Accessibility and Longevity: The Role of the Theologian in the Church in Light of ST I, q. 1

Theologians occupy a unique position, and for those who have not studied theology, it can be difficult to understand the precise role that theologians play in the life of the Church. Theologians themselves might, in some cases, be confused about what exactly they are doing. This is a real problem. In order to do theology properly, Christian scholars need to understand the nature and extent of their own discipline. Without this grounding, theologians become like mechanics who have never seen a complete car. They fiddle with tools and parts, and while they might get a few things right, with no knowledge of the end, they are liable to make many errors. The first question in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, in which he discusses the nature and extent of sacra doctrina, sheds light on this matter. While sacra doctrina and schoolroom theology are not the same thing, they remain intimately connection with one another. As a result, Aquinas’ discussion of sacra doctrina in the first question of the Summa can help us to understand the role of the theologian in the Church. Schoolroom theology is not necessary for salvation per se. However, by clarifying the truths of sacra doctrina and defending against errors, theologians perform a task which is necessary for sacra doctrina’s accessibility and longevity.

We will begin this analysis with a discussion of what St. Thomas says about sacra doctrina. This term comes from the first question of the Summa in which Aquinas inspects sacra doctrina in ten articles. In these ten articles, he answers questions such as “whether it is necessary,” (art. 1) “whether it is a science,” (art. 2) and “whether it is the same as wisdom,” (art. 6). What exactly Aquinas means when he uses the term sacra doctrina is disputed among scholars. This fact alone is indicative of the modern theologian’s failure to understand the purpose of his own discipline. The most complete and convincing analysis of the debate over this term comes from James A. Weisheipl, O.P. (1923-1984) in his essay, “The Meaning of Sacra Doctrina in Summa Theologiae I, q. 1.” Weisheipl begins with a overview of the different stances that Thomist commentators have taken throughout history. He has positive things to say about most of them, but he also points out the various errors present in each interpretation. Then he explains his own take on the meaning of sacra doctrina which develops out of the mistakes and successes of all previous interpreters. Weisheipl’s essay is very helpful for anyone trying to achieve a more robust understanding of this dynamic term.

Weisheipl says that the first helpful commentator on question one is the Dominican Cardinal Thomas de Vio Cajetan (1469-1534). The most helpful part of Cajetan’s commentary is that it establishes two guardrails for those looking to define sacra doctrina. Weisheipl, in agreement with Cajetan, says his comment is “that in this question sacra doctrina cannot mean either faith or theology.” This conclusion comes from an analysis of the first article in question one. Aquinas asks whether or not sacra doctrina is necessary, and he argues in the affirmative: “it was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.” Aquinas is talking about a sort of conditional necessity, that is, necessary for the sake of some particular end. Aquinas makes clear in the first sentence of his response that the end for which sacra doctrina is necessary is the ultimate end: “man’s salvation.” If sacra doctrina is necessary for salvation, then it can not mean “theology” in the sense of schoolroom theology. Weisheipl gives us Cajetan’s reasoning for this, namely, that “then it would follow that faith without theology is not sufficient for man’s salvation—which is obviously not true.” It also can not mean mere faith because “the following articles are most assuredly not about ‘faith.’” Article 2, for example, teaches that sacra doctrina is an argumentative science instead of an infused virtue. Sacra doctrina is a science because it “proceeds from principles.” Faith does not proceed from principles. It is infused by the grace of God. Thus Cajetan sets up two guardrails to frame the analysis. Sacra doctrina does not mean theology, and it does not mean faith. 

At this point, it is natural to ask what exactly sacra doctrina is, if it is not theology or faith. We will not bother to detail all the various interpretations of the term that Weisheipl discusses, but instead we will follow his own interpretation, which seems to be the most complete and convincing one. Weisheipl’s interpretation is based on an understanding of scholastic procedure. He writes that, “every good introduction to a new book should, in scholastic procedure, declare three things: (1) the an sit of the subject, the nature, or quod quid est, of that subject, and (3) the method, or modality of that subject.” This framework suggests the following breakdown of question one: an sit (art. 1), quid sit (art. 2-7), and de modo (art. 8-10). The real strength of this analysis is that it provides the tools needed to preserve the unity of question one by keeping the meaning of sacra doctrina consistent all throughout. In question one, Aquinas is looking for the nature and extent of sacra doctrina, and so it would be inconsistent to insist that he subtly begins talking about something else after article 1 or after article 7 (as some have suggested). Weisheipl’s framework preserves this essential unity, and so he concludes that “a careful analysis of Thomas’s actual text reveals clearly the unity of that concept called by St. Thomas sacra doctrina or religio Christiana.”

With this backdrop, we can finally come to an understanding of what Aquinas means by sacra doctrina, and even arrive at a definition of the term. Articles 2-6 display a search for the genus of the definition, and Aquinas concludes by saying that “sacred doctrine is especially called wisdom.” It is in article 7 that we find the specific difference. Broadly speaking, sacra doctrina is a wisdom, but more specifically, it is a wisdom with God as its “object.” As Weisheipl concludes, “consequently, the definition of sacra doctrina is simply wisdom (art. 6) about God (art. 7) in faith, derived from divine revelation (art. 1).” Sacra doctrina is the wisdom which man possesses when he shares in God’s own knowledge of himself, enabled to do so by his faith. Divine revelation is not the same as sacra doctrina because revelation is merely the means by which man can come to possess this higher wisdom about God. Sacra doctrina is also not “faith” or “the doctrines” of the faith, but instead, the real scientific knowledge that a man is able to come to by way of his faith. For example, a man can read God’s revealed truths in Sacred Scripture. From there, he can accept them, and therefore have faith in what God has revealed to be true. This faith is not a blind faith in something utterly unintelligible, but instead, it grounds man in knowledge of the highest cause. Thus the man of faith is rightly said to have wisdom about God, and it is precisely this wisdom that Aquinas is referring to with the term sacra doctrina. The term is probably closer to meaning “faith” than it is to meaning “theology,” but it is still not exactly the same thing as faith. This is because, while all men of faith have sacra doctrina to some extent, sacra doctrina is not to be identified with the assent to the principles of faith, but the knowledge that comes from them.

Having established this groundwork understanding of the nature of sacra doctrina, we can now move on to an analysis of the way in which it is said to be necessary. We must bear in mind that we are first looking at what Aquinas says about sacra doctrina in the hope that it will shed light on the nature of what we call “theology.” We have reached a definition of sacra doctrina. With this definition in mind, we will now explain sacra doctrina’s role in the life of the Church. Aquinas’ discussion of its necessity will be the proper avenue for accomplishing this because the necessity of sacra doctrina is based on its function in the life of faith. The entire Christian life is ordered to one end: beatitude. Understanding the way in which sacra doctrina is necessary for salvation will help us to understand the way in which schoolroom theology is necessary for salvation. We will find that sacra doctrina is absolutely necessary, and theology is only circumstantially necessary. 

The reason that sacra doctrina can help us to understand the role of theology in the Church is because it is so central, and all parts of the Christian religion need to be, in some way, related to it. Aquinas argues that sacra doctrina is necessary “for man’s salvation.” In other words, we need sacra doctrina in order to come to our ultimate end: participation in the inner life of God. We all need to acquire this wisdom about God in order to get to heaven. Everything we do in life should be for the sake of our salvation. Everything should, in one way or another, bring us further along the path of sanctification. Aquinas is saying that we will never reach our goal without acquiring wisdom about God, in faith, derived from divine revelation. 

Aquinas gives two reasons for this being the case. First, we need sacra doctrina to know God as we ought to know him. The problem we all face is that “man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason.” We can not know the essence of God by our natural powers. True knowledge of God’s essence is impossible without the aid of divine grace. In other words, God has to reveal himself in order for us to see him. As we have already said, sacra doctrina is our knowledge/wisdom about God, derived from divine revelation. In this way it is necessary, because we can not get to heaven unless we love God in charity, and we can not love God in charity unless we come to know him through revelation. As Aquinas says, “the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end.” Sacra doctrina fills this gap. By having faith in God’s revealed truths, man can come to a real knowledge of his end. Sacra doctrina is, therefore, necessary, because without it, we would not “know or pursue the supernatural goal to which God has ordained man.”

The second way in which sacra doctrina is necessary, as Weisheipl puts it, is that “even the few truths that man can know about God through human reason must be revealed from on high because only a few men ever reach them by reason after long experience, and even then with an admixture of many errors.” In other words, it is not just our supernatural end which is at stake, but our natural end as well (which is further ordered to the supernatural). It is impossible to know and love God as we ought to without grace, but for most men, it will be extremely difficult to even know and love the Good without grace. Sacra doctrina shows men the virtues he needs to become good. Men trapped in their vices can not enter heaven, and so in this way too, sacra doctrina is shown to be necessary for salvation. As Aquinas says, we need sacra doctrina “in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely.” If we had to rely on reason alone to identify the path to God, then “the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” The Church does not have to worry that it will accidentally get some essential moral teaching wrong, such as prohibitions against abortion, contraception, or suicide. God has revealed that these things are gravely disordered. Thus reason itself is guarded and guided. 

