For me, the doctrine of Scripture (what one believes about the nature of scripture) is the most fascinating topic in Christian theology. I enjoy reading contemporary works on the subject but I find that I most identify with ‘older’ works where the debate does not center on defining, qualifying, accepting, rejecting inerrancy and/or infallibility. Therefore, over a series of posts I am going to examine doctrines of Scripture found in various ‘older’ writings.
Up first: Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (Book 1, Question 1, Articles 1-10). This post looks at his view of the divine nature of Scripture and the connection of reason and faith. Following posts will consider Aquinas’ thoughts on metaphors and plurality in Scripture.
For Aquinas the very work of theology – articulating the truths of God – was grounded in properly interpreting Scripture. But, before considering Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture, it is necessary to understand a basic principle of his thought, namely that humanity is directed towards God and that eternal union with God is the end, or purpose, of human existence (1.1.1). According to Aquinas, however, God is unknowable within the bounds of human reason and so humankind is unable to attain union with God in and of themselves. Consequently, he writes, “In order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation” (1.1.1). In Aquinas’ thought, Scripture is the divine revelation that teaches divine truths and Scripture contains the wisdom necessary for salvation (1.1.1). Thus, his basic doctrine of Scripture is that Scripture is the divinely authored self-revelation of God designed to reveal himself to humanity. Based on this understanding of Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture, one can appreciate his methodology for interpreting Scripture.
Reason Ministers to Faith
A crucial aspect for understanding Thomas Aquinas’ methodology for interpreting Scripture is to realize the relationship of faith and reason. He writes, “Although those things which are beyond man’s knowledge may not be sought for by man through his reason, nevertheless, once they are revealed by God they must be accepted by faith” (1.1.1). This is to say that since Scripture is God’s self-revelation of things beyond humanity’s ability to understand, comprehension must begin with faith and one is to believe what God tells her through Scripture even if she cannot rationally explain it. Nonetheless, since God is both the author of Scripture and the creator of the world, the knowledge of God gained through His revelation is not something contrary to the knowledge attained through reason. Rather, Aquinas believes that “since grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith” (1.1.8). Hence, he judges that reason can be used to clarify the meaning of Scripture, although not to prove faith (1.1.8).
Aquinas’ notion of the relationship between faith and reason leads one to acknowledge how Aquinas uses the lesser sciences, such as philosophy, when interpreting Scripture. He states, “This science [the study of Scripture] can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer” (1.1.5). Additionally, Aquinas respects the interpretative tradition of the church and considers it helpful in illuminating the meaning of Scripture. Yet, all other sources are only tools, “the handmaidens” of holy teaching (1.1.5), to help elucidate Scripture they are not the final authority. In fact, he often uses Scripture to correct what he considers heretical within philosophical and interpretative traditions (1.1.8). Ultimately, for Aquinas, God’s self-revelation is the infallible truth on which faith rests (1.1.8) and, therefore, he concludes that the study of Scripture is the one true science (1.1.5). Thus, Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture, as divinely authored self-revelation, allows him to make use of lesser sciences, such as philosophy or church tradition, when interpreting Scripture. Yet, it places them under the authority of Scripture.