Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Mystery of Piety Pr.1


I have been collecting materials for an elementary work of sacred doctrine for a couple decades, but I have come to the conclusion that I need to start the slow process of getting it into more systematic form. Thus I will be putting up, ever so often, a first rough draft, a rough sketch, of at least some parts.

A few preliminaries. First, quotation is of three sorts:

Scripture and ecclesial definitions are in bold and italic.

Liturgical prayers are in bold.

Saints are in italics.

"Other sources are in quotation marks."

This is less to distinguish authority than to distinguish the structural role played by the quotation, with Scripture and ecclesial definitions creating a skeleton, the liturgy and the saints in different ways filling out the flesh, and other sources being the vestment. The criterion for both bold and italics is generous and usually includes the liturgies and calendar-recognized saints of any church with apostolic succession; again, this is not to make a statement about authority but to recognize the kinds of structural importance.

Liturgical prayers are from the following sources, unless specified otherwise:

The Roman Missal: Study Edition, Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN: 2012).

The Roman Catholic Daily Mass (1962), Angelus Press (Kansas City, MO: 2004).

The Book of Offering According to the Rite of the Antiochene Syriac Maronite Church (2012).

The title of the work, 'The Mystery of Piety', comes from one early translated version of a Byzantine liturgical prayer, the Kontakion for the Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, which I heard long ago:

The Apostles' preaching
and the Fathers' doctrine
have established one faith for the Church.
Adorned with the robe of faith
woven from heavenly theology,
great is the Mystery of Piety
which she defines and glorifies.


Glory to you, O Lord, who enlighten all things with being, understanding, and joy, who have made Your people wise with love, teaching them inexhaustible doctrine. Creator of all, true source of light and wisdom, from whom the hierarchies of angels descend, grant to us that a ray of Your brilliance may penetrate the twofold darkness of our minds, the gloom of ignorance and of sin; grant us a clear and lucid capacity to remember, a penetrating acuteness of understanding, and a fine-edged subtlety and ease of interpretation. Guide us, O Lord, to the beginning of our work, illuminate us in the development of our thought, and aid us in the completion of the whole, a completion found only in union with You.

PROLOGUE: Of Sacred Doctrine Itself

Pr.1.1 On the Kinds of Theology

As the name 'theology' is associated with that form of thought consisting in real consideration of divine things, and indirectly all that would be of use in this consideration, it is clear that if there is such a thing it would be architectonic and noble.

(1) Different kinds of knowledge have different relations to each other, and some are more architectonic than others, supplying the sources of knowledge for other kinds of knowledge. That is to say, the principles establishing one kind of knowledge may themselves be grounded on yet more fundamental principles; thus the starting-point for one kind of knowledge may be dependent in some way on a kind of knowledge that has a more basic starting-point. What concerns itself with divine things, however, concerns itself with the very first principles, because anyone who recognizes anything as divine always regards it as being in some way a fundamental first principle. With theology we go back to the beginning in some way, examining other things in light of what is most fundamental. 

 (2) What is most noble can be treated as an end in itself, something worthwhile in itself. All knowledge of important principles and causes can be treated as an end in itself, but knowledge of divine things more than the rest. As we know more of divine things, our intellects take on their greatest resemblance to the divine intellect itself. Such knowledge is a sort of assimilation or similitude to God's wisdom in at least some respect: But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face are transformed into the same image (2 Cor 3:18). In addition, if a kind of knowledge is speculative or theoretical, it is more noble the more fundamental its subject is; and if it is practical or pragmatic, it is more noble the more ultimate its end is. As St. Thomas says (SCG 1.70.8), Nobility of knowledge is measured in terms of those things to which knowledge is principally directed. Either way, knowledge of divine things would be most noble, for any divine things would be most fundamental subjects or most noble ends. 

