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Thomas Aquinas on Theologians

March 1, 2007

Back in 2004, I presented a paper at the Medieval Association of the Midwest’s annual conference, which was held at Northern Michigan University. My paper, perhaps naively, sought to provide an account of Thomas Aquinas’ concept of the ideal theologian. Looking back three years and many books later, I realize that this paper does little justice to Aquinas’ take ofn the role of the theologian, and I believe my understanding of Aristotle in the paper is in need of serious renovation (e.g. the manner in which I completely identify Aristotle’s Prime Mover with Aquinas’ First Cause seems to be too influenced by my earlier readings of Garrigou-Lagrange). But I believe Henry Karlson’s post On Academic Theology, which we recently featured here, captures a sense of what Thomas was aiming at in his description of the theologian as one who is not only wise but also pious. To continue that conversation, here’s my old paper:

The inspiration for this paper comes from Karl Rahner’s important 1970 address entitled: “On Recognizing the Importance of Thomas Aquinas,” reproduced in the thirteenth volume of his Theological Investigations.[1] In this seminal essay, he writes: “To forget Thomas might be fashionable, but it could only lead to a blurring and circumscribing of that awareness of the past which is so fragile, the maintaining of which is precisely the function of theology. . . .”[2] And again, “Thomas Aquinas is to be numbered among the great figures of theology with whom any contemporary theology must engage in a genuine dialogue. This despite the interval of seven hundred years which separates him from us.”[3] These words serve to remind the systematician that the study of Thomas is not a task to be assigned solely to medievalists or historians; nor can his relevance be brashly relegated to a certain theological trivia of fun facts from the ecclesial past. To do so, Rahner tells us, would be to come precipitously close to cutting off the branch upon which contemporary systematics is perched.

If contemporary theology is to truly engage Thomas and recover the integrity of his thought, it ought not to pose its own questions in its own idiom to a thirteenth century mind. As John Jenkins warns, such a project can only serve to assimilate Thomas’ thought into our own, ultimately distorting it.[4] Granted, no contemporary scholar can fully assume a “third party” perspective in approaching any historical figure or text, but this is no excuse to forego a contextualized approach. In the case of the theologian, the thought of Thomas ought to be engaged, yet first engaged on the Angelic Doctor’s terms in his historical context.

In this paper, I will attempt to analyze what is most fundamental in any academic enterprise: method. More specifically, I am interested in Thomas’ own understanding of theological method, which encompasses more than just a speculative undertaking. For Thomas, theologian and method can never be divorced: the science orients its practitioner, and the practitioner conducts the science. Therefore this paper will seek to summarize Thomas’ concept of the theologian and the theologian’s craft. In the first case, I will be concerned with the identity of the theologian. In the second case, I will be concerned with the twofold office of the theologian, namely the science and the mission. The basis for my division comes from the first chapter of the first book of Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles where he describes the officium sapientis (office of the wise one).[5]

Here Thomas identifies the “wise one” as the theologian whose twofold office entails a science and a mission. I will be using the framework of this chapter as the basis for treating each of these three aspects. The chapter contains four paragraphs by which Thomas proceeds from identity to science to mission. The first paragraph identifies the wise one. The second paragraph treats the science of the wise one. Finally, the third and fourth paragraphs deal with the mission of the wise one. Taken holistically, this first chapter of the Contra Gentiles contains the entire scope of Thomas’ vision of the theologian.

The Identity of the Theologian

The first paragraph of the Contra Gentiles contains the following assertion: “They are to be called wise who order things rightly and govern them well.”[6] The key term in this assertion, “wise,” is central to Thomas’ entire conception of theology. Throughout the Thomistic corpus, the term proceeds from two sources, both of which play integral roles in his enterprise. Primarily, and certainly more decisively, Thomas uses “wise” with reference to divine wisdom, that is, the wisdom taken as God’s comprehensive self-knowledge and as imparted to humanity by virtue of unexacted revelation.[7] However, in the context of the Contra Gentiles, Thomas is endorsing Aristotle’s use of the term “wise” from the latter’s Metaphysics (I.1-2). For Aristotle, the wise one orders one’s affairs in an exemplary fashion toward the end of the respective duty. For example, the politician who conducts political dealings well or the doctor who efficiently cures ailments is considered wise because each achieves the end or good to which they order their practice.

