With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Theologian as Wise Man

What, precisely, is the nature of the theologian? What is his essence qua theologian? Is he simply a philosopher in religious guise? Or is his a distinct way of life, a distinct manner of being rational? It may seem that the theologian only appears as an impractical specialist whose labor produces nothing of use: his cloister is the academy, and the choir to which he preaches is a small circle of equally unworldly specialists. His language is lofty, technical, unapproachable; his greatest battle is with humility (one thinks of Abelard). And why, one might ask, is his particular skill required? The Church is not, after all, some kind of Gnostic schoolmaster that requires high grades on theology tests to merit salvation. Even the poor, rustic farmer can be saved despite his lack in theological vocabulary, seemingly skipping over all of the speculative busy-work because a true faith does the work for him. He is likely to read Holy Scripture, but use Lombard’s Sentences as a coaster. And he could be a saint just the same. Is the theologian, then, little more than a scholar condemned to obscurity and far from any means of positively affecting his brothers and sisters in Christ?

How one figures the role of the theologian will undoubtedly depend upon how one figures the art of theology. For Alexander of Hales and his Franciscan followers, theology was primarily a means of interpreting the Scriptural Word through the various modalities by which its Revelation can affect the will, and transform the heart. Set in the context of the then rediscovered categories of Aristotelian epistemology, Theology, the science of Sacred Scripture, was for this school a practical science, not a theoretical one. Thus, the particular skill of the theologian would be measured by the degree to which he is able to employ his intellect in service of the structures presented in Scriptural Revelation and ultimately in the service of his moral character.

But in contrast, St. Thomas Aquinas identifies man’s end as an intellectual one. Not only does St. Thomas expand the notion of Revelation beyond a limited focus on Scripture (incorporating, for instance, the Church tradition), but he also locates theology among the theoretical sciences. Is he thereby condemned to the intellectualism spoken of above: the exile of the theorist in a world untouched by the common believer? In fact, he is not. For St. Thomas, the theoretical element is not detached from personal transformation, because properly speaking theology transcends the rigid dichotomy of practical and theoretical science. Scripture expounds upon truth concerning God as well as the nature of human action within salvation history. But there is present here, unseen by thinkers such as Alexander, an internal hierarchical ordering: God is the primary focus, and the realm of human action and moral transformation is only treated of insofar as it relates to God.

In treating of God and, within the same fabric of Revelation, the relations of creatures to him, St. Thomas is able to cast theology in terms not just of abstract theory, but of wisdom. And thus, he is able to conceive of the theologian as the wise man. The wise, Thomas says, are those “who order things rightly and govern them well.” (Summa Contra Gentiles (SCG) Book I: 1; cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, I, 2). Wisdom involves the intimation of a certain ordering of things to their ends. It is a knowledge of ends and the governance of things in light of that end, for the identity of created things derives from their dynamic orientation to their ends. Wisdom can thus be linked to moral transformation insofar as wisdom discloses the truth through which man can be ordered to his proper telos. Here, wisdom breaks out beyond abstraction and has the power to touch the lived experience of the believer.

Thomas also notes a certain analogia in wisdom: some arts control the ends of other arts, and artisans of these are called “wise” in reference to their more comprehensive knowledge of the ends of particular things. But the universe itself is oriented to an end distinct from that of any particular “thing.” This end, he concludes is that which the First Cause intends, and as the First Cause is, in his unlimited providence, divine intellect, the end of the universe as a whole is Truth. Truth is that at which the wise man principally aims, for it is the ultimate end to which all things are disposed, and thus in the light of which all things can be most properly ordered to their end. “The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe”(SCG Book I: 1). The divine intention for creation becomes the archetype for the true revelation of the nature of all things, because the origin from which they emerge is the end to which they are driven: and thus things can only be fully ordered and seen as fully ordered in the proportio or beauty of their nature when they are cast in the light of Divine Truth. And because the final end is the divine, only a knowledge of the divine will allow one to perfectly govern things. Wisdom, then, is essential to the life of man, for this life is free and self-moved and thus requires the light in which man can order his own actions toward his true divine end.

But in what sense does this wisdom differ from the knowledge and governance that derive from philosophical science? For this reaches a consideration of highest causes, as Aristotle holds, and can rightly be called wisdom by ordering things to their natural ends. Yet Thomas explicitly distinguishes the ordering knowledge of sacra doctrina from that of philosophical science, precisely because man is ordained to a supernatural end in God. Thus, to properly order his actions to this end, there must be a disclosure of that end beyond the power of his nature (Summa Theologiae I, Q.1 Art.1). Further, sacra doctrina for Thomas is not simply one among the other theoretical sciences, which simply connect truths expressed in natural principles with complex conclusions, resulting in the conforming of one’s mind to the subject matter. For if man’s end rests in that Divine Truth, then his starting point must be above and beyond the principles of natural reason (which are coextensive with a merely “natural” end).