On its own, however, the word 'theology' is ambiguous. Whenever we speak or think of God, there are two ways in which we approach the object of our speech and thought. Some truths are within the reach of rational inquirers reasoning from the resources directly available to reason in the normal course of life, without any special supplementation. Others are beyond these resources and can only be established with the aid of adequate authority. No one can speak of theology for long without coming into contact with this distinction. The sort of knowledge based on resources directly available to reason without special supplementation depends on our understanding of what things are. If someone properly understands what a thing is, it follows that, to the extent that person understands what the thing is, there's a sense in which they are capable of understanding everything that follows from that initial understanding. (It does not, of course, follow that they have understood it, for they may not have thought the matter through yet. But they are able to understand what follows because they have that on which it is based.) If I understand that a bee is an insect, and this involves an excellent understanding of what it is about bees that make them insects, I am equipped for understanding everything about bees that follows from their nature as insects: anything that is involved in a bee's being an insect I either directly understand or could understand by reasoning the matter through on the basis of what I do understand. It is utterly implausible, however, and, as we shall see later, necessarily wrong, to think that we can reach any kind of full comprehension of divine things. When it is not supplemented by some kind of testimony, our understanding is based on sensory information. We can understand sensible things, therefore, although it is not always easy to do so, as, for example, people who study bees could show us, but things that are not sensible themselves can only be understood to the extent that we can relate them to things that are. Sensible things in themselves cannot adequately represent the divine, because the sensible, as such, is not what human beings call 'divine', and everyone agrees that divine things would transcend the sensible in some way. The divine, then, does not fall completely within the scope of our intellect insofar as it depends on sensible things. 

Further, even in our everyday knowledge of sensible things themselves there are many things we do not ever know. We could spend our entire lives studying mice, or aphids, or the dust, and at the end there would still be questions beyond us to answer. Full knowledge even of these things to which our intellects are best suited can often be difficult. It would be peculiar if divine things were easier to understand than these. More importantly, as we shall see, sensible things are effects of divine things, and in ways that guarantee that they fall short of the power of their ultimate cause. There are certain things that we can know by rational inquiry without supplementation, at least with difficulty: that the divine actually is, that divine things are related to sensible things and ourselves in certain ways, and that they must be characterizable in certain ways in order to be so. But this will, compared to the fullness of its object, be a weak and limited knowledge. 

 Thus when we speak of theology we may mean either that form of thought that considers divine things insofar as they can be understood solely by reason without special supplementation, or some form of thought considering divine things insofar as they can be understood by reason with special supplementation.

In the first way, a natural use of reason proceeds from ourselves or the world around us to the existence of the divine, under some description derived from its starting-points. Of this kind of theology, St. Edith Stein says that it is (Potency and Act*, 22) the way of natural knowledge which any reasonable person could take. This form of theology, which is often called 'natural theology', is nothing other than metaphysics insofar as it concerns divine things. Metaphysics is concerned with those things that are primarily intelligible and, as St. Thomas notes (In Met. Pr.), there are three ways something can be considered primarily intelligible.

 (1.1) From the perspective of the order of knowing, in which it concerns itself with first and fundamental causes. 

(1.2) From the perspective of the intellectual character of what is known, in which case it concerns itself with the most universal principles, which are, as Aquinas says (In. Met., Pr.), being and what follows it, such as unity and plurality, potency and act. 

(1.3) From the perspective of the intellect itself, in which it concerns itself with the most highly intellectual things. Metaphysics, says Aristotle, is knowledge of being insofar as it is being, and this must be something that involves all three perspectives: being is understood in light of its causes, and the causes most capable of being first and universal causes are the most intellectual causes. 

Thus St. Thomas notes that metaphysics has three names: first philosophy, insofar as it concerns first causes; metaphysics, insofar as it considers being and its attributes; and divine science or theology, insofar as it considers purely intellectual substances.

In the second way, reason is supplemented so as to reach a deeper understanding of divine things. It is clear in the case of theology that such a supplementation could only be acceptable if it came from the divine in some way, but there are only two ways in which reason can be supplemented at all: authoritative witness and experience. We can, then, draw a sort of distinction between two kinds of supplemented theology, although in practice they turn out to blend into each other at many points. 

(2.1) The first, which we shall call sacred doctrine, rests on divine authority, and St. Edith says of this kind of theology that it is (PA 22) open to anyone but the will must help it reach the goal, which is to say, this theology requires more than simple cognition; it requires some kind of active assent. 

