Aquinas on The Beginning, Ordering, and End of Theological Contemplation

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Mark 12:30-31 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

In a previous blog post, I quoted J.I. Packer who says that the Christian life is at its fullest when we are worshiping God with our heads, hearts, and hands – our minds, wills, and actions (note that emotion is not identified with the heart). Additionally, I’ve talked about John Webster’s understanding of the Pastor as Apostolic Contemplative Theologian. A part of the church’s service to God is thinking about him well, conforming our minds to the mind of Christ (Romans 12:1-2). Jonathan Edwards said it well: “The basic goal of any intellect is to work toward ‘the consistency and agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God.’”

When it comes to studying God, it is wise to ask, how can or should we conform our thoughts with who God is? In Christian theology, there are two primary ways to go about this: the order of knowing and the order of being. The order of knowing is roughly based on the Christian’s experience of encountering the Triune God: so we may start with Jesus Christ, then the Holy Spirit, and then God the Father. In recent years, many theologians have attempted to think about theology with the order of knowing as the primary ordering of theological inquiry. It also makes personal sense to many in the church because it relates to their personal experience. For an engaging and sensitive articulation of the order of knowing, while acknowledging the difficulties with this view, read Fred Sander’s The Triune God.

But, while this ordering makes personal sense, we must consider, who is the subject of theology? The answer is the Triune God. If that is so, shouldn’t the subject of theology, order our study of God even if the way we know the subject is tied to historical revelation? It is a question like this one that has pushed some theologians to order their theological reflection on the revelation of Scripture not in terms of our experience of God, but in terms of who God is and what God does. However, in having our minds conformed to the knowledge and love of God in Christ we must allow the ordering of our understanding of God to be dictated by who God is, not our experience of God. Theological contemplation is grounded in our experience and knowledge of God as he is revealed in Scripture, but it is properly ordered by the subject matter of theology: God and his works.

Let’s turn to a few quotes from Thomas Aquinas to see how he orders his contemplation to God and the works of God, while, founding the knowledge of this ordering on the Revelation of Scripture.

Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is a masterful example of rigorous theological reflection in this mode of theology. While Aquinas organizes his theology in terms of God and all that relates to God, he offers two other supplementary organizing principles that help make sense of the primary ordering. In the first article in the first question on The Nature Sacred Doctrine, Aquinas ponders whether revelation is necessary, or whether humanity can know what is needed for life via philosophical reflection. Aquinas posits:

It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical knowledge built upon human reason. First, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: The eye hath not seen, o God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee (Isa. 66:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation…Where as man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of the truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. (1.1.1a)

Aquinas distinguishes between philosophical science and divine revelation and argues that knowledge of God must come from divine revelation because humanity was created by God, is directed to Him as our end, and God is the one who saves humanity. In other words, all of the Christian faith is grounded in the divine revelation of Holy Scripture. Tn this Aquinas begins his theological argumentation and contemplation assuming divine revelation for the salvation of humanity as the grounds for contemplation.

Further, he also holds that all of creation finds its beginning and end in God, and thus all creaturely reality is reflected on theologically in relation to God:

“Sacred doctrine does not treat God and creatures equally, but of God primarily, and of creatures only so far as they are referable to God as their beginning and end.” (1.1.3. reply 1).

Therefore, the material of revelation is Sacred Scripture, and the subject of theology is God and his creatures in so far as they are related to God. This thought brings us to our final quote:

But in sacred science, all things are treated of under the aspect of God: either because they are God Himself or because they refer to God as their beginning and end. (1.1.7a).

In theology then, according to Aquinas, God is the primary subject and ordering principle. Everything – Anthropology, Christology, Ecclesiology etc. – must be considered in light of God Himself, and God as the beginning and end of all creatures. Thus, for Aquinas, the order of knowledge, which includes being incorporated into Christ through the Holy Spirit, is assumed for proper theological contemplation.

Aquinas ends up ordering his whole theological account in the Summa along these lines: he begins with God, then all that comes from God. Within this account, he orders the economy of salvation around the reality that all creatures come from God and end in God. Thus, he considers creation, fall, Grace, and finally Christ as the means and end of humanity’s return back to God. In general terms, Aquinas’s ordering of theological inquiry is simply the order of God’s own revelation: “In the beginning, God” and “God created the heavens and the earth.”

How does this ordering help the church in its worship and mission?

First, it puts God at the center of theological endeavors, not humanity’s experience of God. When someone becomes a Christian, they encounter Christ, are filled with the Spirit and brought into the Body of Christ. This conversion reorients them to God as the beginning and end, and thus it is appropriate, if not vital, to begin learning the Christian faith, and the Christian experience in terms of God and then us. In doing so, our minds are sanctified and brought into alignment with the virtue of humility. We need only look at the Apostles and Nicene Creeds to see that this ordering of our knowledge of God and salvation along the lines of God’s Triune being (and only then divine missions) is the proper way to learn the Christian faith.

Second, Theology cannot be separated from the life of the Church or the spiritual life of the individual Theologian. To worship God with our whole minds requires that we are already in the realm of God’s kingdom. Theology done rightly is not rigorously guided by Scriptures and continually submitting to the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of our minds. It is grounded in the worship of the Church and the frequent reception of the means of grace: the Word and Sacraments.

Third, there is no necessary opposition between the order of knowing and the order of being, but the order of being should take precedence in contemplating God because he is the subject of the divine revelation; the one Christians come to know by means of the free divine initiative to reveal God to us. We saw that divine revelation, specifically Scripture, is the grounds for our ability to contemplate God. Scripture is taken as the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies the words of the prophets and apostles to reveal who God is and what God does. God reveals himself to humanity as the God who is both infinitely beyond human knowledge and who condescends to share with humanity true knowledge of himself.

Much of what I’ve attempted to say is summarized by Theologian and Thomist Giles Emery in the following quote:

The elaboration of a theology works in three stages, which one can formulate as follows. The first comes from the acknowledgment of the revelation of the Trinity through its action in the world, listening to and following the witness of Scripture. The economic and soteriological current runs through the heart of this unfolding of the Trinitarian mystery… The reading of Scripture and Christian experience is its main resource… In the second stage, beginning from their economic revelation, this theologian puts forward a speculative [read rigorously contemplative] reflection on the persons, in their distinction and their unity. This is the doctrine of the immanent Trinity or in Thomas’ own language, the doctrine of the Trinity ‘in itself.’ A third and final phase uses the two initial moments as a guide into a speculative reflection on the actions of the persons within this world. This is where a genuine doctrine of the ‘economic Trinity, the Trinity as ‘principle and end of creatures,’ is conveyed. (Giles, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, 415-416).

What we see in our quotes from Thomas is an assumption of the first stage as the content of divine revelation, which then grounds his theological investigation of God in himself and God at work in creation as the beginning an end of all created reality. This leads to the third stage, as one can see in many of his articles in Questions 27-44. Some theologians may prefer to focus on the first stage, but for Thomas, the subject matter of his investigation leads him to order his theology beginning with God and then everything else.

Many questions remain for me in my exploration of Aquinas, such as, how does the Gospel relate to the ordering of theological contemplation? How does God’s knowledge of himself relate to our knowledge of Him? How do we guard against overestimating and underestimating humanity’s apprehension of the Triune God’s divine life? Thus, while I am genuinely taken by Aquinas’s mode of theological contemplation, I have a lot more to consider and learn.

2 thoughts on “Aquinas on The Beginning, Ordering, and End of Theological Contemplation

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