Summa Theologiae 1, q. 1

Article 1: Is it necessary to have a doctrine over and beyond the philosophical disciplines? 
Article 6: Does sacred doctrine constitute wisdom?  
Article 2: Is sacred doctrine a science (scientia)?
Article 7: Is God the subject of the science of sacred doctrine?
Article 3: Is sacred doctrine a single science?
Article 8: Does sacred doctrine make use of arguments?
Article 4: Is sacred doctrine a practical science?
Article 9: Should Sacred Scripture make use of metaphors?
Article 5: Is sacred doctrine more noble than the other sciences? Article 10: Does Sacred Scripture have multiple senses underlying a single passage?

Article 1: Is it necessary to have a  doctrine over and beyond the philosophical disciplines?

The objections here point to the alleged fact that (a) in their methodology the philosophical sciences exhaust the range of reason and (b) in their subject matter the philosophical disciplines exhaust the range of being.  Hence, there is nothing more for any other science to be about, and there would be no mode of cognition capable of approaching it even if there were something else to be talked about.

St. Thomas answers both counts in one fell swoop:  Our ultimate happiness or flourishing (which amounts to salvation in our postlapsarian state) requires a sort of knowledge about God and his actions that is not accessible in itself to our natural cognitive faculties.  Furthermore, even though we can have some inadequate cognition of God through natural reason, the possibility of this knowledge depends on a few very talented philosophers who would come to it only after a long time and with error mixed in with it.  But this is insufficient, because it is desperately important to us to be able to order our actions and intentions--in short, our lives--in a way that will lead us to true happiness.

So we stand in need of God's self-revelation both with regard to what is in principle inaccessible to us (the articles or mysteries of the faith) and with regard to what is in principle accessible to us through natural reason (the preambles of the faith).  Hence, there is a forum for intellectual inquiry that takes us beyond what reason can devise on its own and that is based on God's self-revelation.

Article 2: Is sacred doctrine a science (scientia)?

What's more, there can be a science--in the sense in which this term is used by the classical philosophers, especially Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics--with respect to divine revelation.  That is, what sacred doctrine does is to systematize the contents of divine revelation in such a way that, beginning from starting points or first principles many of which are revealed to us by God, we can proceed by way of argument to exhibit the inner coherence of this revelation along with its metaphysical and moral implications.

The main objection to this claim has to do with the starting points.  Shouldn't the starting points of a science be epistemically firm and known in themselves, apart from their relation to other propositions?  But how can this be the case with sacred doctrine if some of its starting points are inaccessible to us except through revelation?

In reply, St. Thomas points out that even most of the sciences devised by human reason take their starting points from conclusions in higher sciences on which they are dependent.  That is, they take for granted starting points that are not evident in themselves but have been proved in higher sciences to which they are epistemically subordinate.  This is just the way it is with sacred doctrine.  Its starting points are, as it were, borrowed from the knowledge (scientia) had by God Himself and those rational creatures who see God face-to-face in the beatific vision.  So sacred doctrine is related to this higher science (which is simple and non-discursive, a sort of limiting case for science as we know it) in the way that, say, the science of music is related to the mathematical sciences.

Furthermore, even though sacred doctrine treats the particulars of salvation history, its principal objects are stable and eternal general truths about God and His dealings with us.  (This is in part why the philosophical sciences are important to theology.  Theology must by its nature be systematic if it is to fulfill its task of making known the truth of the faith in an ordered and comprehensive manner, and extra-Christian philosophy has historically provided models of science and scientific methodology, along with many substantive philosophical concepts and conclusions, that can aid sacred doctrine in its task.)

Article 3: Is sacred doctrine a single science?

The problem here arises from the fact that sacred doctrine seems to talk about a range of things that are treated in diverse philosophical sciences.  If it were a single comprehensive system covering everything, this would seem to make it too disparate to fulfill its task.  Thus, the objection goes, we must think of it as a series of sciences related to each other in a way that mirrors the relations among the philosophical disciplines.

This is really an important question once we consider the tendency of the philosophical disciplines toward fragmentation.  This situation seems to exist today; for instance -- and unfortunately -- hardly anyone nowadays seems to think that there is a symbiotic relationship between, say, metaphysics and ethics or between metaphysics and natural science.  So when St. Thomas defends the unity of sacred doctrine, he is really defending at the same time a classical conception of the unity of the philosophical disciplines.  However, this does not commit him to any form of reductionism; rather, it commits him to the claim that the metaphysical and moral aspects of sacred doctrine will fit together in a coherent and mutually reinforcing way.

In any case, St. Thomas's reply is that the unity of a science depends on the sameness of  formal object throughout the science.  And the formal object of sacred doctrine is that which is subject to divine revelation.  This gives unity to sacred doctrine as a whole.

Article 4: Is sacred doctrine a practical science?

This article is just a continuation of the last one.  To the extent that revelation includes moral and political truths, it is a practical science.  However, it is principally a speculative or theoretical science in that our understanding of practical human affairs is dealt with insofar as it fits into the cognition of divine things that God has revealed to us.  More precisely, since it is face-to-face knowledge of God that constitutes ultimate human beatitude or flourishing, even the practical aspect of sacred doctrine is ordered to the speculative aspect.