Sacra doctrina is therefore necessary in two ways. First, it elevates man to the possibility of beatitude by giving him knowledge of his supernatural end which surpasses reason. Second, it ensures man safe passage along the road to beatitude by revealing even those things which man might in theory reach by reason alone. This gives us a model for the relationship between sacra doctrina and man’s salvation. God reveals himself through his Son, Jesus Christ. Man can assent to this revealed truth by an act of faith. Having done this, man is given real knowledge of God, which is the wisdom Aquinas calls sacra doctrina. This wisdom is necessary for salvation because it orients man to his end and gives him security in the means. We will now transition to a discussion of how theology factors into this process. Here we will analyze the role that the theologian plays in the economy of salvation and the life of the Church.

Theology can not be the very same thing as sacra doctrina because sacra doctrina is directly necessary for salvation, as was shown above, and God does not require a theology degree to enter his kingdom. Theology, as we are using the term here, is something which happens in the university, schoolroom, or some other sector of academia. It is a subject of formal education and a specific field of study. This suggests that theology must involve active reasoning and argument. Theologians do more than memorize Scripture. They do not simply repeat the doctrines of faith; they discuss them, develop them, and look for new ways of articulating them. The theologian’s role will have to be explained in light of this specific difference. A close analysis of what Aquinas says in the first question of the Summa will ultimately reveal two purposes for theology: 1) increasing understanding, and 2) defending against errors. 

In article 8, Aquinas offers us something which is helpful. He asks whether sacra doctrina is a matter of argument. It would seem, at first, that the answer would be no. After all, the principles of sacra doctrina are given by divine revelation and accepted in faith, so at first there seems to be no room for argument. In response, Aquinas says something surprising: “although arguments from human reason cannot avail to prove what must be received on faith, nevertheless, this doctrine argues from articles of faith to other truths.” Aquinas seems to be arguing that faith is not an end-point, but a mere starting point. It is often argued that the minimum requirement for faith can be seen in Rom 10:9 when St. Paul says, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The man who believes this has faith sufficient for salvation, and so he also has some degree of the wisdom that is sacra doctrina. What Aquinas says in article 8, however, helps us to see that this is not a maximum, but a minimum. This is in some ways obvious. No devout Christian would suggest that this is the only Bible verse which ought to be read. No devout Catholic would suggest that one should only read Scripture, and Tradition can be neglected. There is a great wealth of divinely revealed truths which can be found in Scripture and Tradition, and even the face value interpretations of Scripture and Tradition are not the maximum. Aquinas is saying that by using those principles which can be gleaned from Scripture and Tradition, we are able to argue to “other truths.” 

It is important to note that Aquinas is not suggesting that the principles of revelation can be used to argue to anything. Divine revelation is the starting point, and anything that is argued to must be firmly rooted in Scripture and Tradition, and ultimately, in Christ. The new truths which can be found by arguing in this way are not truths which are added on to revelation. Instead they are derived from revelation, and therefore a real part of revelation. In this way, we can already see in St. Thomas what St. John Henry Newman will eventually teach in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Aquinas makes his point more clear and provides an example by saying, “this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else; as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection.”  This is a reference to 1 Cor 15, in which Paul takes one doctrine of the faith and argues from it to another. We know that we will be raised from the dead because Christ has been raised from the dead. The implicit premise is that we have been united to Christ’s death in Baptism, which Paul explains in Rom 6:5, “for if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This is the sort of argument that Aquinas is talking about. 

To understand exactly what this says about the theologian, and how exactly we can tie it back in to the necessity of sacra doctrina, there is one more document which is worth bringing into the picture. Pope Benedict XVI’s Donum veritatis was written precisely for the purpose of explaining the role of the theologian in the life of the Church. In this document, we find something similar to what we just saw from article 8 in the Summa. According to Donum veritatis, the role of theologian is to “pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church.” In other words, arguing from Christ’s resurrection to our resurrection is not adding onto the Word of God, it is merely seeking a greater understanding of what is already there. The theologian, the one who makes these arguments, does not add to the doctrines of faith. He clarifies them, articulates them, and makes them more intelligible. For example, Christ says, “this is my body” (Lk 22:19), and the theologian says, “in the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” Thus the theologian’s role can be seen in article 8 of the Summa. The sort of argument that Aquinas allows for in the science of sacra doctrina is the very job of the theologian. “Revealed truth beckons reason,” and so sacra doctrina does as well. The wisdom about God that we can achieve through divine revelation is increased by theological argument and explanation. This is the first purpose of theology: to increase understanding.

The second purpose of theology that we can find in Aquinas’ writings is the defense against errors. Aquinas discusses how this works in article 8. Since the principles of sacra doctrina come from revelation and depend on faith, Aquinas says that it “can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation.” If someone makes an error and believes something false to have been revealed, they can be refuted by arguments from other revealed truths. The Church has seen this happen many times. For example, the Arians believed most Christian doctrines, but they denied the divinity of Christ. They were refuted by the Church Fathers who argued on the basis of a particular verse in Scripture, Jn 10:30, in which Christ says, “I and the Father are one.” As Weisheipl puts it, “when arguing against Jews and heretics, the principles admitted by them can be used effectively to prove the veracity of the whole faith.” Theologians can make arguments not only to improve understanding among Christian believers, but also to preserve that understanding by refuting errors. 

Aquinas admits that this function is greatly limited when the opponent has no faith and accepts none of divine revelation. In this case, he says, “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.” The task of the theologian, in this case, is to show that the principles of faith are not unreasonable. However, there is very little that he can do for the man who accepts nothing in faith, because the theologian’s own starting point is revealed truth. However, even in this case, the faith can be defended. We see this happen frequently in modern times. Christians are often accused of contradicting reason with the doctrine of the Trinity. Opponents will ask how something can be both one and three? Isn’t this the same as saying that something is one and not one, thus violating the principle of noncontradiction? Aquinas is arguing that theologians can answer these objections (i.e. God is not one in the same way that he is three), but for those who have no faith, there is nothing more that can be done until they do have faith. This is the second purpose of theology: to defend against errors. 

Weisheipl identifies these same two purposes present in article 8. He says that, for Aquinas, “proofs are used in two ways in sacra doctrina: to argue from one truth of faith to another, because it has been shown to be a science; and secondly, to refute those who would contradict the faith of believers by showing the fallacy in their reasoning.” These two purposes of theology give us the last piece of the puzzle we need to understand theology’s relationship with sacra doctrina. This, in turn, will enable us to explain the way in which theology is necessary. Finally we will conclude with a description of the real role of the theologian in the life of the Church. 

As we have already said, academic, schoolroom theology can not be necessary for salvation strictly speaking. To say so would mean that faith is insufficient without theology. Sanctity would be impossible before university, and this obviously is not be the case. It is true that, under some circumstances, individuals can come to salvific faith without the aid of theology. The most obvious example is probably the “good thief” who was crucified next to Jesus. He makes a confession of faith, and Christ promises him salvation. Clearly this man had no time to study theology on his cross, and so we must conclude that theology is not absolutely necessary. However, this denial of the necessity of theology is largely circumstantial. It remains possible that theology is necessary in a different way. Although faith without theology is sufficient for salvation, it may be the case that theology is, under some circumstances, necessary for the preservation of faith. 

This sort of necessity can be illustrated effectively with an analogy. For example, it is true that you do not need a gardener for the growth of plants. We can find all sorts of plant life in nature that grows without the help of a gardener. All that is strictly necessary for plant life is soil, water, and sun. However, we must also admit that some individual plants will not live and grow without a gardener. Whether or not a plant will survive without a gardener depends on the circumstances. If the soil is nutrient-deficient, a gardener is needed to add fertilizer. If there is a hail storm, a gardener is needed to move the plants to shelter. By performing two similar tasks, theologians play a similar role in the life of faith. By deepening understanding, they fertilize the faith. By defending against errors, they shelter the faith. 