Sacra doctrina is for St. Thomas a subalternate science: one whose principles derive from a higher science. Its principles, rather than beginning with the self-evidence found on the natural level, derive their evidence from their position as the conclusions of the higher science. In this case, the higher science is the highest form of knowledge, the perfect knowledge of the end: the “science of God and the blessed,” or “the knowledge that God has of himself and of his plan of salvation.” (Torrell, Jean-Pierre. St. Thomas Aquinas, vol.2: Spiritual Master. The Catholic University of America Press, 1996: p.1-21.) God’s perfect and simple self-knowledge forms the body of knowledge from which this wisdom derives its starting points, and can thus more perfectly orient man to his true end. Because, through Revelation, man “borrows” principles from a knowledge infinitely beyond his own power, he is not only given a knowledge of his end, but is given a share in that end’s perfect and simple knowledge of Himself. God’s divine intellect is the most perfect knowledge of the divine end, and theology just is man’s share in that radically perfect Wisdom. Thus, theology is not only wisdom, but a radically gratuitous share in the divine Wisdom, God’s knowing of Himself and His perfect ordering of all creation.

Theology is, then, the most perfect wisdom among all kinds of wisdom, because it discloses the ultimate end of all that is. Not only this, but it is a real participation in the divine mind: it is Wisdom in the sense of granting a share in God’s knowledge of the same Divine end (a knowledge whose perfection exceeds all human certainty). Theology then allows one to order his actions most perfectly in accordance with his ultimate end, and thus opens up a dimension for man to transcend a merely “natural” happiness. Without this wisdom, this share in Wisdom itself, man’s self-transformation in happiness would be radically imperfect.

Theology as wisdom constitutes a real situation of the human rational power in the stream of God’s eternal self-knowing. Reasoning is resituated in a plane higher than his natural orientation, and paradoxically allows him to craft his lived experience in accord with his only proper happiness. It is thus a share in the beatitude to come. By engaging in this wisdom, the theologian is not the master of an exclusive and obscure discipline lost in its impracticality: by stressing its orientation to divine truth, it is infinitely more practical than any human practical wisdom. The theologian is engaged in a pursuit that by sharing in God’s action, develops in him the likeness of God (whose very Being is His Wisdom), and joins him existentially to God in friendship (SCG Book I: 2).

Finally, there is a particularly Christocentric element to the practice of the theologian. For as we have seen, theology is a participation in the divine self-knowing. Christ as the Son, the Word, bears the appropriation of Divine Wisdom (1 Cor 1:24), generated in the Father’s eternal intellection of Himself. Christ is Divine Wisdom become manifest to us (1 Cor 1:30), incarnate, and insofar as we share in that divine action, we partake of Christ. We can then figure the likeness to God that wisdom grants as an imago Christi. It is a unique way or manner of becoming likened to Christ. Further, we may then view this art as a distinct way of life within the Mystical Body of Christ: an extension of Himself, who was Wisdom in the flesh, continually present to the world through our participation. The life of the theologian is a radically Christic life. As a limb of the mystical body, its fruit comes to benefit the whole body, by meditating on that truth revealed about God and teaching others how it orders them dynamically toward God, giving them a share in their own salvation (as Christ Himself did; SCG Book I: 1). This wisdom then, the gratuitous wisdom by which we are principally united to God, begins with Christ incarnate: Wisdom for us, descended to us, uniquely that we may have a share in Him and rise to union. The truth that we are to serve, the truth that saves us, is in fact, as Thomas notes, a Person. We find that the theologian, in being ordained to Divine Truth, is ordained to Jesus Christ even unto the very contingency of his place in human history. For this descent itself (even unto the Cross) is, beyond all conception, the deepest expression of Divine Wisdom (Himself).



  • At 1/09/2007 9:33 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    I'm glad to read your first post here, and it is a good one, though I think there are a couple aspects of it that I would do and say quite differently.

    First, I would suggest that many of the Franciscans, famously St Bonaventure, did not limit revelation to Scripture. St Bonaventure said that the world we live in is also revelation. I think he is following a classical tradition which goes back to the patristics, and through the patristics one can understand the idea of a general revelation being offered by God to the whole of creation, and that it has been granted to all and became the source of many of the great thoughts of the philosophers (Sts Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria exemplify this idea).

