Saturday, October 22, 2005

Aquinas and Sacred Doctrine as Stance

Some posts at Theologica (here and here) by David Wayne argue for a particular understanding of theology; in them he contrasts seeing theology as a study vs. seeing it as a stance (as well). He puts Aquinas on the study side, but I think it can easily be shown that Aquinas is actually on the stance side.

(First, it should be pointed out that Aquinas himself rarely uses the word 'theology'. He does use it occasionally, but when he does he usually reserves it for the participation of the saint in divine things -- i.e., for Aquinas 'theology' still has its old mystical overtones. Theology is to sacred doctrine as the virtuous man is to the ethicist.)

According to Aquinas, sacred doctrine is a science; it proceeds from principles recognized by the light of faith; it is subalternated to God's own knowledge; it is wisdom; and its subject is not ourselves (even ourselves as living unto God) but God Himself.

(1) It is a science. 'Science' in the scholastic sense indicates an intellectual virtue of drawing correct conclusions from principles; the word is used by metonymy to indicate the conclusions so drawn. Aquinas uses it both ways; sacred doctrine is a virtue of mind for concluding the right things about God, and, by extension the conclusions concluded by such a virtue of mind.

(2) It proceeds from principles recognized by the light of faith. Every science presupposes some understanding, intelligentia, of its principles or starting-points. The principles of sacred doctrine are the articles of faith; the understanding of these principles is a God-given gift, the light of faith, which supplements the light of reason, and makes us dwell in the articles of faith with luminous certainty.

(3) It is subalternated to divine knowledge. Some sciences presuppose other sciences; what is a principle for one science may be a conclusion for another. This is called subalternation. Sacred doctrine as a science is subalternated to the noblest and highest science of all, namely, God's own knowledge of Himself. It borrows its principles from God, who reveals truths and gives us the light of faith whereby to hold them as starting-points for thought. It is in this sense that Aquinas occasionally points out that sacred doctrine is nothing other than sacred scripture (i.e., sacred scripture not in the sense of dead words on the page, but as read by the light of faith that the Spirit gives the whole Church).

(4) It is wisdom. Wisdom, sapientia, is that intellectual virtue by means of which the wise set all things in order. Wisdom in this sense is knowledge of the most important and most fundamental things; and so wisdom in the purest sense is knowledge of divine things, whereby we can judge and arrange all things in the way they should be judged and arranged. Because of this, sacred doctrine sets all other knowledge in order.

(5) Its subject is not ourselves but God. The subject of a science is the object of science as a virtue. The easiest and most common mistake people make about sacred doctrine is that they try to make it about human beings. In their hands, sacred doctrine becomes the way to live well, the way to live according to God's will. Sacred doctrine does provide this, but this is not the point of sacred doctrine. The key thing we must understand about sacred doctrine is that God is worth knowing in Himself; and sacred doctrine is devoted primarily to this. In knowing God we begin to know all other things, including ourselves, in light of God. But God always must be first and foremost: seek God first and everything comes with Him. "In sacred science," Aquinas says, "all things are treated of under the aspect of God: either because they are God Himself or because they refer to God as their beginning and end" (ST 1.1.7).

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