Pope Benedict XVI’s Donum veritatis discusses these two roles explicitly. First, just as the gardener spreads fertilizer to nurture the growth of the plants, the theologian clarifies the truths of divine revelation and makes them more intelligible to nurture the life of faith. This role is based on the principles that “love…is ever desirous of a better knowledge of the beloved.” Believing what St. Paul says in Rom 10:9 may be the minimum requirement for faith, but there is a whole wealth of Scripture and Tradition which expands on this central tenet. Theologians strengthen faith by clarifying it and presenting it to the faithful in new ways. It is one thing to believe what Jesus says at the Last Supper, “this is my body” (Lk 22:19). It is another thing to believe that “in the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” The later can be seen as a deeper dive into the same doctrine. This deeper dive increases faith and charity in the souls of Christians by increasing their knowledge and understanding of God. This greater knowledge and understanding is made possible by theologians who argue about, discuss, and explain the truths of Christian doctrine.

Theologians also nurture the life of faith by preaching the Gospel in new ways that are more intelligible for people from all different backgrounds and cultures. Donum veritatis mentions this function as well. It points out that “men cannot become disciples if the truth found in the word of faith is not presented to them. Theology therefore offers its contribution so that the faith might be communicated.” This is a role which is also fulfilled by preachers and missionaries, but theologians should not be discounted here. Donum veritatis suggests that all the work of theologians can be seen as nothing other than a specialized preaching of the Gospel message. This does not only help to strengthen those who have faith, but it also presents the faith fresh for those who have not yet accepted it. Every essay, thesis, dissertation, and book written by faithful theologians can be read as a type of sermon preached to an unbelieving world. Not only does the theologian strengthen faith, but he also helps it come to life in the first place. Thus the theologian makes faith more accessible. 

Just as a gardener can protect his plants by moving them to shelter when they are threatened, the theologian can play a similar role in matters of faith. This is the second role of the theologian, and once again, it is discussed at length in Donum veritatis. The theologian defends against errors “in communion with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith.” We can see this happening in a great number of places throughout Church history. Heresies threaten faith by seeking to change its content and contradict other truths found in divine revelation. For example, the Arian heresy witnessed by the early Church threatened true faith in the divine identity of Jesus Christ. When heresies like this are allowed to persist and grow in influence, maintaining the true faith becomes increasingly difficult. This is why theologians like St. Augustine and St. Gregory Nazianzus fought so hard in defense of the Church’s teaching about the divinity of Jesus Christ. In this way, theologians play a role that is intimately linked with the Magisterium itself. Theologians are rightly seen as defenders and protectors of the faith, in a way, guided by the Holy Spirit. As Donum veritatis explains, “in a certain sense, such collaboration becomes a participation in the work of the Magisterium, linked, as it then is, by a juridic bond.” This second role played by the theologian attests to the close relationship between faith and theology. 

Here we see theology once again being necessary in a conditional sense. Only faith (with charity) is absolutely necessary for salvation, but the preservation of that faith in a hostile world requires the work of theologians. The theologian works like a gardener, moving his plants to shelter when the weather is unfavorable. When the hailstorm comes, he can move them into a shed or under a greenhouse roof where they will be safe. The theologian’s task of defending against heresy is necessary in the same way that the Magisterium is necessary. In a certain sense, it actually works as part of the Magisterium. Not everyone needs to read the Council of Trent to have proper faith in what Scripture and Tradition reveals about justification. However, someone who has been influenced by the writings of Martin Luther or John Calvin may really need to do so. Thus the theologian increases the longevity of faith. 

These two roles of the theologian described by Donum veritatis help us to finally understand exactly the way in which theology is considered necessary. As we saw in our earlier analysis of what the theologian actually does, he is constantly seeking a deeper understanding through argumentation from one truth to another. Now we see that same action of the theologian now related back to the life of faith more broadly. His argumentation from one truth to another works just like a gardener fertilizing his plants. It helps the plants come to life initially, and then it helps them to strengthen and preserve that life as well. Thus, while the theologian is not necessary in an absolute sense, he is necessary in a conditional sense. 

Seeing the conditional way in which theology is necessary enables us to see the true role of the theologian in the life of the Church. Theologians serve the Church and further God’s plan for salvation by strengthening faith, defending faith, and making it more accessible. More precisely, academic theology strengthens sacra doctrina, defends sacra doctrina, and makes sacra doctrina more accessible. This wisdom about God, which Aquinas argues is directly necessary for salvation, will not persist in the world without the help of theologians. Without theological discipline, the Church would have been overrun by heresies long ago, and those blessed ones who still reached authentic faith would have limited means for strengthening it. Theology therefore “aids the People of God in fulfilling the Apostle’s command to give an accounting for their hope to those who ask it.” Based on ST I, q. 1, a. 1 and Donum veritatis, the role of the theologian is to increase the accessibility and longevity of the faith.