When we study the preambles of faith in St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, we do not hold that such truths are simply inaccessible by human reason. Indeed, there can and should be a science of human reason dedicated to questions about the nature and principle(s) of being. Theology, then, has every right to presuppose the existence of such sciences and even use them when reflecting on revealed truths. Yet St. Thomas does not treat these preambles as one might imagine he would have. Euclid at the start of his science, which is often used as the model of scientific structure and order, opens with a series of definitions, postulates and common notions which will be used in the science, all of which either come to us as per se notum, or are proved in another science. Why would St. Thomas choose not to do this? Why indeed would he spend so many questions going over truths already established in the lower sciences?

Fides quarens intellectum:

“I prayed and understanding was given me; I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. All good things come to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth. I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother. I learned without guile and I impart without grudging. I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for men; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction.” Book of Wisdom from ch. 7

When we study the preambles of faith in St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, we do not hold that such truths are simply inaccessible by human reason. Indeed, there can and should be a science of human reason dedicated to questions about the nature and principle(s) of being. Theology, then, has every right to presuppose the existence of such sciences and even use them when reflecting on revealed truths. Yet St. Thomas does not treat these preambles as one might imagine he would have. Euclid at the start of his science, which is often used as the model of scientific structure and order, opens with a series of definitions, postulates and common notions which will be used in the science, all of which either come to us as per se notum, or are proved in another science. Why would St. Thomas choose not to do this? Why indeed would he spend so many questions going over truths already established in the lower sciences? Could he not rightly presuppose that anyone with the audacity to begin the study of God in Himself, would have carefully considered those things which philosophy could offer: not only the metaphysical preambles, but also those questions about man which seem to so readily be known from the natural philosophy of the soul? He then could say that everything treated of from here on out is based on principles inaccessible to simple reason, but that we can use these philosophical beginnings, not for the sake of proving the articles of faith directly studied herein, but for the sake of enhancing our understanding of them. In so doing he would clearly demarcate where human reason stopped, have the truths brought by the “ancilliae sapientiae” readily available, and not have to waste time reproving things that his students should already know.

Instead, since St. Thomas describes theological inquiry as proceeding from principles held by faith, doesn’t the very inclusion of the metaphysical considerations as articles in a book of theology lend credence to the claims of the Modernists that all such things are beyond the bounds of human reason? Can we say that St. Thomas has already done what Kant championed so many years later, abolishing knowledge to make room for faith? Or rather, has he misled us the opposite way, beginning with things knowable by reason, he proceeds seamlessly through his consideration of God as if each new article builds on the one before, making all of theology a mere development of rational thought? Lest we fall into either error, are we not better contenting ourselves being like little children who enter the kingdom of heaven, memorizing the pious anecdotes from the Baltimore Catechism? For those who wish to be truly holy, they could pursue the hermetic lifestyle, passing all hours of the day striving to reach God through faith and charity, mortifiying their flesh, perpetually and mystically reciting the Sacred name of Jesus. In either case however, ought we all to leave St. Thomas’ convoluted metaphysical studying to the casuistic Jesuits and arrogant theologians, who have abandoned faith for human knowledge?

I do not really expect any serious Catholic, (or even historian) to take seriously the claim that St. Thomas was some closet Kantian who despaired of reason’s efficacy and leaped into a sort of Tertullian like fideism. It’s also true that for most of us we will not be content with either the Baltimore catechism option or the hermit approach. This is not because we should disparage either approach across the board; certain souls reduced by their physical disabilities may indeed be far more a conduit for grace and holiness in their simple adherence to their catechism then I will reach in the midst of all my studies. And as for those souls called to the divine life of the hermit, their life is by far superior to any life of study I may undertake. But in the end most of us do not fall into either camp, but are instead driven by the longings of our soul to reason about the basic precepts of Sacred Doctrine which all believers must hold. They will either do this in a vague confused way, or with a penetrating clarity like that of St. Thomas.

For the sake of these, the Mystical Body of Christ needs faithful to devote their lives to perfecting in themselves the virtue of Sacred Doctrine, through study, for the sake of guiding the rest of the faithful in their reflections on the faith and for combating heresies that may arise due to the poor thinking done on such matters. The Church offers us 33 doctors of the Church, all of whom are said to share by a special grace, in the teaching ministry of Christ Himself. Of these, the Church offers us St. Thomas, as the first and best introductory teacher of the Sacred Doctrine whose purity she safeguards.

Whence, as we try to understand St. Thomas’ consideration of truths known by reason within the book both he and the teaching Church recommend for those beginning the study of Sacred Doctrine, we need to begin with the presumption that he really knew what he was doing, and that the effect is very conducive to our salvation. While apologetic purposes would be a good defense, it seems inappropriate to use that defense for a book which has the purpose not of teaching apologetics, but of leading beginning Christian students to a more perfect habit of Sacred Doctrine.

