Aquinas on Theologians and the Spirit

In one of his relatively late Quodlibetal Questions, from Advent 1270,1 Thomas Aquinas addresses the question whether all that holy teachers have said has been spoken by the Holy Spirit (XII, q. 17). This is a tremendously important question, since it bears on the authority of theologians and the work of the Spirit in the divine economy. If theologians also speak by the Holy Spirit, how are their words to be distinguished from Scripture? or prophecy?

Questions are then asked regarding four offices: first, the office of expositors of Holy Scripture [q. 17]; second, the office of preachers [q. 18]; third, the office of confessors [q. 19]; fourth, the office of vicars [q. 20].

[a. 1] To the first, it is asked whether everything the holy teachers have said, has been from the Holy Spirit.

It seems the answer is no.

This is because in their statements there are certain false things, for they sometimes disagree in their expositions. Now it is not possible for dissimilar or dissonant things to be true, since both sides of a contradiction cannot be true.

Against this, it pertains to one and the same thing to do something toward an end and to lead to that end. Now the end of Scripture, which is from the Holy Spirit, is human learning. But this human learning cannot come from the Scriptures except through the expositions of the saints. Therefore, the expositions of the saints are from the Holy Spirit.

I respond, it is to be said that the Scriptures are both declared and expounded from the Holy Spirit. This is why 1 Cor 2:14 says, “The natural person does not perceive the things that are of God, but the spiritual person judges all things,” especially those that relate to faith, since faith is a gift of God; and, therefore, the interpretation of words is listed among the other gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:10).

To the first [objection] is it to be said that charisms (gratiae gratis datae) are not habits (habitus), but are particular movements from the Holy Spirit–otherwise, if they were habits, the prophet would have revelation through the gift of prophecy whenever he wished, which is not the case. And so, in regard to the revealing of hidden matters, the mind is sometimes touched by the Holy Spirit and sometimes not, but certain things are hidden from it. This is why Elisha says, “the Lord has hidden it from me” (2 Kgs 4:27). They also sometimes say certain things from themselves; this is clear with Nathan, who counseled David to build the temple, but was later caught and, as it were, led back by God to prohibit David from doing this very thing on the part of God. But this, however, is to be maintained: that whatever is contained in Scripture is true; whoever thinks in opposition to this is a heretic. But expositors, in other matters that do not regard faith, have said many things from their own understanding, and so they could have erred in these matters. Nevertheless, the necessity of the statements of expositors does not imply that it is necessary to believe in them, but only in the canonical Scripture, which is in the Old and New Testament.

Aquinas’ response (which begins with “I respond. . .,” everything before that being arguments pro and con), emphasizes the unity of Scripture and the work of theologians, here characterized as the exposition of Scripture, in the activity of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is “declared” by the Holy Spirit; it is also “expounded” by the Holy Spirit in the work of theologians.

It is the “spiritual” person of 1 Cor 2:14, that is, the person with the Spirit, who is able to correctly understand the Spirit-given Scriptures. Interpreting these Scriptures is also a gift of the Spirit, as Aquinas reads 1 Cor 12:10. Again, Scripture and theology are tied together in the divine economy as objects of the Spirit’s work.

What is the difference then? In his response to the one objection, regarding contradictions in the writings of theologians, Aquinas argues that the ability to interpret Scripture is not a habitus, something we come to possess, but an interruptive gift, a charism, which the Spirit only sometimes allows us to exercise. The comparison with prophecy is suggestive: a prophet like Elisha cannot always see hidden matters, but only when the Spirit of God gives them this ability. This only happens “sometimes” (aliquando), not always. It also happens “sometimes” (aliquando) that instead of relying on the Spirit, prophets speak their own mind, such as in Nathan’s case before David.

This uncertainty in regard to the source of a theologian’s statements–themselves or the Spirit–requires discernment on the part of the student. But Aquinas circles back to the sure source: it is to be held that all that Scripture contains is true; to believe otherwise is heresy. Those who expound Scripture, insofar as what they say relates to faith, speak from the Holy Spirit as part of the Spirit’s twofold work of “declaring” and “expounding” Scripture in the divine economy, to the end of human learning for salvation.

Thus, the work of theologians is “necessary” in the economy, contributing to the end of educating human beings for their salvation, just as Scripture was given to this end. But this necessity does not imply that their words must be believed; faith is to be placed in canonical Scripture alone, contained in the Old and New Testaments.

1 Sandra Edwards, “Introduction,” in St Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2, trans. Sandra Edwards (Toronto: PIMS, 1983), 6, citing Mandonnet, van Steenberghen and Weisheipl.

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