Things Thomistic: Sacra Doctrina vs. Scientia Divina

In the thought of Thomas Aquinas, what is the difference between these two terms? The answer to this question, above all, is quite complicated.

First off, as Philipp Rosemann shows in his article “Sacra Pagina or Scientia Divina?” Thomas, in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, as well as in his de facto disavowal of the Sentences (that is, his abandonment of the Sentences as a way to do theology, which abandonment precipitated his development of a more distinctively Thomistic method which comes to expression in the Summa Theologiae) radically updates the accepted mode of doing theology to a much more scientific mode of inquiry. Indeed in his Sentences commentary, Thomas emphasizes the need for certainty in theological thought as well as that such thought be explicitly regarded as a “discipline,” the end of which is knowledge of scientia (Philipp Rosemann, “Sacra Pagina or Scientia Divina?” 60). These two emphases—certainty and disciplina—are distinctively Aristotelian notes which now come to mark Scholastic theology, thanks to Thomas.

In this sense, the transition which Thomas accomplishes on the heels of the Lombard may be regarded as Scientia Divina, as Rosemann shows. The stress is on “scientia” here. What kind of scientia is it? Answer: it is a divine science, a knowledge of divine things.

And yet, it is important to note that Thomas would also regard Aristotle’s own systematic thinking about God—the same kind of thinking which Aristotle displays in Book Lambda of the Metaphysics, with its treatment of the cause of being, which cause Aristotle refers to as theos—as also satisfying the requirement of scientia divina. (In fact, Thomas would likely regard this as the paradigmatic form of such thinking!) Of note here is that the former—Thomas’ revision in light of the Sentences—explicitly traffics in the language and thematic motifs of revelation, while the latter—Arisotle’s theology in the Metaphysics—does not. Nevertheless, I argue that Thomas would regard both as “scientia divina.” It’s just that one relies on revelation, and one does not.

As opposed to Thomas’ notion of scientia divina, his conception of sacra doctrina seems to be different. At the very beginning of the Summa Theologiae, he asks if, besides philosophical studies (here Thomas is thinking of Aristotelian disciplines such as the Physics and the Ethics), any further teaching (Lat. doctrina) is required. Of course, he answers the question in the affirmative, ultimately emphasizing the importance of that which lies beyond reason:

It was necessary for human salvation that there should be a teaching revealed by God, besides the philosophical studies investigated by human reason. First, because humanity is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of reason. According to Isaiah 66:4, “eye has not seen, O God, without you, what things you have prepared fro those that love you.” But the end must first be known by people who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Therefore it was necessary for the well-being of humanity that certain truths that exceed human reason should be made known by divine revelation. (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1.1, as appearing in F.C. Bauerschmidt, Holy Teaching, 32.)

Thomas, then, is arguing that a different kind of teaching, in addition to philosophical teaching, is necessary. What kind of teaching? Holy teaching: sacra doctrina.

To sum up, then. The main differences between scientia divina and sacra doctrina are:

  • the former highlights the notion of rigorous, scientific systematicity, whereas the latter does not have this emphatically in view.
  • The former may or may not rely on divine revelation, whereas the latter definitely does.
  • the latter refers to the activity of teaching (the kind of thing that happens in a classroom), where as the former not necessarily.
  • Lastly, since Aristotelian “theology” (as it appears for example in Bk. VI Lambda with the ocurrance of “theologia” at line 1026a 19 and the identification of this discipline as “first philosophy” in 1026a 31) does count as scientia divina for Thomas, one should remember that all separate substances (and not just God) fall into this category as well. In contrast to this, while sacra doctrina would of course take in within its purview the same “separated substances”—how often to the Scriptures speak of angels?—it would also treat other things in the world as well: mountains, rivers, bread, wine, land, offspring, etc. In this sense, then, sacra doctrina is much broader than scientia divina, which either brackets or “subalternates” the realm, for example, of the natural, and hence is much more specific.

Notes on Nominalism: a Brief Genealogy

At the most basic level possible, there are three “moments” in the development of late medieval nominalism, which one nust appreciate in order to grasp this historical, intellectual phenomenon.

First, consider the 219 Condemnations of Bishop Etienne Tempier in 1277, the background of which is the ecstatic and extreme embrace of the newly discovered Aristotle, by members (all clergy) of the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris in the 13th century. Certain of these faculty members were so taken with Aristotelian philosophy (mediated to them by Arabic philosophy, such as Averroes) that they began to regard philosophy as a vastly superior discipline (and, indeed, way of life) to theology. Central to this stream of thought, for the purposes of our argument here, is the necessity that things in the world are the way they are. That is, for Aristotle (and indeed for Plotinus) God does not freely create; rather he serves as the First Cause of the world in a way that seems to involve a kind of necessity. The primum mobile (or for Plotinus, the first emanation) moves and exists simply because that is how things are, given the nature of god and given the nature of the world. Given the rigorous, scientific superiority of the Stagirite, such a view only made sense, or so it seemed to Siger of Brabant and his colleagues in the Arts Faculty. Other convictions held by the Arts Faculty, in addition to this one, include: the eternality of the world, the singularity of the intellect in all men, and the denial of the freedom of the will.

