Reason and Divine Revelation: Reading Aquinas: Summa Theologiae Prologue and I, Q. 1, Art. 1

st-thomas-aquinas1(Carlo Crivelli (circa 1435–circa 1495) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

Being now three posts in to my “Reading Aristotle” series (see here, here, and here), I thought it time to begin a similar series on Aristotle’s great medieval champion, St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas is perhaps one of the greatest theologians, philosophers, thinkers, and just human beings in general in all of history. He and his writings, and the system of thought which arose from them, have had an immense impact on my own life and thought. He received ridicule while he was alive, being often taunted as “the dumb ox”, and he continues to receive criticism and ridicule up until today. But for those who take the time to study him, understand him, and learn from him, he is an unsurpassable treasure, a glimpse at what human beings can really be and accomplish.

In this post, we will begin to look at St. Thomas’s theological masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae. Renowned scholar Brian Davies writes:

“The Summa Theologiae is one of the most impressive and influential treatises on Christian theology ever written. Even its critics would admit this. It is also Thomas Aquinas’s best-known and most studied work, and it can be thought of as expressing his views after a time of much reflection since it was what he was working on just before he died. But it is very long, with later sections building on earlier ones, and its author presupposes that his readers are familiar with writings and terminology of which most people today are largely ignorant” [1].

In fact, to call the Summa “long” is an egregious understatement. In print, it consists of about 5000 pages, and St. Thomas had not even completed it yet at the time of his death. The Summa is divided into three main parts, and the second of these parts itself is divided into two further parts. So in all there is Prima Pars or the First Part, which covers topics about God; Prima Secundae or the First of the Second Part, and Secunda Secundae, or the Second of the Second Part, which cover topics about humanity; and Tertia Pars, or the Third Part, which covers topics about Christ [2]. Each part is then made up of a series of questions and articles that usually follow this format:

“The structure of such articles is as follows. First a question is raised. Then objections to the position that Aquinas wants to defend are listed. Then comes a brief summary of the position that Aquinas defends followed by an explanation of why he defends it. Finally, replies to the initial objects are provided” [3].

As this format shows, Aquinas was overwhelmingly thorough and complete. He wouldn’t just assert something without explaining why, and he always handled as many of the strongest objections to his position as he could. He was devoted to truth, and extraordinarily scrupulous in seeking it out.

In this first post, we’ll briefly examine the Prologue to the Summa, and then turn to the first article of the first question.

The Prologue reads:

“Because the Master of Catholic Truth ought not only to teach the proficient, but also to instruct beginners (according to the Apostle: As Unto Little Ones in Christ, I Gave You Milk to Drink, Not Meat– 1 Cor. iii. 1,2)–we purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian Religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners. We have considered that students in this Science have not seldom been hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments; partly also because those things that are needful for them to know are not taught according to the order of the subject-matter, but according as the plan of the book might require, or the occasion of the argument offer; partly, too, because frequent repetition brought weariness and confusion to the minds of the readers. Endeavoring to avoid these and other like faults, we shall try, by God’s help, to set forth whatever is included in this Sacred Science as briefly and clearly as the matter itself may allow” (Summa Theologiae, Prologue) [4].

What is astounding is that Aquinas apparently wrote this magnificent tome for students, despite the fact that it has continued to amaze, fulfill, and stretch the minds of the most experienced, educated experts for centuries! He points out that theological newcomers have often been hindered by trying to read long, complicated, tedious, superfluous theological works, and so his intention is to write something to be beneficial for those trying to learn more about the “Sacred Science.” Ironically, each of these criticisms themselves have probably been offered against the Summa itself, but that is most likely due to the deficiency on the part of the critic, rather than on Aquinas. There is no doubt that the Summa is indeed long, complicated, and at times even tedious, but it is also wonderful, beautiful, inspiring, and above all, filled with intellectual and spiritual depth beyond belief. It is to Aquinas’s own credit that he was able to write such an unbelievable masterpiece that is able to both instruct beginners and delight experienced scholars.

One final point on the Prologue. Aquinas speaks several times of the “Science” or “Sacred Science.” As I have mentioned before, people today have a completely different understanding of what science truly is than its traditional usage. The Latin phrase Aquinas uses is sacra doctrina, which is literally “sacred teaching” or sacred knowledge, referring specifically to divine revelation given from God to the Church, especially as found in the scriptures. In fact, though the Summa covers an immense array of theological and philosophical topics, it is most definitely centered around Biblical teaching. Writes Davies:

“Aquinas offers the Summa as an extended treatment of the truths of Christianity based on the Bible . . . Aquinas’s focus throughout the Summa is on what he takes to be the core of Christian belief . . . His view is that the Bible provides us with revealed teachings about God, and he takes sacra doctrina to be the accurate presentation of these” [5].

This very topic is what he takes up in Question 1 of the First Part:

“QUESTION  1

THE NATURE AND EXTENT OF SACRED DOCTRINE (in Ten Articles)

To place our purpose within proper limits, we first endeavor to investigate the nature and extent of this sacred doctrine. Concerning this there are ten points of inquiry: (1) Whether it is necessary? (2) Whether it is a science? (3) Whether it is one or many? (4) Whether it is speculative or practical? (5) How it is compared with other sciences? (6) Whether it is the same as wisdom? (7) Whether God is its subject-matter? (8) Whether it is a matter of argument? (9) Whether it rightly employs metaphors and similes? (10) Whether the Sacred Scripture of this doctrine may be expounded in different senses?” (ST I, Q. 1) [6].

This is the layout of questions which he will be seeking to answer in Question 1. He begins in Article 1:

“FIRST ARTICLE

Whether, besides Philosophy, any Further Doctrine is Required?

Objection 1: It seems that, besides philosophical science, we have no need of any further knowledge. For man should not seek to know what is above reason: “Seek not the things that are too high for thee” (Ecclus. 3:22). But whatever is not above reason is fully treated of in philosophical science. Therefore, any other knowledge besides philosophical science is superfluous” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 1) [7].

In other words, some suggest that theology, or sacred teaching of divine revelation, is useless because it is, by its own admission, “above reason”. Of course some Richard-Dawkins type new atheists argue that theology and religious belief, far from being above reason, is actually very much below reason, being irrational and illogical. This is similar in some ways to the famous “falsificationist challenge” to theology instigated by philosopher Antony Flew’s paper Theology and Falsification [8]. This paper basically argued, as Ed Feser summarizes, that:

“A claim is falsifiable when it is empirically testable — that is to say, when it makes predictions about what will be observed under such-and-such circumstances such that, if the predictions don’t pan out, the claim is thereby shown to be false.  The idea that a genuinely scientific claim must be falsifiable had already been given currency by Karl Popper.  Flew’s aim was to apply it to a critique of such theological claims as the thesis that God loves us.  No matter what sorts of evil and suffering occur in the world, the theologian does not give up the claim that God loves us.  But then, what, in that case, does the claim actually amount to?  And why should we accept the claim?  Flew’s challenge was to get the theologian to specify exactly what would have to happen in order for the theologian to give up the claim that God loves us, or the claim that God exists” [9].

This falsificationist challenge might be a sort of modern, skeptical version of the objection Aquinas is examining here, that takes really the exact opposite position: theology is useless because it is below reason. Aquinas, however, is dealing with those who might still agree that theology is above reason, in that it transcends mere reason, without being irrational or logically contradictory in any way. Philosophy, says Aquinas, studies everything that is able to be known by reason alone. Sacred doctrine is not able to be known by reason alone, because by its very definition it was revealed to us by God, not discovered by human thinking. But “cannot we at least in principle arrive at all truth relevant to us by means of our reason” [10]? And so if something is not available to us via philosophy, doesn’t that mean it isn’t relevant or useful for us?

The next objection:

“Obj. 2: Further, knowledge can be concerned only with being, for nothing can be known, save what is true; all that is, is true. But everything that is, is treated of in philosophical-science–even God Himself; so that there is a part of philosophy called theology, or the divine science, as Aristotle has proved (Metaph. vi). Therefore, besides philosophical science, there is no need of any further knowledge” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 1) [11].

Interestingly, this objection is similar to an idea espoused in Plato’s Republic, that “knowledge by its nature [is] set over what is, to know it as it is” and “when [the soul] focuses on something illuminated by truth and what is, it understands, knows, and apparently possesses understanding” [12].

In other words, the objection states, knowledge is based on what exists, and coming to know what exists is done through philosophy. God exists, so God should be able to be known through philosophy. Indeed, there is “natural theology”, which aims at examining what we can discover via natural reason alone, apart from any divine revelation. But if God can be known by reason alone, without revelation, what purpose does revelation serve?

So how does Aquinas respond to these objections?

On the contrary, It is written (2 Tim. 3:16): ‘All Scripture inspired of God is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice.’ Now Scripture, inspired of God, is no part of philosophical science, which has been built up by human reason. Therefore it is useful that besides philosophical science, there should be knowledge, i.e. inspired by God” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 1) [13].

This is a Biblical response, directed to those who already hold Scripture as divine revelation. Scripture clearly teaches that the Bible is useful in teaching us things about God, so it cannot be the case (for anyone who holds that Scripture is indeed inspired) that sacred doctrine is useless for knowing God.

Continuing his explanation of his position:

I answer that, It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: ‘The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee’ (Isa. 66:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical-science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 1) [14].

Aquinas’s general position on this is that divine revelation was necessary for man’s salvation. The first reason that this is the case is because God Himself transcends human reason, and yet humans are drawn to God as their “end” or final cause, the very purpose and goal of their existence. But if God is the purpose of human existence, then humans must somehow come to know God; and since God transcends human knowledge, there is a major problem for us. How is this solved? God revealed Himself to us through sacred doctrine, which exceeds reason.

