What Makes Theology ‘Biblical’?

What is it that makes theology ‘biblical’? Is a chain of quotations from the Bible a more biblical theology than one that paraphrases the biblical text, or submits its concepts to scrutiny by the biblical text even though it makes use of other language? This conclusion of Wilhelmus G.B.M. Valkenberg on the “biblical theology” of Thomas Aquinas is quite a challenge to what is often said about his work:

The characteristic of ‘biblical theology’ is but loosely connected with the presence of many explicit quotations from Scripture; it is mainly based on the theologically primary function of Scripture as source and framework of theology. As the tests thus far have shown, Scripture has such a function everywhere in Aquinas’ theology; it is more or less clearly expressed in relation to subject-matter and literary genre, but it can be discovered anywhere in a theological reading of Aquinas’ theological texts. In this respect, the Scriptural character of his theology is expressed more clearly in the Summa, but it is present in his earlier works as well. The Summa theologiae may be described as a concentration on the heart of the matter in Aquinas’ theology, not only because it is a work for beginners in theology, who should know the basic auctoritates, but also because Aquinas lectured on Scripture and used Scripture progressively as normative source and framework in his theology. (Words of the Living God: Place and Function of Holy Scripture in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), 189)

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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.

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.)

God the Father as Divine Teacher

My thesis is focusing increasingly on the idea of “divine pedagogy” in Aquinas’ and Calvin’s commentaries on Scripture. While most often it is Christ or the Spirit who is spoken of as “the Teacher,” in this passage we find God the Father as the source of this teaching. These are Aquinas’ comments on John 17:8, “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”

Here Jesus first sets out the order of the process of knowing from the Father to the disciples; second, the order by which the disciples’ minds are led back to the Father.

First, he discusses the giving of teaching by the Father. And this is a twofold giving. There is one which the Father gave to the Son–where it says, “the words that you gave me”–in his eternal generation, in which the Father gave word to the Son, since he is after all the Word of the Father. Words of this kind are nothing other than the ratio of everything that has been made, all of which the Father gave to the Son from eternity in giving him birth… The other giving is that which Christ gives to the disciples–where it says, “I have given them”–by teaching from within and without (interius et exterius). As it says in John 15:15 above, “For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” In doing this, he shows himself to be “the mediator between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5), because what he received from the Father, he passed on to his disciples: “I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord” (Deut. 5:5).

The leading back of the disciples’ minds to God is laid out when Jesus says, “and they have received them.” There is a twofold reception corresponding to the twofold giving of preaching. One responds to the second giving [i.e., what Jesus gives to his disciples]–where it says, “and they have received”, that is, from me, not being rebellious… John 6:45 above, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” And while receiving, “they know that everything that you have given me is from you” (John 17:7), which responds to the first giving [i.e., what the Father gives to the Son in eternity]. (Super euangelium Iohannis 17.2.2200-2202)

There is very much fascinating in this passage. First of all, the role of the Father as the source of divine teaching, which we have already mentioned. But also, how here as elsewhere, the work of the Son in time mysteriously is prepared for in the shape of the Son’s generation by the Father. The Son is given “words” in his eternal birth, as he is the Word of the Father; these words the Son gives to the creation in shaping it according to the ratio (reason, idea, form) the Father gives him, but the Son also gives them to the disciples in his teaching, his doctrina, during his earthly mission. Thus, new creation is a fresh beginning for the old creation; what was made in the Word is remade in his words.

Further, we see here a theme more visible in Bonaventure than Aquinas: the reductio, the “leading back” of humanity to the Father. The result of the Father’s giving to the Son and the Son’s giving to his disciples is for the gift to issue in a return: the disciples turn in faith to Christ–“not being rebellious”–and Christ shows them the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And even more remarkably, the disciples know that “everything the Father has given Christ is from him” in eternity (cf. John 17:7); they begin to see into the mysterious eternal giving of the life between Father and Son; they begin to see with that eternal blessed vision.

Aquinas on the Resurrection of the Body

I’ve run across a couple interesting sets of comments from Aquinas’ commentary on 1 Corinthians 15, regarding the resurrection of the body in Paul’s letter. In the first, Aquinas denies that the resurrection is in any way a natural occurrence; in the second, he discusses the kinds of perfections the resurrected body will experience.

