Friday, May 31, 2013

On the Senses of Scripture


1.  At the conclusion of the first question of the Summa, St. Thomas famously asks about the various senses of Scirpture.  Nowadays when students are taught about the senses, they are taught St. Thomas's schema in abstract.  It is worth noticing, however, that his presentation of these four senses emerges out of a good degree of controversy and confusion on what exactly the different senses are.  For example, in the Sed contra he cites Gregory's Moralia, but the entire Moralia is structured on the use of three senses: historical, moral, and allegorical.

2.  The content of the Corpus of this article is borrowed largely from Book I of St. Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana, where he explains a two-fold semiotics of scripture: that there words not only signify things, but those things in turn signify other, higher things.  These different modes of signification open the door for the polysemic view of Holy Writ traditional in Christianity.

3.  So, to summarize briefly: on the first level, the words of scripture signify a historical reality.  "There was a man of the land of Uz whose name was Job."  At times these words are meant not to convey the truth of the historical reality, but to employ the idea of the historical sense as a sign of something else.  In this case, we can distinguish three main possibilities:  first, the things described may convey a prophetic significance, foretelling the central event in the history of salvation: the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ.  Second, they may convey a lesson on the right manner of living.  Third, they may lead us to the understanding of divine, atemporal realities, the fulfillment of which we anticipate in the eschaton.

4.  The other details of this article are worth looking over, but are also very easy to understand.  This suffices for today's commentary.  I will omit the usual outline.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

On the Use of Metaphors in Scripture


1.  Having rounded out his discussion of the scientific character of sacred doctrine, St. Thomas concludes the first quaestio of the Summa with two articles on the interpretation of scripture.  Both of them could have been placed later on in the prima pars (e.g., in Question 13, On the Divine Names), or in the secunda pars (either in the treatise on Law, or in the treatise on Faith).  However, since the content of these articles is practically indispensable for the resolution of theological difficulties and the harmonization of scriptural texts, they seem to fit best in the preliminary treatment of the nature and method of theological science.

2.  The first problem St. Thomas takes up is whether scripture ought to use metaphors.  This is closely related to the problem posed in the previous article, as we will see in the character of St. Thomas's replies.  He lists three objections to the use of metaphors.  First, that metaphor is proper to poetry, which (if a science at all) is the least of sciences, and thus should not be employed in the most noble, as it is unfitting.  Second, that metaphor tends to obscure rather than clarify the truths with which it deals, and is thus counterproductive to our progress in understanding.  Third, that metaphors make use of lowly things (animals, plants, and even inanimate objects) to explain higher things, whereas the dignity of the object of theology demands a greater dignity in the things it is compared to.

3.  In the Corpus of the article, St. Thomas tells us that God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature.  Thus for human beings, who learn by way of images and sensible realities, divine truths are made known by comparison with sensible things, so that even the uneducated can grasp to some extent the meaning of what is said, and be drawn thereby to a higher contemplation of divine truth.

4.  In response to the first objection, St. Thomas says that it is necessary and expedient for sacred doctrine to employ metaphors, though a clarification of the necessity will come later on.  To the second objection, he points out that truths are concealed in images to different degrees in different parts of scripture, both to hide them from the impious, and to provide occasion for the exercise of understanding in finding a united truth concealed under different aspects and images.  Finally, to the third objection, St. Thomas replies that it is fitting for lower animals and objects to be used in comparisons to God, so that we will be kept mindful of the infinite gulf which divides created nature from the uncreated.  By this means we can remember that in the present life we know God naturally more clearly by what he is not than by what he is.  Furthermore, if God were consistently compared to the best things that we knew, we might mistake those things for divinity (e.g. wise men, or angels), and fall into idolatry.

5.  Briefly note that this article opens up several further questions, which will be discussed later on.  First, why are metaphors necessary for the description of the divine nature?  Second, how is it that images in particular are so useful to the human mind?  Third, what does St. Thomas mean in saying that we know better what God is not?

Outline of Article

–What is proper to the lowest science, poetry, ought not to be employed by the highest science.
–Metaphors and similes obscure the truth.
–In these comparisons lower things are compared to God, instead of the highest things.

–God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature.
–Humans learn by way of the senses.

–Metaphors are necessary and useful in theology, though they merely adorn poetry.
–The concealment or elucidation of particular points of doctrine in metaphors is useful for teaching and contemplation.
–Better to compare God to what cannot be mistaken for him, so that we remember our ignorance and the profound dissimilitude between creature and creator.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On the Use of Arguments in Theology


1.  St. Thomas next asks to what extent theology should be a matter of argument (utrum sacra doctrina sit argumentativa).  This question is obviously related to the preceding investigation of the scientific character of theology, given in articles 2 through 7, since it is characteristic of a science, in the Aristotelian sense of the word, to proceed by way of argument from evident principles to less evident conclusions.  This article is worth reading closely, because in it St. Thomas paves a safe path between rationalism and fideism, both of which are timeless temptations for Christians attempting to think through their faith and explain it to others.