(2.2) The second, which is sometimes called mystical theology, or just 'theology', rests on intimate familiarity with divine things themselves, and of this kind of theology Stein says that it is (PA 22) compelling but not universal.

For understanding how these kinds of theology are related to each other, we may consider an analogy. When we talk about understanding virtue, there are three ways we may understand this. One way in which people could understand virtue is by carefully reasoning out the characteristics it must have. This, rational ethics, is like natural theology. However, as Aristotle shows, the true guide of inquiry in ethical matters must be the prudent or practically wise person, that is, the person who has the virtue of prudence. On the basis of this, it is clear that a supplemented ethics is both possible and desirable, and that in this supplemented ethics we do not merely try to understand virtue on our own power alone, but also take into account the witness of the appropriate authority, namely, those people who are prudent. And it is clear enough that anyone who attempts to do ethics while ignoring the counsel and thought of the most virtuous people is being foolish, although it is unfortunately true that it is not difficult to find such would-be ethicists. This ethics supplemented with prudent authority is like sacred doctrine. There is, however, a third kind of knowledge, namely, the virtuous person's own intimate familiarity with virtue. This ethics, the ethics implicit in the virtuous person's own life and reason, is like mystical theology. 

We can see from this that ethics supplemented with direct experience of virtue in oneself would be the best kind of ethics. It could happen that an ethicist solely inferring the characteristics of virtue from principles could have a better vocabulary or a more systematic framework for discussing the moral life, but even so, the virtuous person's ethical knowledge is in some sense superior in content; even if such people were at a disadvantage in discussing virtue, their judgments about virtue would be the best judgments, in the sense both of being the best-informed and of belonging to those who are actually best. There is a straightforward sense in which their intimate knowledge is the kind of knowledge that has the most right to be called ethics. 

We can likewise see that it is better to have this knowledge first-hand rather than second-hand, but it is also true that the line between the two kinds of supplemented ethics will be difficult and sometimes impossible to draw. First, the virtuous person can also confirm his or her judgment, and often will be wise to do so, by discussion with other virtuous people, and thus receive their testimony. Second, even though the supplementation by testimony provides the knowledge of the virtuous person at second-hand and externally, it does genuinely provide it, and can cover the same knowledge, albeit not in exactly the same way. Third, someone who is in the process of becoming virtuous would be wise to start with the authority of the virtuous and develop what is required to be virtuous; and in this sense the two kinds of knowledge are related as starting-point and end-point, and there will be many points between where the two intermingle in some way. All these points have counterparts with the relation between sacred doctrine and mystical theology.

The kind of knowledge that is best called 'theology', then, is the kind in which the intellect understands divine things through a direct familiarity with divine things themselves. Indeed, there is a thread of the Christian tradition that reserves the name 'theology' to this and this alone. It is also clear that this is the kind of knowledge any reasonable person would seek to obtain, and Christian tradition has always involved seeking it. As the Church prays in the collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company, and 2 Pt 1:4 says that God has given his promises that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire. Such theology is rare and difficult to find in complete form, however, and thus we usually are speaking of sacred doctrine when we use the term 'theology'. We shall, however, preserve the distinctions among metaphysics, sacred doctrine, and theology; and our concern in this work shall be sacred doctrine.

Pr.1.2 On the Necessity of Sacred Doctrine

Since some divine matters can be understood by reason even if unsupplemented by anything more than the senses, this naturally raises the question of why any supplementation is necessary at all. Only a little thought is required to see the answer to this, and it is clear that if such a supplementation were offered, and recognized as such, only the irrational and stupid would reject it. But it is worth our time to consider the limitations of unsupplemented metaphysics, and thus the inadequacy of natural theology. As Maimonides points out (Guide 1.33-34), there are at least five troublesome problems that are raised by inquiry into divine things, each of which in its own way calls for the supplementation of adequate authority if it could be had. 

 (1) Divine things are deep or high, and they are subtle. It is clear that this would be so given that they divine matters would cover those things that are first and most fundamental in some way, but (Guide 1.34), "Instruction should not begin with abstruse and difficult subjects." To begin with this would be to begin with matters that are both abstruse and abstract, and any such matters require an intellect that has considerable practice and development to reach. Maimonides, following the rabbis, uses the metaphor of pearls: only the very best divers should try, for weak swimmers would inevitably drown. As Gersonides notes in the introduction to his commentary on the Song of Songs**, the dependence of our intellects on imagination and opinion adds to the difficulty, because this reliance sometimes leads us to treat the primary as secondary or vice versa, or to mix up what is and what is not actual. 

 (2) The preliminaries required by any orderly inquiry are extensive. In orderly human investigations, we begin, of course, with the things we know best, and end with the things that we are trying to know, that is, the most fundamental and universal things. But this means that philosophical inquirer, if it does not skip any steps or is not supplemented in some way, will often only reach divine matters at the end of very extensive investigations. As Gersonides notes, there are many things that need to be known: the proper method, the proper order, the kind of thing for which we are searching, the right objections and the right solutions to objections, and so forth. 

These two problems derive directly from the subject-matter, divine things. The next three each derive from a limitation of human reason that causes a special problem for inquiry given the extraordinary importance of divine things. 

(3) Human reason only reaches its full stature after an extended period of development. We need that full stature, however, to discuss divine matters, and this means that proper consideration of divine matters will require as preparation a long study that most will find wearisome much of the time and that all will find wearisome some of the time. If you ask anyone whether they wish to know about divine things, they will say that they do, or that they do if such things exist, but if you then tell them that it takes an extraordinary apprenticeship to reach the basics, they will not be pleased. If you tell them that in order to do it properly, they must completely change their lives, devote themselves to pursuits very different from those that they have previously found pleasing, and engage in studies of such considerable length and difficulty that there is even risk that they will never finish them, they will prefer to find someone who will teach them something imaginary but simpler, or conclude that there must not be anything to know because they would have to go to such great lengths to know it. 

 (4) Human reason is conditioned by physical dispositions and temperaments, and thus many people do not have the disposition or temperament for the extensive study metaphysics requires. Someone who is frivolous or reckless is not suited to metaphysical study, nor are people who are impatient with things they do not understand immediately. It is not difficult to find such people, and it is clear that they can get very little from metaphysics until they have some handle on this problem. Thus there is a moral precondition to serious metaphysical study. A student of metaphysics must master his or her passions, learning to proceed onward even against their pull, learning to proceed carefully even where they push onward. Even setting this aside, it is clear that there may be physical impediments to metaphysical study that bear with them no shame; thus, for instance, someone who is severely sick or struggles with depression will often be slowed down in their progress, however deep their interest or pure their character. It is clear as well that most people can only begin their study of metaphysics, at least in earnest, beyond a certain age; and it can be said that there have been many who, starting too early, rushed into matters that required more experience than they had, or a though so much more leisurely as to require years. The desire for wisdom is very admirable in the young, but there are many of a young age who, having reached something that seems like wisdom to them at that time, have stopped, assuming they have already attained to it, when in reality they have either not reached it at all, or have only touched on its outermost surface. 

(5) Human life is busy, whether it be with survival or participation in civic life, but human reason requires leisure within which it may properly follow an inquiry to its proper end, and it also requires the will or resolve to use one's leisure in this way. The world is full of distractions, and who can say that the distractions never succeed with them? And many of these distractions can tire us out, leaving us, however well-favored we may be in other respects, unable to pursue the truth with the attention and love it requires. There are families to feed and good works to do; and even the most ardent lover of wisdom must sometimes recuperate from the hardships of life before pursuing beloved wisdom. 

All of these things conspire to make consideration of divine things through metaphysics very difficult. Human inquiry is prone to error, and each of the above problems is capable of multiplying error beyond this ordinary fallibility. This gives rise to three awkward results. 

(1) Few human beings can properly engage in the relevant inquiry at all, whether due to their own fault or due to things that are not their fault. 

(2) Of those who can begin it, few can complete it. 

(3) Of those who can complete it, few do so in a way proper to the inquiry in question, so that, for instance, what can be demonstrated is properly demonstrated and is recognized as being so. 

