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.