If you don’t like Scholasticism, don’t study it

The Everyday Thomist tells us of N.T. Wright’s claims about  “traditional Western Theologians”- a group which pretty clearly includes thomists:

N.T. Wright… argues that traditional Western Trinitarian theology bypasses the narrative account of Scripture especially regarding the historical Jesus, and instead presents a fundamental non-narrative Trinitarian theology which “approache[es] the Christological question by assuming this [ontological] view of god and then fitting Jesus into it” (Wright, “Jesus and the Identity of God,” 54).

Wright begins his essay with a personal anecdote of talking to students who claim to not believe in god. Wright probes them to explain “which god they don’t believe in” and determines that when students say this, what they mean is that they do not believe in a god who sits on high, looking down and casting out judgment, what Wright calls the “spy-in-the-sky.” To these students, Wright responds that he does not believe in such a god either, but rather, believes in the God that is revealed in the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

So far, so good, but Everyday Thomist’s post goes on to say that Matthew Levering

…wants to save Aquinas from the implicit criticism of people like Wright, namely, that his conception of Jesus is sterile and formulaic, and completely detached from the Jesus as revealed in Scripture.

If you’ve been any  kind of scholastic for more than ten minutes, you’ve met an (implicit) criticism like this more than once. Scholasticism, we are told, ignores history and the concrete, therefore it cannot create a living, vibrant, meaningful theology.

Levering’s attempt to extract Aquinas from Wright’s criticism was clever and revealing, but it doesn’t change Wright’s basic point. One can find historical snippets in Aquinas, to be sure, but Aquinas’s method is certainly not sufficiently historical to give Wright and the atheists he speaks to any theology they can appreciate. But why in the world is this a criticism of Aquinas?  Aren’t we all modern people here? Don’t we all know that the correct answer to “I don’t find ____ rewarding” is “Then don’t do it! Do something else!” If N.T. Wright doesn’t feel anthing when praying to the first mover, and doesn’t get excited by studying Aquinas’s treatise on the Trinity, then he can study Jesus Christ as a historical person to his heart’s content. I’ll still buy all his books (which I think are fantastic, BTW).

Whenever I encounter the “dry thomism” argument of Wright, or the nouvelle theologie, or the communio guys, or disgrunteled priests (and Cardinals… and a pope), the most straightforward answer- which strikes me as irrefutable- is that there’s simply no arguing with taste. Some people read St. Thomas as spiritual reading. Some people find Von Balthasaar irritating, not uplifting. Some people feel closer to God when polishing syllogisms. Some people actually- gasp– like reading both St. Thomas and N.T. Wright. Where’s the problem?

Human beings can’t exhaust anything by one mode of considering it. The world simply does not appear to us as limited to a single mode of consideration. Consider your experience of the following thing:

All men are mortal.

What is the correct mode of considering this thing in your experience? Is this a subject and a predicate (the mode of considering that grammarians have) or a famous premise in a syllogism (the mode of consideration that logicians have) or English (the MoC that a linguist would have) or a sign (semiotics) or a contingent being (metaphysicians) or a statement about the universality of death (existentialists)… Clearly, the initial question is ridiculous. Experience just doesn’t come to us as limited to a particular mode of consideration, still less a “correct” one; and our experience of Jesus is an experience. This is not to say that, in our experience of Christ, any mode of consideration is as fruitful than any other one, but it is to say that we cannot limit our experience to one, all embracing, mode of consideration to the exclusion of others. Furthermore, any critique that some mode of consideration is “dry” or “doesn’t speak to modern needs” is either a matter of taste or a clear appeal to the one true Scotsman (since if St. Thomas does speak to your needs, it is assumed that you are somehow not modern).


  1. peeping thomist said,

    August 25, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    amen. speaking of which:


  2. August 25, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    hear hear!

  3. Doug said,

    August 25, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Amen. I, too, have a great fascination with the works of both the Angelic Doctor and N.T. Wright. Another example we could use is the father-doctor. As he is prescribing his son with medication for a rash, he is doing so strictly as a doctor. When his son hits his first home run, he cheers as a father. The truth is, we answer differently whenever different questions are asked. If I’m asked for a rationally compelling reason to believe in God, I’ll probably refer to one of the five proofs as laid out by St. Thomas. If I’m asked what Jesus has done to change my life, I cite something that’s happened to me personally.