Indeed, since there are so many topics that may be considered when considering divine things, each of which can involve its own inquiries, every one of us is in each of these three problematic states with regard to at least some things. What makes these problems especially awkward is that it seems that divine things would have something to do both with our understanding of the world and with our happiness, and that without knowing divine things both could be quite defective. From all of this it is clear that any supplementation our reason could receive should be quite welcome, as long as it were itself good. 

From all the above we may draw a response to one possible objection to sacred doctrine, namely, the objection that we should be autonomous, not heteronomous, and reliance on the supplementation of authority is heteronomous. The sort of autonomy that throws away an aid to the discovery of truth and good life, however, is not a true autonomy, but merely a kind of stupid pride. It is as if we refused to live in society when offered, on the grounds that it would eliminate our independence. An independence that requires rejecting such a benefit, however, is not a true independence, and should instead be classed as a form of folly or madness. Further, not only would wise seekers of truth accept such assistance to truth; they would search for it, at least keeping their eye out for it so that they would not miss it. For what person could be said to love wisdom with a whole heart who refused to accept any aid to wisdom because it came from someone else? Would they not rather be open to finding such an aid if it came? This is even more obvious in the case of God in particular; for if one is considering what can be known of God, what person would be so stupid as to reject the testimony of God Himself, if they had such testimony? Thus the bare fact of the source of knowledge being in another is not an adequate objection to sacred doctrine.

A more subtle objection is possible. Someone might argue that God would not interfere with our autonomy, but would instead allow us to make our way on our own. The above considerations, however, address this as well. Even supposing that God wishes us to proceed on our own, (1) it is clear that this means that most people will be doomed to fail; and (2) we could only know this to be the case if we already knew a considerable amount about divine matters. It is therefore reasonable for the inquirer to search for adequate authority in these matters; and in this light we can see the staggering character of the promise given by the prophet (Is 54:13), All your children shall be taught by the Lord.

Pr.1.3 On the Necessity of New Illumination

If sacred doctrine is needed, however, it seems that it requires not just an external supplement but some kind of internal supplement as well. For mystical theology, that is, the pinnacle of knowledge of God, requires some kind of participation in divine things, and sacred doctrine is a preparation for such knowledge. Any external supplementation needs to have a way of working its way in so that it become internal, just as external counsel needs to have a way of working its way in so that we can become virtuous. In the case of virtue, we naturally have what we need, namely, the light of intellect itself, which allows us to understand the counsel we receive and take it to heart, thereby becoming virtuous. Since becoming divine is beyond human nature on its own, however, we would need to receive not just some external help but also an internal help which, like the light of reason, makes it possible for us to understand this external help and take it to heart, thereby becoming participants in the divine life. We need a new illumination. 

It is useful to consider this at somewhat greater length, although we may only gesture at the essential elements here. There are two aspects to human understanding: one that is active, which has usually been called the operation of the agent intellect, and one that is passive, which is assigned to the possible, patient, or passive intellect, depending on how the terms are used in a given context. Some people have held that the agent intellect, that is, whatever it is that provides the active aspect of human understanding, is separate from human beings. This seems to lead to the consequence that human minds are not able to act in the way distinctive to them, to know the truth, in themselves, but only insofar as they are illumined by this external light or activity. This is not plausible, however. If this were the case, human beings would be defective for performing their natural operations; something essential to human nature would be extrinsic to it. Thus a complete human being must have this active capability to understand as well as the passive capability for understanding, and this fits with what we impute to human beings, since we attribute to human beings not only the capacity to have intelligible objects but also the capacity for pulling them out of the world, so to speak. If we speak loosely, we may say that this agent intellect is a sort of intrinsic art or craft for concepts; just as the the artisan has the ability to produce ideas and, by working through them, to impress them on matter so that matter is like the ideas, so the human being as intelligent is able to produce actual understanding, and to make the sensible into intelligible objects by assimilating the sensible to itself. 