It is in drastic opposition to such thinking that Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, drafted the Condemnations of 1277. The motivation here was to stomp out the secular rationalism of the Arts Faculty, together with the this-worldly thought of Thomas Aquinas, to the extent that he sided with them. Tempier and his supporters (many of whom were Franciscans and members of the Theology Faculty) hoped to eradicate, in the words of Etienne Gilson, the kind of “polymorphic naturalism” which Siger of Brabant and his colleagues were advocating, together with their emphasis on “the rights of pagan nature against Christian nature, of philosophy against theology, of reason against faith” (Kerr, After Aquinas, 13).

Sadly, this move to condemn and censor ended up having the very opposite effect.

But to see this, and how it leads to the intellectual movement known as late medieval nominalism, one must first appreciate the distinction between the potentia ordinate dei and the potentia absoluta dei, which did not originate with Duns Scotus, but which is definitively formulated by him and registered by him as a controlling feature of theology.[1] In his Ordinatio I.44, Scotus applies the distinction to “every agent acting intelligently and voluntarily that can act in conformity with a right law, but does not have to do so of necessity”. (Henri Veldhuis, “Ordained and Absolute Power,” 225). Scotus conceives of the the difference between potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta in terms of Heiko Oberman’s ‘canonistic interpretation’: “potentia ordinata means ‘it can act in conformity with a right law’; potentia absoluta means ‘it can act beyond or against such a right law’. (ibid.)

What becomes normative in this way of thinking about creation is God’s absolute will which is grounded or conditioned upon no prior determination whatsoever, but rather radically “free” and arbitrary. There is no basis upon which we can have any kind of rational insight into God’s actions. And while (as Pieper concedes) this emphasis on God’s freedom is a much needed corrective to the necessarianism of the Arts Faculty, it serves, at the end of the day, not to re-unite faith and reason, but to drive them even further apart. Not only did the arguments of theology (including, admittedly, Thomistic theology) fail to meet Scotus’ heightened standards of rigor (modeled on Oxford-style mathematics), thereby creating a sense of theological skepticism, but also, since God’s acts are radically “free” and arbitrary, rooted solely in the radical spontaneity of his inscrutable will, there is no way to think scientifically (or systematically) about God’s actions in history, since they could—and indeed at any moment can and might be—be wholly otherwise.

(It is interesting in this context to think of Aristotle’s rendition of the intellectual virtues in Book VI of the Ethics, with its discussion of the objects of to logistikon as those things which “admit of being otherwise.” Also note that Scotus is assuming a notion of freedom which is merely negative and nonteleological. For him to say that God is free is not to insist that God is always fully realizing his telos–and thus is absolutely “pure act”–but rather to hold that “God can do anything he wants.”)

And yet one more step is needed to grasp the full import of late medieval and early modern nominalism: the shift from Duns Scotus to William of Ockham. Compared to Ockham, Scotus is still somewhat “conservative:” for him God’s actions are still constrained by a sense of “ordinateness.” God, that is, can by definition act only in ways that are ordinate. (By the way, we must rebuke Scotus for being inconsistent here: if this is a constraint on God’s “freedom,” then why not other aspects of his nature?) William of Ockham leaves such constraints in the dustbin of irrelevance. Ockham’s God is so arbitrary that at any moment the creation could sink back into oblivion. This way of thinking leads to grave consequences for philosophy, producing and hardening what Dilthey called “the atheism of scientific thinking.” Indeed Joseph Pieper writes that Ockham’s “principle of God’s arbitrary freedom” leads to the gravest of consequences. For Ockham

[m]an cannot do anything but cling to the purely factual, which in no way must be as it is: to search for meaning and coherence is not “real,” but at most may exist in our thoughts; singular facts alone are “real”; this actual factuality, however, can neither be calculated nor investigated nor deduced, but only experienced; knowledge exists only as direct encounter with concrete reality. (Pieper 149)

And so it is that, for modern thinkers, nothing in nature (contra Aristotle; see Ethics VI) is necessarily the way that it is. That is, an oak tree can have a nature / form / essence other than that of an oak tree (and still remain fully and in every sense what it is). This is the basic assumption of Heidegger. If correct, it renders any kind of coherent knowledge of the world impossible.

All because of the Condemnation of 1277, and the Arts scholars against whom it reacted.



[1] Indeed Etienne Gilson suggests that the condemnation of 1277 serves as the historical condition of the possibility for Scotus’ thought: “we could guess that the doctrine of Duns Scotus was conceived after the condemnation of 1277.” Piper, Scholasticism, 144.