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

Objections:
–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.

Replies:
–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.

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