February 14, 2009

Thomas Aquinas on the Formal Sufficiency of Scripture

Filed under: Development of Doctrine,Scripture,Theology — William Witt @ 9:54 am

AquinasDr. Michael Liccione has responded to my post on the distinction between formal and informal sufficiency of Scripture, and specifically objects to my reading that Thomas Aquinas subscribes to a “formal sufficiency” of Scripture. By a formal sufficiency I had meant that Scripture has an inherent intelligibility that does not derive from some source outside itself. To the contrary, I had stated that a merely material sufficiency would not have an inherent intelligibility, but would rather derive its intelligibility from an outside source. Dr. Liccione specifically quarrels with my reading of Aquinas, and insists to the contrary, that Aquinas affirmed the “material sufficiency” of Scripture

in the sense explained by WW, in no way affirmed the formal sufficiency of Scripture in the sense explained by WW. That is partly why Aquinas, like Newman and even Vatican II after him, most certainly did see a magisterium as necessary for interpreting Scripture reliably.

I find this a startling admission, and shows at least that I have not misunderstood the kind of argument being put forward by current disciples of John Henry Newman. Dr. Liccione’s defense for his interpretation of Aquinas is a quotation from S.T.

Now the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith.

Unfortunately, the passage does not mean what Dr. Liccione claims that it means, as one can discern from its immediate context. Thomas is not concerned here with epistemological questions such as Dr. Liccione’s distinction between “opinion” and the infallible teaching of the “magisterium.” Indeed, the authority of the magisterium is not the point of discussion at all. Aquinas mentions the “teaching of the Church,” but he nowhere mentions the pope, for example. To know what he means we have to know which specific teaching of the Church he is talking about, and why he considers it infallible.

The answer to this question is not difficult to find. Aquinas is asking a very specific question in 2.2. art. 5: “Whether a man who disbelieves one article of faith, can have lifeless faith in the other articles?” Thomas’s answer is that “Neither living nor lifeless faith remains in a heretic who disbelieves one article of faith,” the reason being that anyone who doubts an article of faith cannot have the virtue of faith. So, the specific question is not about the authority of the magisterium, but about a person who refuses to believe a specific article of faith. The question is not about epistemology, or even the authority of the church, but about the specific content of belief or unbelief. What particular false belief deprives one of the virtue of faith? To answer this we have to know what Thomas means by an “article of faith.”

What does Thomas mean by an “article of faith”? The answer can be found in Question 1 of the very same section. Here Thomas identifies the “First Truth”–the “formal object of faith” referred to in q. 5–with Deity itself (art. 1). However, the material things to which faith assents includes not only God, but things related to God, specifically those divine operations that aid the human being on the way to salvation. Specifically, they are “Things concerning Christ’s human nature, and the sacraments of the Church, or any creatures whatever, come under faith, in so far as by them we are directed to God, and in as much as we assent to them on account of the Divine Truth.”

Aquinas is quite clear what he means by the expression “article of faith.” When using the expression, he is referring quite specifically to the “Rule of Faith” (my expression) summarized in the creeds. He makes this clear in q. 1, art. 8, when objection 5 complains that the “articles of faith” are unsatisfactory because the Eucharist is not mentioned. Aquinas summarizes the articles as follows:

Now with regard to the majesty of the Godhead, three things are proposed to our belief: first, the unity of the Godhead, to which the first article refers; secondly, the trinity of the Persons, to which three articles refer, corresponding to the three Persons; and thirdly, the works proper to the Godhead, the first of which refers to the order of nature, in relation to which the article about the creation is proposed to us; the second refers to the order of grace, in relation to which all matters concerning the sanctification of man are included in one article; while the third refers to the order of glory, and in relation to this another article is proposed to us concerning the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting. Thus there are seven articles referring to the Godhead.

In like manner, with regard to Christ’s human nature, there are seven articles, the first of which refers to Christ’s incarnation or conception; the second, to His virginal birth; the third, to His Passion, death and burial; the fourth, to His descent into hell; the fifth, to His resurrection; the sixth, to His ascension; the seventh, to His coming for the judgment, so that in all there are fourteen articles.”

The “articles of faith” are simply identified with the subject matter of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. How do these truths of salvation that are summarized in the Creeds become known? How do the articles of faith become objects of faith? The answer is clear: They are “all things contained in Holy Writ.” 1.1. rep. obj. 3.

So Thomas states specifically in q. 1. Art 9 why the Church needs a summary formulation of its faith:

The truth of faith is contained in Holy Writ, diffusely, under various modes of expression, and sometimes obscurely, so that, in order to gather the truth of faith from Holy Writ, one needs long study and practice, which are unattainable by all those who require to know the truth of faith, many of whom have no time for study, being busy with other affairs. And so it was necessary to gather together a clear summary from the sayings of Holy Writ, to be proposed to the belief of all. This indeed was no addition to Holy Writ, but something taken from it.

Note that Aquinas says (in essence) that the Scripture contains all things “sufficient” for salvation, that the “truth of faith” can be gathered from Scripture, but that one needs study and practice to know this truth. Many do not have this capacity, not because Scripture is not inherently intelligible, but because they do not have the time for study or are too busy. Moreover, the creedal formulations of faith are “no addition to Holy Writ, but something taken from it.”