Now among the various occupations or arts it is apparent that some rule or govern others. Medicine, for example, rules and governs chemistry since the medications prepared by the chemist reach their proper end in helping a medical patient. A particular science or art is considered a governor of another only if the former controls the end of the latter. But there is a particular art that is conducted by the one who Thomas calls the “absolutely wise one.” This art considers the end of all that is, everything within the cosmos and even the cosmos itself. Following Aristotle, Thomas deems wise the person who considers the highest causes. Even more pointedly in the Summa Theologiae, Thomas writes: “He who considers absolutely the highest cause of the whole universe, namely God, is most of all called wise.”[8]

It ought to be noted, however, that in the immediate context of the Contra Gentiles, this meditation and reflection upon God can be conducted by the philosopher or the theologian. Aristotle, who postulates a first principle as Prime Mover, is considered by Thomas to be wise insofar as the Philosopher considers the origin and mover of the cosmos. For Thomas, this metaphysical reflection constitutes an authentic and true understanding by the intellect of divine reality, albeit rooted in an advance from posterior realities to the ultimate prior cause.[9]

Turning now to the science of the wise one, Thomas’ distinction between philosophy and theology will emerge, and more relevantly, a conception of wisdom that surpasses that of Aristotle.

The Science of the Wise One

The second paragraph of the first chapter of the Contra Gentiles focuses upon the nature of ends. Thomas writes: “The end of each thing is that which is intended by its first author or mover.” As was mentioned in the first paragraph, this first mover is the highest cause, the author of the universe. In order to arrive at a knowledge of this first cause, human reason must consider its effects in the realities of posterior elements. Again following Aristotle, Thomas submits that all knowledge begins by way of sensual experience; the intellect comes to know material objects through the senses. By means of this posterior knowledge, the intellect advances to a knowledge of causes and motion, ultimately concluding that there must be a first cause and a first mover from which all reality stems and moves.[10] Thomas uses his five ways as his ultimate rationale for claiming the existence of God as self-evident.

God then is known only through His effect and not as He is in himself. The human intellect, which is a finite and created power of the soul, is restricted with regard to the truths it appropriates on its own accord. The highest truth the intellect may apprehend by its own natural ability is God as first principle and end of the universe, and this pursuit is aptly described as “first philosophy” by both Thomas and Aristotle.[11] First philosophy is the science of that truth from which all truths emanate taken from the standpoint of creation, that is, by following the natural manner in which the human person can know: principles of sensible realities are used to demonstrate the existence of God. If God is the ultimate truth of the universe, the consideration of the wise must aim principally at truth. Philosophy, therefore, must be the science of truth, the science of the wise one.

To this point, Thomas is in complete accord with the Aristotelian description of the science of truth as handed down by philosophers. But Thomas pursues the matter further, and names a second type of science that is also concerned with the divine. This science is concerned with what follows from the divine realities themselves. Its principles are not created realities, but the actual contents of that faith revealed by God to humanity, and this revelation consists of the very self-knowledge of God.

Before proceeding further, let us step back for a moment and further delineate between the two sciences that consider God. Perhaps the clearest distinction between the two is found in Thomas’ commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate. A science consists in deriving conclusions from principles already known. It is an active understanding of intellect, moving from what is given to propositions. In the case of first philosophy, the principles are the created realities, or effects of God, and its conclusions are the existence of divine realities. In the case of the second science, the principles are the very knowledge of God of Himself, and the imparting of this knowledge to humanity through revelation. This second science is called sacra doctrina. Therefore, Thomas holds that there are two types of sciences that consider God and each is properly called divine science or divina scientia. In clearer terms, there are two types of divina scientia: 1. metaphysics, also called philosophical theology, which treats effects of God as its subject; 2. sacra doctrina, or theology proper, which treats God for His own sake as its subject.[12] And the prime distinction between the two rests ultimately on the difference between the natural light of reason and the divine light of faith.[13]

The science of sacra doctrina derives its conclusions from the content of faith, which is revealed by God. As has been said, this revelation is self-disclosure of God’s own knowledge, properly, and of course piously, referred to as Wisdom. Thomas uses Aristotle’s distinction between sciences whose principles proceed from natural reason and those whose principles proceed from a superior science. In the case of sacra doctrina, it is a “sub alternate” science that proceeds from the superior science or knowledge possessed by God.[14] Therefore, it is nobler than any other science since its principles are based upon the surest, and indeed infallible, truth.[15] Returning to the definition of the wise one as “he who considers absolutely the highest cause,” Thomas asserts that it is actually the one who considers God as God is in Himself who is most appropriately called wise. The wise one is the practitioner of that science based upon the very Wisdom of God.

While the principles of sacra doctrina are the contents of faith, its tangible and unfailing authority is sacred Scripture: “For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets, who wrote the canonical books.”[16] As Edward Schillebeeckx has noted, for Thomas, Scripture holds the principles of faith in an exclusive and privileged manner.[17] The authority of the Church Fathers was considered to be proper to sacra doctrina, but of probable reliability.[18] Thomas was well aware of the lack of unanimity among many of the tenets of the Fathers as were most Scholastics after Abelard.

