Does Studying Theology Make Us Certain?

Those who are familiar with Thomas Aquinas know that he begins the Summa Theologica (his magnum opus) with the question as to how one can go about studying theology. In article two of that question, he asks whether theology is a science, and to answer, he makes a critical distinction so that he can answer that theology is, in one way at least, a science, thus making the Summa itself a work of science:

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.

In other words, theology is a science, Aquinas says, if we understand it as a sort of “subalternated” science which derives its first principles from another science. Unlike other subalterated sciences like music or optics, however, theology derives its first principles from a non-demonstrable science. Godfrey of Fontaines explains why this is so:

[I]f theology were truly and properly a science after the model of a subalternated science in relation to a subalternating one, it would be necessary that the principles of theology that are had in this life be certain by the certitude of evidence at least in regard to knowledge that such is the case, and it would be necessary that there would be knowledge of why it is the case in the science the blessed have of these principles . . . So, in order that theology be science and that not only would there be faith regarding the conclusion of theology as there is regarding the principles, then regarding its principles it is necessary that they be not only believed but be known and evident. For, the type of evidence the principles have will determine the parallel type of evidence that the conclusion will have. For although a conclusion may be drawn from principles that are only believed and the consequence or the necessity of the consequence can be scientifically known, still the consequent and its necessity cannot be known scientifically from such principles (Quodlibet, IV, q. 10, 1287).

In other words, we might call music or optics a subalternated science because it derives its first principles from another science (arithmetic or geometry), or is subjected to other more proper sciences. Thus, an optician may proceed to study optics without having proper knowledge of the first principles of his science, which are derived from geometry. However, the optician may study geometry and in doing so, gain a more perfect knowledge of optics. Optics is thus subordinated or subalternated to geometry, but not in such a way that prevents a more perfect knowledge of optics through gaining a more perfect knowledge of its first principles through the study of another science.

Theology, as Godfrey points out, is not like this. Theology is based on first principles which do not come from another human science which may be studied, but rather from the science which exists in the mind of God and is consequently beyond all human understanding. “Science,” Godfrey tells us, is “a sure habit possessing both the certitude of evidence and the certitude of conviction,” which theology can never have because it is based in principles which are not certain but accepted on faith. In contrast to science, faith, Godfrey writes, is “a sure habit having only the certitude of conviction, not the certitude of evidence.” Faith may be stronger than opinion (which lacks both the certitude of evidence and conviction), but for Godfrey, because theology rests on revealed first principles which cannot be proved, it can only be faith and never science.

Is there a difference between Thomas and Godfrey? Maybe, but on the subject of theology as science, perhaps they can be reconciled. Thomas, like Godfrey, knows that the first principles of theology rest on faith. Such principles like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Eschaton cannot be proved, only believed. For Thomas, belief comes as a gift not only of intellectual propositions, but the gift of an actual relationship with God. The object of faith, while not convincing to the non-believer, is actually more certain than sensory knowledge because it is a knowledge based not only on the discursive intellect, but also the affections (as elevated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit). However, from those first principles, rational and logical conclusions can be drawn which enhance the knowledge one has of the first principles, and on this, Thomas and Godfrey are not in such disagreement. Godfrey writes:

So, when theology is posited as science, it is necessary that its principles become in some way evident and known or understood. In fact, evidence has to be of a kind that respects the excellence of its subject matter and the weakness of the human knower. Thus, to one instructed in theology, it is much more evident than to the simple layman that Christ, God and man, has risen, and how this is possible and not impossible. . . Therefore, even though such things are not as evident as are the principles of other sciences because of their lack of proportion to our intellect, still they are known by a kind of evidence that is sufficient. . . Concerning he kind of knowledge we have in theology, Augustine, in Book XIV of his De Trinitate, says: “Many of the faithful are not strong in this science, even though they are strong in the faith itself. For it is one thing to know what a man must believe in order to gain the blessed life; it is another thing to know how that which is believed may help the pious and be defended against the impious.”