2.  Against the use of arguments in theology, St. Thomas presents two objections.  First, he cites St. Ambrose and St. John, to the effect that concerning matters of faith arguments should be set aside (tolle argumenta).  Second he presents a clever dilemma: arguments are based either on authority or on reason.  Argument from authority is the weakest mode of argument, and therefore is unfitting for theological investigation, which ought to be noblest.  But argument from reason is likewise unfitting, because whatever can be reasoned to is naturally intelligible to man, whereas the object of theological investigation (i.e., the life and inner nature of the Godhead) exceeds all natural capacity for understanding.

3.  In the remainder of the article, St. Thomas treats these objections not as enemies of the truth, but as occasions for the illumination of some feature of the truth that might otherwise be overlooked.  For the Sed contra, he quotes the letter to Titus, concerning the use of reason by the bishop (episcopus) in the elaboration of sound doctrine and the persuasion of those opposed to it.  (Note that this is an especially fitting choice of citation, since the office of teaching belongs primarily to the bishop.)

4.  St. Thomas begins the Corpus by observing that no science seeks to demonstrate its own principles, since even the highest sciences (e.g., metaphysics) presuppose their principles (e.g., the principle of non-contradiction) as the immediately intelligible ground of all their subsequent reasoning.  Hence the fact that sacra doctrina does not prove its own principles is not problematic.

5.  He goes on to point out that lesser sciences are not disposed to engage with those who dispute their principles, since the derivation of the principles of a lesser science belongs to a higher one (as, for example, in contemporary biology the act of defining a species or genus—e.g., fish—is not left to the ichthyologists, but to the geneticists—though perhaps these sciences are not as well-bounded as we might like).  The highest sciences, however, though they cannot prove their principles to those who reject them, are still inclined to engage detractors in conversation, and attempt to answer problems posed, and to work from any available common ground toward a fuller recognition of the truth.  The metaphysician cannot convince Heraclitus of the stability and intelligibility of being, but he can answer the objections which lead Heraclitus to reject these principles, and if Heraclitus is willing to say something, even very little, the metaphysician can use this to show the path to a fuller agreement between the two.

6.  Just so with the theologian.  The articles of faith are just as little provable as the first principles of metaphysics, but given any objection to their credibility or reasonableness, the theologian can furnish the objector with reasons of credibility and explanations which reveal the logical coherence of the articles of faith with each other and with naturally available truths.  Note, however, that these reasons of credibility are always insufficient to strictly demonstrate the articles of faith, which depend on revelation, and that therefore all strict arguments in theology proceed from faith to faith.  But if an objector accepts some article of faith, it may be possible from his vision of the part to lead him to properly grasp the whole.  (We see this in inter-denominational dialogue.)

7.  Furthermore, St. Thomas points out that because the content of divine revelation is infallible truth, we can know with certainty that anyone purporting to disprove the faith by rational argument must be incorrect, so it is up to the theologian to reveal the faults in these arguments.

8.  But, to return to the initial objections, how can arguments be useful in understanding the data of revelation at all?  If the principles of sacred doctrine are received in excess of the natural capacities of human understanding, and tend ultimately toward the apprehension of something beyond the aptitude of any created intellect, how could reasoning help us to progress in this knowledge?  The subjection of supernatural truth to the limited mechanics of natural reason seems guaranteed to pervert that truth, to truncate it, and to convert it into something proportionate to the human mind—reducing the sacred icon of revelation to an idol made in the image of man.

9.  To answer this objection, Thomas makes the first use of his wonderful principle: gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit.  Grace does not detract from nature, but perfects it.  In this case the principle applies thus: though the acquisition and acceptance of the data of faith is beyond our natural capacity and requires an influx of grace, those truths, once possessed by the mind, are apprehended in the same way as other, natural truths.  Grace works through nature to lead creatures beyond their natural limits.  Catechesis and kerygma are linguistically mediated activities which make use of the reasoning capacities of the mind to grasp diverse facts and unite them under simpler and more comprehensive concepts.  The whole of scripture reveals God's nature to us in little glints and fragmentary aspects, but by reading through the whole and uniting these various aspects, we may gain a more comprehensive understanding of the object toward which scripture directs us.  In contemporary philosophy, they speak of the "paradox of analysis"—the fact that the result of any purely logical analysis, though it may seem to deduce new truths, must always merely reveal what was implicitly present in the premises.  Likewise in sacred doctrine we proceed from principles imperfectly understood, by way of reasoning, to return to those same principles, more perfectly understood.  The reading of scripture is the origin and conclusion of sacred doctrine, and it was for this reason that St. Thomas's title as a professor of theology was "Master of the Sacred Page."  (Note that the "sacred page" of scripture, as transmitted in his day, included a wealth of interpretive glosses and patristic quotations.)