This is the first set, on 1 Cor. 15:37-38, “And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body”:

Here it appears the apostle makes a comparison: when the human body is laid to rest in the ground, there is a kind of going to seed; but when it rises again, there is a coming to life. Because of this some are of the opinion that the resurrection of the dead is natural, since the apostle compares the resurrection to the sprouting of a seed, which is a natural occurrence. For they think that there are active seminal powers for the resurrection in the dispersed dust into which the human body is dissolved. But this does not seem to be true. For the dissolving of the human body into its elements takes place just as with other composite bodies, and so the dust into which human bodies are dissolved has no more active power than any other dust, where it is clear that there is no active power to compose a human body other than what is in human seed; rather, the dust into which human bodies are dissolved differs from other dust only according to God’s arrangement, as though these dust particles are arranged by the divine wisdom, in order that human bodies may once again be reconstituted out of them. Thus, the sole active cause of the resurrection will be God, though to this end he employs the work of angels to gather the dust… To conclude, the apostle does not here mean to prove that the resurrection is natural because a seed naturally sprouts, but he means to show, by way of a certain example, that the quality of the bodies of the risen and of the dying are not the same, and he does so because, in the first place, the quality of a seed and of its sprout are different. (Super I ad Corinthios 15.5.969)

And the second, on 1 Cor. 15:44, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body”, on the meaning of a “spiritual body”:

We see four things that proceed from the soul to the body, and they are more perfect to the degree that the soul is more virtuous. First indeed, it gives the body its being (dat esse); thus, when it arrives at the height of its perfection, it will cause the body to be spiritual (dabit esse spirituale). Second, it preserves the body from corruption; thus, we find that the stronger people are, the less they suffer from heat and cold. Therefore, when the soul becomes as complete as it can be (perfectissima), it will preserve the body totally impervious to external influences (omnino impassibile). Third, it provides beauty and brightness; for the sickly and deceased become discoloured on account of a failing in the soul’s working in the body, and when the soul arrives at the height of its perfection, it will make the body bright and glowing. Fourth, it gives the body movement, and this the more easily as the power of the soul gains strength over the body. And so when it arrives at the peak of its perfection, it will provide the body with agility. (Super I ad Corinthios 15.6.988)

This last paragraph is quite interesting: Aquinas believes the resurrected body will be unable to suffer any harmful influence or be affected from outside; it will quite literally glow with health; and it will be quicker than our bodies presently are. He even believes that two bodies could exist in the same space if God allows it, just as the resurrected body of Jesus could pass through closed doors (John 20:26), although this won’t be automatically possible (Super I ad Corinthios 15.6.983). This is of course so much speculation, but one imagines that our resurrected bodies will have breathtaking qualities something like these.

What is Spirituality?

What is spirituality? It is often a loose term, whose use justifies a lot of nonsense. Christians, however, have always had a good idea of what could be meant by “spirituality,” even where the word itself was absent. That is because Christians have a very definite idea of what the difference is between the Spirit and spirits. This is perhaps more important for us to recognize than past generations, because one of the effects of secularism is the loss of the sense of “true” and “false,” to the benefit of the “personally meaningful.” This distinction–between “true” and “false”–makes sense of Christian thought. One can’t make sense of the Bible without it: true and false prophets (Deut. 13:1-5); true and false gods (Ex. 12:12; Ps. 96:5; Is. 44:6-20); true and false Christs (Matt. 24:4-5); true and false religion (James 1:27); true and false spirits (1 John 4:1-6).

When Aquinas, then, comes to speak of makes a person “spiritual,” he does so by talking about the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, the true Spirit of God, separates a “spiritual” person from a merely “natural” person, or worse. These are his comments on 1 Corinthians 2:15, “The spiritual person judges all things.”