So, both Aquinas and Godfrey show us that by studying theology, we are not making scientific arguments that will be convincing as science to the non-believer. However, by studying theology scientifically, that is, by logically deducing conclusions from revealed first principles, we do get a sort of science which is important, not because it makes our beliefs more convincing to the non-believer, but because we become more convinced, even in light of the opposition of non-believers. Thus, theology does enhance knowledge if conducted scientifically, even if we still might not be able to call theology a proper science.

This seems to me incredibly important today when so many believers, when faced with a materialist and empiricist scientific worldview, feel the need either to doubt or abandon their faith or to withdraw into a sectarian, anti-scientific stance. For this latter group, recovering the Medieval concept of theology as a science can help Christians engage the scientific community in a spirit of dialogue rather than polemics, and by incorporating the sciences into the study of theology, they may actually become better believers.

7 comments so far

  1. Nik on


    help me understand. I realize that in the 13th century the standards for what passes as science were quite different. I also realize that theology is not to be understood as empirical science (why not?), but rather as theoretical or rational “science”, more like mathematics or philosophy.
    Consequently, you say: “by studying theology scientifically, that is, by logically deducing conclusions from revealed first principles, we do get a sort of science.”

    This would mean, however, that theology be necessarily tied to logic, a concept I find very hard to swallow, given that very little makes logical sense in the christian theologies I have observed (such as father god sacrificing himself in the aspect of Jesus to himself to appease himself for the crime of apple-eating for which he himself is responsible).

    Furthermore, the question remains which “first principles” you chose the theology to be based on, and which justifications you can find for your choices?

    Finally, I can see no logical reason for why we should chose christianity as our starting point for the consideration of “god’s will.” Mere convenience of being born to christian parents is certainly insufficient grounds.

    Curiously, I find that theology fits the description of a pseudoscience rather well. The main characteristics of a pseudoscience are:

    1. Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims (e.g. Jesus rose from the dead!)

    2. Over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation (god saved me (but not the other guy who died))
    3. Lack of openness to testing by other experts (!)
    4. Absence of progress (no new revelations in 2000 years)
    5. Personalization of issues (your “personal” relationship to god)
    6. Use of misleading language (!!!)

    Now I can hear you say “but theology is not a natural science!” but christian theology does make specific naturalistic claims. Resurrection after death, the attachment of “souls” to bodies, miracles in the past (and present!), the historicity of Adam and Eve and many more.

    In theory, like the idea of non-overlapping magisteria of religion and science, but I am very doubtful in practice.
    Even in our day and age, rational inquirers and scientists are oppressed by the religious in most countries in the world, and severely restricted in the rest. Restricted, that is, from relieving suffering in the world by illogical theological dogmas. I do not see how you maintain logical coherence without questioning your “revealed” principles.

  2. Beth on

    Great questions as always! You are right that I am using science in a particular way as meaning generally “contributing to real knowledge.” Theology, at least deductive theology, is then very much tied to logic, and this is important even for non-believers. Non-believers may not accept the premises, which is my point, but if theology is done well, they might at least respect the logical coherence and rhetorical force of the arguments made. Now, much of the illogic that you point to comes from Biblical interpretations (the apple, the historicity of Adam and Eve. I should mention that in the same question in which Aquinas calls theology a science, he also asks if there are different senses in which we may interpret scripture and he says yes. Scripture uses metaphors, Aquinas says, and has deeper spiritual meanings that need to be explicated, not just taken completely literally. Most theologians I know today would say that Adam and Eve are such metaphors or symbols, and indeed, cannot be said to literally exist, at least in the way we usually think. In fact, the historicity of Adam and Even was not one of the articles of faith or first principles for Aquinas’ theology!

    Jesus rising from the dead is, however, a first principle. So it is obvious that a non-believer can’t accept it and I can’t demonstrate it. Where theological science would come in would be in reflecting on whether the resurrected Jesus had a body, what sort of body he had, what the implications for our own understanding of the goodness of the body might be. Those arguments can be made in better or worse ways, ways in which an outsider could weigh in on (thus making theology in some sense open to non-believers).

