Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Question 1 - What is Theology

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas poses some basic questions about what sacra doctrina (sacred teaching) is. In a sense, this first question is fundamental to the rest of the work because in it Aquinas provides a justification for rational enquiry into sacred teaching. Sacred teaching is not simply a matter of passive reception of revelatory knowledge but involves all the intellectual faculties of the rational animal, man.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: In the first article Aquinas points out that although philosophical reasoning is sufficient for us to demonstrate the existence of God and to describe to a limited extent what He is like, sacred teaching (through revelation) goes beyond what natural reason can reach. In particular, sacred teaching makes known to us the supernatural end to which we are ordered; we have to know about the end towards which we should strive if we are, in fact, to strive towards it. In addition, philosophical investigations about God are very hard, open to very few, and are prone to error. Divine revelation ensures that the mistakes that our fallible natural reason will make about God are corrected. Our salvation depends upon us knowing the truth about Him.

In the second objection, Aquinas introduces us to two of the transcendentals. These are aspects of being that lie above the ten categories of Aristotle. Here he claims that truth and being are convertible. By this he means that whatever is true is something that exists and whatever exists is something that is true.

A2: Aquinas now enquires as to whether sacred teaching is a science, in the sense of being a body of knowledge deduced from assumed first principles. In answering the question, Aquinas makes a distinction between sciences whose first principles are self evident in themselves (such as arithmetic or geometry) and those in which the first principles are known from a higher science (such as optics or music). He concludes that sacred teaching is a science of the latter sort, depending on first principles revealed by God.

A3: Sacred teaching appears to deal with many different kinds of things: for example, God, human beings, human behaviour, animals and angels. Can it then be considered as a single science as, according to Aristotle, each individual science deals with one kind of subject? Aquinas insists that sacred teaching is a single science (as opposed to a collection of different sciences) as all the topics it deals with can be described under the single heading of “those things divinely revealed”.

A4: Aristotle divided the sciences into the theoretical, the poetical and the practical. Aquinas asks whether sacred teaching is practical (i.e. ordered to guiding human practice, like politics or ethics) or theoretical (i.e. ordered to understanding rather than action, like mathematics or physics). The objections point out that much of sacred teaching is precisely ordered towards what we should do, and therefore we should consider it as a practical science. However, Aquinas argues that it is in fact both practical and theoretical, but that it is more theoretical than practical. This is because it is primarily ordered to divine things and only secondarily to what people do as a consequence of the knowledge of divine things.

A5: Aquinas now argues that sacred teaching is the most “noble” of the sciences. At first sight, this position might appear to be difficult to argue for: the first principles of other sciences look to be on much firmer ground. Also one might argue that a science that has self-evident principles is higher than one that derives its first principles from elsewhere.

But Aquinas argues that, from the point of view of being a theoretical science, the conclusions of sacred teaching are more certain than those of other sciences. After all, God’s revelation is more certain than the conclusions that fallible human reason can reach in the other sciences. It is this criterion of certainty by which we should judge the nobility of theoretical sciences. We should also remember that its subject matter is beyond what is reachable by unaided human reason.

From the point of view of a practical science, sacred doctrine is ordered towards the eternal happiness of human beings. This is the end to which the ends of all other sciences are ordered and on this ground it therefore it surpasses all human sciences.

A6: Can sacred teaching be considered as wisdom? Aquinas considers the wise man to be the one who regulates and judges, where judgement is made on the basis of lesser things considered in the light of higher causes. For example, the architect has a higher wisdom than the artisan who puts the bricks one on top of another. In the light of this definition of wisdom it is easy to see that, since God is the highest cause in the universe, one who has knowledge taught by God is wise. Indeed, we must say that sacred teaching is wisdom to the highest possible degree.

A7: Aquinas now asks the rather curious question “Is God the subject of this science?” The question is motivated by the two objections: if we can’t define the subject (God), how can we say that He is the subject; and since sacred teaching covers many subjects, how can we identify a single subject. Aquinas answers by pointing out that it is obvious that everything in sacred teaching flows from considerations of God. To the objections he responds that although we cannot know God, we can infer enough knowledge of Him from his effects for Him to be the subject of sacred teaching. In addition, although there is much diversity in the subjects of sacred teaching, they are all traced back to God.

