This is part of an ongoing series in which I read and interpret Thomas Aquinas’s SUMMA THEOLOGICA for butt joke aficionados. See this post for more information.
Hey guys. Long time no see.
I let this thing slide for a while, because I was pretty busy with the launch of my existential horror novel and my new column at Christianity Today (look at me, I’m famous), but try as I might, I just can’t quit the Summa. The more time I spend online, the more I realize that what the interwebz need now is Aquinas, sweet Aquinas. (Either that, or more self-righteous screaming matches.)
So let’s get started!
I, Q. 1, Art. 4:
Whether Sacred Doctrine Is a Practical Science?
As I understand it, “practical science” is roughly equivalent to what we might call “applied science” in modern parlance. An “applied science” is a field of knowledge oriented toward human action as opposed to data gathering: for instance, astrophysics is a theoretical science that gathers data about the universe; space exploration is an applied science that applies data from astrophysics and other fields toward getting us to Mars.
Seriously, where are my colonies on Mars, NASA? You promised.
Objection 1: It seems that sacred doctrine is a practical science; for a practical science is that which ends in action according to the Philosopher (Metaph. ii). But sacred doctrine is ordained in action: “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). Therefore sacred doctrine is a practical science.
In other words, theology is a practical science because it’s oriented toward right behavior, not just abstract knowledge of God. In that sense, though, is there any science that’s not a practical science? We’ve always studied astrophysics so that we could go to Mars someday, right?
TAKE ME TO MARS, NASA. I WANT MY MARS COLONY.
Obj. 2: Further, sacred doctrine is divided into the Old and the New Law. But law implies a moral science which is a practical science. Therefore sacred doctrine is a practical science.
This objection gets into some technical Christian theology that might be outside of the knowledge of many readers, so bear with me.
When Aquinas refers to the “Old Law,” what he means is the Law given to Moses — the Ten Commandments, plus all the other rules and regulations in the Torah, under which Israel would serve God.
The “New Law” is the new relationship between God and creation instituted in Christ and the Church — animal sacrifice was no longer required, because Christ’s death on the cross was the final and ultimate sacrifice. Circumcision was no longer required because, eeeww, and also because baptism was the sign of the new covenant.
Many Protestants will differ from this understanding somewhat, so your mileage may vary here.
On the contrary, Every practical science is concerned with human operations; as moral science is concerned with human acts, and architecture with buildings. But sacred doctrine is chiefly concerned with God, whose handiwork is especially man. Therefore it is not a practical but a speculative science.
In other words, are we studying God for God’s own sake, or so that we can make ourselves right with God? The smart reader will say, “…both? …I guess?”
For a mundane example, I want to know my wife well so that I can serve her, make her happy, say nice things about her butt, etc. — but I also want to know her well because I like her and just want to know her, for knowing’s own sake.
So the science of my wife (“wifeology”) is both practical and speculative.
And hey, guess what Aquinas says about theology…
I answer that, Sacred doctrine, being one, extends to things which belong to different philosophical sciences because it considers in each the same formal aspect, namely, so far as they can be known through divine revelation. Hence, although among the philosophical sciences one is speculative and another practical, nevertheless sacred doctrine includes both; as God, by one and the same science knows both Himself and His works.
Aquinas’s answer, then, is that sacred doctrine is a broad enough science that it includes both speculative and practical aspects. Since theology contains anything and everything revealed divinely, we should expect it to be complicated like that.
Still, it is speculative rather than practical because it is more concerned with divine things than with human acts; though it does treat even of these latter, inasmuch as man is ordained by them to the perfect knowledge of God in which consists eternal bliss.
So, Aquinas says it’s better to think of theology as a speculative science, because the focus should be on knowledge of God — kind of like I should want to know my wife because she’s pretty cool and I like her, not simply because I don’t want to make her mad.
I actually do want to make her mad. So.
This is a sufficient answer to the Objections.
If you say so, Aquinas.