    Even in medieval hymnography, this external revelation is suggested such as in the Dies Irae, where it says:

    Dies iræ! dies illa
    Solvet sæclum in favilla
    Teste David cum Sibylla!

    However, you are correct in saying St Thomas Aquinas realizes this and works with and under this tradition as well.

    The question you asked -- what differentiates the philosopher from the theologian-- is a good one. Here I would suggest we must consider what philosophy itself is. Since a philosopher is one who "loves wisdom" and the height of philosophy historically has been seen to be "metaphysics," the distinction between what a philosopher is and what a theologian is I think needs to go beyond what you have stated here. Both the philosopher and the theologian can be said to address God as the foundation of their science (and not all philosophers at least would exclude revelation from their philosophical activity). This explains why ancient philosophers were known as theologians and their core works were known as theologies and not philosophies.

    However what I think what would help and fulfill your intention here as a supplement to what you have reasoned out here is to take another cue from the ancients: they believed and stated that a theologian is one who prays. This allows the theologian to be more than a philosopher. More important, the distinction is not just that they pray sometimes, but they live out their life in and through prayer. Their life is completely infused with the spirit of prayer. When philosophy is done as an intellectual act and search in the midst of prayer and not outside, then is the time I would suggest it becomes theology.

  • At 1/13/2007 1:00 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Thanks for the insightful comments, as always. I will respond very shortly: I am leaving to study in Ireland tomorrow, so once I've touched down I'll have more time to post.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 1/18/2007 11:27 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    this is not only a great post, but a testament to your own wisdom. I've said it before and I'll say it again, for someone as young as you, you have a deep grasp of things that few can comprehend, but you also have something else that is rare: an ability to articulate your grasp with a lucidity and clarity that illuminates your vision.

    Have a great time in Ireland, and we hope to see a post from you again soon.

  • At 1/18/2007 11:40 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    you raise some important issues regarding the distinction between philosopher and theologian.

    To add to that, I would simply point out that this question must be situated in the context of the premodern and modern/postmodern distinction.

    What you point out in terms of the difference between the theologian and the philosopher certainly holds for the premoderns. But given the shift that occured at the close of the middle ages, which led to the view that nature could be read as an autonomous entity free from the necessity of any divine influence (from Scotus, to the Spanish Thomist tradition, extending to Descartes, Hume, Kant, and into German Idealism), the distinction bewteen philosophy and theology was equally effected.

    So to some degree, the difference between the philosopher and the theologian is that, at least for many philosophers today, philosophy must resist the urge to invoke principles taken from divine revelation. Instead, true philosophy can only appeal to the resources found in human reason alone.

    All three of us, I think it would be fair to say, do not hold that such a position is valid. Reason without revelation can only, in the end, lead to idolatry.

    A good text with respect to this is "Phenomenology and the Theological Turn, The French Debate". It opens with about five chapters by Dominique Janicaud who argues that the kind of phenomenology being done today by those who claim to be philosophers is really theology claiming to be philosophy.

    Anyway, just a thought.

