Question 1, Article 1: “Whether, besides Philosophy, Any Further Doctrine is Required?”
When we open the Summa, the first question we come to concerns “the Nature and Extent” of theology, or what St. Thomas refers to as sacra doctrina, sacred doctrine or “holy teaching.” The goal of the opening question of the Summa, accordingly, is to define the task of theology, to explain its method, its subject matter, its scope, its material, its limits, and so forth. The first article of the first question, however, begins on a striking and very important note. What does it ask? “Whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required?” The first thing we might note is that the question is essentially asking what the necessity or need of theology is. What is it for? Why is it required? The second thing we observe is how St. Thomas poses the question of the need for theology in comparison to something besides theology, namely what? Philosophy! We might restate Thomas’s question this way: “Given that we already have reason and philosophy, what need do we have for faith and theology?” Why is theology not superfluous? So notice that there is a certain burden of proof already implied at the outset of the study of theology: Christian theology has been around for almost 1300 years now, and it’s still having to justify its own existence.
But let us put the question in its proper context. First time readers of St. Thomas’s Summa have sometimes been dismayed by the prologue in which Thomas explains how this amazingly long, dense, and difficult work is actually intended for the “instruction of beginners.” By “beginners,” however, what Thomas means is those who are beginning their instruction in theology: he is talking not about first-graders, but something approximating our first year seminarians, students who, as St. Thomas did when he began his formal theological training, might already have had a thorough education in the liberal arts, including some training in philosophy. Thus, in one sense the question Thomas poses at the beginning of the Summa is a simple curricular one: once we’ve taken our courses in philosophy, what is it that theology promises to add to our learning? (An analogous question would be, “After spending four years studying liberal arts, why might I want to continue my studies in theology at the graduate level?”) We can also put the question in its broader, historical context, however: the pagans, after all, had reason and philosophy long before the Christian faith came along, which naturally gives rise to the question: “if we already have philosophy, and philosophy covers everything that exists, including God, what do we need Christian theology for?” Put this way, it is possible to see Thomas as posing, and then answering, the same question that was put to St. Paul by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on the Areopagus in Athens: “May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?” (Acts 17:19). Thus, part of the reason, I suggest, that St. Thomas begins his own discussion of theology with the question of “whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required,” is because after thirteen centuries the newness of this “new doctrine” of Jesus Christ hadn’t become any older for St. Thomas than it had been for the Apostle Paul.
- The objections.
- The first objection to sacra doctrina essentially says: philosophy is modest; it reserves itself to what man can know by his own power of reason. Theology, by contrast, is too high for man: it’s an act of hubris, therefore, to pursue those divine things that are above man.
- Thomas’s reply: Things which are above man have been revealed by God: it would be hubris, therefore, not to pursue them, even if they can only be grasped by faith.
- Second objection: The things of God are already covered in metaphysics, which studies all being, including God as the first principle. Theology is therefore superfluous or redundant.
- Thomas’s reply: different sciences can overlap in their subject matter. Both metaphysics and theology consider God, but theology considers God not according to reason alone, but also insofar as he is revealed. So similar subject matter with differing methodologies make for differing sciences of God.
As for St. Thomas’s answer to the question itself concerning the need for theology, he writes this famous passage: “It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God, besides philosophical science built up by human reason.” Now, this statement might seem questionable on the grounds that it implies that man’s need for salvation can be separated from his philosophical reason; in other words, it seems to say that there is one sphere of man’s existence in which he is a rational and even philosophical creature, but there is apparently this other, distinct, fallen, and thus sinful area of his existence in which he needs to be saved and yet which the rational, philosophical part is incapable of saving. However this may be, it is important to note, on the other hand, what Thomas immediately goes on to say: “Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason.” Man’s need for revelation, in other words, is not merely soteriological, that is to say, not merely a consequence of the Fall, but is in fact natural to man. What Aquinas is saying, in short, is that man has a natural need and desire for the supernatural, or for that which transcends and therefore cannot be fulfilled within nature. This is an important qualification to those accounts of St. Thomas which would impute to him a radical grace-nature dualism, according to which nature is a putatively semi-autonomous realm that operates according to the principles articulated by Aristotle and therefore discoverable by natural, human reason. According to Aristotle, moreover, nature never does anything in vain, but always leaves open a way for her children to achieve their ends and to realize their own natures by their own means. Nature is thus a completely closed system, so that far from nature being open to the divine or supernatural, for Aristotle the divine or supernatural, namely the unmoved mover who in its perfect self-contemplation keeps the physical world eternally running along its natural course, is precisely the stamp that allows nature to be kept sealed shut.