Granted, there are some things about God that can be known by reason alone. Aquinas thinks, for example, that the existence of God can be demonstrated on the basis of purely philosophical arguments (see my Post Directory page for links to some of these arguments). However, this is not sufficient. For one thing, not everything about who God is and what He has done can be done by reason alone. Things like the Trinity, although certainly not irrational or illogical, just aren’t discoverable by human thought unless God reveals them to us. For another, even those things which can be known by reason, are known only to a very small number. Not very many human beings are in a position to practice and study philosophy seriously and in depth for an extended amount of time. And of course, even those who do so are prone to many mistakes and errors, since human reasoning is finite and extremely fallible. Thus, if God wanted many people to come to know Him and come to salvation in Him, leaving them to do so via philosophy alone would not lead to very great results. But by giving to man sacred doctrine via revelation, God has ensured that many people from all backgrounds and circumstances can come to know Him, and know him fully, and without having to doubt their own rational abilities, since they can rely on infallible doctrine.

Aquinas then replies specifically to Objection 1:

“Reply Obj. 1: Although those things which are beyond man’s knowledge may not be sought for by man through his reason, nevertheless, once they are revealed by God, they must be accepted by faith. Hence the sacred text continues, ‘For many things are shown to thee above the understandings of man’ (Ecclus. 3:25). And in this, the sacred science consists” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 1) [15].

The first objection was that sacred doctrine is above reason, and man should not try to understand things that are above his reason. Aquinas here responds that indeed, sacred doctrine is above reason, and if all we had was our reason, we would not even be able to seek out things that transcend reason. But that is not the case, because God has shown us things that are above our reason, and these things, since they are from God, most definitely should be studied and contemplated. In other words, things that transcend reason cannot, by their very definition, be discovered purely by reason. But we don’t have to discover them, because God has delivered them to us.

“Reply Obj. 2: Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself. Hence there is no reason why those things which may be learned from philosophical science, so far as they can be known by natural reason, may not also be taught us by another science so far as they fall within revelation. Hence theology included in sacred doctrine differs in kind from that theology which is part of philosophy” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 1) [16].

Objection 1 asserted that knowledge is concerned with what exists, and coming to know what exists is done through philosophy. Since God exists, God should be able to be known through philosophy. Aquinas does not deny that this point is true. God is knowable (to a certain, limited extent) through philosophy, specifically what is known as “natural philosophy.” But there are different types of sciences concerned with different types of knowledge of what exists, studying them in different methods. Sometimes, two different sciences study the exact same thing, but from different positions/starting points. So there is absolutely no reason to think that just because natural theology teaches us some things about God, that therefore nothing else can be known about God, or there is no other way to study God. Natural theology is perfectly legitimate, but it does not and cannot teach us everything there is to know about God. Some things had to be revealed, as we’ve already discussed, and these things that are revealed are studied through what he calls the sacred science, based on sacred doctrine.

In conclusion, it might be necessary to make a quick point. Once again, Aquinas is writing to theology students. He is not writing to nonbelievers or members of other religions. He is not writing trying to necessarily persuade non-Christians of the truth of Christianity. As such, given is specific audience, he takes some things for granted, such as the truth of Christianity, that God has indeed revealed Himself, that Scripture is divinely inspired, etc. In this post, I am merely commentating on Aquinas’s writings, I am not in any way attempting to offer a full defense of them. Elsewhere I have done some of this, and will hopefully be doing more of it in the future. But that is not the purpose of this post at all.

Next, we will turn to Article 2.

 

Notes

[1]. Davies, Brian. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Guide & Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print, xiii.

[2]. See Beaumont, Douglas.”Citing the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas.” Douglas Beaumont: Theology, Philosophy, Apologetics. WordPress, 21 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <https://douglasbeaumont.com/2010/09/21/citing-thomas-aquinass-summa-theologiae/&gt;.

[3]. Davies, Brian. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Guide & Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print, 14.

[4]. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. Prologue.

[5]. Davies, Brian. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Guide & Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print, 18.

[6]. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. I, Q. 1.

[7]. Ibid., I, Q. 1, Art. 1.

[8]. See here: http://infidels.org/library/modern/antony_flew/theologyandfalsification.html

[9]. Feser, Edward. “A Note on Falsification.” Edward Feser. Blogspot, 1 Apr. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2016/04/a-note-on-falsification.html#more&gt;.

[10]. Davies, Brian. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Guide & Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print, 19.

[11]. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. I, Q. 1.

[12]. Cooper, John M, editor. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997. Print, Republic V, 477b and Republic VI, 508d respectively.

[13]. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. I, Q. 1.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Ibid.

Cover Image: Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACreation_of_Adam.jpg

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2 thoughts on “Reason and Divine Revelation: Reading Aquinas: Summa Theologiae Prologue and I, Q. 1, Art. 1

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