    When it comes to the historical Jesus, it may be best to go with a cumulative approach. For those of us who are Catholic, we are familiar with the expression, “both/and, not either/or”.

  4. Edward said,

    August 26, 2009 at 4:55 am

    And let us not pretend that we need something to “refresh” people from the dryness of Thomism, whatever that means. Catholics do not know Thomism. Most know nothing about the middle ages at all, let alone scholastic philosophy. But they don’t know Greek philosophy either, so I guess they are een handed in their utter ignorance.

    The picture (false) painted is some new perspective breaking up the monotony of philosophical learning. When Catholic pupils are actually grinding away on the nuances of Thomistic and Aristotelian thought, memorizing all of the distinctions between terms and different uses of the same term maybe then I will agree that we can introduce other ways of looking at Christ.

  5. AT said,

    August 26, 2009 at 5:16 am

    The proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem lies in the emanations from the penumbra surrounding Galois representations.

    Complete nonsense, right?

    But that’s what you get in the real world when you ignore Aristotle and Aquinas (and Catholic teaching).

  6. peeping thomist said,

    August 26, 2009 at 5:37 am

    “god who sits on high, looking down and casting out judgment”

    Not entirely sure that this is ALL bad, if incomplete. After all, this view would be better than nothing if it kept one on the right path.

    But regardless, this sort of view is NOT the stereotypical “God of the philosophers” either. So I’m a little confused. The idea that there are a bunch of kids out there who have an extremely dry, rationalistic, St. Thomas-without-the-mystics (even though he was one) or St.-Thomas-as-opposed-to-St. Augustine (he wasn’t) is simply nuts.

    Further, the whole notion is a strawman, assuming as it does that somehow St. Thomas inclines one to these errors. Well, maybe…and maybe the sort of people drawn to St. Thomas are drawn to these errors anyhow…or maybe people are simply seeing what they want to see. But if you think that this is the doctor of doctors FAULT, I got problems wich you. St. Thomas is doing something different…something complementary to…other theologians and approaches to God. If you understand this, and you understand the other approaches, you’ll be fine. Unless there is a problem with the angelic doctor’s thought itself. But if you want to make THAT argument, please go right ahead and see what happens.

    I will freely admit that some modern readers of St. Thomas do fall into the trap he speaks of, mostly due to historical accident of our educations and the current milieu, but that’s what guys like Levering are for, pointing to what St. Thomas wrote about scripture, etc. to balance out certain unhealthy understandings of his corpus. And the amount of people who fall into this is so insignificantly small as not even worthy of being considered in the grand scheme of things.

    The fact that modern kids don’t believe in a God who judges them is not St. Thomas’ fault, or his followers, or the fault of any of the major figure of western theology. That claim is ludicrous on its face. You could perhaps make a claim that western theologians in the last 100 years in the western world bear some of the blame for what is in the heads of the classroom’s occupants today, but even that is stretched.

  7. peeping thomist said,

    August 26, 2009 at 8:29 am

    “the most straightforward answer- which strikes me as irrefutable- is that there’s simply no arguing with taste.”

    I think this point is powerful because it cuts off these often vague objections and begs the question…it could be followed with: “Unless, of course, you have a problem with what St. Thomas says or think his ‘methodology’ is flawed. Otherwise, leave us alone.”

    Heh. And we rarely hear an actual argument that deals with the substance of St. Thomas’ corpus, or that actually substantially attacks his methods, from any of these folks. In which case, your response seems perfect.

  8. Mike said,

    August 27, 2009 at 4:57 am

    Starting around the 1950s people began to say, “I feel that….” instead of “I think that…” We have left the so-called Age of Reason and have entered the Age of “I Choose.” The Triumph of the Will.