One could hardly come up with a better way of saying that Scripture is “formally sufficient.” Although not everything in Scripture is clear–it contains some things obscurely–its essential subject matter is evident to those who have the time, study, and practice to read it properly, and its essential content–its intelligible subject matter–can be found in the Creeds, which provide a “clear summary from the sayings of Holy Writ . . .” not an addition, but “something taken from it.”

Of course, as a Medieval Catholic, Aquinas certainly did believe that the “universal church cannot err”–Vincent of Lerins would agree ; he affirms in the very next article that the pope can draw up a creedal symbol, and he bases his argument for papal authority on a classic Petrine passages (Lk 22:32). But, again, this argument in no way departs from his affirmation of the formal sufficiency of Scripture. Thomas states in 2.10. rep.obj. 1:

The truth of faith is sufficiently explicit in the teaching of Christ and the apostles. But since, according to 2 Pet. 3:16, some men are so evil-minded as to pervert the apostolic teaching and other doctrines and Scriptures to their own destruction, it was necessary as time went on to express the faith more explicitly against the errors which arose.

Aquinas does not regard the pope as providing to Scripture an intelligibility it does not already have, or that of bringing out a truth that was not already evident in Scripture. To the contrary, “the truth of faith is sufficiently explicit (my emphasis) in the teaching of Christ and the apostles,” that is, Scripture. Rather, papal authority is needed not because Scripture is not clear on the essential matters of salvation, but because “evil-minded” people deliberately “pervert the apostolic teaching,” and so it is necessary to “express the faith more explicitly” against error. No Reformation Christian who would affirm the necessity of confessions, synods, or councils would disagree. Certainly the church needs an authority to correct those who willfully disregard the “truth of faith,” which is “sufficiently explicit” in Scripture.

Moreover, not only does Thomas affirm the inherent intelligibility (and therefore formal sufficiency) of Scripture, he explicitly addresses the question of development in 1.7, when he asks “Whether the Articles of Faith have increased in course of time.” Thomas responds:

The articles of faith stand in the same relation to the doctrine of faith, as self-evident principles to a teaching based on natural reason. Among these principles there is a certain order, so that some are contained implicitly in others; thus all principles are reduced, as to their first principle, to this one: “The same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time,” as the Philosopher states (Metaph. iv, text. 9). In like manner all the articles are contained implicitly in certain primary matters of faith, such as God’s existence, and His providence over the salvation of man, according to Heb. 11: “He that cometh to God, must believe that He is, and is a rewarder to them that seek Him.” For the existence of God includes all that we believe to exist in God eternally, and in these our happiness consists; while belief in His providence includes all those things which God dispenses in time, for man’s salvation, and which are the way to that happiness: and in this way, again, some of those articles which follow from these are contained in others: thus faith in the Redemption of mankind includes belief in the Incarnation of Christ, His Passion and so forth.

Aquinas makes clear then what he means by an “increase” in the articles of faith. The Old Testament prophets had implicit faith in Christ who was to come; the apostles actually knew the “mystery of Christ.” This is hardly a “development” in Newman’s sense.

What finally is the point of Thomas’s statement in quoted by Dr. Liccione? The meaning is clear. A heretic who rejects one of the articles of faith, specifically stated in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which are “clear summaries” of the “sufficiently explicit” subject matter of revelation found in Scripture (God’s creation and salvation of humanity in Christ), does not have the faith of the Church, and the Church does not err when it affirms this creedal summary of the teaching about God’s salvation of humanity (the “articles of faith”) which finds its origin in the clear sufficient explicit teaching of Scripture. Moreover, the magisterial authority of the church has the right and obligation to explicitly endorse and teach clearly this creedal doctrine that summarizes teaching found in Scripture when it is rejected by willful heretics.

This is an understanding that would certainly be affirmed by Anglican theologians in my own tradition like John Jewel or Richard Hooker. In fact, Jewel’s “Apology of the Church of England” is a defense of the catholicity of the C of E built around an outline that follows the Creed, which he argues is a summary of the clear teaching of Scripture, and the heart of Catholic faith. Jewel argues further that the authority of the keys means that the Church has the authority to forgive or retain sins based on the promises of Scripture:

We say also, that the minister doth execute the authority of binding and shutting, as often as he shutteth up the gate of the kingdom of heaven against the unbelieving and stubborn persons, denouncing unto them God’s vengeance, and everlasting punishment: or else, when he doth quite shut them out from the bosom of the Church by open excommunication. Out of doubt, what sentence soever the minister of God shall give in this sort, God Himself doth so well allow of it, that whatsoever here in earth by their means is loosed and bound, God Himself will loose and bind, and confirm the same in heaven. And touching the keys, wherewith they may either shut or open the kingdom of heaven, we with Chrysostom say, “They be the knowledge of the Scriptures:” with Tertullian we say, “They be the interpretation of the law:” and with Eusebius, we call them “The Word of God.” The Apology of the Church of England

Jewel’s summary of the purpose of the keys is virtually identical to what Aquinas says in ST The current controversy that is dividing the Anglican Communion of which I am a member has occurred because leaders of the Church have repudiated not only the plain teaching of Scripture about sexuality, but also the explicit teaching of the creeds concerning the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ for salvation. It is because the teaching office of the Church (as represented by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Consultative Council) has refused to exercise their responsibilities as holders of the power of the keys that the Communion is in danger of splitting, and that many Anglican Churches in the Global South have broken communion with the Episcopal Church USA, and have instead endorsed the new North American Anglican Province as the faithful, orthodox and catholic representative of Anglicanism in North America.