Article 5: Is sacred doctrine more noble than the other sciences?

Nobility as defined here and by the classical philosophers is a function of the ultimacy of the end of the science.  In this sense, sacred doctrine is the most noble of the sciences.  However, at first it might not seem that sacred doctrine can play this role.  For the first element involved in playing this role is certitude; that is, the classical philosophers take it for granted that greater certitude goes with more ultimacy.  But sacred doctrine seems to have less certitude than, say, metaphysics (at least in principle).  The second factor is independence or autonomy.  But sacred doctrine seems to borrow from other sciences, and this seems once again inconsistent with its being concerned with the most ultimate end.

No problem, replies St. Thomas.  The certitude of sacred doctrine comes from the sunlight of God's revelation rather than from the 60-watt light bulb of human reason.  (This is so despite the fact that we intellectually defective cave-dwellers might not be able to take in the sunlight and might have doubts about what it reveals.)  Furthermore, the "borrowing" is not of first principles which sacred doctrine absolutely needs in order to do its job, but rather of subsidiary concepts, theories, etc., which help in the derivations and clarifications characteristic of philosophical inquiry.  Such borrowing is a function of the fact that our mode of understanding moves from sensible things to intelligible things.  This is a constant theme in St. Thomas's work and one that must be taken with absolute seriousness if we are to understand his mode of proceeding.  For instance, it is this very mode of understanding that helps explain why the Summa begins in q. 2 with the proofs of God's existence by natural reason.  Even God's revelation is such that it presupposes, and has to mesh with, our natural mode of understanding.

An interesting sidelight to this last comment is that it opens up space for competing attempts to systematize revealed truth and to gain insight into it.  Especially given the elevated and intellectually elusive nature of the content of revelation, it is to be expected that any such attempt, while falling short of the ideal, will nonetheless add something to the ongoing communal project of systematizing Christian doctrine.  This is a point made by Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio.

Article 6: Does sacred doctrine constitute wisdom?

What St. Thomas argues here is that sacred doctrine best fulfills the definition of wisdom, since (a) it is about divine things, (b) it judges in terms of the absolute first causes, and (c) it stands in judgment on the other sciences.

This status is not undermined by the fact that sacred doctrine takes its first principles from the science had by God and the blessed; a problem would arise only if it depended on some human science for its first principles.  Again, it is not the task of sacred doctrine to prove the principles of other sciences, but simply to stand in judgment on them.  (Question:  What status do metaphysical principles such as the principle of non-contradiction have within sacred doctrine?)

Finally, St. Thomas makes the important distinction between being wise by way of inclination (i.e., having the gift of the Holy Spirit called wisdom) and being wise by way of cognition (i.e., being a theological inquirer).  It is the latter that sacred doctrine aims at, though how far it can get without the former is an interesting question -- not too far, I think, especially in moral theory.  In fact, this very distinction invites the question of how the saint and the philosopher are related, and whether it is better, all other things being equal, to be both a saint and a philosopher rather than just to be a saint without being a philosopher.

Article 7: Is God the subject of the science of sacred doctrine?

The reason for hesitation here is that we don't even have a real definition of God which would serve as the minimal conceptual grasp needed to begin building a science about God.  In addition, sacred doctrine talks about lots of things that are not God but creatures instead.  So how can God be its subject?

No problem, replies St. Thomas.  First of all, it is perfectly obvious that God is the principal subject of sacred doctrine, since everything else this doctrine talks about is such that it is talked about in its relation to God.  This is what he means by saying that the formal characteristic under which things are talked about in sacred doctrine is God.  Second, in sacred doctrine we use God's effects in place of a real definition, just as in other disciplines we often use the subject's effects in place of a real definition.   To be sure, it is more desirable to attain a knowledge of a cause's essence, and this we will do (we hope) in the next life.  But sacred doctrine is the best we can do in this life.

Article 8: Does sacred doctrine make use of arguments?

Like any other science, sacred doctrine makes use of arguments, beginning with its first principles and moving on to its conclusions.  However, there seems to be a wariness of such argumentative style among believers.  This may take the form either of a general uneasiness about using arguments where, in one sense, they seem inappropriate to the subject matter.  Or it may be a worry, like that expressed in the second objection, that the arguments will be weak ones, proceeding either from authority, the weakest of all types of argument, or from reason, which is inappropriate as a source of first principles for sacred doctrine.

St. Thomas first of all points out that the first principles peculiar to sacred doctrine come from revelation, and so in this sense all arguments in sacred doctrine proceed from the authority of that revelation.  However, since the authority involved is God's as a truth-teller and not mere human reason, the first principles are more firm and trustworthy than anything delivered up by natural reason, i.e., any first principles or conclusions in the other sciences.  (We should note here the ordering of the authorities that St. Thomas uses.  First of all, the very fact that he makes use of authorities shows that his notion of philosophical inquiry differs from that of the enlightenment philosophers.  Second, there is a strict ordering, with Sacred Scripture accorded the highest place, and then the Fathers of the Church, and then various theological and philosophical writers.   You should pay attention to the writers cited on various topics.  Augustine is the one cited most frequently.)