    I don’t agree that any person can accurately make your second claim. We don’t know who God saves. Humility dictates we say mute.

    Your fourth point, however, I would disagree with. There have been new revelations in what Catholics call at least the very much alive tradition. Christians oppose slavery now, women are granted more of a place in worship, we have had new revelations on what human dignity is and how all share it, we have language like ousia and substance and transsubstantiation to explain theological phenomena. Theology is always coming up with new conclusions in part because the truth, in the tradition, is still being revealed.

    Your fifth point is important, but theology, though it may begin with a personal relationship to God, goes beyond subjectivism to the collective witness, tradition, and faith of the church. Indeed, theologians may say that one’s personal relationship to God is in fact false or an illusion (if God is telling you to do something horrible like commit genocide or murder your kids). Theologians can make those claims by making logical deductions from revealed first principles and showing how some conclusions are illogical or contradictory.

    And your sixth point . . . this is why I love Thomas! He always clarifies terms and helps us better understand the reality at hand.

    Now, I know that not everything I say about what is believed is convincing to you, and that’s the point of theology as a privileged discipline. But insofar as you in your own discipline explain the world in which we live, your conclusions are valuable to the theological discipline, and should be incorporated into the way conclusions are deduced from first principles. I suspect you like some of those theological conclusions better than others. Or would you lump them all in together?

  3. everydaythomist on

    Additionally, I would also affirm that science generally provides us with a different type of knowledge (backed by evidence and certitude) than theology which can have certitude fully only to the extent that one accepts the first principles. But I would say that even those who don’t accept the first principles can be certain that some conclusions are just plain bad, i.e. illogically and “unscientifically” deduced from first principles. So there is a sort of evidence offered by theology, even if it is not the same comprehensive evidence provided by rational and natural sciences.

    • Nik on


      I would like to focus on logic some more.
      Let me first say that I agree that any intellectually honest person can appreciate a logically sound argument regardless of its source. I also agree in principle that a logical system can be constructed on the basis of arbitrary first principles. This also says nothing about the intrinsic limitations or utility of such as system.

      The choice of first principles is absolutely critical. We can take as example the theology of Osama bin Laden. It is based on revealed first principles, and it is internally coherent and logical. Allah revealed the Koran, the Koran commands to kill the unbelievers (Sura 2:191,2:193, 8:39, 9:123 etc.), therefore it is just to kill and terrorize the unbeliever.

      Here we encounter a logically sound theology (as based on true-believed revealed first principles) that is also utterly undesirable. There are many examples such as this one, but I think it illustrates the point that logic based on arbitrary believed first principles alone is insufficient to produce a desirable logical system.

      So how do we distinguish between desirable and undesirable logical systems? I say we cannot distinguish among them using belief (faith), because it generates arbitrary first principles. This is evidenced by the existence of more than 4000 religions and “faith groups” in the world (

      Believed first principles cannot be tested, so we cannot rule any of them out, yet at the same time, any believer should expect to be wrong by her odds alone.

      What we CAN test, and here we agree once more, is the intricacy, coherence and explanatory power of logical systems. We should expect that the fewer internal conflicts and the greater the explanatory power of a system are, the more desirable it is. I would say that simplicity is a bonus, but not required.

      Here is where theology fails more or less horribly. I think it must do so almost by definition. My argument is this: there is an inverse proportionality between the number of first principles and the theoretical possibility of fitting reality. In other words, the more claims you make, and the more specific they are, the smaller the number of systems built on these claims that can function without becoming incoherent.

      However, the explanatory power of the system directly correlates with the number of statements you make.
      In plain english: if you say nothing, you are always right (not wrong). Corollary: the more you say, the greater your odds of being wrong. Conclusion: we should logically value systems that are both detailed and correct over systems that are logically fuzzy and false.

      This is why we should reject logically incoherent systems, be they theological or otherwise. Once again, here we agree.

      We can now search for a set of first principles that can generate the most elaborate logical system. Must we consider each first principle by itself and in combination with any number of any other first principles, and then generate a ranked list of desirable theologies?

      I think we can begin with examining certain central principles which appear in conjunction with lesser principles. We can perhaps agree that the principle of “sin” is central to most (all?) christian theologies. I also choose “sin” because you cannot simply retreat into the argument that it is “metaphorical”, like with many of the inconsistencies in the bible.

      “There are logical difficulties in the notion of sin. We are told that sin consists in disobedience to God’s commands, but we are also told that God is omnipotent. If He is, nothing contrary to His will can occur; therefore when the sinner disobeys His commands, He must have intended this to happen. St. Augustine boldly accepts this view, and asserts that men are led to sin by a blindness with which God afflicts them. But most theologians, in modern times, have felt that, if God causes men to sin, it is not fair to send them to hell for what they cannot help. We are told that sin consists in acting contrary to God’s will. This, however, does not get rid of the difficulty. Those who, like Spinoza, take God’s omnipotence seriously, deduce that there can be no such thing as sin.” (B. Russel)

      I also think that your argument: “Now, I know that not everything I say about what is believed is convincing to you, and that’s the point of theology as a privileged discipline.” consitutes an “appeal to authority” logical fallacy.

      I would say so far the analysis of christian theology
      leads me to rejecting it on logical grounds.

  4. everydaythomist on

    Thanks for commenting with such thoroughness. First, you say, referencing Osama bin Laden’s first principles, that this example “illustrates the point that logic based on arbitrary believed first principles alone is insufficient to produce a desirable logical system.” I agree. There are two ways to challenge such a system which we intuitively think to be wrong. The first way is by challenging the first principles themselves from which certain conclusions are deduced. The second is by the soundness of the deduction. Both are possible.

    Regarding the first, Islam does not exist in a vacuum and actually shares many of the same first principles with the Judeo-Christian faiths, i.e., that God is Creator, that God is good, that God has spoken through the prophets, etc. In fact, Thomas Aquinas even used Muslim scholars as valid sources for his own theological system, specifically Avicenna and Averroes. So, I might not be able to say whether or not Alla (God) revealed the Koran to Mohammed, but I can look at the commonalities between our two texts and draw certain conclusions about the validity of proposed “first principles.” I cite Aquinas, I, 1.8:

    Theology, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.

    In other words, Muslims share many of the same beliefs as Christians and Jews and so theological disputation can proceed to a certain extent.

    Moreover, I should note that lots of Muslim scholars also see Osama’s “theology” as illogical based largely on the validity of his proposed first principles. And this brings me to the second way in which a theological deduction might be tested, which is using reason. In the same article quoted above, in the reply to the second objection, Aquinas writes,

    But sacred doctrine makes use even of human reason, not, indeed, to prove faith (for thereby the merit of faith would come to an end), but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: “Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: “As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring” (Acts 17:28).

    In other words, Aquinas acknowledges that theology (what he calls here “sacred doctrine”) can and should make use of human reason and rational and philosophical arguments since (and this is my favorite expression), “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” And thus, I would argue that in looking at the arguments drawn from first principles, the one most in accord with human reason is superior. Osama’s system is anti-reason, and thus I consider it quite inferior to other theological arguments within Islam that appeal to my reason as true, even if I don’t necessarily accept the first principle that the Koran was revealed. Now, I am not making theological arguments subject to reason alone, but I am claiming that reason is a test, especially when it comes to ethical arguments (ie. the Bible says I should do X . . . those are particularly subject to rational scrutiny for me and for Aquinas because of the strong affirmation of the natural law and the ability to know what is good to do through the light of natural reason).

    I appreciate very much your “simplicity logic” and I think it opens up the door for a great conversation on what first principles in theology actually are. For Christianity, these are what are called the “articles of faith,” at least for Aquinas. Interestingly, in the Secunda Secundae, Q. 1, art. 1, he asks whether the object of faith (its first principle) is the First Truth and he answers affirmatively if we consider the object in question formally rather than materially:

    The object of every cognitive habit includes two things: first, that which is known materially, and is the material object, so to speak, and, secondly, that whereby it is known, which is the formal aspect of the object. Thus in the science of geometry, the conclusions are what is known materially, while the formal aspect of the science is the mean of demonstration, through which the conclusions are known.

