In a sense, this question is somewhat opinion based, but nevertheless has at least some merit, especially for academics.
Father Ryan Erlenbush has a way of reading the Summa Theologica which combines something of a methodological system together with topics of interest to the modern man. In the article, A better way of reading the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, he explains three ways of reading the Summa, but recommends really only one. The curious or casual approach to the Summa normally gets nowhere.
How to read a portion of the Summa
The Summa is divided into questions, which are sub-divided into articles. Thus, for example, the thirty-fourth question of the third part considers the perfection of the Christ in his conception and is divided into four articles [read the question here]:
ST III, q.34, a.1 – Whether Christ was sanctified in the first instant of his conception?
a. 2 – Whether Christ as man had the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception?
a. 3 – Whether Christ could merit in the first instant of his conception?
a. 4 – Whether Christ was a perfect comprehensor in the first instant of his conception?
When considering any particular article, we notice that there are essentially four parts: Objections (videtur), appeal to authority (sed contra), theological proof (respondeo), and replies to objections (dicendum quod).
Now, it is helpful to the modern mind that, when reading any particular article, we begin first by reading the first words of the first objection: In the case of ST III, q.34, a.2 (read the article here), the first objection begins, “It would seem that Christ as man had not the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception.” Because this is an objection which will be disproven, this means that the basic answer which St. Thomas gives is that our Lord did have the use of free-will even in his humanity from the first moment he was conceived in the womb of his Mother.
Then, without reading the rest of the objections, we proceed to the sed contra, or “On the contrary” (in which St. Thomas will appeal to an authority to settle the issue). In this particular case, St. Thomas appeals to St. Augustine (though really to St. Gregory the Great) who writes (Regist. Ix, Ep. 61): “As soon as the Word entered the womb, while retaining the reality of his nature, he was made flesh, and a perfect man.” St. Thomas concludes, “But a perfect man has the use of free-will. Therefore Christ had the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception.”
From this we clearly see the basic answer of St. Thomas: Our Lord, even as an embryo in the womb, was in full possession of his rational faculties including the freedom of his will.
Next, we consider the “I answer that”, which is the body of the argument. This is the most important portion of the article, since it is here that St. Thomas will explain the theological point in question.
Finally, we return to the objections and consider each together with St. Thomas’ replies.
Thus the over-all plan for each article is as follows:
First sentence of the first objection.
“On the contrary”
“I answer that”, or body of the article
Objections and replies
Another (better) way of reading the Summa
I would like to present one way of reading the Summa which combines something of a methodological system together with topics of interest to the modern man. It is possible to read the Summa from back to front – many would find the Summa much more interesting if they began with the end and read backwards to the beginning. Let me explain.
I would suggest starting with the third part, questions twenty-seven through fifty-nine, which deal with the life of Christ and are closely related to the Scriptures. This portion of the Summa (a part which many people do not even realize exists) deals with the various events and mysteries in our Savior’s life, death, and resurrection. Thus, it is far more interesting to the modern man than the more theoretical discussions of the first part.
Now, starting with the treatise on the life of Christ, one could read the Summa backwards by taking the time to look up all of the references which St. Thomas makes to earlier questions and articles – the Angel of the Schools regularly references earlier portions of the Summa and, when reading the questions dealing with Jesus’ life on earth, one could pause after each article and take the time to look up all the citations to earlier articles in the Summa.
In this manner, one would be reading the Summa backwards – but the study would be very interesting, since it would be driven by the Scriptural account of Jesus’ life. Each time an earlier portion of the Summa is cited, one could go back and read that article, and then could continue to go back further still to read any previous articles which are cited.
Let us take an example: ST III, q.34, a.2 – Whether Christ as man had the use of free-will in the first instant of his conception? In this article, St. Thomas refers to a.1 of the same question, as well as to ST III, q.33, a.2, and ST III, q.11, a.2. Taking the reference to the question immediately previous (q.33), which refers to an article in which St. Thomas shows that our Lord possessed a human soul from the first instant of his conception, we then are directed to ST III, q.6, a.1 and 2). In the second article of question six, one is directed to the first part of the Summa (ST I, q.62, a.8; q.64, a.2). Thus, we have been led from the consideration of the life of Christ to the treatise on the Incarnation (III, q.6) to the treatise on the angels (I, q.62 and q.64). From here, we could continue to proceed further back still! - A better way of reading the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas