This is the third post in a series reading through sections of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. In the first we read through the Prologue and the first article of the first Question of the first Part, discussing the relationship between reason and divine revelation. In the second we read the second through the fourth articles of the same Question, considering divine revelation as a type of “science” or scientia, in the classical sense.
In this post we will begin with Article 5:
” Whether Sacred Doctrine Is Nobler than Other Sciences?
Objection 1: It seems that sacred doctrine is not nobler than other sciences; for the nobility of a science depends on the certitude it establishes. But other sciences, the principles of which cannot be doubted, seem to be more certain than sacred doctrine; for its principles–namely, articles of faith–can be doubted. Therefore other sciences seem to be nobler” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 5) .
This objection concerns the “certitude” we can have in the principles of different sciences. Other sciences begin from facts/observations about the world that are undeniable, since they are immediately evident to our senses, or are logically deduced therefrom. Sacred doctrine is not like this. Most of the “articles of faith” concern things to which our senses have absolutely no access. Even if we can demonstrate God’s existence generally without any appeal to divine revelation (which Aquinas thinks we can do, via his Five Ways), we cannot similarly demonstrate specific doctrines about God, such as His triune nature. In this sense the doctrines are susceptible to doubt, and thus the science which deals with them is inferior, or “less noble”, than more cognitively secure sciences.
“Obj. 2: Further, it is the sign of a lower science to depend upon a higher; as music depends on arithmetic. But sacred doctrine does in a sense depend upon philosophical sciences; for Jerome observes, in his Epistle to Magnus, that ‘the ancient doctors so enriched their books with the ideas and phrases of the philosophers, that thou knows not what more to admire in them, their profane erudition or their scriptural learning.’ Therefore sacred doctrine is inferior to other sciences” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 5) .
For a more modern example of such an objection, consider the physical “reductionists” who hold that all other sciences (chemistry, biology, etc.) are ultimately collapsable into physics itself. People with this view might say that the other sciences are “lower” to physics in that they completely depend upon physics in order to operate and make sense of things. In the same way, some might maintain that theology is in a similar relationship to philosophy as chemistry and biology are to physics. After all, it is in the domain of philosophy to consider the existence and nature of God, which theology implements in its own study specifically of divine revelation from God.
“On the contrary, Other sciences are called the handmaidens of this one: ‘Wisdom sent her maids to invite to the tower’ (Prov. 9:3)” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 5) .
So not only does Aquinas reject this narrative; he completely flips it on its head and asserts that, actually sacred doctrine is the main science, of which all other sciences are mere handmaidens.
“I answer that, Since this science is partly speculative and partly practical, it transcends all others speculative and practical. Now one speculative science is said to be nobler than another, either by reason of its greater certitude, or by reason of the higher worth of its subject-matter. In both these respects this science surpasses other speculative sciences; in point of greater certitude, because other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err; whereas this derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled: in point of the higher worth of its subject-matter because this science treats chiefly of those things which by their sublimity transcend human reason; while other sciences consider only those things which are within reason’s grasp. Of the practical sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose, as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the army is directed to the good of the State. But the purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss; to which as to an ultimate end the purposes of every practical science are directed. Hence it is clear that from every standpoint, it is nobler than other sciences” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 5) .
Study of sacred doctrine, says St. Thomas, is both speculative and practical. In contemporary academia, there is a conceptual distinction between “social sciences” and “physical sciences”, which is somewhat similar to the distinction being made here; although speculative sciences for Aquinas included much more than just what we would consider physical sciences, such as philosophy, metaphysics, etc. And practical sciences likewise would probably include more than just social sciences. Speculative sciences are just those fields of thought dealing with more theoretical, abstract issues; while practical sciences are, consequently, those fields of thought meant to be directly applicable to how we live our lives, such as politics. Theology, he insists, is both of these, and for this reason it “transcends” those which are just one or the other.
Considered as a speculative science, theology is superior to other speculative sciences in two ways: First, contrary to objection 1, it actually is more certain than other sciences. And second, its object of study is of much higher worth than in other sciences. The latter point at least does not seem too controversial. After all, if God really does exist, and really has revealed Himself in some definitive manner, what on earth could possibly be “higher” in worth than to study these things?
The former point, however, will most likely be met with much more contention. It just seems obvious, especially to those who don’t believe in God or in any divine revelation, but even to many who do, that the physical sciences at least lend themselves to more “certitude” than sacred doctrine does. Again, the physical sciences are based on things we can see and hear and touch and smell; but sacred doctrine is most assuredly not. Even if sacred doctrine is true and the articles of faith really have been revealed from God, don’t we depend upon our own human reason in order to come to believe and know that sacred doctrine is true in the first place? In other words, if sacred doctrine really is derived from “divine knowledge”, then of course it would be more certain than other sciences based only on human knowledge. But the problem is, in order to know whether sacred doctrine is derived from divine knowledge or not, don’t we have to use human reasoning?
Here’s one possible defense: the natural sciences are based on simple sense perceptions, from which, according to Aristotle, we then reason to underlying causes/principles/explanations. It could be a somewhat similar process to determining the legitimacy of sacred doctrine. For example, Aquinas’s argument from motion for the existence of God begins with the fact of our experience of motion, and reasons to the existence of God. From there we could reason to the truth of Christianity more generally and the authority (for Aquinas) of the Catholic church, to which sacred doctrine has been revealed from God. At this point, our knowledge that sacred doctrine is true could be (arguably) about as certain as some other principle derived in the natural sciences. And so at this point we could say: if we know sacred doctrine to be actually revealed from God, and since, being revealed from God, it is based on divine knowledge rather than human knowledge, then sacred doctrine in itself is more certain than the knowledge arrived at by means of other sciences. In other words, once one knows that God really has revealed truth through sacred doctrine, then one has much greater reason to trust it than anything derived purely through human reason. Or, as Aristotle admits, every science, based on what it is, has to start with some assumptions. Physics, for example, starts with the assumption not only that external, physical reality exists, but also that it is in motion according to the forces of nature (see Physics 1.1). Metaphysics starts really with the assumption (if it can be called that) that being is. Theology, likewise, starts on the assumption that God exists and has given definite revelation to man. So relative to the respective starting points, the science of sacred doctrine could be said to have more certitude than other sciences. (These are just possible defenses for a possible objection. Aquinas will explain more what he actually means here below).
For practical sciences, one is superior to another inasmuch as it “is ordained to a further purpose”. Practical sciences, unlike speculative sciences, are not meant to just discover knowledge; they are rather meant to use knowledge for some practical end. And so we can measure practical sciences based on that end. Military science, St. Thomas explains, is directed to the end of “the good of the army”. Political science, on the other hand, is directed to the good of the state as a whole. But, obviously, the good of the army itself is directed to the good of the state; military science is only beneficial insofar as it ultimately serves political science. But, says Aquinas, in actuality, every practical science is ultimately directed to the end of the science of sacred doctrine. For the practical purpose of sacred doctrine is “eternal bliss”, or eternal happiness/goodness; and all practical sciences are only beneficial insofar as they bring about some happiness/goodness. In fact, on a fundamental level, everything we do is directed towards goodness/happiness. So as military science is to political science, so all practice sciences are to the science of sacred doctrine; and all practical sciences are only beneficial insofar as they ultimately serve the science of sacred doctrine. And so, in conclusion, “it is clear that from every standpoint” the science of sacred doctrine is nobler than other sciences.
“Reply Obj. 1: It may well happen that what is in itself more certain may seem to us the less certain on account of the weakness of our intelligence, ‘which is dazzled by the clearest objects of nature; as the owl is dazzled by the light of the sun’ (Metaph. ii, lect. i). Hence the fact that some happen to doubt about articles of faith is not due to the uncertain nature of the truths, but to the weakness of human intelligence; yet the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge of lesser things, as is said in de Animalibus xi” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 5) .
This gives further explanation to his point about the “certitude” of sacred doctrine. It become clear that the certitude he’s talking about is ontological, rather than epistemological. From our perspective, some of the articles of faith may be less certain than things we know via natural sciences. But in reality, ontologically, the things revealed through sacred doctrine are intrinsically more certain than any of the things we know about the physical world. This is similar to what Aristotle says in the opening passage of his Physics, that some things are more evident to us but obscure by nature, while other things are more “familiar” to nature but obscure to us. The distinction is between normal objects of our sense perception as opposed to the fundamental, underlying causes/principles. Likewise, Aquinas is arguing that the knowledge of the physical sciences may be more knowable to us, but in reality the sacred doctrines are more real, more certain, more firmly established, since they are from God’s divine knowledge. The last line in this section is quite beautiful and profound: “the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge of lesser things.” We can spend centuries and millennia digging into the very nature of our universe, discovering black holes and quantum events and maybe someday dark matter, dark energy, and a complete theory of quantum gravity; but all these achievements and accomplishments, as great and astronomical as they are, will always be but a shadow compared to the smallest, slenderest, most basic knowledge of any fact of God, because our physical reality itself pales in comparison to He who is Reality Itself, Being Itself. We can have the surest, mathematically proven equations and formulas which leave absolutely no doubt to their validity, but compared even to the simplest faith of a child they are nothing. Even a wavering faith, filled with doubt and confusion and questions, is more powerful, and more valuable, than all the knowledge in all the books that could fill the entire universe, says Aquinas. And if all that knowledge in all those books that fill the entire universe aren’t directed towards that same Truth which the wavering faith holds to, then it is absolutely useless. (An interesting parallel could also be drawn here to the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, but that will have to be the object of another post).
“Reply Obj. 2: This science can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer. For it accepts its principles not from other sciences, but immediately from God, by revelation. Therefore it does not depend upon other sciences as upon the higher, but makes use of them as of the lesser, and as handmaidens: even so the master sciences make use of the sciences that supply their materials, as political of military science. That it thus uses them is not due to its own defect or insufficiency, but to the defect of our intelligence, which is more easily led by what is known through natural reason (from which proceeds the other sciences) to that which is above reason, such as are the teachings of this science” (ST I, Q. 1, Art. 5) .
Here St. Thomas insists that science of sacred doctrine does not “depend” upon other philosophical sciences in the sense that it relies on them in order to establish its own truth. Rather, it “uses” them as tools in its own services, and that only because humans naturally come to know truth better via our senses and reason. Sacred doctrine is not based upon principles derived from other sciences, as chemistry and biology are (some hold) from physics. Rather its principles are revealed directly to man from God, but in making sense of these principles it might utilize other sciences. And so all the other sciences truly are “handmaidens” to the science of sacred doctrine.
These first three posts in my “Reading Aquinas” series have examined the first five articles in the Summa Theologiae. In the future I will continue to come back to various different questions and articles throughout the Summa (probably not in order). But for the next few posts, since I have introduced Aquinas and his thinking/writing style, I will turn towards another of his works, De Ente et Essentia, or “On Being and Essence”, which is much more philosophical/metaphysical in nature.
. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. I, Q. 1, Art. 5.
Cover Image: Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACreation_of_Adam.jpg