Aquinas and Webster on the Studious Pastor-Theologian

Is curiosity a good or bad thing? If anything it is complicated. On the one hand, we encourage our children to be curious, to explore and discover. On the other hand, the old adage, “curiosity killed the cat” still has currency; usually when parents don’t want to explain something.

I was surprised to discover that the Christian Tradition actually has something to say about curiosity, namely that it is a vice. The virtue that contrasts curiosity is studiousness. In this blog post, I will consider curiosity and studiousness in relation to Theology and the Christian life by examining John Webster and Thomas Aquinas on the topic.

John Webster, following and expanding on Aquinas, defines studiousness as follows:

A strenuous application of the powers of the creaturely intellect, the end of which is to come to know something for the first time, or to apprehend under a new aspect or with a new interest some object already known… Studiousness refers to the activity of the well-ordered creaturely intellect coming to know. (The Dominion of the Word, 194).

This is how Aquinas defines studiousness: “Properly speaking, study denotes keen application of the mind to something.” (IIa IIae 166.1). Curiosity, by contrast, is a vice-filled pursuit of knowledge that Aquinas brilliantly dissects.

First, Aquinas argues, the desire to study and pursue knowledge may be right or wrong. If right, Curiosity can take that right desire down a vice-filled path in two ways: 1) either by taking the pursuit of knowledge to gain pride in one’s knowledge, or 2) to study something in order to sin.

Second, the desire to learn itself can be improperly ordered which results in four further forms of curiosity: 1) a person studies something that distracts them from the thing they should be studying i.e., facebook scrolling instead of homework. 2) when a person learns from a source that is evil or unlawful, i.e., an untrustworthy authority or evil spirits. 3) When a person seeks the truth of creatures without seeking their source and end: God. 4) When a person seeks the truth that is above or beyond his intellectual capacity which easily leads to an error (Aquinas, Summa Theologia, IIaIIae 167.1).

Aquinas’s thoughts on curiosity and studiousness apply to all areas of study, but what of theology and the vocation of Pastor-Theologians and Christians?

According to John Webster, curiosity rears its head in at least five ways in the pursuit of the knowledge of God.

  1. Curiosity appears when Christians forget they are under the instruction and teaching of God. Curiosity detaches the mind from the source of Theology: God.
  2. Curiosity seeks the novel and avoids the discipline of the particular object of theology: God and all things that come from God. Webster says, “In acute form, this becomes a species of intellectual promiscuity, driven by addiction to novelty and a compulsion to repeat the experience of discovery” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  3. “Curiosity in theology stops short at surfaces, and so inhibits theological intelligence in running towards God.” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  4. “Curiosity debases the manner in which theological work is undertaken, causing the theologian to adopt a posture at odds with spiritual vocation.”(Dominion of the Word, 199). What does this mean? Basically, theologians can be lured by pride, the desire for new knowledge, fame, and isolation from the church and worship. This can be true of any Christian, the desire to know God and love God is a spiritual and communal endeavor.
  5. Finally, “Curiosity disregards the proper end of theology, which are contemplative and apostolic.” (Dominion of the Word, 199). See my blog post on this topic.

This is Webster’s autopsy of The Curious Theologian, what is the remedy? Webster points to the work of the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit, whose mission is to perfect creatures in realizing the divine purpose for them, secured by the reconciling work of the Son is the fulfillment of the Father’s will. In the Spirit’s original work, the intellect is made new; in the Spirit’s governing work, the intellect is maintained and directed on its true course” (Dominion of the Word, 199). In other words, the Holy Spirit sanctifies the intellect by mortifying and vivifying it, bringing it into alignment with the mind of Christ. Webster outlines three aspects of theological studiousness:

  1. “Christian Theology is an exercise of sanctified studiousness, the work of persons whose intellectual acts are marked by the Spirit’s regenerative presence” (Dominion of the Word, 200). The person becomes studious as they are trained by the Holy Spirit who redirects their desires towards their proper end: God.
  2. “Curiosity falls away as Christian theology directs itself to its singular matter with a definite interest” (Dominion of the Word, 201). By which Webster means God and everything in relation to God, including the whole scope of theology from creation to consummation (see my blog post on the proper order of theology).
  3. “Mortification of curiosity happens as theology is directed to its proper end, which is love: Love of God who gives himself to be known, and love of the saints and the not-yet-saints by communicating what theology has come to know” (Dominion of the Word, 201). In other words, studiousness while concentrated, and full of effort is not for oneself, but for the worship of God and the edification of others.

Curiosity is the unnatural state of human knowledge; it is intellectual pursuit post-fall. We can only become truly studious when we are reconciled to the Truth. We become studious as we are taught by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, who orders our intellectual endeavor and the purpose of our endeavors to their proper end God and others. Studiousness is a virtue that takes practice and effort to attain, an effort that is preceded and followed by the mortifying and vivifying work of God the Holy Spirit.

A question I have, and one I cannot follow up right now, is how Aquinas and Webster’s analysis of Curiosity and Studiousness obtains in other intellectual disciplines and the process of education in general?

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.