I conclude then that Dr. Liccione has misinterpreted Aquinas here. His distinction between an interpretation of Scripture that is mere “opinion” rather than the indubitable certainty that comes from the magisterium reflects rather the concern about epistemic certainty that first appears with a vengeance in the post-Reformation Tridentine controversies, and which reappears in the epistemological anxieties that one finds in Newman’s critique of “private judgment.” But it is not Aquinas.

The key passage for understanding Thomas Aquinas’s own views on the role of Scripture is actually found in ST 1.1-10, where Thomas discusses sacra doctrina in a perichoretic or symbiotic relationship with sacra scriptura, as well as his exegetical writings. Thomas’s understanding is similar to what Heiko Oberman has called Tradition I, as opposed to the late Medieval understanding of Tradition II which is echoed by Tridentine theologians. Thomas’s understanding of Scripture is certainly not the understanding of Tridentine apologists like Bellarmine and (definitely) not that of Newman.

Two of the most helpful recent discussions of Aquinas’s understanding of Scripture can be found in:

Thomas Weinandy, Daniel Keating, and John Yocum, eds. Aquinas on Doctrine: A Critical Introduction (T & T Clark, 2004).

Thomas Weinandy, Daniel Keating, and John Yocum, eds. Aquinas on Scripture: An Introduction to his Biblical Commentaries (T & T Clark, 2005).

I recommend them. Nicholas Healy suggests in the latter volume that Aquinas’s understanding of the relation between revelation, Scripture and preaching has affinities to Karl Barth’s notion of the threefold Word of God.

Addendum: After posting the above, I decided to add this rather lengthy but telling quote from Nicholast Healy’s “Introduction” to the above Aquinas on Scripture, pp 18-19.

[For Thomas,] Sacra doctrina is in some important respects identifiable with Scripture. . . . But sacra doctrina is not normative, or not in anything like the way Scripture is. The teaching of the Creeds is fundamental, not because it is a product of the Church but because the credal statements are drawn from Scripture. The teachings of the Fathers have authority, but only of a probable kind. While Thomas treats the ‘holy doctors’ with immense respect, he does not hesitate to correct their imperfections, ‘loyally explaining’ or ‘reverently expounding’ (exponere reverenter) their remarks so that they better conform to Scripture. He insists that ‘faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.’ Thus Thomas does not anticipate the later Roman Catholic doctrine of two sources of revelation, Scripture and Church tradition. Though he admits an oral apostolic tradition, this has no authority with regard to doctrine, but applies only to specific practices. Scripture alone is the basis of our faith, and of itself it gives us knowledge sufficient for our salvation, to which nothing new can be or need be added (my emphasis).

In sum, the exegesis of Scripture can never be dispensed with. We cannot rely upon intermediary work, whether theological systems or conciliar documents or papal teachings. Such intermediaries are vital and constitute the ongoing disputatio that informs the Church’s quest for more truthful preaching and witness. But for that quest to be successful, teachers and preachers must return ever anew to Scripture. . . .

. . . Thomas engages in conversation with everyone he can possibly think of, irrespective of their methods or even their religious beliefs. A glance at his commentaries will find him referring to Aristotle and other philosophers and their commentators (including mediaeval Muslims), Church doctrines, papal definitions, ancient heresies, the exegesis of the Fathers, and contemporary proposals, together with a cloud of references to other parts of the Bible. All potential sources of truth are brought into the discussion in order that Scripture may be the more deeply probed and understood. Yet none of the non-biblical sources are permitted to govern the interpretation, which lies with the sensus litteralis vel historicus alone. Instead, it is they who are brought within Scripture’s orbit and made to serve its divine author’s communicative intention.

By the way, I love the above picture of Thomas. Mary (representing the Church) points Thomas to the Father, who hands him the Scriptures. Thomas receives the Scriptures directly from the Father, and looks through them (as it were) to God. Mary (the Church) does not point to herself; neither does she hand Thomas the Scriptures, or interpret them to him. Nor does she stand between Thomas and the Scriptures or between the Scriptures and God. Theologically, this is correct.


  1. The following came to my work email:

    I disagree with your view on Aquinas. You quoted:

    “The truth of faith is sufficiently explicit in the teaching of Christ and the apostles. But since, according to 2 Pet. 3:16, some men are so evil-minded as to pervert the apostolic teaching and other doctrines and Scriptures to their own destruction, it was necessary as time went on to express the faith more explicitly against the errors which arose.”

    You equated “teaching of Christ and the apostles” with Scripture, but the passage above shows a distinction between doctrines, scripture, and apostolic teaching. To simply equate the teachings of Christ and the apostles is a simplistic reading of the text.

    You talk about inherent intelligibility of the scriptures, quoting Healy. I agree with Nicholas M. Healy to the point that for Aquinas, revelation is not identical with Scripture. I also agree with him when he said that Aquinas does not hold to two sources of revelation. Well, yes, any theologian of the middle ages will tell you that it would be anachronistic to think that Cardinal del Monte’s formulation of partim/partim can be read into Aquinas. However, del Monte’s formulation was dropped in Trent. As the ressourcement theologians have shown, there is one source with two vehicles that cannot be separated from each other (a unity without confusion and separation). However, Healy is mistaken to think that Scripture alone is the basis of faith. For one, to make the statement that oral tradition has no authority “with regard to doctrine, but applies only to specific practices” by having a footnote on Aquinas’ view on devotion to the Eucharist is hardly evidence. In fact, he even left this point out by Aquinas: “I answer: it must be said that the custom of the Church has the greatest authority which must always be followed in all things, because even the very teaching of the catholic theologians has authority from the Church. Hence we should stand more on the Church’s custom than on the authority of Augustine or Jerome or any teacher” (Qauest. Quod. q. 4 a. 2).