Thus in understanding and knowing truth we contribute both an active element and a passive element; by doing so we contain within ourselves something adequate to the truth. It does not follow from this, however, that no activity other than our own is necessary for understanding, any more than the complete natural ability of human beings to see, which also has an active and a passive element, implies that nothing else is needed for sight. In particular, human understanding depends on divine activity, for God establishes the natures of things, giving them form and power to act; and he accomplishes the work of providence by directing these powers to specific acts. As St. Thomas says (ST 1.105.5 ad 3), God not only gives things their form, but He also preserves them in actual being, and applies them to what is to be enacted, and is the end of every action

St. Thomas also says (In De Trin 1.1.1ad2), God teaches us interiorly in the case of natural objects of knowledge by creating a natural light within us and by directing it to the truth, but also in other matters by imparting to us a new light. As instruments in the artisan's hand, creatures are subject to divine governance; and the human mind presupposes divine activity in all knowledge of truth. In knowing things it is natural to know, we presuppose God's moving of our intellects so that we can know anything at all, and we can only know other things by receiving a new illumination. God is always the cause of the soul's natural light, both in its beginning to be and in its being, and thus is constantly at work in our minds, endowing them with natural light and orientation to truth.

It is important to keep in mind, as well, that every created active power is bounded or finite in some way, and its effectiveness is restricted; for it to have some other effect, a new power or capability would have to be added. In our case, there are intelligible truths to which the agent intellect's efficacy extends, such as principles we naturally know and the conclusions we deduce from these. For these we do not need any new intellectual light, because we have a light endowed by nature. There are, however, other truths we cannot find by starting with these principles, like truths about future contingents, or truths like the truths of faith, which transcend the capacity of reason. These latter truths cannot properly be known without receiving some illumination that intensifies our natural light, i.e., extends the scope of our understanding, so that it can reach these things. Thus St. John Henry Newman says (DMC 9.11), You ask, what it is you need, besides eyes, in order to see the truths of revelation: I will tell you at once; you need light. Not the keenest eyes can see in the dark. Now, though your mind be the eye, the grace of God is the light; and you will as easily exercise your eyes in this sensible world without the sun, as you will be able to exercise your mind in the spiritual world without a parallel gift from without. 

There are two positions that one could put forward as opposed to this. The first is that nature suffices; the second is that, while nature requires supplement, this supplement may be extrinsic, like an extrinsic authority. Neither of these is plausible. For what matters when we ask whether something suffices is the end to which it is directed, because only by comparing it to this end can we know whether it truly suffices. But the end in theological matters is the highest knowledge of God, which requires a sort of participation in the divine so that it can be known intimately from the inside. Sacred doctrine prepares for this; but mere inference is not proportioned to such a preparation. Some additional light, that is, some power of manifestation, is necessary.

This light, however, although from without, cannot be purely extrinsic. The first reason for this is that it must be intellectual, and therefore must provide something in the way of understanding. This is not possible for a purely extrinsic source. We see this, indeed, in the very name 'light'. We call 'light' those things that are sources of manifestation. Recognizing that the human mind must in some way and to some extent manifest things to itself, we say that it has a light, which stands for the vitality or vivacity of a cognitive capability. When we say that we need new light, then, we mean primarily that our cognitive capability must be itself strengthened in some way. 

We are all in some measure like the people in Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Tied down to a shadow-world, we learn our vocabulary and develop our understanding in light of our experience of the shadow-world. Thus if an authority of any kind comes to us and tells us of the marvelous world we have never known, we cannot understand it. Where they use a word, we understand it in shadowy ways, not in the ways that belong to a marvelous world we do not know. 

The point is put well by Francis Turretin (Institutes of Elenctic Theology*** 1.2.9): "As there is a threefold school of God (that of nature, grace and glory), and a threefold book (of the creature, of Scripture and of life), so theology has usually been divided into three parts: the first of which is natural, the second supernatural and the third beatific; the first from the light of reason, the second from the light of faith, the third from the light of glory." Thus we may say speak, as the Church does in prayer at the Roman Mass at Dawn for the Feast of the Nativity, of the light of faith, which illumines our minds, and we pray, in the Maronite liturgy for the Birth of Our Lord, With the light of your knowledge, you enlightened our minds with the knowledge of the One who is beyond our understanding.


* Edith Stein, Potency and Act, Redmond, tr., ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 2009).

** Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides), Commentary on Song of Songs, Kellner, tr. Yale UP (New Haven: 1998).

** Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume One, Giger, tr., Dennison, ed. P & R Publishing (Phillipsburg, NJ: 1992).

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