10.  Finally, St. Thomas discusses the use of arguments from authority in the clarification of what belongs to revelation.  Though in natural reasoning an appeal to authority is the weakest kind of argument, when the authority appealed to is the self-revelation of the Godhead, the strength of this argument outstrips that of any natural reasoning.  In establishing the contents of the faith, there are various orders of authority.  First of all there is the authority of sacred scripture, which is the inspired word of God and utterly infallible, and with it whatever was revealed to the Apostles and Prophets; beyond this there is the testimony of the Fathers and Doctors, which though authoritative does not in itself establish any matter absolutely (e.g. that Augustine held a particular view is not conclusive in itself) but only by a high degree of probability; and beyond these there is the authority of philosophers, which is likewise probable and not necessarily conclusive.  Here Thomas is gesturing toward a treatment of the kinds of revelation and degrees of teaching authority, but a fuller discussion of these matters will be left for the Secunda Pars.

Outline of Article

–Ambrose and John both say to set aside arguments in matters of faith.
–The dignity of sacred doctrine exceeds that implied by both the use of rational arguments and appeals to authority.

Sed contra:
–Titus 1:9, Embracing that faithful word which is according to doctrine, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine, and to convince the gainsayers.

–None of the sciences seek to demonstrate their own principles, likewise theology cannot prove the articles of faith.
–The highest sciences (including metaphysics and theology) defend their principles against detractors.
–Since revelation is infallible, the theologian can disprove any any seemingly rational argument against it.

–Argument in matters of faith does not seek to demonstrate revealed truths from natural truths, but to move from faith to faith.
–An appeal to the authority of divine revelation exceeds all other arguments in dignity.
–Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.  So the natural intellectual faculties work in the service of revealed truth, uniting the data of revelation and working to comprehend it more perfectly.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Science of God


1.  Having reinforced his earlier claims about the order of the sciences and the dignity of sacra doctrina as true wisdom, St. Thomas proceeds to clear up further questions about the nature and extent of this science.  In this article he asks whether it is correct to say that God is the object of theological science.

2.  Against this, two difficulties are raised: first, that in an ordinary science (as we observed in the treatment of article two above) the first principles of the science concern the definition of its object.  Sacred doctrine, however, does not define God, nor can it, given his nature.

3.  Second, that whatever the object of a science is, all the conclusions of that science ought to concern the nature and activity of the object.  Sacra doctrina, however, reaches conclusions about many things which are not God.

4.  The treatment of this questions is largely a repetition of previous statements, though St. Thomas adds an interesting reflection on the nature and distinction of habits.  However, to resolve the objections quickly without wasting too much time rehashing established points, it suffices to say the following:  first, that everything considered in sacred doctrine is considered as being related to God either in himself, or as an effect of his power, or as tending toward him as its perfection.  Second, that though God's essence cannot be defined (for good reason, to be discussed later on), sacred doctrine employs various signs and effects, given to us through nature or through grace, to signify the divine essence, which suffices in the present life in place of the proper definition, which being utterly simple is available only to the blessed.

Outline of Article

–The object of a science is defined by the science.
–The conclusions of a science all concern its object.

–God is the object of sacra doctrina.
–Other objects are treated secondarily.

–Since the divine nature is indefinable for us, in sacra doctrina we employ natural or supernatural effects in place of a definition to grasp at the essence of God.
–All the conclusions of sacred doctrine deal with God at least indirectly: whether as an aspect of his nature or an extension of his power.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Theology and Wisdom


1.  St. Thomas continues his investigation of the relationship between sacra doctrina and the other sciences, asking whether theological science is itself wisdom (sapientia).  For Thomas, wisdom is a technical term denoting the special dignity of a particular body of knowledge as forming the basis of other bodies of knowledge.  It belongs to wisdom to order and govern, and to judge everything else.  If we conclude that sacra doctrina is wisdom, it will follow that it is not merely nobler than all other sciences, but that it orders and prefects them as the norm against which they are judged.