The first good, then, of St. Thomas’ inclusion of the Metaphysical considerations as questions discussed in the Summa, seems to be the magisterial task of keeping his students from error. And this is done in two ways. One could argue that adopting the Euclidean model of presenting previously proven truths would too strongly suggest to the student that the articles of faith rested on the lower sciences as if upon principles. The second way is that St. Thomas has a chance to catch any philosophical errors up front, since a little error in the beginning could lead to major heresies in the end. So while not strictly proper to the science, the philosophical considerations let the teacher make sure all of his students are the on the same page before reflecting on the central truth of all reality, namely the Trinity.

The second good, is that St. Thomas can model the way in which Sacred Doctrine orders and judges and is in harmony with the other sciences. Since it is obvious from natural reason the way in which metaphysics orders and judges the natural sciences before it, then if one can exemplify how Sacred Doctrine uses metaphysics, the student can then extend this to all knowledge. So when St. Thomas uses a theological authority in a sed contra about a philosophical question, he is modeling how Sacred Doctrine judges the lower truths. In understanding Biblical passages and the teachings of the Church Fathers in accord with certain philosophical truths, St. Thomas stresses to the student that truth is one, and admits of no contradictions within itself between the different sciences. Indeed, since God is the author of creation and revelation, these truths must be in harmony, and if not, there was an error in reasoning or interpreting somewhere along the way.

When he describes certain philosophical truths as preambles to the articles of faith, he teaches us how to order all sciences to Wisdom. He makes clear what it means to be a preamble through the sed contra’s which end each one of the early sections of the Summa, namely: In Question 1, Art. 10, after teaching us how Sacred Doctrine can be a science, St. Thomas reminds us that the words of Scripture transcend all science and are ordered to placing us deeper in the mystery, while the sed contra that concludes the section on our knowledge of God in Q. 12 Art. 13 again instructs the student that we are moving toward a knowledge that no philosopher of this world can know. So at the end of both of these sections the student is called to look to a mystery that transcends human knowing and see that as point of arrival for these preambles. The point of arrival is specified at the end of the other two sections In Question 11 Article 4, “Whether God is the Most One,” we are ending the treatment of the last attribute of God’s substance that St. Thomas treats, so in a sense this article is seen as the culmination of the previous chain of reasoning. (This is not because the article is dependent on the entire chain of articles proceeding; that order could have been supplied by philosophy, this instead is an order that St. Thomas chose as one option out of several possible.) In the sed contra, St. Thomas quotes St. Bernard who tells the student, “Among all things which are called one, the unity of the Holy Trinity is most supreme.” Thus the point of arrival in this series of considerations is the Trinity, our knowledge of God’s unity is no good to our salvation unless we are looking toward His Trinity. And again in concluding the question on Divine Names, St. Thomas reminds us the point of discussing these names: we can truly say and believe that God is three-in-one. What is the great mystery the other sections were looking toward? What is this house to which Wisdom has asked her handmaids to guide us, but to which she alone can open the door? It is none other than the Sacred Mystery of all Reality, the Holy Trinity, and through his ordering and teaching St. Thomas reminds us of this central truth. And the truth and goodness of this ordering is something that is more powerfully compelling to the mind when shown to be present during the course of study than if it only were to be stated as a fact at the beginning.

The third good is accidental to the instruction, but it seems to me that it is still there none the less. While it may be true that human reason can reach the truth of the preambles, it is also true that God’s grace does not simply wrap the human person with faith like a cloak but rather quickens a smoldering wick and strengthens that which is weak. In this case the smoldering weakling is the human intellect darkened by sin. If these natural truths taught by St. Thomas are studied in the context of Wisdom, the student is already inclined to see that even his ability to come to these natural truths is a divine gift. “There is for all mankind one entrance into life and a common departure (Wis. 7:6).” All our existence is marked by original sin, from the pangs of childbirth that bring us forth to the death that ushers us out. So we, in this common sinful state of the human race, respond with Solomon and say, “Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me (Wis. 7: 7.).” It is God who grants us “thoughts worthy of what we have received, for He is the guide even of wisdom, and the corrector of the wise. For both we and our words are in His hand, as [too] our understanding (Wis. 7:15-16).” Even of natural things: knowledge of what exists, the structure of the world, natures, powers and reasonings of men, all things both the manifest by nature, and the secret revealed mysteries alike, have been taught to us by Wisdom, the fashioner of all things (see Wis. 7:17-22). This is not to say that the student’s reason by its nature, even in its darkened state could not come to these natural truths. It is to say, however, knowing his intellect to be damaged by sin, the student should give thanks to God for having strengthened and healed him through the grace that enables him to approach the sacred mysteries with a nature renewed both in power and in knowledge.

The last benefit, I believe is the most fitting and noble reason for St. Thomas to teach us the natural truths he does, whether in the section on preambles, the section of creation, or the section on moral action. We should not read St. Thomas to be writing simply another commentary on the De Anima, the Metaphysics, or the Ethics. St. Thomas believes this to be a theological work, and as such, the tone is different. Our studying these truths in theology is in many ways analogous to Milton’s Eve in Paradise Lost. Now Milton is not one that should normally be quoted either as an authority in theology or in marriage, but in this context the beauty of the subject exceeds the error of the author’s intention. Eve excuses herself as Adam is talking to Raphael and the following justification is given:

“Not as not with such discourse delighted, or not capable her ear of what was high: such pleasures she reserved, Adam relating, she sole auditress; her husband the relater she preferred... and of him to ask chose rather; he she knew would intermix grateful digressions, and solve high dispute, with conjugal caresses, from his lip not words alone pleased her. O when meet now such pairs, in love and mutual honor joined.”