The Mission of the Wise One

Following once more my established framework, we move to the third paragraph which states: “Just as it belongs to the wise man to meditate especially on the truth belonging to the first principle and to teach it to others, so it belongs to him to refute the opposing falsehood.”[19] The practitioner of sacra doctrina does not only meditate upon the principles of faith and draw conclusions with reference to the divine realities, but has a vocation to instruct others in the science. The wise one, or as we may now confidently say, the theologian, can use the aid of philosophy in instruction. Faith does not rid the human soul of its light of natural reason, so philosophy may be used to do one of three things: 1. demonstrate the preambles to the faith, such as the existence of God by reason; 2. it can elucidate the contents of faith by analogy; 3. refutation of assertions contrary to faith. The third use of philosophy is especially important to Thomas, for he feels that it is impossible that genuine philosophy can be contrary to faith.[20]

In some cases, sacra doctrina can depend upon philosophy in order to make its teaching clear, particularly to those who are not robustly disposed to theology.[21] Should sacra doctrina make use of philosophy for its purposes, it is not to prove faith, since the veracity of faith is beyond dispute, but philosophy may elucidate conclusions or propositions put forward in doctrine. Thus, reason is a wholesome minister to faith.[22]

Lastly, the theologian must possess a certain discretion with regard to those being instructed. Thomas writes: “A teacher should so measure his words that they help rather than hinder his hearer.” There are some aspects of faith which do no harm to anyone, in particular those truths which everyone, from the scholar to the simpleton, is bound to know. However, there are other aspects that may cause harm if taught, and Thomas lists two situations in which this might happen. In the first event, secrets of the faith may be revealed to unbelievers who detest the Christian faith and would only mock what they perceived to be ridiculous doctrine. For instance, St. Paul’s claim that the cross of Christ is folly to the Greeks. In the second event, if difficult doctrines are heard by the “uneducated,” the hearers may fall into grave error based upon their misunderstandings (one should not feel compelled to boisterously disavow an absolute subsistence of God in front of a third-grade Sunday school class). In both cases, the theologian ought to use caution in the didactic aspect of sacra doctrina. But Thomas assures us that this measure is solely for the benefit of others: “It is not from jealousy that difficult matters are hidden from the masses, but rather, as has been said, from due discretion.”[23]

We come now to the fourth and final paragraph of the first question of the Contra Gentiles.[24] The two-fold office of the wise one is viewed in light of Proverbs 8:7, which reads: “My mouth shall meditate truth, and my lips shall hate impiety.” When the wise one meditates on divine truth, the wise one speaks forth of divine truth. The theologian not only is wise, meditative and didactic, but also pious. Indeed, the very vocation of the theologian is cloaked in piety, for the very act of theologizing is one of piety.

In sum, the identity and mission of the theologian is service to the faith revealed by God, to both master a science that clarifies the divine mysteries and to pass on that knowledge to others. As was mentioned in the opening of this paper, this is no divorce of theologian—critical, yet faithful—and method, or to use Thomas’ own words, between the wise one and the officium sapientis.


[1] Karl Rahner, “On Recognizing the Importance of Thomas Aquinas,” Theological Investigations, trans. David Bourke (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 13:3-12.
[2] Ibid., 5-6.
[3] Ibid., 7.
[4] John I. Jenkins, Knowledge and Faith in Thomas Aquinas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 3.
[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles I.1.
[6] Ibid., I.1.1.
[7] Cf. Summa Theologiae, I.1.8.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Cf. Expositio super librum Boethii de Trinitate, Intro.
[10] Cf. Summa Theologiae I.2.3; Summa Contra Gentiles I.10-13.
[11] Summa Contra Gentiles I.1.2; Aristotle, Metaphysics Ia, 1.
[12] Boethii de Trinitate 5.4.
[13] For an excellent discussion on the differences between metaphysics and sacra doctrina, see J. H. Walgrave, “The Use of Philosophy in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas,” Aquinas and Problems of his Time, eds. G. Verbeke and D. Verhelst, 181-93 (Louvain: Leuven University Press, 1976).
[14] Cf. M.-D. Chenu, La theologie comme science au XIIIe siècle (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1957), 71-80.
[15] Summa Theologiae I.1.8.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Edward Schillebeeckx, Revelation and Theology, trans. N. D. Smith (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967), 1:232.
[18] Summa Theologiae I.1.8.
[19] Summa Contra Gentiles I.1.3.
[20] Boethii de Trinitate 2.1.
[21] Summa Theologiae I.1.5, ad 2.
[22] Ibid. I.1.8, ad 2.
[23] Boethii de Trinitate 2.4.
[24] Summa Contra Gentiles I.1.4.

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