    For Aquinas, Scripture is NOT the basis of faith. In fact, one must presuppose faith in order to interpret Scripture. For Aquinas, revelation is the enlightening of the mind to divine things. It is not primarily through the Scriptures, but the grace God gives to the human person. That is why for Aquinas, the New Law is primarily a law in our hearts and it is secondarily a written law. Both are necessary, that is, the law be instilled in our hearts (ST I-II, 106.1). Hence, he said, “Wherefore the letter, even of the Gospel would kill, unless there were the inward presence of the healing grace of faith” (St I-II, 106.2). And where does the grace of faith come from but the Church? In fact, Aquinas stresses so much on divine illumination that he equates it with divine revelation:

    “If it is from a supernatural princip le, namely, by a divinely infused light, it can happen in two ways: because it is either infused by sudden knowledge, and then it is revelation; or it is infused successively, and then it is prophecy, which the prophets did not have suddenly but successively and by parts, as their prophecies show.” (Comment. 1 Cor. 14-2)

    This is not to separate Scripture and divine illumination, but it shows that intelligiblity of the Scriptures does not come from Scripture but God Himself. In fact, as Matthew Lamb noted, because revelation is mediated by men, tradition is in fact necessary. One understands this from Aquinas when one sees that he sees revelation and prophecy as analogous.(cf. Comment. 1 Corinth. 14, ST II-II 174.6). A teacher, for Aquinas, is necessary to understand Scripture, especially the teacher Christ has placed on earth: “We must abide rather by the Pope’s judgment than by the opinion of any of the theologians, however well versed he may be in the divine Scriptures.” (Quodlibetum IX, Q.8, Quaest Quodlibetales)

    For Aquinas, the teacher actualizes what in the student is only a potentiality, so that both God and men are involved in the understanding of divine truths. If one is to argue about “formal sufficiency” of Scripture, one has to show that Scripture itself is efficient or efficacious in itself. But we do not find that. Cf. Lonergan, De Deo Trio

    Finally, one must understand Aquinas as inheriting a narrative or certain practices. For him, to read Scripture is t o read it within a certain narrative. For him, as many of the medieval theologians, they read the Scriptures with Anselm of Loan’s Glossa Ordinaria as well as Lombard’s Magna Glossatura. A Master of the Sacred Page in that time always lived within the life and Tradition of the Church. Tradition for them was not simply a way to get probable interpretations of Scripture but necessary.

    In Christ,

    Comment by William Witt — February 18, 2009 @ 3:39 am

  2. Apolonio,

    If you disagree with me, I think I would have partially to agree and partially to disagree with you. You state that “the passage above shows a distinction between doctrines, scripture, and apostolic teaching,” and “To simply equate the teachings of Christ and the apostles is a simplistic reading of the text.”

    I would agree with you on both accounts. Doctrines, scripture, and apostolic teaching are not simply identical. The teachings of Christ and the the teaching of the apostles are not simply identical with Scripture. But at the same time, we have no access to either the teachings of Christ or the teachings of the apostles apart from Scripture, since neither Christ nor the apostles speak directly to the church today in the way that the earthly Jesus spoke to his disciples in Palestine or the apostles spoke to the first century Church. Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father. The apostles are dead. And the apostolic church left us the canon as the definitive witness to their words and deeds.

    I am not sure how this is at all relevant to the point that either Thomas or I am making. The context of the entire discussion I cited above has to do with the “Articles of Faith,” i.e., the Creed. And Aquinas is clear that the content of the Creed is drawn entirely from the explicit teaching of Scripture. In the reply to the objection which I cite, Aquinas is responding to an objection which concerns only the Articles of Faith, the Old Testament and the New Testament. ST, obj. 1. In this context, Aquinas is addressing the ability of the pope to draw up a new symbol of faith in response to various errors. The equation of the teaching of Christ and the apostles with Scripture may not always be identified with Scripture, but in the entire context of what Aquinas says repeatedly in this series of questions about the Articles of Faith and their relation to Scripture, that would be the plain sense meaning. To argue otherwise, one would need clear citations to show that Thomas meant otherwise.

    I am, of course, familiar with the teaching of the Ressourcement theologians about the single source of revelation with the two vehicles of Scripture and tradition. I did all my graduate studies at Roman Catholic institutions where we read Congar, Rahner, et al. I am quite sympathetic to this reading. I am not at all convinced that it is a faithful reading of Thomas, although I can understand why some would want it to be. I think rather that Oberman’s distinction between Tradition I and the later reading of Tradition II in the later Medieval period is probably more accurate historically. That is, the Ressourcement reading is a modern attempt to solve a post-Reformation problem. I think it likely anachronistic to read it back in Thomas.