Eve does not leave the study because she is incapable or insufficient to the task, but instead she wishes to learn the truth from her bridegroom’s lips. When taught she will receive it and come to understand it through her reason, and with her intelligence know it through its cause. This does not prevent her, out of charity for her beloved of desiring to hear it first from him. And so it seems that St. Thomas wants us in the Church to wish to learn these truths first from our Bridegroom. We will receive them, and know them through our reason. We do not need our Bridegroom to reveal such things to us, we can indeed come to know them, and even when He does reveal them, our intellect will come to see them in the light of reason. But how we long that He may kiss us with the kisses of His mouth, and how our hearts yearn to be joined to Him in love. So let us first hear that God is from His own mouth (Ego sum qui sum), and hear from Him He does not change (Ego Deus non mutor). Let us learn these natural truths first from our Beloved’s lips that we may enter into Wisdom’s house and dwell therein. For we have loved Him, and desired Him from our youth, and desired Him to take us for His bride, and feed us with the honey from His mouth.

3 Comments:

  1. Frater Asinus said...
    An excellent entrance into the blog Friend!

    Though they would be profuse, I will spare others and your humility by limiting my praises.
    Instead, I would like to emphasize a couple of points that I think you touched upon and possibly stir up some conversation. Most notably I would like to point out that far from some radical Fideism, your article seems to exult the gift of our reason and philosophy. It is not as though philosophy is just the handmaiden of Sacred Doctrine, rather Philosophy is the handmaiden of Sacred Doctrine! What a glorious title and an ineffable delight. Such a privilige and dignity is far beyond what any of the pagan philosophers could have ever hoped to attain. Through this blessed service to her rightful queen philosophy and the principles she brings with her is able to aid in penetrating into the greatest mysteries of the divine.
    This leads me to my second consideration. While it is true that to learn from God all the truths of philosophy is far preferable than any other mode, it is also true that there is a way proper to our nature to learn and to know that God (and St. Thomas as well for that matter) is quite attentive to. We long to know things through their causes. To not see things through their causes would be to leave unfilled one of the greatest desires of men. For as the Philosopher says, "All men desire to know."
    From this, then, we are shown a great truth about fides quaerens intellectum. It is not as though we long only to hold things by faith, for this too shall pass away. Even the most cloistered hermit is not content with this. Instead we desire Charity, and consequently we desire knowledge. To see things through their causes increases Charity, for we know our creator better. It is not that we want to spurn the gift of Faith, given by our redeemer, it is that we long for its fulfillment. One could even say that Faith is for the sake of understanding, which is in its fulfillment is love.
    Therefore, we see that to learn the truth from God's own mouth, means to always study under the light of Faith. Always to study in a way to be mindful always of the Queen of sciences. Our reason is led and enkindled from within by the Divine Light of God.
    "He filled them [men] with knowledge and understanding." (Sirach 17:7)
    Friend of the Bridegroom said...
    Fratre,

    I quite agree with you that faith is for the sake vision, with vision being one of the three dowries the beatified souls are given to adorn their theological virtues and dispose them to the vision of God in Himself. So clearly vision, with the comprehension that corresponds to hope and the fruition that corresponds to charity has to be seen as completing the theological vitrues themselves. The reason I wrote the post was for the sake of considering why something that is not an object of faith would be studied in the Summa. The reference at the end to Eve was not meant to imply that it is better to hold natural truths by faith. If Eve were to really listen to Adam, then she would truly come to understand what he taught her, not thinking it enough to simply think, "Well this is what he said." But in choosing to learn these truths from Adam's lips, Eve is trying to guarantee that whenever she ponders on these truths later on, she will always remember the love that gave rise to their learning, and the spousal intimacy that initiated her into their contemplation. Similary, when I learn natural truths in the Summa, I think that my listening to my Bridegroom really demands that I see such truths in a way proper to my nature, i.e. through reason, but in learning them from His lips, the contemplation of those truths ought always stir up in me a fire of love for my Beloved who has so instructed me, as I lay on his chest and listened to what He said. It is purely theoretical for me to wonder if my reason could have discovered these truths on it's own, for me this knowledge was a gift. Vision may be a dowry of faith, but in this context, my rational knowing of the preambles is a kind of pre-dowry, like an engagement ring. Such a ring glitters with the promise of a more formal union, both in vowed words, (i.e. in faith) and in the mystical consummation. Having received these truths from my Bridegroom, however, I can delight in thinking of the instruction that gave them to me according to my proper mode, much as a young bride delights in recalling how her bridegroom first proposed and placed the ring upon her finger.
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