  9. everydaythomist said,

    August 30, 2009 at 3:49 am

    Levering’s point is not that Aquinas is sufficiently historical to please Wright, but that Wright, et. al.’s own position is impoverished by not accounting sufficiently for metaphysical speculation regarding God. Wright seems to think that the historical understanding of Jesus is enough, but Levering’s whole book is based on the premise that it is precisely by going beyond the historical Jesus and the economic trinity that we can develop the transformative wisdom that it is proper to theological speculation. It is by engaging the speculative, not the practical intellect, that we become most God-like. Thus, by engaging in metaphysics and not just historical-critical studies of scripture (or whatever other critical method you want to adopt), theology becomes a transformative exercise in faith. So just as Thomas would need Wright’s history if he were alive today, Wright needs Aquinas’ metaphysics, or some other methaphysical method, to do justice to the subject he studies, and justice to himself as a believer as he studies it.

  10. August 30, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    “So just as Thomas would need Wright’s history if he were alive today, Wright needs Aquinas’ metaphysics, or some other metaphysical method, to do justice to the subject he studies, and justice to himself as a believer as he studies it.”

    This could mean a few things, some of which I agree with. I agree that St. Thomas and Wright both study Christ, to be sure, but it’s not clear to me that one study needs the other. A lot of disciplines study or treat of the same thing (like poetry and grammar both treat of the word; sociology and anatomy both deal with human beings) but they are not like two parts of some larger whole. It is edifying to study Christ from different angles, but those various angles don’t have to form some single master science, a “historically informed metaphysics” or some such thing. It would be nice to know both things, but I don’t see why one would need to, or why an ideal science would be metaphysics informed by history.

    Levering, as far as I can tell, is conceding too much to Wright. If Wright, and those he speaks with, don’t feel inspired by non-historical accounts of Christ, great. Leave it at that. Why argue with taste? But what authority does Wright have to speak about those of us who are inspired by them? What if Wright spoke to a bunch of people who said “I really like thinking about God in light of the natural world. When I read the Summa, I feel really close to Christ and only want to learn more. History does nothing for me. I like syllogisms” (I know quite a few people like this). This strikes me as the only response one needs to give. Wright’s whole argument completely defeated by simply sampling another focus group.

    • everydaythomist said,

      September 1, 2009 at 4:28 am

      Levering isn’t giving too much to Wright. Everydaythomist perhaps is.

      There is a difference between reading the Summa in order to feel close to God and reading the Summa in an effort to “do” or construct a systematic theology. I think it is naive to ignore history and historical critical studies of Scripture when doing theology in the contemporary period. So while I think much can be gained by studying Aquinas and his sources, the historical theological element is not going to come from the Angelic Doctor.

      My problem with Wright and others in the contemporary period is that they simply do not see the need for metaphysical speculation. This is especially evident among Protestants but you see it with Catholics too–the work of the speculative intellect has been rejected in order to turn theology into a purely practical science. What we can learn from Thomas is how metaphysical speculation can be incorporated into a theological endeavor, without leading to the creation of a dry and impersonal God of the philosophers.

      I think a person who has successfully integrated these two sides of theology–speculative and practical, metaphysical and historical is Servais Pinckaers. Wright, in so far as he calls himself a theologian and doesn’t do metaphysics, is doing an impoverished form of theology. And people who read Aquinas as if he were the only theological source one needed would be doing an impoverished form of theology. But for a person in the pews who never picked up Pinckaers, Wright, or Aquinas, I think they could still be living full Christian lives. But theologians must read widely in order to do their job well.

      • September 1, 2009 at 7:24 am

        I understand that you think contemporary theology needs to be simultaneously historical and metaphysical, but I simply don’t see any reason why it needs to be so. I understand that it is good to know a great amount about ones topic from various angles, but I see chasing after this sort of good as though it were what theology should be as exactly the sort of bait that ends up destroying theology, not strengthening it.