2.  Against calling theology "wisdom," St. Thomas proposes three objections.  First, it cannot be wisdom because the principles of theology are received from a higher science (divine self-knowledge), and it is proper to wisdom not to depend on any other sciences, since then it would be subject to the ordering activity of a higher body of knowledge.  Second, if theology is wisdom, then it should prove the principles of other sciences.  But theology does not prove the principles of other sciences (e.g. mathematical proofs cannot be done on the basis of theological data).  Third, wisdom is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and thus ought to be received without study.  However, one can cultivate theological science through study.

3.  In the Corpus of this article, St. Thomas repeats and expands the content of the previous article.  Generally redundancies of this sort function as markers of significance for Aquinas, meaning that the extended commentary given on the previous article is worth revisiting.  Again he tells us that theology stands above all other disciplines by virtue of the perfection of its object, God, who is the cause of the objects of all the other sciences, so that he who knows this wisdom is capable of ordering and judging all other disciplines.  And where at some points philosophical knowledge touches upon the knowledge of God, this philosophical knowledge, based on inferences from the nature and existence of creatures, is always proportioned to mere creatures, and shows us only a shadow of divinity.  But sacred doctrine considers God as he is in himself, as he has revealed himself, and thus far exceeds what natural knowledge can say about God, and even about the ultimate significance of its own proper objects.  (E.g. Theological knowledge perfects the knowledge an ichthyologist has of fish, albeit very indirectly, because theology tends to know better how fish relate to and reflect the providential order of the world and the eternal principle by which they came into being.  The ichthyologist, on the other hand, sees fish only through their contingent materiality.)

4.  The resolutions to the objections are fairly simple, but extremely significant.  To the first, St. Thomas points out that the principles of theology are received not from another human science, but from divine science: the eternal self-knowledge of the Godhead, which is the cause not only of revelation, but of the very being of every object, and therefore of every philosophical science.  Finding its principle in this knowledge directly, sacra doctrina far outstrips the foundational purity and primacy of any other doctrine.

5.  To the second, Thomas points out that the principles of the highest sciences available to us naturally are evident to the mind by its natural light, as the mind is inclined to grasp and understand sensible realities and the quantity of perceived matter.  We do not require a demonstration of these principles, though their truth does not flow from their natural intelligibility to the human mind, but from the divine government executed in things, and thus from the nature and truth of the Godhead.  The pure principle of all the sciences is the divine nature, and thus a body of knowledge based on the self-revelation of that nature will be more reliable than the indirectly abstracted conclusions of other sciences.  Hence it is against theological truth that all other truth is to be judged, and not the reverse.

6.  To the third, Thomas distinguishes between two modes of judgment, and two different varieties of knowledge which correspond to them, using virtue has his example.  On one hand, virtue can be said to be the rule by which all actions are judged, inasmuch as the virtuous man is the norm, who knows what is best and demonstrates it in act.  On the other hand, virtue can be called the rule inasmuch as a well-trained ethicist could judge the quality of an act in abstract, though he might not be virtuous himself.  Just so with wisdom.  There is first of all the wisdom which is given by the Holy Ghost, in which by grace an individual receives in himself the ability to apprehend the truth and judge all else accordingly.  But beneath this there is the wisdom which is attained through study, by reasoning and deduction.  This lesser wisdom can still judge rightly of divine things, but is less noble, as this knowledge is bolstered by and mediated through, reasoning and deduction.

Outline of Article

–Wisdom does not receive its principles from a higher science.
–Wisdom is supposed to prove the principles of all other sciences.
–Wisdom is a gift of the Spirit and not gained through study.

–Wisdom considers the highest cause, which gives the rule to all other things, and thus is the principle of their order.

–The science from which sacra doctrina receives its principles is above all others.
–The principles of natural knowledge are naturally intelligible to the human mind and need not be proven by theology, though it can still judge their conclusions.
–The gift of wisdom allows individuals to realize more perfectly by a particular grace what can be derived through reason from what has been given in general revelation.  The gift of wisdom is higher than theological study, but they tend toward the same truth.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Theology and the Order of the Sciences

1.  St. Thomas continues in pursuit of the nature and extent of the science of sacred doctrine.  Having established that sacred doctrine adds something to philosophical knowledge, that its principles do not disqualify it from being called a "science", that it is unified in the aspect under which it considers its objects, and that its orientation is speculative rather than practical, St. Thomas now asks about the status of theological science relative to other disciplines.

2.  The matter of the priority of theology among the sciences is an old one, and touches upon an important set of questions.  Is theology "first" among the sciences?  It is it the "queen" of the sciences?  In which fashion does it order other sciences?  Given the philosophical background presupposed by St. Thomas, which most of his readers lack, we will take a moment to discuss these issues.

