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.)

Divine Pedagogy in the “Common Awards” Programme

I’ve spent the last three years thinking, learning and writing about divine pedagogy in theological education: how and what it is that God teaches us as we are taught about God. So I was encouraged to find that those responsible for restructuring theological education for Anglican ministry in the UK — the designers of the Common Awards programme — have placed God’s teaching at the centre of their own vision:

As such learning communities — be they local churches or institutions — gather in the presence of the divine Teacher, there will be an acknowledgement that while there are indeed teachers and learners, ultimately all are learners in the kingdom of God. (Preface to the Common Awards, p.3)

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.

Calvin on Scripture for All

In 1535, Pierre Robert Olivétan published the first French Bible translated from the original languages. Calvin wrote a short preface to the Bible in Latin, as well as a much longer preface to the New Testament in French. Of course, in bringing the Bible into the common language of the French people, Olivétan–and his supporter Calvin–faced the usual arguments against the reading of Scripture by the common people. Usually, it was the charge that the people would not be able to understand it. This is his reply in the Latin preface:

But the impious voices of certain people are heard shouting that it is an unworthy thing for these mysteries [in the Bible] to be published for the simple crowd: “In these things for which an entire age has passed, otherwise great people aided by the helps of both nature and teaching, have nevertheless often fallen in the middle of the stadium–few, or perhaps none at all, are known who would reach the finish line. What,” they say, “in view of these things, can these poor fools follow, who are ignorant of all good arts and (if skill is asked for) inexperienced in everything?”

Truly, since God, from the folds of shepherds and from the ships of fishermen, took prophets  and apostles for himself, why are not such people worthy now of being disciples? Rather, if for those Rabbis [i.e., the impious shouters] (who share with them either greatness or ferocity) it is a shameful fate to learn with common and rough people, how great is the disgrace of learning from such teachers as those who excel in nothing either in part or in the simplest things, except in what they are taught by God? I do not say these things, by which I would take away from the church the order of teaching and learning, which ought to acknowledge the shining goodness of God as long as it is rightly instituted by the prophets, teachers and interpreters who are sent by him.

But in this I only claim that in the people of the faithful one is permitted to hear God himself speaking, and to learn by his teaching. When he wants to be known “from the least of them to the greatest,” when all are promised to be “taught by God” (θεοδιδάκτους) [Jer. 31:34], when God laments to be always labouring among them until he calls them “those weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast” [Is. 28:9], when he gives wisdom to infants [cf. Ps. 19:7], then he has instructed the poor to preach the gospel (εὐαγγελίσθαι). Since, therefore, we see in all walks of life those who make progress in the school of God, we recognize the truth of him who promised he would pour out his Spirit on all flesh [Joel 2:28]. (Praefationes bibliis gallicis Petri Roberti Olivetani, Calvini Opera 9: 787-88)

This passage is interesting for a few reasons. First, it closely reflects the same arguments Calvin will make in his commentary on 1 Corinthians some ten years later (1546), particularly about God’s choice of simple fishermen to be apostles and God’s mysteries being for all people. Second,  that in this preface to the whole Bible, Calvin cites Old Testament passages exclusively to this point (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Psalms, Joel). Later on, he will cite many New Testament passages, such as 2 Cor. 2:16; Rom. 9:32, 1:16; and John 14:6. Finally, however, that so early on in his thinking–Calvin has not yet written the first edition of the Institutes at this point (published 1536)–he has a developed sense of the “divine pedagogy,” of the idea that it is primarily God who teaches us about himself, and that human teachers are commissioned by God as part of this grand instruction of his people.

Also interesting is how Olivétan chooses this same verse from Jeremiah 31:34, as it is cited in John 6:45–“εσονται παντες διδακτοι του θεου, they will all be taught of God”–to head his cover for the New Testament.

olivetan - new testament design (1535)