ST and Sacra Doctrina

At the end of his Prologue, Aquinas introduces a fourth term into his complex identity claim, when he says that in ST he is going 'to pursue the things that pertain to sacra doctrina', thereby introducing his preferred designation for the subject of theology as he handles it in ST. The term may be, and sometimes has been, translated literally as'holy teaching', and it's only natural that the designation he prefers for the subject-matter of this textbook should allude to teaching. But what Aquinas means exactly by sacra doctrina has been the subject of many learned studies and disputes, partly because he himself devotes the ten Articles of ST's first Question to considering 'what it is like and what things it covers'

end p.32


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved

14 See e.g. van Ackeren 1952, which contains a very full bibliography of relevant literature; also Jordan 1986a, which contains a valuable bibliography of more recent relevant items.

I think that its status as a controverted technical term in ST warrants my leaving it in Latin, and that my purposes here excuse me from getting deeply involved in the controversy, which often loses sight of the plain fact that when Aquinas introduces sacra doctrina in the Prologue, he does so in a way that identifies it explicitly with universal truth and the things that pertain to the Christian religion, and implicitly with the subject of theology.

The very first Article of ST's very first Question makes it clear at once that it is not natural theology that ST is a summa of, since the Article begins by asking whether we need any sother teaching, besides philosophical studies (philosophicas disciplinas)', the studies that medieval beginners in theology would have just completed in the university's arts faculty. The question arises because philosophical studies are characterized not only as dealing with 'the things that are subject to reason' (obj. 1) but also as encompassing 'all beings, including God', as a consequence of which 'part of philosophy is called theology' (obj. 2). Although Aquinas of course accepts this characterization of philosophy's subject-matter as universal and as including a part that is properly called theology, he offers several arguments to support his claim that his sacra doctrina, specifically different from philosophy, is none the less not superfluous.

One particularly pertinent argument among those he offers makes no essential use of any religious considerations. He begins this argument by claiming that a thing's 'capacity for being cognized in various ways (diversa ratio cognoscibiiis) brings about a difference between sciences'. He means that different sciences can reason to some of the same conclusions on the basis of different premisses or evidence. In his example, he points out that in order to support the proposition that the earth is round, a naturalist uses empirical observations {per medium circa materiam consideratum), while a cosmologist supports that same proposition on a strictly formal basis (per medium mathematicum, idest a materia abstractum). 'And for that reason', he concludes, 'nothing prevents the same things from being treated by philosophical studies in so far as they can be cognized by the light of natural reason and also end p.33


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved by another science in so far as they are cognized by the light of divine revelation. That's why the theology that pertains to sacra doctrina differs in kind from the theology that is considered a part of philosophy' (ad 2). From my point of view, he is arguing in this passage for the academic legitimacy of revealed theology alongside the established philosophical study, natural theology, and he is taking the practitioner of revealed theology, who is dependent on the data of revelation, to be analogous to the empirical scientist. For all he says in this argument, he might appear to be willing to concede that revealed and natural theology differ only in this methodological respect, that they simply constitute two radically different ways of approaching the very same propositions about God and everything else.

But, of course, he wouldn't concede that. There are propositions that belong uniquely to sacra doctrina's subject-matter just because of its specific difference from philosophy as regards starting-points and because of what one can get from those starting-points. This is clear from the body of Article 1, Aquinas's affirmative reply to the question of whether there is a need for another sort of teaching in addition to philosophical studies. He identifies the need in a peculiarly persuasive form, claiming that for human well-being,

especially for human salvation,

15 The Latin behind this bit of my paraphrase is just ad humanam saiutem. I think the humana saius at issue here is broader than salvation as it is understood within Christian doctrine, but I also think that Aquinas's point depends on stressing that religious sense of the phrase.

it is necessary 'that there be teaching based on and in accord with divine revelation, in addition to philosophical studies, which are explored by human reason' without those special data. And as if to emphasize sacra doctrina's reliance on revealed propositions, the first reason Aquinas gives as to why human well-being could not be left in the charge of unaided human reason is itself derived from revelation: 'The human being is designed by God for a final purpose of a sort that is beyond reason's power of comprehension, according to Isaiah 64[: 4]: "without you, O God, no eye has seen what you

have prepared for those who love you".

16 The Latin text Aquinas provides is: oculus non vidit Deus absque te, quae praeparasti diligentibus te. For diligentibus the Vulgate has expectantibus, which makes no difference relevant to Aquinas's point. The Douay translates absque te as 'besides thee', which strikes me as obliterating his point.

But the final purpose has to be made known at the outset to human beings, who must direct their intentions and actions toward end p.34


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved it.' So some propositions of Christian doctrine—for instance, that God became man—cannot be initially acquired by reason, yet are required for human well-being. Those propositions, at least, must be revealed to human beings by the one who, according to revelation, designed them for a kind of well-being that surpasses their reason's comprehension. And, of course, no doctrinal proposition that is initially available to human beings only in virtue of having been revealed by God can be part of natural theology's subject-matter.

On the other hand, no propositions appropriate to natural theology are excluded from revealed theology: the propositions that belong to natural theology form a proper subset of those that belong to sacra doctrina. 'It was necessary that human beings be instructed by divine revelation even as regards the things about God that human reason can explore. For the truth about God investigated by a few on the basis of reason [without relying on revelation] would emerge for people [only] after a long time and tainted with many mistakes. And yet all human well-being, which has to do with God, depends on the cognition of that truth. Therefore, it was necessary for human beings to be instructed about divine matters through divine revelation so that [the nature of human] well-being might emerge for people more conveniently and with greater certainty' (la.1.1c). Several features of this argument are worth picking out for my purposes.

Notice, for instance, that we now have plainly in view a traditional, unmistakable description of the subject of theology: 'the truth about God'. And, as he says a little further on, 'the discussion carried on in this science is about God, for it is called "theologia", which means the same as "discourse about God". Therefore, God is the subject of this science' (la.1.7, sc). Concern with God or the truth about God might seem too narrow for the conception of theology as a species of Grandest Unified Theory, but only until we find out what Aquinas thinks that that truth includes, as we've already done to some extent in seeing what he means by catholica Veritas. When he sums up his examination of sacra doctrina, he says that its 'main aim ... is to transmit a cognition of God, and not only as he is in himself, but also as he is the source of [all] things, and their goal—especially of the rational creature' (la.2, intro.). And so the subject-matter of sacra doctrina, the theology presented in this summa of theology, is the truth about everything, with two end p.35

Kretzmann, Norman , (deceased) formerly Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Cornell University, New York

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  • clementina
    What is sacra doctrina?
    8 years ago

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