3.  "Primacy" can be taken in several ways.  On one hand, there is primacy in the order of discovery, and in this sense whatever is discovered first or necessary for the acquisition of higher knowledge holds "primacy."  But aside from this, there is primacy in the order of wisdom.  In this sense, whatever gives the rule to all the other sciences and concerns itself with the object which is cause of their objects holds "primacy."  

4.  The question of theology's primacy clearly concerns only the second sense of the word.  Since traditionally the main controversy is between the primacy of theology and that of philosophy, we should consider briefly the implications of each side of the dispute.

5.  On one hand, if philosophy holds the primacy of wisdom in human knowledge, then it must be said that any revealed doctrine falls under the order of philosophical knowledge, and simply adds particular pieces of information to an existing knowledge structure.  On the other hand, if theology holds the primacy of wisdom, then revealed doctrine so informs the mind that it transforms the significance of pre-existing philosophical knowledge, such that without revelation philosophy is incapable of ultimately fixing upon the true order of things.  Philosophical knowledge may be valid, may be known with genuine certitude, but its true significance in light of ultimate causes (especially efficient and final) will remain imperfect until subjected to theological truth.

6.  When St. Thomas takes up this question, he frames it at first in terms of the nobility of theological science, taking up the sapiential character of sacred doctrine in a later article.  At first, he says, it seems that sacred doctrine is an inferior science, because its principles (unlike those of mathematics or logic) are capable of being doubted.  At the same time, the work of sacred doctrine depends on the conclusions of other sciences, such as metaphysics and ethics.  This seems to further indicate that sacred doctrine lacks the purity and excellence of certain philosophical sciences.

7.  Note well that in the Sed contra, St. Thomas quotes Proverbs 9:3, interpreting the handmaidens of Wisdom as the philosophical sciences.  This use of that verse is iconic. 

8.  In the Corpus of this article, St. Thomas distinguishes several aspects under which the nobility of the science of theology can be considered.  First he points out that sacred doctrine can be seen in either a practical or a speculative light.  A speculative science can be called noble on one hand because of the ground of its certainty, and on the other hand because of the weight of its subject matter.  The ground of the certitude of the principles of sacred doctrine is the divine self-knowledge, which is the source of all intelligibility, and infinitely superior to the finite light of the human intellect, which forms the basis for all natural philosophical knowledge.  The subject matter of theological science is God as he has revealed himself in his inner life, which is weightier than any object available to the natural sciences.  

9.  On the other hand, a practical science is called noble based on the desirability or perfection of the end to which it is oriented: just as the craft of the mason is less noble than that of the architect—the former producing stonework, the latter producing buildings.  But the end to which sacred doctrine orients us is the good of everlasting life, which is perfect bliss, and which goal forms the implicit aim of all practical endeavors.  Thus from a practical standpoint, sacred doctrine is superior to the other sciences.

10.  Finally, to resolve the problems posed in the initial objections, St. Thomas points out that on account of the weakness of the human intellect, truths which are more certain in themselves may seem less certain to us, because their object is less clearly grasped.  Thus more perfect truths may be dubitable to us, though are still more noble in themselves, as is the case with the articles of faith.

11.  As for the apparent subjection of theological science to the other sciences on account of its use of their conclusions, St. Thomas points out that the theological use of philosophy is instrumental, for the clarification of the content of sacred doctrine, which is not easily grasped by our minds, dependent as they are on the abstraction of forms from material things.  Thus philosophy is a pedagogical instrument for the illumination of higher truths, and serves this higher truth in an imperfect way according to the needs of the present life.

Outline of Article

–Nobler sciences have more certain principles.
–The conclusions of nobler sciences form the basis of lesser sciences.

Corpus: The nobility of theology can be seen in three ways.
–First, inasmuch as its speculative principles are based on divine self-knowledge, which transcends all other knowledge in its perfection and certainty.
–Second, inasmuch as its speculative object, God, possesses more intrinsic dignity than the proper object of any other science.
–Third, inasmuch as the end of theology, in its practical aspect, is eternal beatitude, which stands above the goals of all other practical endeavors.

–The certitude of sacred doctrine is more perfect in itself, though it may be dubitable to us.
–Theology employs the conclusions of the other sciences as pedagogical aids for the clarification of divine truth to finite and contingent minds.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Theology: a practical discipline?


1.  Having established that sacra doctrina is a single discipline which covers diverse subjects inasmuch as they are all divinely revealed, St. Thomas asks whether it is a speculative or practical science.  In a way, this article is an extended reply to one of the difficulties raised in the previous article.  Theology considers both ethical questions and speculative questions.  Is it primarily a practical discipline, oriented toward right action, or a speculative discipline, oriented toward the truth about some object?