        Here’s how it works: a college faculty gathers a bunch of theologians together. Some are historians, some metaphysicians, some expert Hebrew/ Syriac linguists, some feminists, some experts in social justice pastoral formation experts, some archaeologists, etc. each of them points to a massive body of literature that proves it is relevant to the contemporary scene. All can make a persuasive case that a student must be up to speed in this or that development of theology in order to be a good theologian. So what does the curriculum committee do? They want to teach the students everything and they end up forming them at random. At graduation, students have an incoherent blur of a hundred different theories in their heads, to which their quite rational response is “theology is whatever anyone wants it to be”. It is important to note that this is not simply a matter of the best way to form a student. The idea of theology needing to b a unity of specializations (like history and metaphysics) destroys theology even in the specializations. Even those students who go on to specialize in theology end up speaking of it more or less at random.

        How different from the way we teach the sciences! Notice that in science, we insist on teaching theories that have been disproved (Newtonian or Classical physics) simply because they are the clearest and best introduction to what science is. When we actually believe in the objective character of something, we insist on giving all students a single, coherent, standardized foundation, quite apart from all the various theories that come later- which is exactly what we don’t do in theology.

        To return to the argument above, Wright claims that theology should be historical for pastoral reasons. He is a pastor/ Bishop, after all, and his concern is understandable. Pastoral concerns are basically concerns of taste- what does your flock like to listen to? What will bring them to God? If history is the answer, then history it is. On the other hand, the pastors that I and my friends seek out should teach natural theology, since that’s the best way to pastor to us.

        Your argument is different from Wright’s. You want to talk about what the nature of theology should be, and I think you are falling into a trap which ends up destroying theology, sc. the desire to make theology the mastery of all the various specializations in theology (say, metaphysics and history). What theology needs to do is teach students less, not more. We need to make the tough decisions of eliminating things that are relevant to understanding the modern theological scene. We need to isolate specializations, not try to synthesize them into a single universal theology. Pinckaers is a perfect example of this. As a Pre- Vat II Swiss Dominican, you can bet he got the most standardized, textbook, unspecialized theology you can imagine- the sort of theology which was universally jettisoned in response to the sort of arguments you are giving about the need to have widely read theologians who are up to speed on contemporary developments. The argument you are giving now ends up eliminating theologians like him, not making more of them.

  11. peeping thomist said,

    September 1, 2009 at 9:46 am

    I’m not sure that any of this is a correct account of Wright/Levering anyhow (Wright appears to do plenty of philosophizing theology in the article linked to above, and to simply be trying to get at the true meanings of things said in theology), but insofar as we are using them as symbols and/or relying on what others have said:

    What might be confusing here is that the historical side of things is used as grist for the mill of many other approaches. History is defined by what, exactly, the practitioner intends to get out of it…because all history is is the past. All history is like this, as De Koninck points out: its not really a science itself, but it is used by a number of them for varying reasons. I can’t see a field which attempts to make this narrative account of scripture even clearer doing anything other than helping everyone else in various ways even though it is not per se part of each various ways.

    I can’t imagine anyone who wanted to write about Christ in the fashion of the Summa merely relying on the church fathers of the same mold before him. One would likely look closely at scripture and consider Christ as he actually was. And such historical researches would then become invaluable to the metaphysician as the sort of matter and inspiration partially used by him to further his own aims in his own field. In other words, if you are going to investigate who Christ is, you would know the “narrative account” Wright refers to backwards and forwards, as St. Thomas in fact did. You wouldn’t need to yourself be an expert in this stuff, but you would need to accept some stuff from it re how scripture and the life of Christ is understood. You would need a “single, coherent, standardized foundation” of some kind to use James’ words above.

    So in this case, I think there is a crucial link between the two fields in question for the very simple reason that you don’t have anything to metaphysize about without starting with scripture’s narrative account or the accounts of other church father’s based on that of scripture’s. Wright helps with that understanding, by all accounts here. If you close off that sort of thing entirely from the point of view of inter-lectual theology you have no basis from which to start: nothing to talk about. If you are Wright and you close off the “ontological” then you have willfully separated yourself from something that you can’t live without, albeit indirectly. You have separated yourself from parts of the creed, even, depending as it does on all this “sterile and formulaic stuff”. Its hard to know how even your historical undertaking would be directed without the acceptance of doctrines derived from the “sterile and formulaic” stuff you say you don’t like to help guide you along, to help dictate what you are looking for/trying to do.

