Aquinas Day By Day


Aquinas’s Topic: Theology compared to the higher wisdom of God

Scripture: Isaiah 55: 4-6: “As I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of nations, so shall you summon a nation you knew not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you.”

Church Calendar: St. Raymond of Penafort OP

Aquinas’s Text: Summa theologiae 1.1.2

Raymond of Penafort was Master General of the Dominican Order, personally known to Br. Thomas. There is a late story that Thomas wrote the Summa contra gentiles at his request, to be a sort of compendium of theological arguments Dominican missionaries in Spain could use in trying to convert the cultured Muslims and Jews they would meet there.

To understand the nature of theology, Br. Thomas situated it between two other levels of wisdom, the wisdom of God, the angels, and the saints, which is superior to it, and the wisdom attained by earlier, non-Christian philosophers, which is inferior to it, but still of considerable value. Here he compares theology with the superior wisdom above it. To do so he makes use of Aristotle’s philosophical doctrine of a “science” (we would now say “discipline”), that is, a body of knowledge organized around a limited topic, like geometry, and of his notion that one such “science” can depend upon or be “subordinated to” another.

Art. 2 asks: “Is sacred doctrine [or theology] a science?”

Br. Thomas’s “response”:

Sacred doctrine [theology] is a science, but we must understand that there are two types of sciences. There are some sciences that proceed from principles known by the natural light of the intellect, such as arithmetic and geometry and such sciences; while there are others that proceed from principles known by the light of a superior science, such as optics, which proceeds from principles known in geometry, and music, which proceeds from principles known in arithmetic. Now sacred doctrine is a science of the second sort, because it proceeds from principles known by the light of a superior science, namely, the knowledge possessed by God and the blessed. Therefore, just as music believes in the principles handed over to it by arithmetic, so likewise sacred doctrine [theology] believes in the principles revealed to it by God.

[Introductions and translations © R.E. Houser]