2.  In favor of the claim that theology is a practical science, he quotes the letter of St. James:  "Be doers of the word, and not only hearers," and points out that revelation is divided into two covenantal law codes: the Old Law (of Moses) and the New Law (of Christ).  Since James seems to see knowledge of sacred doctrine as terminating in action, and since the purpose of law is to properly order one's actions, it would seem that sacred doctrine is primarily practical, and meant to direct us to act in a certain way.

3.  However, Thomas concludes that sacred doctrine is primarily speculative, since practical sciences are concerned chiefly with human activities and the perfection thereof, but sacred doctrine is primarily concerned with God.  Furthermore, to the extent that sacred doctrine deals with practical matters, it is for the sake of a greater knowledge of God, tending toward the perfect vision of the Divine Essence, "in which consists eternal bliss."

4.  This article seems trivial, but its significance is in demonstrating that the point of theology is primarily to know the truth, and not primarily to elicit good actions.  Good works should flow from knowledge of the truth, but Thomas will insist throughout the Summa that to understand is a more perfect act than to will.

Outline of Article

–Only practical sciences terminate in action.
–Revelation is divided into two codes of Law, and law concerns action.

Sed Contra:
–Practical sciences are concerned with human operations; sacred doctrine is concerned with God.

–Sacred doctrine is concerned with practical matters inasmuch as they are caused by God as creator and tend toward him as ultimate end.

Is theology one discipline or several?


1.  Most of Q.1 is devoted to figuring out what exactly it means to say that sacra doctrina is a science.  Having established that the principles of sacra doctrina do not disqualify it from being a science, in the third article St. Thomas asks whether it counts as only one science or should be divided into several.  This is of great interest to us today, given how fractured theology is in the academy, and how little exchange there is between people who do scripture, dogmatics, and morals (not to mention other, newer divisions).

2.  The reason for this question is that, as we mentioned in the previous article, one of the qualifications for being a science is that a given body of knowledge concern a single type of object.  Now, divine revelation speaks of many things: God, men, angels, and other creatures.  Hence it seems that several sciences would flow from sacra doctrina—one for each of these kinds of things.  Even if we were to divide them into the most generic classes, there remains a huge gap between God and creatures.

3.  Furthermore, when we look at all the things discussed by sacra doctrina, including morality, the divine nature, anthropology, etc., and look at the parallel disciplines which emerge from philosophy, we see that they are divided into separate sciences, so it would only be reasonable to divide sacra doctrina into several sciences, each of which would treat one of these objects.

4.  Against the impulse to divide theology, St. Thomas insists that sacra doctrina is one science, and that its principle object is God.  He points out that what unifies a science isn't necessarily that it deals with only one kind of thing, but that it deals with different things under a single formality or aspect.  Thus in studying color, one studies all sorts of colored objects, but under the aspect of their colored-ness.  Likewise, sacra doctrina considers many different objects, all of which are united under the aspect of being supernaturally revealed by God.

5.  Furthermore, St. Thomas points out that properly speaking sacra doctrina does have only one object, which is God, and treats of other things only insofar as they are related to him: either as proceeding from him in creation or returning to him in redemption.

Outline of Article

Sacra doctrina deals with many different sorts of objects.
–The cases parallel to the different objects of sacra doctrina are given different sciences in the natural order.

–A science is one not necessarily by the unity of its object, but sometimes by a single formality under which many diverse objects are considered.

Sacra doctrina treats of God principally, and of creatures only inasmuch as they are referred to God, as cause or end.
–Locally diverse things can be considered together under a higher, more common idea.  E.g. the common sense unifies the senses of taste, touch, sight, etc. under one sensory awareness.  Sacra doctrina considers diverse things together by referring them to a higher thing: God.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What sort of thing is theology?