  • At 1/19/2007 7:37 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Thanks for the response. I agree that, of course, the Franciscans did not merely limit Revelation to Sacred Scripture. My point was that theology, as the science of Revelation, was viewed primarily in terms of Sacred Scripture. Insofar as they understood it as a practical science whose terminus was a movement of the will, the distinct flavor one gets from, say Alexander’s thought, is one which views Scripture as the central focus, the object of study which, through study, will lend a unique orientation to the will: a supernatural orientation. This is a generalization of the school, and one drawn from little reading. And I do not believe it is an entirely wrong focus of course: you will never catch me claiming that a more profound focus on Scripture would somehow hurt the practice of theology. However, following what Thomas Prugl has said, I believe it’s Thomas’ move to figure theology beyond the practical-theoretical divide (though he favors theoretical) that overcomes any flaw in the Franciscan picture. There is a tendency to only treat of revelation that directly orients one into a greater moral state of salvation (cf. the first lines of the ST), which could easily fail to treat of the not-so-practical truths of R/revelation found in tradition and nature. Whereas theology for Thomas has both theoretical and practical aspects, and I think this allows him to broaden what he considers the sources of Revelation. In short, that view I label “Franciscan” has the tendency to reduce theology to dealing with “the actions of man,” rather than God primarilly and man’s actions only insofar as they relate to God. For Thomas, even the most theoretical truths of Revelation are actually a foretaste of (the same objects as) what our beatitude will be.
    This is not to limit, for instance, Bonaventure. I do not mean to throw him in with a generic band of nameless “Franciscans.” I agree with you that Bonaventure in particular was planted neatly within that patristic tradition that is able to appreciate and meditate upon the revelation granted in and to the whole of creation. One need only read the first chapter of the Itinerarium to get a taste for Bonaventure’s “sacramental” view of the entire world: each aspect, in diverse ways, breathing forth Almighty God and drawing the rational soul to the heights. I think the introduction to the Breviloquium gives us more of the sense of Bonaventure’s systematic, Scriptural analysis: providing something of a hermeneutic for reading the Scriptures properly. Boanventure in particular, I believe, exceeds any limited understanding of the divine science as a strictly practical science. But I mean to show that, in the abstract, and perhaps incarnated by certain followers of the Franciscan school, the vision of theology as practical science (only) limits theology far more than does Thomas’ view.
    One must, I think, address the tension between: 1) a rich view of God’s revelation in creation, through creatures, the general revelation to all rational souls, his image and likeness shining forth “sacramentally” in all that partakes of Him; and 2) a rigorous account of Revelation, specific, exclusive, particular, beyond reason, in Christ and not merely any man. Theology’s principles are radically distinct from those of philosophy; and yet both treat of God and wisdom, even if from two vantage points. The sciences do not begin at the same starting points. And yet, we cannot ignore the fact that the creation is never entirely distinct from eschatology. The vision of the world according to natural principles can and must ultimately be woven into the supernatural narrative of salvation history. In other words, God’s creation must be read with an eye for God’s final purpose, his providence, for all creation. This means nothing short of re-envisioning “created truth” through the hermeneutic of that “final purpose,” that eschaton, as it is Incarnated in the life of Jesus Christ. This, I believe, is in line with Justin and Clement and that tradition, allowing one to view philosophers-true philosophers- in terms of a divine vocation. But this cannot be a simple move. It cannot be rethought without taking seriously the great distinction between the reason of the natural realm and the reason that has been elevated. We must notice, for instance, that Justin or Clement or any of the early Church Fathers should not be read as reducing God to any kind of entirely immanent “world soul”: Their “Logos” is in nature, flows through it, gives it its intelligibility, and yet they are preaching a vision of it from a supernaturally granted point of view. They are re-envisioning, or rather artfully reconciling the intelligible ground of all (seen by human reason) with the Revealed account of that same ground (this Logos who had a life and a face).
    In fewer words: you are indeed right to acknowledge that the relationship between philosopher and theologian is not complete as I have stated it. Too sharp a distinction risks blinding us to the continuity, and thus any way of viewing the philosopher’s task as sacred. Indeed, I believe the process of bringing philosophy’s vantage point, all of its fruit, under and into the “grand narrative” or architectonic grasp of Revelation is necessary, and simply distinguishing two sciences lends an idolatrous view of the God who is revealed in diverse ways. There are “lovers of wisdom,” and “lovers of Wisdom” (or even wise men of love!) and yet there is but one Wisdom. How are we to understand that their object is the same, and more importantly, what do the diverse approaches to the one object reveal about it? That is the key. I mean to stress that this process of reconciliation, discovering how the vision of God is actually different as revealed through both nature and grace, rather than just one or the other, is complex. Horrible reductionisms tempt us at every turn. We know that “grace perfects nature,” but understanding HOW that is so is a matter of great theological finesse.
    What I meant to show was that Thomas’ vision gives us certain resources not only to distinguish sharply between the two sciences, avoiding any kind of “confusion of natures,” while at the same time giving us a means of expressing rationally their continuity. What I really meant to work up to, at the expense of clarity and depth, was how Thomas’ vision of theology as wisdom actually allows us to understand an entire way of life: one that is not useless, but holy and essential, even beatific, distinct from any misguided theoretical elitism. My strawman of the philosopher in my post was mostly a means of distancing the theologian not from the philosopher per se, but rather from the bad professional academic whose way of life these days is seen as one of impractical speculation, one that affects only his own life and even then, perhaps only minimally. In truth, even for the philosopher there is an understanding of one’s way of life as holy, essential, and effective.
    When one views theology as wisdom, and the theologian’s life as that of the wise man par excellence, one is able to more easily view the theologian as a particular, legitimate, even essential way of following in the footsteps of Christ. It is a form of Christian existence, and thus rational human existence, that has the power to touch the lives of all in the Church. It is as though a Messianic transformation of man, expressed in the form of what is most essentially man’s (his rationality). Precisely because the notion of wisdom carries the understanding of mind’s relation to principles and to ordering toward the end. And when it is Wisdom revealed supernaturally before our face, the theologian is the one who, insofar as he gazes, has an even deeper access to the principle and end, and an even sharper awareness of how to order man to his happiness. It is also in its peculiarly Christocentric elements that I mean to characterize the life of theology, the life of wisdom, as a unique imitation of Christ. It is, in this view, a “limb” in the body of Christ; one that, if it suffers, will undoubtedly lead to the suffering of its other members. And one that, if it flourishes, will undoubtedly guide the countless parts to their final end. I believe this is the type of characterization you were getting at with the notion of the theologian as the one who prays: whose life is infused with prayer. I entirely agree, and that is precisely what I meant to point out. Thomas’ view allows us not simply to make sharp cuts between theology and philosophy; but rather allows us to view the former as a unique existence, a way of life, that incorporates the latter and infuses it with a new kind of sanctity.

