Thursday, May 27, 2010

Theology as a Science

This is an introductory talk I gave for a class I am teaching at my home parish, St. Martin de Porres. It is a very quick exposition on the nature of Theology or Sacred Doctrine and why it is properly called a science. It follow to a ‘t’ the first several question of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica with a little of my own embelishments. Hope you enjoy the post. Comments welcome, please.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the first of a three night series I am calling: Theology 101—a crash course. I thank you for coming and hope you enjoy the evening of theological and philosophic discourse. It should be fun.

Tonight the subject of inquiry is the relationship between faith and reason, and whether or not God’s existence can actually be proved. And though we will get into this with some vigor, I wish to give a quick exposition on the nature of Theology. In other words before we delve into the vast depths of theological discourse, let us first ask ourselves what Theology actually is.

I. Theology as Science: Seemingly a self-evident answer—‘the-ology’: the study of God—the answer is a bit more complicated. For if theology is supposed to be the study of God, how does one go about studying God? Again, the answer is obvious, is it not? Read the Bible, compare interpretations and come to some conclusions—your typical bible study. Yet, contrary to popular opinion, this is only a small part of the entirety of Theology. Yes, the Bible is fundamental to Theology, but there is some ‘ground work’ so to speak that has to be done in order to understand the Bible correctly. Not to mention a whole realm of theological knowledge that can be founded solely on natural reason. If this seems odd, that is okay. Bear with me.

Theology, or Sacred Doctrine, is a science just like chemistry, physics or math. How can this be? Well, what is a science? Science draws from principles—that are securely founded on basic truths—new knowledge through a strict scientific method, and unites the whole in a closed system. Take for example Architecture, which draws up plans and blue prints based on a set of securely founded truths as demonstrated in Geometry or Mathematics. In the same way, Theology reasons in a strict way from those basic truths of Divine Revelation, coming up with proofs for different theological conclusions (much of this presentation follows Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma). In much the same way, the science of Architecture and Theology are working on the same project by building up from the foundation a new and truth filled structure in which we can live and dwell.

In this way, Architecture and Theology are ‘lower’ sciences, proceeding from the principles set by a ‘higher’ science, i.e. Geometry and Mathematics or Revelation. This is not to say that Architecture and Theology are less important than Geometry or Mathematics. It is, rather, that Architecture and Theology build upon a foundation, a set of truths, laid down by a ‘higher’ science such as Mathematics and Geometry or Revelation. These ‘higher’ sciences are guided respectively by Reason and Faith (Reason illuminated by Faith). These guiding principles (or guiding lights) allow us to set up and validate certain basic truths: Reason validates the rules and principles of the natural sciences (Math, Geometry, etc…) and Faith validates the sources of Revelation (the Bible and Tradition). From these basic truths, the ‘lower’ sciences (Architecture and Theology) reason and deduce new conclusions through a strict method, unifying the ‘higher’ truths into greater closed systems of thought.

This ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ understanding of the sciences is not to be confused with which science is the most noble. The nobility of the sciences has to do with the worth of the resulting knowledge (speculative) and the end to which the science is ordained (practical). In other words, nobility deals with the hierarchy of the knowledge gained by the science and the purpose of the knowledge gained, rather than the sources of its subject matter. Fittingly, Theology is the most noble, for not only it is better to have one small bit of theological knowledge than knowledge of the entire world, but its knowledge is also directed towards eternal happiness, the highest of all purposes.

II. Natural and Supernatural Theology: Having properly located Theology in its relation to the other fields of study or sciences, now we can look at the content of Theology itself. There are two kinds of Theology: Natural and Supernatural. That is what can be known about God through reason, otherwise known as the culmination of philosophy—Natural Theology. And what can be known about God through reason illuminated by the Light of Faith—Supernatural Theology. There are three main differences between these two realms of theology. The first we have already hinted at, that is ‘the Principle of Cognition’. ‘The Principle of Cognition is which Light we are guided by in our investigation of God: the Light of Reason (Natural Theology) or the Light of Reason illuminated by Faith (Supernatural Theology). The second difference is closely related to the first and that is ‘the Means of Cognition’, that is what medium we use to investigate God: created things (Natural Theology) or divine revelation (Supernatural Theology). The third and last difference is called ‘the Formal Object of the science’, or one might say the subject of study. In either case ‘the formal object’ is God, but in Natural Theology we study God as creator and Lord of the universe, while in Supernatural Theology we study God as one and three, the Triune God.

The important aspect of this distinction between Natural and Supernatural Theology will be more apparent later on in our discussion; however, it can already be seen quite well. If I can know through the light of unaided human reason that God exists, then God’s existence is a logical conclusion, which can be arrived at through the study of created things (Natural Theology). Yet there is a limitation. In this case, God would be known as Creator and Lord, but not as Triune, the God in which we Christians believe (Supernatural Theology). Again, this will become more apparent later, but I thought I should give you a preview of where we are going.

III. Fields of Theology: Now, before we get into the proofs for the existence of God, one last aspect of Theology has to be cleared up. And that is the differing fields of Theology and their methods. I hinted at this earlier in the opening and in the chart, but I will now explicate these with greater clarity.

There are three basic fields of theology: (1) Dogmatic or Fundamental Theology; (2) Biblical-Historical Theology; and (3) Practical Theology. Dogmatic Theology is what we will primarily be doing in this class and in involves using human reason to penetrate the content and the context of the supernatural and natural systems of truth. It is heavily steeped in Philosophy, Theologies handmaiden, and gets quite speculative. Biblical-Historical Theology has several subfields if you will, which are: Biblical Introduction, Hermeneutics, Exegesis; Church History, History of Dogmas, History of Liturgy, Church Legal History, and Patrology. As you can see, this field is heavily steeped in scripture and is typically practiced in Bible studies. Lastly, Practical Theology is the application of those truths found in the other fields to practical day-to-day life. It includes Moral Theology, Church Law, Pastoral Theology, as well as Catechetics and Homiletics. It should be noted that although there are differing fields of Theology that one can specialize in, one is not, however, to specialize in a field to the exclusion of the others. As our Pope so rightly mentions, proper Theological Inquiry involves the integration of all three fields of study.

IV. Methods of Theology: Lastly within these differing fields there are three methods of doing theology: (1) Positive Theology; (2) Speculative or Scholastic Theology; and (3) Negative Theology. Positive Theology is the study of God from the doctrines proposed to the faithful by Scripture, Revelation and Tradition. In a way, it is a deduction from certain teachings of the Church to new conclusions.

Speculative Theology is the application of reason (usually Philosophical principles) to the particular contents of faith, teasing out a greater understanding of the mysteries. In other words, one takes a Philosophical principle from another tradition, say Chinese, and tries to see if a greater understanding of our Faith can be attained through it, all the while staying faithful to the proper understanding of our Faith. The idea is that Truth is such regardless of its form. And other truths from differing traditions can be properly incorporated into our understanding of the Faith. As St. Augustine says, these truths possessed by other traditions are to be retaken, or re-conquered, as lost treasures, restoring them to their rightful place in the Faith.

Lastly, Negative Theology is in a sense the stripping of man’s understanding of God from man’s understanding of God. Knowing that anything we say about God is finite and thus ultimately falls short of a proper understanding of God, since He is an infinite being, Negative Theologians look to negate and wipe away all improper understandings of God, leaving a more ineffable (or inarticulate mystical) understanding of God. In this way, Negative theology is much like a sculptor, removing all of the marble that is in the way of the proper image of God. Again, any proper investigation of Theology must include in some way all three methods, for without the integration of all three each one has an impoverished understanding of the Faith.

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