    You are, of course, correct that “For Aquinas, revelation is the enlightening of the mind to divine things. It is not primarily through the Scriptures, but the grace God gives to the human person,” but this is the revelation given to prophets and apostles. (I think you are equating epistemology and sanctifying grace here.) It is not the illumination of grace supplied to ordinary believers. Of course, I would not question that the “New Law” is primarily the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and without it the Old Law would kill. Remember that the Reformation contains three solas: sola scriptura, sola fide, and sola gratia. What Aquinas says about the Holy Spirit and the New Law is virtually indistinguishable from what the Reformers say about grace–although the language is different. I make a point of doing a detailed study of Aquinas’s teaching on the Old and New Law in one of my courses here–much to the astonishment of many of my seminary students, who are full of misconceptions about Medieval understandings of grace.

    Finally, it is simply a false dichotomy to state that “the intelligibility of Scripture does not come from Scripture but God Himself.” For Aquinas, God is the Author of Scripture, so the intelligibility of Scripture comes from its Author. Of course, revelation is mediated by human beings in two senses, and so tradition is necessary. First in the sense that God’s revelation is communicated through acts and deeds, acts and deeds which are witnessed to through the mediation of apostles and prophets in the written text of Scripture. Second, mediated through those human beings who are not apostles, but who compose the post-apostolici church is the context in which Scripture is read. As Luther said, the Church is present where the Word is rightly preached, and the sacraments rightly administered–and the Word is preached and the sacraments administered through the mediation of human beings. Luther’s threefold understanding of the Word Incarnate, the Word written, and the Word preached presupposes the presence of the Spirit to make the Word actual in the lives of believers, and so presupposes a tradition in which the Word has been passed down (tradere) mediately throughout the history of the Church. And, of course, God and human beings are both involved in the understanding of divine truths. No one denies this. And it is irrelevant to the question of the inherent intelligibility of Scripture. The Spirit is not necessary because God has not communicated intelligibly to the prophets and apostles who wrote down the words of Scripture. The Spirit is necessary because the “natural man does not receive the things of God.” 1 Cor. 2:14.

    Comment by William Witt — February 18, 2009 @ 5:35 am

  3. Dr. Witt,

    There are some things I agree with you and some that I do not. I agree with you that we do not have access to the teachings of the apostles without Scripture. This is what makes Scripture necessary. But we need to distinguish between the understanding of Scripture and the words of Scripture (we can go into linguistic theory here too which is helpful, cf. J. Stanley “Modality and What is Said”). Although the articles of faith are in Scripture, we still need something else to understand it. Aquinas was always working within a particular narrative in order to understand the meaning of Scripture, within the customs of the Church as well as having glosses around him. To put it in another way, Scripture by itself is not efficacious in the sense that it gives the individual the understanding of it. It needs something else, such as the sacramental life of the Church as well as her other customs to have the proper understanding of the Scriptures. Tradition is simply the understanding of Scripture, and this is where the Tubingen school was right. But this understanding has many factors such as the teachings one is taught in, the environment one is in, certain practices, etc (cf. De Ver. 1.4). So in your view, is Scripture efficacious in iself?

    Now, you said, “You are, of course, correct that “For Aquinas, revelation is the enlightening of the mind to divine things. It is not primarily through the Scriptures, but the grace God gives to the human person,” but this is the revelation given to prophets and apostles. (I think you are equating epistemology and sanctifying grace here.) It is not the illumination of grace supplied to ordinary believers.” There a couple of things wrong here. 1) This is not simply revelation given to prophets and apostles but the whole Church since the Church is apostolic and has a prophetic mission. In fact, for Aquinas, saints too have prophecies (see for example how he interprets St. Paul on the Corinthians). 2) I am not equating epistemology with sanctifying grace simply because one needs the “touch of the Holy Spiirt” in order to have this kind of understanding of divine things (cf. De Veritate on prophecy). 3) I grant to you that for Aquinas, there is a distinction between sanctifying grace and charismatic grace, but the distinction has to do with individual relationship with God and relationship with others so that they can bring them to God. The reason why there is prophecy is for the good of the Church (cf. De Ver 12, 2, 3 and Com. Rom. 12, lec 2). 4) The reason why I stress so much on divine illumination and prophecy and such is because for Aquinas, all knowledge is analogous to this. This means the knowledge of the articles of faith as well as the understanding of Scripture. In fact, to read Scripture is to continue the prophetic mission of the Christ. In this way, Scripture is necessary for the role of the Christian and the Church as king, prophet, and priest. The hermeneutical principles Aquinas have when speaking of Scripture has all of this in mind (he in fact, said that the custom of the Church has the greatest authority. I do not know how you can reconcile that with formal sufficiency). Of course a combox has limits in that one cannot prove all this (which means we have to get into the question of the intellect and will as well as the imprint of grace) but Aquinas is not as simplistic on his view on Scripture as people see him to be.

    As far as Oberman goes, I tend to agree with Geiselmann although I would not put as much stress on nominalism’s influence on partim/partim. But I also think that although the notion of partim/partim can be traced to some medieval canonists (Obermann also argues to Basil but with a different phrase), it was not the normative account of the Church nor was it what Trent adopted (though I agree that some people intended it). Now, Congar takes the position that people in Trent intended it but we do not need to give assent to what they intended but what the Holy Spirit intended. That seems to me very similar to what K. Barth said about Scripture, no?

    Comment by Apolonio — February 18, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

  4. Apolonio,

    It would seem at this point that we may simply be going around and around one another. Of course, there is a difference between words and interpretation of words. And, of course, Thomas worked within a “particular narrative” and the customs of the church. To repeat something I had written elsewhere:

    Of course, Scripture needs to be read in the Church. That’s what it is for. This does not mean that the Church provides the Scripture with its intelligibility, or that the Church cannot misread the text.