Now as long as an adversary concedes the authenticity of the Catholic claim to revelation, arguments can be used to show that he misreads Sacred Scripture or that an article of faith he denies is necessarily connected with other articles that he assents to.  Even in cases where the adversary concedes none of the first principles, it is still possible to show that his arguments against the faith are not demonstrative.  This follows from the fact that something false cannot be demonstrated and the fact that divine revelation cannot be in error.

One might also add, as St. Thomas does in Summa Contra Gentiles 1, chap. 8, that God is the author both of divine revelation and of our natural cognitive faculties, so that neither can be systematically misleading.  It follows that naturally known first principles cannot be false and, consequently, cannot entail what is false.  (This is so, even though an individual's grasp of a first principle or conclusion might not have the highest degree of certitude.)  But given the unquestioned veracity of divine revelation, it follows that nothing contrary to what is revealed can be demonstrated from naturally known first principles.  Any purported demonstration of the contrary of a revealed truth cannot be a genuine demonstration.  Hence, it is in principle possible to find some logical or substantive flaw in such an argument.  Of course, it does not follow that just any Christian is capable of detecting the relevant flaw.  This is one reason it is important for the Church as a community to cultivate the study of philosophy and to make sure that a sufficient number of those who are capable of philosophical inquiry become philosophical inquirers.

It is also worth pondering the analogy St. Thomas draws in the reply to the second objection:  "Nonetheless, sacred doctrine uses human reason as well—not, to be sure, in order to prove the faith, since this would destroy the meritoriousness of faith, but rather to make clear certain other things that are dealt with in this doctrine.  For since grace perfects nature and does not destroy it, natural reason must serve the faith, just as the natural inclination of the will likewise serves charity.  This is why in 2 Corinthians 10:5 the Apostle says, "..... bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ."  How exactly does the natural inclination of the will serve charity?  By directing us toward the good for human beings.  Even though we do not have the supernatural love of God by nature, this love, which we receive as a gift from God, brings to fulfillment the desire for beatitude or perfection that we have by nature.  In the same way, our intellect is inclined toward truth, and the gift of faith is the fulfillment of our natural inclination for saving truth, an inclination which provides us with or leads us to the first principles of the philosophical disciplines and which can lead us to some of the truth that God has revealed to us.

Article  9: Should Sacred Scripture make use of metaphors?

The problem here is that, on the surface, metaphorical language seems to be too inexact and inexplicit to be of use in a higher science.  Moreover, if we are to learn anything about God by comparing creatures to Him, then it seems that we should at least compare the most noble corporeal beings (e.g., celestial bodies) to him rather than lowly beings (e.g., rocks, fortresses, lions, soft breezes, etc.)

From St. Thomas's perspective, the use of various figures of speech (metaphors, similes, parables) is God's way of trying to accommodate our understanding of Him to our way of knowing things--both in general (given the weakness of even the most acute human intellects--"for what He is not is clearer to us than what He is") and in the case of simple people without a lot of philosophical sophistication.  St. Thomas insists, however, that what is said metaphorically in one place in Scripture is always expounded more explicitly in other places.

Furthermore, it was important that God use comparisons with lowly creatures to teach us about Himself, since no one will be tempted to take such metaphors non-metaphorically.  This might not have been the case with some people if he had used the more noble corporeal creatures, e.g., the sun, instead.

This chapter helps explain a few otherwise puzzling things that occur in the next few questions.  Why prove the existence of God, if God's existence is already part of revelation?  Why bother to prove God's simplicity and perfection, if these doctrines -- or key elements of them -- are already among the articles of the faith?  The fact is that we need help in understanding and interpreting divine revelation.  In particular, we need to be able to distinguish literal from metaphorical attributions of properties to God.  To some extent, we can do this by an internal comparison of seemingly conflicting Scriptural attributions and an attempt to discern the sense of what Scripture is saying about God.  But this task is aided by, and indeed demands, a philosophical articulation of God's nature -- at least one that proceeds by way of denying of God various imperfections found in creatures.  This is in essence the role of questions 2-4 in particular and of questions 2-11 in general.

Article 10: Does Sacred Scripture have multiple senses underlying a single passage?

Here St. Thomas gives an orderly account of the different senses of Scripture.  The foundational sense is the literal or historical sense, though even here we have to be careful about how we identify this sense.  (See reply to obj. 3 on parabolic speech.)

Given this basic sense, the other (so-called spiritual senses) fall into place:

  • When something in the Old Testament is understood to be a type or figure of something in the New Testament, there is the allegorical sense.  So, for instance, many things that happen to Joseph in the book of Genesis are figures of Christ; the passover is a figure of Christ's sacrifice and of the Mass, etc. 
  • When something in either Testament is put before us for imitation in our lives, this is the moral or tropological sense.
  • When something prefigures eternal glory, this is the anagogical sense.  (Take, for instance, the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey to the Israelites.)