    Accordingly if we consider, in faith, the formal aspect of the object, it is nothing else than the First Truth. For the faith of which we are speaking, does not assent to anything, except because it is revealed by God. Hence the mean on which faith is based is the Divine Truth. If, however, we consider materially the things to which faith assents, they include not only God, but also many other things, which, nevertheless, do not come under the assent of faith, except as bearing some relation to God, in as much as, to wit, through certain effects of the Divine operation, man is helped on his journey towards the enjoyment of God. Consequently from this point of view also the object of faith is, in a way, the First Truth, in as much as nothing comes under faith except in relation to God, even as the object of the medical art is health, for it considers nothing save in relation to health.

    So formally, Aquinas’ system has only one first principle, the First Truth, which at least from God’s perspective, is absolutely simple. Materially, especially since human beings cannot understand God in God’s essence, this First Truth is known to us materially through the creed. He expounds on this in the next article on whether the object of faith is complex or simple:

    Accordingly the object of faith may be considered in two ways. First, as regards the thing itself which is believed, and thus the object of faith is something simple, namely the thing itself about which we have faith. Secondly, on the part of the believer, and in this respect the object of faith is something complex by way of a proposition.

    Now, I don’t intend to convince you in this response that you should believe in Aquinas’ system, but I do hope you are impressed by just how much you and Aquinas agree on! And so once we can agree that there are commonalities between us, we can have a more mutually illuminating conversation about sin, perhaps drawing on evolutionary science, natural law, and ordinary human experience. This conversation could potentially illuminate new insights into human nature for you, and new insights in the scriptural and traditional account of sin for me. But simplicity in my response would demand this conversation take place in another blog post.

    • everydaythomist on

      I can’t help but bring this article to your attention, on which I think you and I will find a lot to agree on. The article is called “Teenagers Speak Up For Lack of Faith” and talks about a Florida school that has a relatively successful atheist club, to correspond with the Christian club. Here is the most striking part of the article:

      “That was an eye-opener for us,” said Karen Harrell, the head of Rutherford’s math department, who serves as the sponsor for Ignite. Her husband, Kirk, is a gym teacher who is adviser for the other religious club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

      “Some of our students didn’t understand that there are people who don’t believe in God,” Mrs. Harrell said.

      At one point, Mr. Creamer suggested that the clubs get together and discuss their beliefs, but Mrs. Harrell, who attends Hiland Park Baptist Church, declined, fearing it would turn into a debate. “My reaction is faith in Jesus Christ is not at all logical,” she said. “When your beliefs are based on faith, you’re believing something you can’t see. Being able to prove that scientifically in a debate — it could be hard to win.”

      “Our goal,” she said, “is not to confuse anyone.”

      Now, if these Christian students had a theological system which was rational, they need not fear dialoguing with atheists, as I need not fear dialoguing with you. This is what I mean by theology making us certain. These kids in the article have to withdraw from their fellow students in matters of faith because they either (a) don’t know how to engage in theological disputation or (b) don’t think theology is a matter of disputation. I think both assumptions are wrong, and my goal, with people like you to help me, is to start convincing Christians of the importance of reason, logic, systematic thought, and openness to the world (science, philosophy) are for theological reflection. As I said in my original post, such theological reflection might actually make you a better Christian!

      • Nik on


        thanks for the article! I can certainly say that I have a better appreciation of Aquinas since we have started to “debate.” I certainly think that a theology that is willing to stand up to rational scrutiny is better and more respectable than one that is not.

        I would, however, contend that it is not your theology that is making you certain, but your faith. In your own words, paraphrasing Godfrey: “Certitude […], which theology can never have because it is based in principles which are not certain but accepted on faith.”

        Looking forward to your next blog post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: