Philosophy and Theology

No one can doubt that Thomas admired pagan philosophers both for their zeal in inquiry and for their way of life. He praises the philosophic pursuit of contemplation, just as he holds up the philosopher's abandonment of earthly goods.5 But Thomas also diagnoses the origin of philosophic contemplation as self-love, and so distinguishes it sharply from Christian contemplation.6 The philosopher's asceticism is not the Christian's, since the Christian must renounce worldly goods for the sake of Christ.7 The philosophers seek authority by dispute, while the Lord teaches believers to come peacefully under a divinely constituted authority.8 Philosophers offer a dozen causes for the arrangement of the cosmos, but the believer knows that divine providence has arranged the world so that human beings might have a home.9

If these appear to be only scattered or incidental remarks, the reader should turn to Thomas's explicit judgments on the doctrines and the promises of the philosophers. He judges that their doctrines were severely constrained by the weakness of human reason. Before general audiences, Thomas is reported to have said that all the efforts of the philosophers were inadequate to understand the essence of a fly.10 In academic writings, whenever Thomas argues for the appropriateness of God's revealing what might have been demonstrated, he insists on the weakness and fallibility of unaided human reason.11 He notes the same failings in distinguishing philosophical and theological knowledge about God.12 He judges philosophy's promises even more harshly. Pagan philosophy presented itself as love of the best knowledge of the highest things, that is, as a way toward happiness. Yet philosophy could not provide it. The ancient philosophers multiplied views on the human good but they could not achieve it.13 Philosophers were

5 On philosophic poverty, see Summa theol. 1—2.186.3 ad 3, 188.7 ad 5. Compare Contra impugn. 2.5 and a passage from the sermon "Beatus gens, cuius est dominus . .. / Multis modis sancta mater ecclesia . . .." In Expos. Post. 2.8, Aquinas follows Aristotle in seeing philosophy as a remedy for the loss of material goods.

7 Catena aurea: in Matt. 19.2.

8 Sermon "Beati qui habitant in domo . .. / Unam esse societatem Dei et ..." 3.

10 Coll. Symb. Apost. prol.

11 Scriptum Sent. 1. prol. 1, Super De Trin. 3.1; De verit. 14.10; Contra gent. 1.4—5; Summa theol. 1.1.1, where he summarizes his view by saying that philosophic truths about God were discovered "by a few, and over a long time, and with the admixture of many errors."

12 Super De Trin. 2.2, 5.4. See also the contrasts between the philosopher's wisdom and the Christian's in Summa theol. 2—2.19.7.

13 See, for example, Super De Trin. 3.3, 6.4; Contra gent. 3.48; Comp. theol. 1.104; Summa theol. 1—2.3.6.

unable to convince even their fellow citizens, because they could not offer a teaching about life that was firm, comprehensive, and useful.14 No philosopher had enough wisdom to call men back from error; instead they led many into error.15 The philosophers could not avoid sin, because they could not undergo the unique purification of the true worship of God, which begins in the philosophically unknowable coming of Christ.16

Thomas gathers these observations into a handful of contrasts. Frequently he draws a line between what the philosophers think or say and what "we" believers say.17 He makes the contrast clear when he constructs a trichotomy of philosophy, the Law of the Old Testament, and the Gospel of the New. The light of philosophy was false; the light of the law was symbolic; the light of the Gospel is true.18 Again, philosophy is "earthly" and "carnal" wisdom, "according to the natures of things and the desires of the flesh"; "we" Christians live rather by grace.19 It cannot be a surprise, then, that Thomas glosses the Scriptural condemnation of secular pretension as applying specifically to philosophers, or that he groups philosophers with heretics as opponents to the faith.20

Nevertheless, Thomas uses philosophic texts and teachings. He urges their study on writers of theology. How can this be? He explains or justifies the appropriation by what he likens to a miraculous change in philosophical teaching: "those who use philosophical texts in holy teaching, by subjugating them to faith, do not mix water with wine, but turn water into wine."21 "Subjugating" philosophy to theology means several things. First, the theologian takes truth from philosophers as from usurpers.22 The ground of philosophic truth is the revealing God who is more fully and accurately described in theology. Theology serves, second, as a constant corrective to philosophy. As Thomas puts it in one of his sermons, "Faith can do more than philosophy in much; so that if philosophy is contrary to faith, it is not to be accepted."23 Again, in a commentary on Paul, he turns aside to raise a

14 Catena aurea: in Matt. 13.3.

17 For example, Scriptum Sent. 2.3.3.2; Summa theol. 2-2.19.7.

18 Lect. loan. 1.5. Compare the triplet "light of prophecy," "light of faith," and "light of reason" in Expos. Isaiam 6.1 and the contrast from Avicenna between the way of speaking "among the philosophers" and "in the Law" at Scriptum Sent. 2.14.1.3.

19 Expos. Pauli: in 2 Cor. 1.4 on 2 Cor. 1:12, where he is paraphrasing Paul.

20 On pretension, Expos. Isaiam 19; Summa theol. 1.12.13 sed contra, 32.1 ad 1; on heretics, Scriptum Sent. 2.14.1.3; Summa theol. 2-2.2.10 ad 3.

22 Expos. Pauli: in 1 Cor. 1.3, following Augustine.

23 Sermon "Attendite a falsis prophetis, qui . .. / Duo esse in verbis istis ..." 2.

general objection: "Are the reasoning and the traditions of men always to be rejected?" He answers, "No, but rather when matter-bound reasoning proceeds according to them and not according to Christ."24 To proceed "according to Christ" requires, third, that the impure motives of philosophy - vanity, contentiousness, arrogance - be transformed into the motives of the Christian believer. Philosophical inquiries ought always to serve a theological end. Applied to texts, this rule requires that philosophical argumentation start and go forward only from the believer's motive of the twofold love of God and neighbor.

If procedural admonitions are somehow helpful, they remain abstract. To see how Thomas enacts them one has to study moments when he changes philosophy into theology. I turn to the Summa s definition of the virtues and to its analysis of sacramental efficacy as examples of how Thomas converts the water of philosophy into the wine of theology.25

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment