David Farina TURNBLOOM. Speaking with Aquinas: A Conversation about Grace, Virtue and the Eucharist. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017. Pp. xxxii+165. Reviewed by Craig A. Ford, Jr., Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.


            The task of trying to place into a single sentence what Speaking with Aquinas is about—and moreover, having difficulty doing so—is one of the occasions for the several pleasant surprises that are in store for the reader of this book. Turnbloom, in his own preface, suggests that the book is about the “relationship between liturgical rituals and the moral identity of individuals” (xv), but, even a description like this sells the work short. More instructive is the book’s subtitle—“A Conversation about Grace, Virtue, and the Eucharist”—since, like conversations, they proceed along a certain identifiable theme, but also, like conversations, the inflection points are often times multiple, as insights touch on one discourse and then float into another, with the end result being something like the literary equivalent of variations on a particular theme in a piece of music. In this case, the theme on which variations are developed is the theology of Thomas Aquinas, and Turnbloom argues successfully that it is impossible to understand the Christology and sacramental theology of the Tertia Pars of the Summa Theologiae without integrating the insights that come from Thomas’s theology of grace and virtue that take place in the Secunda Pars. The Eucharist, in turn, becomes the sacramental case study that essentially applies the argument.
            Making this connection between the Tertia Pars and the Secunda Pars becomes the occasion for a surprising ecumenical inflection as the reader’s conversation with Turnbloom develops. This inflection occurs primarily in chapters two, three, and four, where Turnbloom presents and analyzes Thomas’s anthropology and virtue ethics—a presentation that is all the more valuable given both the discussion’s brevity and clarity. While doing this, Turnbloom’s discussion underscores the observation that Thomas’s anthropology and virtue ethics are ultimately two articulations of Thomas’s singular theology of grace. In this theology, God, via the Holy Spirit, moves us to love God and enter into union with God (justification), and, in response, we deepen that union with God via our actions as enlivened through the virtues always already gifted and strengthened by God (sanctification). In presenting us with this analysis of grace, Turnbloom shows us how the imposition of that classic Protestant/Catholic dichotomy between “faith”—that is, the belief that God has spiritually healed us—and “works”—those actions we do that please God—constitutes not only a misreading of Thomas, but equally, it constructs an unhelpful dichotomy for understanding God’s action in our current day. Along the way, Turnbloom even describes Thomas’s theology of grace as theosis, moving the ecumenical conversation beyond a Protestant/Catholic synthesis to one that includes our siblings in the Orthodox tradition as well.   

            The connection between this theology of grace and the sacraments is secured by Turnbloom’s argument—which is also Thomas’s—that the sacraments point us to salvation in part by permitting us to grow both in grace and virtue. Among the sacraments, the Eucharist is special insofar as its purpose is to promote the unity of the entire Church as it corporately grows in grace and virtue. It is here where one discovers another inflection point in the conversation—and this time, the most provocative one. Turnbloom’s thesis here is that what completes the Eucharist as a sacrament are the various actions taken by the Church gathered (the presentation of bread and the wine; the words of consecration; the prayers of the church, etc.) that, together with the Holy Spirit, make present the knowledge of Christ’s passion as the cause of our salvation. What makes this reading so provocative is that, by implication, Turnbloom maintains that neither sacramental eating (i.e., in which we literally hold on to the substance of Christ) nor spiritual eating (i.e., in which we are moved to greater love of God) are necessary for a successful completion of the sacrament. Rather, Turnbloom argues that Aquinas’ own theology requires him to maintain that the sacrament is complete at the “moment when Christ becomes present for the living faith of the Church” (126). The point of such an intervention is equally provocative. In one sense, it makes the completion of the Eucharist depend both as much on the actions of the gathered community as it does on the words of consecration spoken by the priest. In another sense, it makes the completion of the Eucharist something that can occur in the life of all the baptized, regardless of one’s standing in the Church as young or old, excommunicated or not. In a final sense, it offers an interpretation of Aquinas that, if true, essentially offers an Aquinas that is more consistent with his own theology than Aquinas himself is, especially since, as Turnbloom admits, Thomas’s focus on words of consecration “obfuscate” the claim that Turnbloom is making about Thomas’s theology (127).

            A final inflection point comes appropriately in the last chapter of the book, where Turnbloom offers an account of prudence in order to contextualize how to celebrate the Eucharist in a given congregation. If the Eucharist is complete when a congregation comes to knowledge of Christ’s passion, then a celebration of the Eucharist is best realized when that celebration emphasizes certain virtues of Christ’s life that will move a congregation to greater love here and now. Religious prudence—right reason about things to be done in a liturgical context—helps us set the stage properly, not only through relevant preaching but also through attention to the rituals through which the community embodies its prayer and celebrate communion.

            These major inflection points are what I would offer as a description of what the book is about—inflection points that compose a conversation about how Thomas’s sacramental theology can be properly understood only in light of Thomas’s theology of grace. Along the way come insights for an ecumenical view of justification and sanctification; an account of the Eucharist as sacrament that offers a greater role for faith in Christ’s presence and for the importance gathered community; and an account of religious prudence in celebrating the sacrament. Perhaps this could have been stated at the beginning. But then who enters a conversation already knowing how it will end?