1. Having established that some kind of knowledge beyond philosophy is necessary, St. Thomas now sets about determining what the qualities of that knowledge are. Since, as we said in our discussion of the Proemium, St. Thomas is interested in discussing things according to their inner order, he generally begins by asking whether a thing exists, or whether it's necessary to distinguish it from other similar things (An est?) and then afterwards asks about its particular qualities, what exactly it is, etc. (Quid est?) The first article was the "An est?" for sacred doctrine, and now he wants to figure out "Quid est?"
2. Thomas wants to determine first of all whether sacra doctrina qualifies as a science. What is a science? A body of knowledge is a science if it considers a single sort of object, through its causes, by means of demonstrations. Since demonstration can't proceed to infinity (i.e., in a series of derived principles, something must be first), a science will have at its root certain ideas or judgments that are known not through reference to some other fact or thing, but simply through themselves (per se nota). Ordinarily these are definitions or axiomatic statements about the subject of the science. Things like "a dog is an animal" are understood through themselves inasmuch as the fact of animality is basic to the definition of a dog. Assuming we were to establish a science concerning dogs (cynology), that proposition and others which established the definition of "dog" would lie at its root.
3. Thomas's first problem, then, is that sacra doctrina doesn't seem to work like other sciences: its principles are not understood through themselves (per se nota), but are revealed truths. Furthermore, sacra doctrina deals at times with the particulars lives of historical individuals, where other sciences deal only with universals. 
4.  The solution to both of these difficulties is fairly straightforward.  A comparison is made to music.  Musical harmonies are based on arithmetic proportions, and so the theory of music is dependent on mathematics for its principles.  That is to say, in music at least some of the principles are not known through themselves, but are the conclusions of a higher science, so that someone could still use the principles of musical harmony without knowing their mathematical basis.  Thomas suggests that the principles of sacra doctrina, while not known through themselves by us, flow readily from the divine self-knowledge by which they are revealed to us.
5.  As for the second difficulty, Thomas points out that sacra doctrina deals with the lives of historical characters mainly because they serve to illustrate the consequences of the revealed truth about God or to direct the moral life or to confirm the dignity of revelation.

Outline of Article

–The first principles of a science are per se nota.
–Sciences don't deal with historical particulars.

Corpus: There are two kinds of science:
–Some proceed directly from principles immediately intelligible to the intellect.
–Others receive their principles from a higher science.

Sacra doctrina receives its principles from a higher science, namely divine self-knowledge.
Sacra doctrina deals with individual facts as examples, moral illustrations, or testimony to the authority of divine revelation.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why Philosophical Knowledge Doesn't Cut It


1. Thomas's first quaestio is a methodological one: What is the nature and extent of sacred doctrine (sacra doctrina)? He begins this question by asking whether we need such a thing as "sacra doctrina." Isn't Philosophy good enough to supply any knowledge we might need?

2. The objections are both interesting. First, he quotes Sirach, "seek not the things that are too high for thee." In other words, Philosophy extends to the natural limits of human knowledge, and anything which transcends those limits is not appropriate for humans to know. It is pride to seek an excellence that exceeds one's proper place.

3. Second, he points out that knowledge has to do with being, i.e. what exists, because only the truth can be known, and there is only truth concerning what exists. And since philosophy (which is divided into various sciences: physics, ethics, politics, biology, psychology, metaphysics, etc.) studies everything that exists, including God, there's no need for anything else.

4. For the Sed Contra, he quotes Paul to the effect that all Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproving, etc. Since scripture is not part of philosophy, but divinely revealed, there must be some knowledge that is useful outside of philosophy.

5. In the Corpus of the article, St. Thomas gives two reasons for the necessity of sacra doctrina. First, that man is ordered by God to a supernatural end, a supernatural communion with God, which he cannot orient himself toward without knowledge, since the act of the will in desiring follows the act of the intellect in recognizing. Hence, since natural knowledge is insufficient to lead us to this supernatural end, it was fitting that God reveal himself to us supernaturally, by means of divine revelation.

6. Second, because even those things concerning God which can be known by reason (e.g. his existence, infinity, perfection, etc.) are known only with great effort, after a lot of study, and with "the admixture of many errors". In other words, though we can know that God exists with certainty through natural reason (cf. Vatican I constitution Dei Filius), still on account of the weakness of the intellect, that knowledge is very difficult to come by in a philosophically rigorous way.

7. In response to the quotation from Sirach, St. Thomas points out the next verse, "many things are shown to thee above the understanding of man." It would be prideful for man to demand what was beyond him, but once it has been freely offered it is fitting for him to accept it in faith.

8. In response to the second objection, St. Thomas makes an important point about the division of the sciences. He says that sciences are distinguished from each other by the manner through which their knowledge is acquired. Each science abstracts from its object by considering it only under a particular aspect, and all the natural sciences conern themselves with material being and its properties. Natural theology, which is a division of philosophy, develops a picture of God based on inferences from the character of the material world (aka "the way of remotion") to its immaterial creator. Revealed theology, on the other hand, develops a picture of God based on the data of divine revelation.

An outline of the article:

Objections: There should not be any doctrine beyond philosophy, because:

-Man ought not to seek what is beyond his nature.
-Philosophy leaves no room for another science.

Corpus: Sacred doctrine is necessary for salvation, because:
-Supernatural knowledge is required for us to be oriented to our supernatural end.
-Even natural knowledge of God, apart from revelation, is very difficult to come by.

