Differing Verdicts on the Aristotelianization of Theology

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The two strongest critics of Aquinas's claims concerning the scientific nature of theology were Henry of Ghent (d. 1293) and Godfrey of Fontaines (d. c.1309). Henry criti cized Aquinas from an Augustinian perspective. This does not mean that Henry neglected Aristotle. Indeed, he knew him exceptionally well and this is most evident in his criticism of Aquinas's claim that theology is a subalternated science, a science sub-alternated to the knowledge that God and the blessed have of the divine, and a knowledge revealed by God through his prophets and evangelists. What it does mean is that Henry tells you exactly what Aristotle meant by subalternated science and how his theory of subalternation is not applicable to the God of the Scriptures.

Henry analyzes in detail the meaning of subalternation and studies each of the examples of subalternation that Aristotle provides in his Posterior Analytics. He attempts to show that they do not fit the case of Christian theology. The essential characteristic of Aristotle's discussion of subalternation according to Henry is that the sub-alternating science presents the why (scientia propter quid) of that of which the subalternated science presents the that (scientia quia). Knowledge of the why of something, according to Aristotle, is attained by reasoning. God, however, does not reason. So, it cannot be the case that God's knowledge is superior to man's knowledge because He reasons about the why of things, while we humans only know the that of reality. In brief, from Henry's perspective, Aristotle's theory of subalternation follows a human model that does not fit the divine way of knowing. It is not applicable to the actuality of the triune God's knowledge and its relationship to the truth He has revealed to us.

Godfrey of Fontaines criticizes Aquinas from an Aristotelian viewpoint. He is strongly critical of Aquinas, with whom he generally has great sympathies. In the present case, however, where he evaluates Thomas's theory of the subalternation of theology, he distinguishes acutely between the certitude of evidence (found in philosophy) and the certitude of belief or conviction (found in those who accept the Scriptures as God's revealed word). He then argues:

To say, therefore, that the principles of theology are only believed and not known or understood, and thus possessing only the certitude of conviction, still produce scientific certitude in the conclusions drawn from them is to say that the conclusions are better known than the principles, namely, that the conclusions have the twofold certitude of evidence and conviction while the principles have only the latter one. Now this is to say contradictory things and it harms on a large scale theology and its teachers to propose such fictitious claims concerning it to those entering upon its study.

Both Henry and Godfrey disagree with Thomas Aquinas's theory of the subalternation of university theology to the knowledge of God and the blessed. If both fight against Aquinas, they fight even more against one another. Henry begins the battle against Godfrey by affirming the implications of the latter's critique of Aquinas:

It is an absolutely startling thing that in every other university faculty the teachers attempt to praise their science to the extent that this is possible. It is only certain theologians, who in order that they might seem to praise philosophy, put down theology, asserting that it is not a science and that the true things that we believe cannot really be made intelligible in the present life. Such people shut off for themselves any road toward knowing and understanding the truths of the faith, and they fill others with despair of coming to understand them. This is an extremely pernicious approach and it is harmful to the Church and a dangerous position.

Godfrey's position itself at this stage of his explanation is quite limited. It centers mainly on how a theologian and a simple believer differ in their faith. Both believe and accept the truths of the faith because of their belief. If there is any difference between the two types of believer then it consists in the theologian's superior knowledge of the Scriptures: he can tell you the Scriptural warrants for affirming the Trinity of persons, or the Incarnation of the Son of God, or the divine production of creatures. The theologian's knowledge is a science of the Scriptures (scientia sacrae Scripturae).

For Henry, Godfrey's portrait of the theologian is too weak. Godfrey, according to Henry, makes theology a science of texts, not a science of the realities of which the Scriptures speak. Henry claims that some theologians receive extra help from God to understand the realities of which the Scriptures speak. This special light, according to Henry, is a middle light (lumen medium) between the light of faith and the light of glory. Certainly, it presupposes the light of faith, but it also permits a theologian to go beyond simple faith to some understanding of its mysteries. It does not provide the kind of evidence that we can anticipate in the light of glory, but it does give some evidence of the realities in which we believe. We can sense the presence of this middle light in Augustine, Hugh of Saint-Victor, and many other theologians. They do not simply cite Scriptural texts; they manifest a certain grasp of the realities of the faith. No one reading their works could fail to see that they are talking about the triune God, not just about Scriptural texts.

Godfrey, perhaps in response to Henry's critique, will return to a theology that attempts to gain some knowledge of the realities of the faith. Nonetheless, he continues to stress that theology is based on faith, not on evidence. He will search for analogies to bring some understanding of the mysteries of faith, but he always underscores the fact that theologians have a science of the faith (scientia fidei). If we measure our knowledge according to evidence, then philosophy is superior to theology. If we measure it in terms of certitude, then theology is superior to philosophy, since our theological knowledge depends on God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, whereas our natural knowledge can at times go astray. Yet, by the very fact that we search for examples and analogies taken from philosophical experience, we admit the superiority of evidence found in our natural knowledge - we use it to go from the known (natural objects) to the unknown (revealed objects of faith).

Henry has a very different theory of knowledge. For him, God is the first thing known and it is in light of divine illumination that we know creatures as creatures and not just as objects that are unexplainably present before us. God is not the first reality we know explicitly, but when we examine what we do know and examine it deeply, we realize that we could know nothing without the assistance of the divine light. It is parallel to the case of our seeing. We assume that we first know the varied colored things that appear to our senses. Only later do we realize that without the light of the sun, we would be able to see nothing. We are not first conscious of the light, but we realize later that we could see nothing without it. A fortiori is it the case with the objects of faith for the theologian: he would see nothing divine if it were not for the middle light. And just as we are not aware of the light of faith, but we do believe because of it, so we are not aware of the middle light of theological understanding, but it is by its assistance that theologians come to understand the realities or mysteries of the faith. Henry, then, is more protective of mystical experiences and special graces than Godfrey ever would be. Certainly, the latter would admit that revelation is a special grace, but he tends to limit the actuality of such special graces to Scriptural revelation. He places strong question marks over claims for special lights for theologians. Thus, he accuses Henry of a certain haughtiness and presumption. For sure, he is convinced that neither he nor many other theologians have such a special middle light between the lights of faith and glory. For Godfrey, theology is hard intellectual work.

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