A person can be called “spiritual” in two senses. In one sense, with regard to the understanding being illuminated by the Spirit of God. For this reason, the Gloss says, “A person is spiritual who, obedient to the Holy Spirit, knows spiritual things faithfully and with the highest degree of certainty.” In another sense, with regard to the will being set aflame by the Holy Spirit. And the Gloss speaks of this sense as follows, “A spiritual life is that by which the Spirit of God has governance, guiding the soul, that is, the natural powers.” (In I Cor. 2.3.117)

Aquinas elaborates on this quite a bit in other writings, particularly in the sections of the Summa theologiae on the theological virtue of faith (2a2ae.1-16). It can put in a much more complicated way, but it can also be put much more simply: a spiritual person is that person illuminated by and set on fire by the Holy Spirit, or even more simply, a spiritual person is that person who has the Spirit of God. Anything else would be a false spirituality.

Aquinas on God the Teacher

In my thesis, I’m looking at the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin on 1 Corinthians, specifically the first four chapters. This may seem an odd choice for these two great thinkers; normally one looks to Aquinas’ Summa theologiae or Calvin’s Institutes to understand their thought. I’m doing that too, but I’m interested in their biblical commentaries for a few reasons. First, because this work is what occupied both of them for most of their lives: Aquinas spent his university career as a “master of the sacred page,” lecturing to students on the books of the Bible, while Calvin preached at least once a day for most of his life, and spent a lot of his so-called spare time writing commentaries on the Bible–in the end, he produced commentaries on almost the whole of Scripture. Second, the thought of their major, more systematic works, is drenched in the understanding they drew from their constant immersion in the Bible. For Calvin, this is obvious; for Aquinas, it is increasingly being recognized. (In the Summa theologiae, we now know statistically, Scripture is quoted more than all other sources combined.) Finally, the task of commenting on the Bible holds a person to certain limits; one must follow the text closely and be faithful to its direction and path of argument or expression. This leads Aquinas especially to say things he doesn’t say elsewhere, which is interesting in itself. But beyond its interest, it is deeply instructive to see how these two great masters of the Bible read the text through which, they both agree, God leads us to salvation.

With that apologia out of the way, let us look at one particular comment from Aquinas’ commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world in its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” Here Aquinas shows us how God dispensed his wisdom like a good teacher:

Then, when he says, “For since, in the wisdom of God,” etc., he designates the reason why the faithful are saved through the foolishness of preaching. And this is what he said before, that is, that “the word of cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:20). “For it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching,” that is, through the preaching which human wisdom considers foolish, “to save those who believe” (1:21b). And this because the world, that is, the worldly, did not know God through the wisdom which is grasped from the things of the world, and this “in the wisdom of God” (1:21a). For creating the world in divine wisdom, God built (instruit, also “instructs”) her judgments into the things of the world. As it says in Sirach 1:9, “He poured her out upon all his works,” so that the creatures themselves, made through the wisdom of God, are positioned toward the wisdom of God (se habent ad Dei sapientiam), carrying her judgments, just like the words of a person to his wisdom which they signify. And just as a student attains the knowledge of the wisdom of the teacher through the words which she hears from him, so a person was able to attain the knowledge of the wisdom of God through considering the creatures made by him. As it says in Romans 1:20, “The invisible things of God are understood through perceiving what has been made.” But humanity wandered from the right path of divine knowledge because of the vanity of their heart. For this reason, it says in John 1:10, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and yet the world did not know him.” And therefore, God led the faithful to saving knowledge of him through other things which are not found in the forms (rationibus) of creatures themselves. For this reason, these other things were considered foolish by worldly people, who only consider the forms (rationes) of human things. And these other such things are the teachings of faith. It is just like a teacher who, seeing that his meaning was not grasped by his hearers through the words he spoke, desires to use other words through which he can clarify what he has in his heart. (In I Cor. 1.3.55)

So how was “God pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe”? Because those people the world calls “wise” did not think anything of the things God did to save his people, because they only pay attention to created things. But God brought salvation through the cross of Jesus, something they thought foolish and impossible: how can God suffer and die? Why would God undergo that shame? So it pleased God to lead his faithful to himself through these things, rather than through the creatures the “wise” think so important. He used these other things, the things which faith teaches, to lead people to salvation, because like a good teacher, he wanted to make sure people did not misunderstand what is in his heart.

I’ll be giving a paper on this theme in Aquinas’ commentary at a conference in Cambridge coming up, 3-4 December. Hopefully I’ll be able to convey some of the excitement I have about themes like this in Aquinas’ work!