Why Does Theology Matter? According to Aquinas

I’ve been reading up on educational theory and practice in order to strengthen my understanding of teaching and learning as I prepare to start a career in higher education. Along the way, one of the most important themes has been helping students to become interested in the subject or find intrinsic value in it. Self-motivated students are much better learners. Authors often suggest connecting the subject to something students already care about or showing how it relates to real-world situations. Asking how this relates to theology got me thinking about Thomas Aquinas.

At the very beginning of his own theology textbook, the Summary of Theology (Summa theologiae)–meant as an alternative to the popular theology textbook, Peter Lombard’s Sentences (see Bernard McGinn, Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa theologiae”)–Aquinas asks, Do we need theology at all? Videtur quod non sit necessarium: It seems that it is unnecessary (1a.1.1 arg. 1). This is a classroom question–not in the sense that Aquinas encountered it in his own classroom, though he may have. Rather, this is the kind of question a teacher in the classroom might be asked, and this right at the beginning of a course. Why do we need to study theology at all? Isn’t it irrelevant? Isn’t there something better we could be doing with our time?

Aquinas’ answer is very different to those commonly proposed today. He doesn’t say that theology helps us understand belief systems in a multi-faith world or that mutual religious understanding helps promote peace and justice–as true as those statements may be. Rather, his answer as a teacher (his “magisterial response”) argues for the utmost importance for the subject. Theology is needed, Aquinas says, because “it was necessary for human salvation” (1a.1.1 resp.). This subject is more interesting and valuable than any other, he claims, because it tells us how we can be saved. This is a much stronger claim for the value of theology as a discipline than any put forward today, but is any theologian willing and bold enough to say it?

(As an aside, it is notable to me, having studied the theology of divine pedagogy–i.e., God’s teaching–that Aquinas frames the subject of theology in this very first article strongly in pedagogical terms. Human beings need to know about God, who is the destiny (finem) of human life, so that they can then live their lives accordingly. “Thus, it was necessary to a human being for salvation, that certain things become known to him or her by divine revelation.” Even in those matters that can be known about God by human reason, it is “necessary” for human beings to be “instructed by divine revelation.” Because the salvation of humanity is found in God, that salvation comes “more comfortably and certainly to human beings” if they are “instructed by divine revelation about divine realities” than if they struggle along without the divine teacher.)

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