes reading St. Thomas like a ressourcement theologian would read the Patristic sources:

theologians like de Lubac do not want to transplant patristic grammars into our modern discourse. They recognize the impossibility of such a project. The defining characteristic of true ressourcement is maintaining the object of study as a source to be translated, as a source from which to progressively develop a meaningful theology (xxix).

To read Thomas in this way, Turnbloom argues that we have to understand the sacramental argument about how Christ is present in the Eucharist (found in the Tertia Pars of the ST), through the argument about what grace is and what it is for that is found in the Secunda Pars. In part, this is because sacraments, including the Eucharist, are secondary instrumental causes of grace (13), and so we cannot understand them without understanding what Thomas thinks that grace is.

Starting with Thomas’s definition of grace as “a participated likeness in the Divine Nature” (27; ST III.62.1c.), Turnbloom develops a nuanced description of what this participation looks like for humans as a process begun and perfected by divine action, but in which humans cooperate. His account is particularly careful to demonstrate how God’s non-temporality and status as Creator lead to a different kind of causality then we usually assume, and one that allows for rather than endangers human participation, without falling into a Pelagian self-salvation.

This argument will be particularly interesting to those invested in Protestant­–Catholic dialogue, because Turnbloom carefully demonstrates how Thomas’ understanding of justification as a relationship has much in common with the insights of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. However, it presents a much clearer account of the cooperation of divine and human action which that document assumes.

Alongside this grammar of grace as participation, Turnbloom also develops a grammar of virtue from the Secunda Pars, detailing how human salvation is always worked out in history, “as an operation born of an embodied struggle” (97), that takes place in an intertwined community gathered by God. In other words, Thomas’ long engagement with virtue and habit are descriptors of how God allows humans to live as participants in the divine life.

Together, these embedded grammars of Thomas’ Secunda Pars give Turnbloom the tools to re-approach the seemingly mechanistic descriptions of divine presence in the Eucharist in the Tertia Pars. Doing so, he finds that “Aquinas presents the Eucharist as an integral part of the embodied spiritual life insofar as the Eucharist affects the Church’s participation in the Divine Nature by increasing the Church’s unity” (103).

The final chapter of the book applies this insight to understanding how Thomas’ grammars affect understandings of the Eucharist, of the Church, and the navigation of sin, disagreement, and division within Christian communities. Along the way, Turnbloom shows how Thomas’ account of the Eucharist avoids many of the critiques aimed at it, including that of Louis-Marie Chauvet. No book can do everything, and if this application section is less detailed in its argument than the set-up that led to it, this is understandable.

This is an impressive study, and its argument operates at two important levels simultaneously. On the first, it helps Catholic theologians to appropriate the doctrine of transubstantiation in a way that attends to its place within Thomas’ exceedingly nuanced theological system. By doing this, the doctrine becomes not just an interesting explanation to the question of how Jesus is present and a defense against “merely a sign” approaches. It helps Christians to see how that doctrine intends to describe how God works in the church to unite all people to himself – it attends to the question of what transubstantiation is for.

On a second level, this is a book about difference, history, and culture. By taking perhaps the most rarefied aspect of the most symbolic theology in Western Catholicism and showing how this too fits within a grammar, and that attending to that grammar enriches rather than impoverishing it, Turnbloom enlarges the space in which dialogue can happen between the often separated wings of the contemporary church.

The writing in the text is concise and generally very clear. It attends to theological nuance along the way without losing sight of the broader argument, and provides a clear ongoing map to help the reader see where they are in its argument. Speaking with Aquinas is an important piece of reading for sacramental theologians, ecumenical scholars, and anyone interested in the process of theological dialogue across time or between different schools of thought. Readers of Pray Tell will find here a subtle but approachable engagement with the central mystery of the Christian life, and one that will reward their efforts.



  1. How is it that so much of current Roman Catholic theology is composed by the writings of one man, though a Doctor of the Church and all? Is Aquinas the be all and end all in current theology? What role does his theology play in the Reformation and in post-Reformation relations between Rome and the “ecclesial communities”? What role, if any, did the Second Vatican Council play in affirming or challenging his theology?

    1. Aquinas is not the be all and end all of theology in any period. He is a significant figure in the history of theology, and when properly understood, offers very valuable theological insight. He is one of the giants, no doubt about it.

  2. Jean-Luc Marion is a living Catholic theologian who works more in the tradition of Augustine than Thomas, I think. His work is quite interesting. And yes of course he uses the perspectives of phenomenology to a good degree.

    I only know a few works by Hans Urs von Balthasaar but one that I just finished, Love Alone is Credible, doesn’t strike me as being overly involved in Thomistic categories either.

    I really can’t address Pastor Poedel’s other interesting and complex questions.

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