    To provide a parallel example, the score of a Mozart symphony has an inherent intelligibility to those who know how to read music, and especially to those who are trained classical musicians. To me, who has a minimal ability to read music, and no musical training whatsoever, it is just notes on a page. However, this does not mean that even my amateur ears cannot pick out a Mozart symphony when I hear it played–at least those pieces with which I am familiar.

    The intelligibility, however, is not provided by the listener, nor even by the classically trained symphony orchestra. Mozart, who was, of course, part of a musical tradition himself, provided the intelligibility, and the trained musician does his best to be faithful to the text. Should a new Mozart score be discovered, trained musicians could play it because of its inherent intelligibility.

    None of this has anything to do with “private judgment.” Someone (either with or without the relevant musical skills), who just decides to wing it as he goes along rather than follow the score, is not “playing Mozart.” Someone with amateur skills, who does her best to follow the score, will nonetheless be playing Mozart, even if not with the adequacy of a classically trained musician.

    In both cases, the inherent intelligibility is in the text. In the former, it is ignored. In the latter, it is revealed. The question of whether or not the musician correctly interprets the text is not provided either by the private musician, or even by the skilled guild of classical musicians. It is only because the text has an inherent intelligibility that skilled (or even unskilled) musicians can listen to a performance, and respond: “That is (or is not) Mozart.”

    So the question as I see it is not whether Scripture is read and makes sense only within a certain community. Clearly Scripture is the text of the Church. The question rather is whether Scripture (like a Mozart score) has an inherent intelligibility such that someone who is a participant in the Christian community, and who is familiar with and engages in its practices–prayer, worship, sacraments, confession of sin, etc.–can interpret the inherent intelligibility of Scripture in the same way that someone who is trained in the practices of the Western musical tradition could interpret a score by Mozart, or, rather whether there is something peculiar about the text of Scripture such that, unlike other written texts–musical scores, philosophical texts, blog conversations like this one, or even Thomas’s own writings–the texts are inherently obscure, something like a hidden code that can only be understood with the help of something like a magisterial decoder ring.

    I think it quite clear that from the beginning the church understood Scripture to have the same kind of inherent intelligibility as a Mozart musical score. This is one of the differences between Gnosticism and the historic Catholic Church. The gnostics insisted on a private hidden reading of Scripture that could not be understood apart form their secret tradition; to the contrary, Ireneaus insisted that the reading of Scripture was public. I think it clear that Aquinas belonged in the same tradition as Ireneaus, not the tradition of Gnosticism.

    Another way of putting this would be: Would Thomas have understood Scripture to have the same kind of intelligibility as a text by Aristotle so that if someone applied the same kind of interpretive tools to Scripture that one applied to Aristotle’s Metaphysics (for all its difficulty), one could get the sense of the text? I think this obviously the case.

    Although he is not addressing the post-Reformation controversies, Christopher T. Baglow makes the same point in “Sacred Scripture and Sacred Doctrine in Saint Thomas Aquinas,” in Aquinas on Doctrine.

    What is the process by which Scripture reaches its fruition in doctrine, that is, by which doctrine reveals its fundamental identity with Scripture? For Thomas it is a matter of logical procession. . . . For him, theological argumentation is first and foremost a matter of hermeneutics. In accessing Scripture, as in any task of interpretation, there is a definite goal which is involved, namely that of understanding (intelligere), ‘in which the mind pierces through to see the quid of a thing, that is, to read the truth in the very essence of it.’ [quoting T.F. Torrance] . . . So the interpretation of any text, including Scripture will involve analysing propositions, ‘for the interpretation of language is the interpretation of thought.’ . . . Interpretation, therefore, is not a cryptic activity that is exclusive to the domain of the dogmatician or philosopher [or, I would add, the magisterium], but is rather the basic activity one pursues in every attempt to understand anything. In interpretation it occurs specifically through an apprehension of the speaker’s intention, or in the case of Scripture, the author’s intention. This process remains essential in the case of Scripture, although it requires augmentation on the part of God and his grace if the interpreter is to pierce through to divine truth. This is grounded in the recognition that Scripture has one author, namely, God, whose conception of reality bears no distinction from reality itself. (4-5) [all emphases mine]

    [I would recommend looking at the entire discussion in Baglow, and also the discussion in Nicholas Healy that I noted above.]

    I would imagine that something like the above is the understanding of Scripture not only in the patristic Church–see J.N.D. Kelly and others–but also the Medieval Church, right up until theologians like John Brevicoxa (included in Oberman’s Forerunners of the Reformation) pointed out (correctly) that doctrines such as the drawing up of the Creed by the apostles, the translation of the Petrine See from Antioch to Rome, and the Petrine succession of Roman popes itself “are not contained in Scripture.” Coupled with this realization was the necessity of Trent to find some counter to the Reformers’ insistence on the clarity of Scripture by arguing the contrary, a position about which I am certain all Orthodox and Catholic theologians would have agreed not with Trent, but with the Reformers–at least up until the Reformation controversies themselves. This is only a hunch, but I would imagine that historical theologians would be hard pressed to find anything like the post-Tridentine arguments about the insufficiency or unclarity of Scripture that have become part and parcel of Roman Catholic apologetics, prior to Luther.