What Aquinas is saying here, by contrast, is that in the case of man, at least, what we see is nature being constitutionally oriented towards the divine in such a way that it is only through the divine that man’s own nature can be completed. In this one sentence, therefore, namely 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,” Aquinas has actually managed to say perhaps the most un-Aristotelian thing you can say. In the first of many examples of the kind, Aquinas is using Aristotle to help him say the kinds of things Aristotle never, ever would have said.
So man is naturally directed to God as an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason, which means that all of our thoughts and actions are ultimately bent towards that which, on our own, we can’t know. As Thomas further expresses the paradox: “But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end.” The dilemma, then, is this: man’s whole end, goal, purpose, or objective is to know God and be united with him, yet unless man already is in possession of some initial, provisional knowledge of God from the outset, his thoughts and actions won’t be successfully directed to that end (you have to know your ultimate destination if you’re going to start out for it in the right direction). The thing which man needs to get to, namely the knowledge of God, needs to be had at the beginning (the end, paradoxically, has to come first). In some ways this is a Christian version of the problem Plato posed in his dialogues, namely the problem that one doesn’t seem to be capable of acquiring true knowledge unless one in some sense is already in possession of that knowledge. In the Phaedo, for example, Socrates argued that you could never have gotten the idea or form of the “equal itself” simply from examining so-called equal things, for the things of our experience are never perfectly equal, so whence comes this idea of perfect equality? Plato’s answer, of course, was his doctrine of anamnesis or recollection: we never truly “learn” the forms; rather, they preexist in the intelligent soul, so that our subsequent experience help “jog” the soul’s memory, as it were, by helping it remember what it already knew. Well, Thomas seems to view sacred doctrine and its apprehension by faith as serving an analogous role: although man has a certain “confused” or indefinite knowledge of God acquired by nature (as we shall see in question two), what sacred doctrine gives us is a necessary, preliminary, and orienting knowledge of God, obtained in advance (a sort of “preview of coming attractions”), which can then serve to guide us through this life until we arrive at that true knowledge of God which constitutes our ultimate destiny and salvation. So sacred doctrine is necessary in advance to tell us what our true end is so that it can then guide all of our thoughts and actions and so ensure that we do indeed ultimately arrive at that end. What reason is powerless to reach up and grasp by itself, therefore, revelation must condescend and meet from above. It is this revelation, finally, that Sacred Doctrine or theology teaches.
More than this, however, is that even if we focus on what reason and philosophy by themselves can know, Aquinas says that “the truth about God… would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” From these remarks we can thus distinguish what I refer to as the three levels of philosophy’s incompetence:
- Whatever man’s original, natural condition, man has fallen from it, and philosophy is powerless to restore man to his pre-fall condition.
- Even apart from the Fall, philosophy would be powerless on its own to fulfill man’s nature, since man’s nature is to know God which surpasses the power of reason. So even philosophizing in the Garden of Eden wouldn’t have cut it.
Even in its own proper sphere of knowing God as far as reason does allow, philosophy will often simply get things wrong. Philosophizing correctly is hard work, and even the best don’t always get it right. Theology helps correct against this. When the philosopher sits down to take the philosophy exam, theology provides him with a kind of “cheat sheet.”
 On the original, primary intended audience for whom Thomas wrote the Summa, see Leonard A. Boyd, “The Setting of the Summa Theologiae,” in Brian Davies, ed., Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006). Boyd argues that the Summa was originally intended for those beginning their formal theological training in Dominican priories (and not, therefore, for those studying theology at the universities).