-It is not wrong to accept a gift, even if that gift were beyond one's capacity to attain for oneself.
-The principles of philosophical theology and revealed theology differ: one is remotion from material being, the other is supernaturally revealed truth.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Worth noting in the Proem to the Summa:

1. St. Thomas intends to write a book for beginners in theology. I.e., those just beginning to study theology. He supposes that his readers are the sort of people who read other academic treatises on theology (e.g. Peter Lombard's Sentences and other similar works).

2. St. Thomas finds that many theology students are hindered in their studies by the poor organization of these books, by their focus on useless questions, by their repetitiveness.

3. St. Thomas intends to teach by the inner order of his subject matter. This means that the organization of questions and topics is according to general principles and essential features, not according to chance associations or interests (not "as the plan of the book might require" or "as the occasion of the argument might offer"). This means that the text of the Summa has an inward intelligibility that is clearest to the person who has already understood its content. Its ordering is Sapiential, i.e. flowing from the order of the subject, rather than Occasional, i.e. flowing from the needs of the moment or the convenience of the reader.

4. Still, because the book is for beginners, Thomas does not presuppose basic theological principles, but works through everything from first to last. He does, however, presupposed a reasonably thorough knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Introductory Post

Many Christians try at some point in their lives to read the text of Sacred Scripture from cover to cover. They start with gusto, moving steadily through the creation narratives, the flood, Babel, and the patriarchs, slogging through the occasional genealogy, but assured of eventual success. Then they finish Genesis. For a while, Exodus seems like more of the same, until Sinai, and the first statement of the law. For those strong enough to make it through Exodus and its dizzying array of covenantal precepts, Leviticus awaits, revealing untold possibilities of obscurity and tedium. By the time the reader reaches chapter 14 (with it's fascinating set of mildew laws) the project has almost certainly been abandoned.

Among intellectually inclined Catholics, a similar phenomenon sometimes occurs with the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas. Good Catholics know that St. Thomas's great handbook of theology has been held up by the church as the single best synthesis of Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers, and philosophical analysis for the better part of seven centuries. They read the prologue, where St. Thomas says that he intends to treat "whatever belongs to the Christian Religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners." "Excellent!" they think, "I am a beginner! I will read the Summa and know theology from beginning to end!" Little do they know that Thomas's "beginners" are seminarians beginning their study of theology after having completed several years of philosophical training. The book is designed for what we would call advanced graduate study, not for young people in search of a more thorough catechesis.

Still, they begin in earnest. At first, they struggle through the distinctions being drawn, the intense focus on the division and subdivision of topics, and the strange initial questions, expecting things to get more interesting rather quickly. But after Aquinas has proved the existence of God, he sets out to answer a long series of questions the reader has probably never thought to ask, with incessant references to obscure philosophical principles. If, by some miracle, the reader makes it through the first two dozen questions, even more confusing analyses await in the treatise on the Trinity, and the project will eventually be abandoned. (cf. this blog)

I am a beginner in theology, having just completed a master's degree at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. I would like to read the Summa, an article a day, and work through some of the difficulties it presents. I realize that at such a slow pace it will take me nearly a decade to finish, and I'm not entirely certain that I'll make it. But I intend to try, and I hope you'll join me in the endeavor, perhaps reading faster than I do.

A few logistical concerns. The text of the English Dominican Fathers translation of the Summa can be found here. The summa is divided into Parts, Questions, and Articles. There are three parts, and the second part is divided into two sub-parts. So, the four major sections of the Summa are:

1a = Prima Pars (the first part)
1a 2ae = Prima Pars Secundae Partis (the first part of the second part)
2a 2ae = Secunda Pars Secundae Partis (the second part of the second part)
3a = Tertia Pars (the third part)

Each part is divided into a large number of questions, each of which deals with some particular topic (e.g. the union of the soul with the body, the procession of the divine persons, the essence of law). Each question is divided into a few articles, each of which aims to settle some disputed question about the topic (e.g. Whether angels know the future, Whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son, Whether all men were equal in the state of innocence). In each article, St. Thomas first lays out a series of problematic arguments (Objections), then a short argument usually from authority (On the Contrary / Sed Contra), then an extended analysis of the problem ("I answer that", usually referred to as the Corpus), and finally resolutions of the initial arguments (Responses to the Objections).

In each of my posts I will run through points that seem to be particularly noteworthy in the day's text. The title of the post will contain a description of the subject matter, and a reference to the article discussed. I will standardize these to make the blog more easily searchable. They will be in the following form: "1-2.34.4" for Ia IIae q.34 a.4 (Whether pleasure is the rule by which to judge the goodness or evil of an act?)

This should do for the inaugural post. The next will cover the proemium.