    In closing, as I often do in these conversations, I find it both ironic and perplexing that we assume that Thomas’s own writings have enough inherent intelligibility that we can argue about their proper interpretation using ordinary rules of language and textual comparison, and that we believe our own disagreements on this blog conversation are understandable to one another, even apart from in infallible magisterial interpreter, but, for some reason, incomprehensible to me, Catholic participants in this discussion believe that Scripture will not yield to such ordinary rules of textual interpretation, but rather requires an infallible interpreter or its meaning remains necessarily obscure, and subject to the mere whims of private interpreters who can make it mean anything they desire.

    At any rate, thank you for your comments. I think Thomas’s texts are themselves fairly clear. Against the interpretation argued by Dr. Liccione, I have argued that Aquinas is addressing specifically, not the authority of the magisterium, but the issue of heretical refusal to receive specific items in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds, that these articles are derived from the clear and explicit teaching of Scripture, and that Thomas believes that heretics are willfully culpable precisely because they deny that which should be evident to them on a plain reading of the biblical texts.

    Readers need to examine the relevant sections in ST 2.2.1-5, as well as the key passage on sacra doctrina and sacra scriptura in ST 1.1.1-10, and make up their minds for themselves. I would also recommend that they read at lengh how Thomas consistently reads Scripture in the Summa, how he understands theology (sacra doctrina) to be an extrapolation of the meaning of Scripture, how he interprets Scripture in his commentaries, and what he says about the priority of the literal sense in ST 1.1.10. If, after doing this, they find themselves convinced that Thomas does not believe either that Scripture is sufficient or inherently intelligible, they may think me mistaken. Finally, I refer them again to the articles by Healy and Baglow.

    Grace and Peace,
    Bill Witt

    Comment by William Witt — February 19, 2009 @ 7:11 am

  5. At the close of my comment above, I had noted that readers need to examine the relevant passages to see for themselves what Thomas actually says–not only for what Thomas does say, but for what he does not say. So, when Thomas discusses the relation between the “Articles of Faith” (the Creed) and Scripture, he identifies the Creed as a summary of the teaching of Scripture, and nothing more:

    And so it was necessary to gather together a clear summary from the sayings of Holy Writ, to be proposed to the belief of all. This indeed was no addition to Holy Writ, but something taken from it.

    Notice what Thomas does not say. He does not say that the Creeds are necessary because Scripture is unclear, and so the Church needs a supplementary addition to their content to make it clear. He does not say that there are certain issues that Scripture does not address, and so the creeds are needed to address these issues. He does not say that individual Christians are incapable of interpreting Scripture (“private judgment”) and so a magisterium is needed to interpret Scripture and that the Creed is the way the magisterium has done this. He does not say that the apostolic teaching contains material not found clearly in Scripture, and so the Creeds are needed to preserve this apostolic teaching.

    Again, in the above, Thomas does not say that we are unable to know from Scripture whether the Arians are right, or whether the orthodox are right, whether Christ is fully God, or Christ is merely a creature, and so the Creed is necessary in order that the Church might decide an issue on which Scripture is unclear. To the contrary, he states:

    The truth of faith is sufficiently explicit in the teaching of Christ and the apostles. But since, according to 2 Pet. 3:16, some men are so evil-minded as to pervert the apostolic teaching and other doctrines and Scriptures to their own destruction, it was necessary as time went on to express the faith more explicitly against the errors which arose

    Thomas does not sound like Newman here: “The truth of faith is sufficiently explicit in the teaching of Christ and the apostles.” And we know that by “the teaching of Christ and the apostles,” Thomas means Scripture because he had stated that the Creed “is no addition to Holy Writ, but something taken from it.”

    Finally, note what Thomas says about the problem of hermeneutics–how Scripture is interpreted and why some do not understand it. Thomas does not say that Scripture is unclear in itself and needs a magisterium to make it clear. (He does say that it is obscure sometimes.) But the single reason why Thomas states that people do not understand Scripture is that they do not have the time or leisure to study it: “[I]n order to gather the truth of faith from Holy Writ, one needs long study and practice, which are unattainable by all those who require to know the truth of faith, many of whom have no time for study, being busy with other affairs.”

    What then is the purpose of the Creed? Is it the magisterium’s provision for teaching what could not be discerned in Scripture itself, even by those who exercised the required study and discipline? To the contrary, the Creed is needed “to gather together a clear summary from the sayings of Holy Writ, to be proposed to the belief of all”–all, meaning not only those who have leisure to study, but those who do not.

    Finally, why do heretics exist? Is it because certain people attempt to interpret Scripture without the necessary interpretive guide that can only be provided by the magisterium, and so necessarily misinterpret a document that is not inherently intelligible in itself? To the contrary, “The truth of faith is sufficiently explicit in the teaching of Christ and the apostles. But since, according to 2 Pet. 3:16, some men are so evil-minded as to pervert the apostolic teaching and other doctrines and Scriptures to their own destruction, it was necessary as time went on to express the faith more explicitly against the errors which arose.” The creeds are necessary because certain “evil-minded” people “pervert the apostolic teaching and other doctrines and Scriptures.” And, again, it is clear from what Thomas has said above about the “Articles of faith” being summaries of the explicit teaching of Scripture, as well as Scripture being able to be understood by serious study that he is not talking about some “other” apostolic teaching or doctrines that cannot be found in Scripture.

    In short, if we compare the statements Thomas makes in ST 2.2.1-5 with the arguments that take place between post-Tridentine Catholics and Reformation Christians about the role of the interpretation of Scripture and the purpose of the Creeds, Thomas sounds like . . . a Protestant. Just when one would expect to find the kinds of arguments that Catholic apologists bring up constantly about why Scripture is not “sufficient,” why the magisterium is needed because Scripture is not “clear,” why the magisterium is needed because revelation is contained in two sources (Scripture and tradition), they are not there. Thomas appeals throughout to the clear teaching of Scripture, and does so in a way that presumes that with study and diligence, one can understand it. If one becomes a heretic (by denying a specific article of the creed), it is not because one has failed to be guided by the magisterium, but because one is “evil-minded,” wilfully “perverting” what should have been evident to the reader.

    Comment by William Witt — February 19, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

  6. Dear Dr. Witt,
    I very much appreciated this article. As a (practically) life-long admirer and follower of the Angelic Doctor, and having recently found myself in the Episcopal Church after a rather unfortunate experience with my local Orthodox parish, reading your non-Tridentine, non-“Newmanian” take on Aquinas’s view of Scripture was a breath of fresh air. However, I have two questions that arose from reading this, that I hope you will be able to shed some light on:

    1) In what sense is “sola scriptura” as a confessional formulation viable at all, given what Aquinas says about the Creeds? Let’s take his expression “the teaching of Christ and the apostles.” It’s clear that this “teaching” pre-existed the Scriptures in some form to which we no longer have access, but it is equally clear from Aquinas that the very same content (as J.N.D. Kelly notes in “Early Christian Doctrines”) was content in various unwritten traditions that existed side-by-side with the canonical Scriptures. This is not an endorsement of any two-source theory, since the content of both canonical Scriptures and the various unwritten traditions was (theoretically) the same. And, if the Creeds, which are taken from Scripture, can be called “rules of faith” alongside Scripture, is it really meaningful at all to say that Scripture is the “sola rule of faith?” It certainly cannot mean that the Scriptures are the sole means of revelation, for this would discount general revelation/natural theology. I would be interested to know your thoughts on the subject.

    2) How do the quotations from ST IIaIIae square with other quotations from ST III such as:

    “The Apostles, led by the inward instinct of the Holy Ghost, handed down to the churches certain instructions which they did not put in writing, but which have been ordained, in accordance with the observance of the Church as practiced by the faithful as time went on. Wherefore the Apostle says (2 Thessalonians 2:14): “Stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word”–that is by word of mouth–“or by our epistle”–that is by word put into writing. Among these traditions is the worship of Christ’s image. Wherefore it is said that Blessed Luke painted the image of Christ, which is in Rome.” (ST IIIa Q. 25, art. 3, ad 4)

    “Human institutions observed in the sacraments are not essential to the sacrament; but belong to the solemnity which is added to the sacraments in order to arouse devotion and reverence in the recipients. But those things that are essential to the sacrament, are instituted by Christ Himself, Who is God and man. And though they are not all handed down by the Scriptures, yet the Church holds them from the intimate tradition of the apostles, according to the saying of the Apostle (1 Corinthians 11:34): “The rest I will set in order when I come.” (ST IIIa Q. 64, art. 2, ad 1)

    I look forward to reading your responses, and I thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.


    Comment by Drew — March 23, 2009 @ 10:14 pm

  7. […] on John Henry Newman’s own contribution. (For previous discussion, see here, here, here, and here.) In what follows I intend to focus on Newman’s shorter essay entitled “Faith and […]

    Pingback by Non Sermoni Res — January 29, 2010 @ 10:20 pm

  8. Catholics believe “the teaching of Christ and the Apostles” is synonymous with the deposit of faith. We do not believe that the deposit of faith is limited to scripture, though that is the only tangible deposit of faith.

    The Magisterium is there to interpret and reconcile the intangible with the tangible.

    Comment by The Ubiquitous — June 9, 2013 @ 3:09 am

  9. (My point here is that the OP seems to believe that Aquinas considers the “rule of faith” the whole deposit of faith, which has not really been shown.)

    Comment by The Ubiquitous — June 9, 2013 @ 3:09 am

  10. Ubiquitous,

    Catholic Christians, including those who are not Roman, certainly believe that “the teaching of Christ and the apostles” is synonymous with the deposit of faith. While this original deposit was not limited to Scripture (insofar as there was an oral kerygma and didache that preceded Scripture), it is only in Scripture that this deposit has been retained — unless, of course, one is going to posit an “unwritten” tradition that has been passed down infallibly for 2,000 years. The whole reason that Newman’s theory of development became necessary was that historical research made clear that no such unwritten tradition had survived.

    And,of course, some kind of magisterium is required. As I wrote, “Moreover, the magisterial authority of the church has the right and obligation to explicitly endorse and teach clearly this creedal doctrine that summarizes teaching found in Scripture when it is rejected by willful heretics. This is an understanding that would certainly be affirmed by Anglican theologians in my own tradition like John Jewel or Richard Hooker.”

    Nothing I have written indicates that Aquinas believed that the “rule of faith” is the “whole deposit of faith.” Thomas is clear that the “deposit of faith” contains incidental matters such as that Abraham had two sons. Thomas is clear, however, that the Creed is a sufficient summary of the “First Truth” of the object of faith.

    Comment by William Witt — June 11, 2013 @ 3:15 am

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