    Pax Christi,


  • At 1/19/2007 7:53 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Mr. Sammon:

    Good to hear from you. You are quite right. I think also that once one extracts God from the range of natural reason, as if it could not reach definitive truth about the Almighty, even if through a glass darkly, then the dualistic opposition becomes even more rampant. It is essential to the continuity between the two wisemen that, as Henry points out, God is the foundation of both their tasks. Then their difference can be seen in the context of a unity (dare I say a metaxological relationship comes to light).

    I read "Phenomenology and the Theological Turn" this past semester for class with Kevin Hart. It is quite an intriguing exchange. I think one of the biggest problems is, as with other areas of philosophy, how Janicaud's working notion of what counts as phenomenology is a priori restricted to "objectivity," perhaps even only perceptual phenomena (as it was for Husserl). The question I ask: why a priori limit the field of phenomena? It seems that many of the "next gen" French thinkers have legitimate enterprizes if the understanding of phenomenality is expanded.

    I have been on a bit of a phenomenology binge for this past semester, and I'm currently tweeking some thoughts on what will hopefully become an argument for including God within the subject matter of phenomenology, starting from the presuppositions of folks like Husserl (though of course, not reducing God to any worldly phenomena). My aim is to give a phenomenological account of that "sacramentality" found in the theological and metaphysical traditions that views creation itself as a revelation of God. Hopefully, I will be able to make some posts on this.

    Thanks again for your responses, and though my internet access is limited, I will do my best to keep up and comment frequently.

    And Dublin is my new favorite city:)

    Pax Christi,


  • At 1/19/2007 10:40 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Pat and Brendan,

    First, I would like to say I am glad to hear Pat is safe in Ireland and enjoying his stay! Like Brendan, I look forward to all contributions Pat can give us while he is abroad. As a suggestions, I would recommend writing out one's posts offline, and then copy/pasting them when one is free to be online.

    Back to the topic at hand. Certainly all of us have a general agreement here. Pat, as you note, not all the Franciscans share the same methodology and understanding of revelation; I think if you put that caveat and make it less generalized, than that would help your argument. Moreover, you might want to list some of the people you are thinking about (Scotus? Occam? et. al). I just think the comment originally was too broad and too generalized, and while it is true that many Franciscans go this way, I think it actually goes against the Franciscan spirit (of St Francis) when they do so. It is why St Francis was concerned about when St Anthony started to teach theology -- that this spiritual foundation would be lost.

    Now, with regards to the distinction between philosophy and theology. What I will say will be just some reflections of my own, focused on the discussion beind had here, but not necessarily reflecting all the points made.

    As is quite clear, I do not like making the distinction. It is not just the ancient view, but it is also the Eastern view (and you can see Orthodox philosophers who do philosophy tend to be called religious philosophers).

    However, in saying that, and as I pointed out, I do acknowledge there is a difference between methods and focus of the two, and it becomes a logical distinction which in some modern approaches of philosophy tries to become an ontological distinction. However, as Brendan rightfully points out, it is impossible not to have some theories and ideas of revelation within one's philosophical beliefs, even if it is an atheistic of agnostic theory.

    While I can understand, in theory, trying to bracket off revelation from philosophy, and one's religious beliefs from philosophy, it is still to me a dishonest move when one does this. Even if one says one is doing this, the question is why? If you believe it is true, then you are doing yourself a diservice; more importantly, it will be reflected upon how you think and proceed to argue in your philosophical analysis even if you claim to bracket off your religious sentiments. In this way, I am in strong agreement with Pat when he says you cannot limit or bracket off the experience of God from philosophy, especially if one is doing a phenomenological pursuit, because this experience is a part of the realm of phenomena even if God transcends phenomena.

    It is to me some sort of diagram of intersection which needs to be made, where you can see the two are founded upon basic agreement, and yet as two interlocking circles, there are parts which differ from the two. It makes them at once other to each other, distinct, but yet penetrated by each other in such a way that one is an exclusive, exterior other without some sort of interior oneness which unites the two.


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