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