Theology as a science

According to Aristotle, a science is a body of knowledge which has been reasoned out from self-evident first principles. Taking up this definition of a science, St. Thomas



defines theology as a science based on the first principles revealed by God. Here his distinction between the material and formal object of faith is important. Patristic Christian theology was about the Bible. With the rise of Scholasticism, people had begun to ask, what makes theology a science? Thomas was able to answer that, materially, it is about the Bible, or the biblical revelation is the content of theology, but formally, theology is from the Bible. Formally (in terms of what forms it), theology works from the light of God’s self-rev elation. Operating by the light of faith, out of the light God sheds on himself, theology is able to use reason to think about the biblical revelation (its material) in a scientific way. Theology is a secondary science, because it is not based on its own first principles, but on someone else’s, namely God’s. This is not a bad way to be secondary.

Thomas Aquinas’ theology is a systematic portrayal of God, creation and Incarnation seen in the light of faith. Thomas is able to systematize his depiction of the objects of faith because in his mind two things converge: the light of faith and the light of natural reason. His confidence that faith can axiomatically synthesize the material contents of faith combined with his confidence that reason can logically analyze those same materials. Faith gave him the big picture, the synthetic axioms, and reason gave him the means to piece it together in a logical formation.

Study questions

  • 1. Is it possible to put theology, or the things we know by faith, into a complete ‘system’?
  • 2. Did Jesus Christ have faith?
  • 3. Does God cause us to know everything we know in the same way? Do we know natural objects naturally and independently of God and supernatural objects only with God’s help?
  • 4. Explain in your own words what Thomas means by the material and formal object of faith.
  • 5. Can we know and believe something at the same time?

Further reading

Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica II—II, qq. 1-10 on Faith.

Marenbon, John, Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2006).

Gilson, Etienne, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).

  • -, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,
  • 1994).

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