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Thomas Aquinas: Systematic Faith

How theology becomes ‘Scholastic’

The Fathers of the Church were copious writers and preachers but not systematic ones. In the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) led the development of theology towards ‘scholasticism’. Scholasticism is theology taught in schools, by ‘school-men’, as distinct from theology taught by monks in monasteries. The Scholastics produced teachable, systematized theological texts to be used in schools. Logic was important to them. Anselm was one of the first to put logic at the pedagogical service of theology. In his Cur Deus homo (‘Why God became human’), Anselm sought to show, without relying upon Scriptural authority and purely on logical grounds, that it made sense for God to become human. One reason for relying on logic rather than revealed doctrine is that one could not preach to (or against) Muslims out of Scripture and Tradition. The use of logic enabled theologians to build their treatises like Lego castles, with one conclusion snapping into another. While the structure of patristic theology is rhetorical or homiletic, the structure of scholastic theology is logical.

Half a century later, Peter Abelard (1079-1142), one of the first great Scholastics, gained notoriety by appearing to some to subject the truths of faith to those of logic. Abelard also composed the Sic et non (‘Yes and No’), which laid apparently contradictory conclusions of the Fathers alongside one another.

Peter Lombard (1096-1164) then wrote a four volume Book of Sentences (I, Trinity; II, Creation; III, Christ; IV, Sacraments). Lombard’s Book of Sentences supplies an encyclopaedic anthology of the main conclusions of the Fathers. The Sentences show where the Fathers agree and disagree. Commenting on these Sentences, and wringing convergence out of apparent divergence, was the mainstay of theological education for the next 500 years, down to and including Luther and Calvin. Lombard’s compendium of apparently antithetical patristic conclusions is the beginning of what moderns call ‘systematic theology’. Commentators on the Sentences drew on logic to synthesize apparently diverse conclusions: this is the origin of systematic theology. For the Authorities must not be seen to disagree. It would be disrespectful.

The thirteenth century is thus the age of the Summas, vast theological constructions which are often compared to the Gothic cathedrals, both in size, in elegance and in the determination to represent everything in heaven and on earth. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) wrote an enormous Summa theologica, which advances systematically through every theological topic from the nature of theology, to the Triune God and his attributes, Creation, the angels, human nature with its virtues and vices, the Incarnation and the seven sacraments of the Church. The shorter but no less systematic Summa contra gentiles was perhaps intended as a manual for missionaries in the Islamic world. When he takes detours off the main road to God, Thomas composed multiple long and short treatises, detailing a few of his Summa topic for close inspection. Such are the De Malo (on evil) and the Disputed Questions on Truth. Thomas dictated dozens of commentaries on Scripture and on the works of Aristotle, his favourite philosopher.

Sacra doctrina

For Thomas, it is sacra doctrina, that is, Scripture and its interpretation by the Church, which is the highest science. The word of God, not the word of men like himself, is the original ‘science of God’, of which Thomas speaks. Sacra doctrina covers all of Scripture and the ecumenical Councils of the Church. Thomas regards the Fathers of the Church, like Augustine and Athanasius, as high authorities, although not on a par with sacred doctrine. For him, sacra doctrina is a ‘knowledge’, a scientia because it substantially consists in God’s sharing of his self-knowledge with human beings. God’s self-understanding is thoroughly scientific, and, in sacra doctrina, he shares it with humanity.

God shared his mind with us because we cannot be saved unless he does so. Thomas thought we could not be fulfilled as human beings without intimate friendship with and knowledge of God. Thomas writes that ‘the soul is by nature capable of or open to grace; for as Augustine says, “by the very fact that it is made to the image of God, it is capable of or open to God by grace” V We cannot receive the vision of God for which our human nature naturally longs unless we know God. We do not have the means of acquiring the knowledge we need to liberate our desire for friendship with God. So God told us what he knows about himself, sharing his mind with us, and this ‘inside story’ is the basis of all ‘scientific’ theology. Thomas begins his Summa theologica with this affirmation:

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 ... 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 ..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.2

Theology is the study of God based on sacra doctrina or divine revelation. It is the study of God undertaken in the light of faith.



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