A8: The eighth article considers the perennial question of the place of reason in sacred teaching by asking what role argumentation has, if any. Against the use of argument in sacred teaching statements of an Apostle and three of the Fathers of the Church are presented as evidence for the prosecution: faith displaces all need for argument; the written scriptures contain all that is needed; there may be arguments from authority rather than from reason, but they are weak arguments indeed and unworthy of such a noble subject.

Aquinas’s strategy is to differentiate between the first principles of sacred teaching which are infallibly received from scripture, and the articles of faith which can be deduced by rational argument from them. Thus the first objection quickly falls as reason has its place in sacred doctrine in the process of the deduction of the articles of faith from the divinely revealed first principles. Of course, if someone does not believe what has been divinely revealed, there is no possibility of proving the articles of faith to them. However, as the first principles have been divinely revealed and are therefore true, it is impossible for a rational argument to refute the articles of faith.

In a lengthy rebuttal of the second objection, Aquinas makes the distinction that arguments based on human authority are weak but that if the authority is divine, the argument is strong. He also argues that reason helps to clarify revelation: “As grace does not abolish nature but brings it to perfection, natural reason should assist faith as the natural inclination of the will yields to charity”.

A9: Should sacred teaching use metaphorical or figurative language? It would appear not as the idea of a science is to clarify the truth rather than to make it more obscure. But on the other hand sacred scripture itself clearly uses such language at times. Aquinas points out that the subject of sacred doctrine is beyond our comprehension and therefore it is perfectly appropriate that scripture describes divine things by analogy to created things. If scripture can do it, so can sacred teaching. The reply to the second objection gives the additional reasons: figurative language can serve to hide things from those who seek the truth as a challenge; and from those unbelievers ready to ridicule the faith.

A10: Finally in this question, Aquinas turns to the meanings of scripture: can one passage of scripture bear more than one meaning? Here Aquinas describes and defends the medieval doctrine of the four ways of interpreting scripture. To do this, he observes that words can signify things; this signification gives us the literal (or historical) sense of scripture. But the things signified by the words can themselves signify further realities; this further signification leads to the spiritual senses of scripture. These spiritual senses are divided into three: first there is the allegorical sense in which concrete things point to what is to be believed (for example, much of the Old Testament points allegorically towards Christ); the tropological (or moral) sense of scripture which points to the things that we should and shouldn’t do; and the anagogical sense of scripture which points towards our eternal glory.

A medieval poem summarizes these meanings as follows:

littera gesta docet,
quod credas allegoria,
moralia quod agas,
quo tendas anagogia.

The letter teaches deeds,
Allegory teaches what you should believe,
Morality teaches what you should do, and
Anagogy teaches where you should set your aim.

Aquinas is quite clear that the spiritual senses presuppose the literal sense and are based on it; therefore the spiritual senses cannot “override” the literal sense.

The reply to the third objection makes clear that parables are included in the literal sense of scripture. Words taken literally can signify either strictly or figuratively; when they signify figuratively, the literal sense is not the figure but the meaning of the figure.

Summary and Handy Concepts

  • Philosophical reasoning can get us so far in understanding God, but not far enough. Revelation is required to reveal to us the true supernatural end of human beings as well as to aid and correct us in our philosophical investigations about Him.
  • The trancendentals “truth” and “being” are convertible. Aquinas will return to the convertibility of all the transcendentals elsewhere in the summa.
  • Sciences can be divided into those that have self-evident first principles and those whose first principles are revealed by a higher science. Sacred teaching is a science in this second sense.
  • Sacred teaching can be considered a single science (in the sense of Aristotle) because its subject is unified as being all things revealed to us by God.
  • Sciences are divided into the practical (ordered towards action) and the theoretical (ordered towards understanding) and the poetical (which Aquinas does not cover in this question). Sacred teaching can be considered both practical and theoretical but more theoretical than practical as it is ordered towards divine things.
  • Both as a theoretical and as a practical science, sacred teaching is the noblest of the sciences. For the former its conclusions are the most certain of the sciences as it is taught by God; for the latter it is ordered towards the ultimate end of human beings and as such provides the ends for all other practical sciences.
  • Sacred teaching is wisdom because it is ordered to the highest cause in the universe.
  • God is the subject of the science of sacred teaching because although the subject covers many topics, they are all ordered toward God.
  • The place of rational argument in sacred teaching lies in the deduction of the articles of faith from the divinely revealed first principles of the science. Although argument from authority is usually considered a weak argument, argument from the authority of scripture is strong because of the one who reveals it.
  • Scripture can use metaphorical or figurative language. God is so far beyond our comprehension that it is quite appropriate that his message is conveyed via material metaphors or via figures.
  • Scripture can bear four senses, the literal and the three spiritual senses. It is important to note that such things as parables should be considered under the literal sense; the words used signify not the figure but what the figure means.
  • For a modern consideration of many of the issues that are discussed in this first question, you may wish to consult the encyclical Fides et ratio of Pope John-Paul II.


  • The question of what Aquinas means by sacra doctrina, and how it should be translated into English is a well-known subject of argument. I’ve translated it as “sacred teaching” and have interpreted the science of sacra doctrina as that which is revealed (the first principles) and what can be rationally inferred from it. The following papers may provide some illumination about the issues involved. Davies - Is Sacra Doctrina Theology? - New Blackfriars 71 (1990); Weisheipl - The Meaning of Sacra Doctrina - Thomist 38 (1974); and O'Brien – Sacra Doctrina Revisited: the Context of Medieval Education - Thomist 41 (1977).
  • As Aquinas goes on to talk about natural theology for the next twenty or so questions, one might infer that he includes or at least presupposes it in sacra doctrina.
  • Article 5 claims a certainty for sacred teaching beyond that obtainable in the human sciences. But in sacred teaching we use fallible human reasoning, so it would seem to suffer similar problems. Perhaps Aquinas is thinking of the infallibility of the Church guided by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13).

Revised March 2012


  1. Would you tell me more about the reading group wending its weary way through the Summa and its reading plan?

  2. Hi Richard,

    We meet every third Friday of the month at English Martyr's Church in Dalton Terrace, York, UK. We're supported in our efforts by the English Dominican Province - with talks here in York and by remote support when we get stuck! We've only just started, so it's a bit premature to talk of a "reading plan"...but the aim is to read through the summa...

  3. The aim is wonderful. The commute from just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, would be daunting. I'd be interested in reading with you if you and others would occasionally post on your blog.

  4. Hi Richard,

    That's fine with us, welcome on board!

  5. So, then, what is theology? What is its (formal) subject?

    What, if any, misconceptions are common?

    (Just, if it's my place, to prompt the online discussion.)

  6. Thanks for the prompting, Richard! May I turn your question around on you? Are there any aspects of the answer that Aquinas gives in Q1 that you find especially fitting or especially troubling? Has he left anything important out?

  7. A delightful move, turning the question around on me!

    I do have questions, though they are not as pointed as questions should be if they are actually to be asked. One arises with the observation that the name of the discipline, theology, would have it that its subject is the divine being. Taking things one step further, because strictly speaking the subject of a science should be taken formaliter: it seems to me that theology should be the science of the divine precisely qua divine. But this does not quite seem to be the case for Thomas.

    Thomas says in Q. I, art. 3 ad 1, “sacra doctrina non determinat de Deo et de creaturis ex aequo, sed de Deo principaliter et de creaturis secundum quod referentur ad Deum, ut principium vel finem.” I’d like to know how creatures are so related to God that they are included within the scope of theology even though they are not divine. A comparison with the science of metaphysics might help to make my point clear. I understand the science of metaphysics to be that of “being qua being” and therefore also of the principles and properties of being qua being. If we assume that God is the first efficient cause of being qua being, and thus a principle of the subject of metaphysics, I can see how God is so related to the subject of metaphysics that God must be included within the scope of that science.

    Is there anything analogous in the case of theology? A fuller characterization of theology than the one above would have it as the science of the divine and therefore also of the principles and properties of the divine. How do non-divine beings and realities fit in here? They are not the divine and they are neither principles nor properties of the divine.

  8. Aquinas addresses this question directly in book 2, chapters 2 & 3 of the summa contra gentiles.

    Aquinas’s position on this is appears to be that a defective understanding of creation will result in a defective understanding of God. For example, if we don’t realize that God is continuously the source of being for all created things then we may be tempted to indulge in a model of God as having created and then having left creation to get on with it. We might be tempted towards a dualism that identifies a creator demiurge and utterly remote supreme God.

    Also, Aquinas’s epistemology is firmly rooted in creation. We know God through reason (as St Paul tells us) and we know God through revelation and these sources of knowledge do not contradict each other. What we can know through reason comes to us through creation and even what we know through revelation is given to us as created beings. Therefore we cannot escape a consideration of creation in our consideration of God.

    Further, one might also note that God has done some pretty remarkable things for a deity! He has both deigned to create and He has deigned to become incarnate for our benefit. It would seem that not to inquire into what He has created and into what His relationship is to this creation would be to give an incomplete account. Similarly, to understand the incarnation one must surely enquire into the nature of the humanity that He has assumed.

  9. A little bit late, surely, but I have just come across your blog, and am preparing a presentation on this question for a philosophy class. It seems to me that "sacra doctrina" encompasses rather more than our idea of theology. And the infallibility of this science seems to come rather from the science God has of Himself than from the infallibility of the Church.

    Also, as Thomas explains, we creatures relate to God in that He is presented as our Cause and our End. So we relate to Him as effect.

  10. Dear Me,

    A little bit late, surely, but I have just come across your blog, and am preparing a presentation on this question for a philosophy class.

    We’re hoping that this blog (or the website that we’re planning to replace it with) will be around for a few years and will provide a resource for anyone approaching the summa at anytime. So lateness is not a privation! Good luck with your presentation.

    It seems to me that "sacra doctrina" encompasses rather more than our idea of theology.

    This is a good point and one that we’ll address when we do the revision of this entry. In one sense the identification of “sacra doctrina” with theology is obviously true as it could simply be taken as a definition of (Christian) theology. In another sense, it is obviously false; the proof of this being simply to look at the practice of modern theology! There are other senses as well, of course. To indicate the confusion that can surround this point, I note that Davies, in his “The Thought of Thomas Aquinas” (page 11, n. 33), writes that “Readers of Aquinas frequently translate ‘sacra doctrina’ as ‘theology’. This is highly misleading”. Then in his edition of the opening of the summa (“Summa Theologiae, Questions on God”), the very first footnote for question 1 identifies sacra doctrina with “Christian theology”! Davies’ article in New Blackfriars 71 (1990) “Is sacra Doctrina Theology?” and Weisheipl’s “The meaning of Sacra Doctrina” in the Thomist 38 (1974) may provide some enlightenment!

    And the infallibility of this science seems to come rather from the science God has of Himself than from the infallibility of the Church.

    I think your first observation is correct: Aquinas himself says “…whereas sacred doctrine derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled”. The point I’m trying to make in the “Difficulties” section above is that, having said this, Aquinas avoids the question of our certainty of this certain knowledge (i.e. an epistemological question rather than ontological). That is, our knowledge of divine things is derived from reason and revelation, but the interpretation of the sources of revelation is itself a human operation. Surely, in order for our certainty to reach the heights implied by Aquinas, we have to have supernatural guidance in the reception of revelation. I suggest the infallibility of the Church as being a vehicle for this, but one must also admit the gift of grace to the individual as well, I guess.

    Also, as Thomas explains, we creatures relate to God in that He is presented as our Cause and our End. So we relate to Him as effect.

    I’m feeling a bit dense this morning; could you unpack this a bit for me?

    Many thanks for your comments!

  11. Dear Gregory,

    Thank you for your prompt response! I'm afraid I have been much slower, being caught up in my research and often without internet access in the meantime. Then, when I finally did formulate a response, one mis-hit key made it disappear!

    I appreciate your comments and your references. In particular, as you referred to the Thomist in '74, I would like to counter that with a response by O'Brien in Thomist 41 (1977), "'Sacra Doctrina' revisted, the Context of Medieval Education".
    Also, you are surely familiar with Thomas Gilby's monumental translation with notes and appendices, which I am finding very helpful with my work.

    Faith is a form of certainty, and our faith in God's revelation of Himself assures us of the truth of the principles of sacra doctrina. But this term covers more than just the human science, as you cited for me, but also God's knowledge of Himself, and also all His public revelation--the Scriptures. Thus we have the last two articles on Scriptures included in this question.

    But, in terms of the human science aspect of sacra doctrina, how can we know about God? We certainly cannot know His essence. What we can know seems to be through His effects--His creatures as caused by Him and (at least in the case of man) destined to return to Him as final end. From natural theology as the highest form of metaphysics we can already see something of God in this respect, working back from effect to cause. With revelation, by faith, we can understand more--and this becomes sacra doctrina as opposed to theology of the philosophers.

    Now I really must get back to my paper. I think I'll post back after I've presented on Wednesday.

    God bless! Thanks again for your help!

  12. Again I wish to thank you for your presentation of the questions in the Summa, and for opening this up for discussion.

    I wish to add one comment about the ninth article, which you summarize as regarding the use of metaphors in theology. In this article, St. Thomas seems to be expanding the use of his term "sacra doctrina" from Christian theology to Sacred Scriptures. I do not actually know of instances outside of Scriptures where such metaphors are used, but perhaps you do.

    Then the last article proceeds from this one, adding that also as metaphors/symbols can represent something other than the actual words, so God can use that which is represented in the metaphor as a symbol for something even beyond. Thus, the name Moses can represent an historical individual, who then represents a type/figure of Christ who leads his people from slavery of sin. And, Egypt as representing a geographical area of northeast Africa itself becomes a symbol for sin.

    Thank you and God bless.


  13. Concerning sacra doctrina and theology, I just came upon this quote from Gilles Emery OP that might be of interest:


  14. Matthew M Perry9 March 2011 20:39

    Any reason he neglects to consider "poetical science" as a possibility for theology?

    It's not an obviously stupid idea to think that that's where theology belongs, and it's likely that Aristotle would have considered much of what would be analogous to theology in his own day (something like Hesiod's work) poetical.

    1. I think you are very correct to question St. Thomas on that account. The revelations of God in scripture (or elsewhere for that matter) are "constructed" as we received them, I mean, none of us can actually watch Our Lord walk on water, we read about it in scripture. Scripture is a literary work. I am actually more inclined to see the analogy to Plato's Dialogues than to Hesiod, although your point is clear; all three works of literature are, after all, appropriate for "poetical" analysis.

      Don't we experience the revelation of God as beautiful. Thomas writes movingly elsewhere of a work of art; should not the Gospels, for example, be appreciated as examples of Clarity, Luminosity, and Harmony?

  15. Hi Matthew,

    The issue of where the poetic sciences fit in St Thomas's understanding of the division of the sciences is something that I need to fix when I revise this question summary. I've given Aristotle's division of the sciences and then forgotten to mention that Thomas sees it slightly differently!

    In Aristotle's scheme, the poetic sciences are characterized to a certain extent by being productive - productive of all forms of expressive art. This leads Thomas to classify the poetic sciences as a subcategory of practical philosophy. Hence, Thomas is not ruling out the contribution of the poetics in this question. Elsewhere, Thomas writes of all the sciences being relevant to sacra doctrina.

    A topic that often seems to get forgotten in the consideration of Thomas's theology is that of how we may know of God by connatural knowledge (basically, all the non-propositional knowledge that we have). I'm sure someone's written the definitive study of it, but I haven't found it yet!