    So when one is conducting one’s own researches, there are points at which the field’s merge, I think anyway. This will be less apparent when both fields explicate their findings.

  12. peeping thomist said,

    September 1, 2009 at 10:00 am

    I don’t think this disagrees with what James says above as I am not saying that the same person needs to be an expert like Wright/historical Jesus AND an expert in St. Thomas/metaphysical theology.

    Yet the metaphysical theologian might read Wright find him key in essential respects, and he MUST know scripture and have an understanding of what historically happened, and the better this understanding is the better he work might be able to perform in his own field (as a necessary but not sufficient condition) since the most basic facts that he is attempting to seek truth through revolve around Christ who actually lived and did stuff.

    The historical theologian, on the other hand, might read St. Thomas and find him key in his own field by giving him some direction as to what to look for and how to make sense of what he finds…nonetheless, the historical theologian MUST must have some understanding of metaphysical theology (otherwise how the hell would he even know that Christ is both God/man, etc.)

    It often happens that a guy mostly in one field does some stuff in the other (as when St. Thomas does his own little etymological riffs, etc.), but this doesn’t change the fact that no one person can be an expert in all the various approaches. To think they could and offer everything and hence nothing as James says above is a big part of our problemo today. The approaches themselves, in various ways, do rely on each other, however. Which is what scientists realize. Which is why scientists synthesize. Ideally work Wright vaguely like Wright does would be slowly evolving and incorporated into updated synthesises that are read by those going into metaphysical theology. And the conclusions of the metaphysical would guide the historical in some ways.

    But tell me how yall see it and how this is wrong?

  13. September 1, 2009 at 11:29 am

    All my responses might be seen as a response to this claim by EverydayThomist:

    “I think it is naive to ignore history and historical critical studies of Scripture when doing theology in the contemporary period.”

    That’s a reasonable claim, and a common one. We are all familiar with it and can feel its persuasive power. But I disagree with him. I disagree with him because you can erase “history and historical critical studies of Scripture” and put in ten to twenty other specializations that are required to be up to speed on the contemporary theological scene. All of them will be really relevant. So what do you do? If you let all the disciplines have their say, you get a mush of pluralism that is worse than no theology at all. The only opiton I see is this: you have to insist that one kind of theology will reign supreme for a formative period, and all attempts to deviate from it will be brutally suppressed with an iron hand (in practice, it takes a very brutal hand indeed. People will get fired, many students will complain- though the majority will like it, and the whole institution will be continually in peril from within and without). Our present opinions about theology avoid either of these tough choices and advance the idea that theology is somehow a synthesis of whole bunch of fields, and everybody should have a say. This seems pragmatic, and it comports with our democratic sensibilities, I think this ends up destroying theology- indeed I think it already has destroyed theology in fact. There is simply no place on earth- nor series of institutions- where one could hope to get the sort of theological education that was available to a thirteenth century member of a religious order- and I say this only of the curriculum as such, quite apart from the great geniuses that were teaching. There continued to be places where one could get a complete theological education up until forty years ago, but they were all killed off by the desire to let all the specialists have their say.

    It may seem that I am speaking only about theological education, but the way one teaches theology is inseparable from what he thinks it is. I say theology is what it was taught as in the thirteenth century, (with the addition of texts from Plato). So my disagreement with EverydayThomist is pretty deep, since I would say something like:

    “I think it is naive to think that the disciplines in contemporary theology give a better grasp of what theology is than (many of) the curricula of the thirteenth century”

    (starting around 1290 among the Dominicans and Franciscans, if anyone wants more details)

    I am aware that there is more than one curriculum here, and more than one master, and I think institutions would be set up that reflected the diversity of masters. I recognize that other things have been learned in the meantime, but I think those should be all be understood in light of thirteenth century principles. So yes, just to really complete the scandal, I think- so far as it is a discussion of what theology is, quite apart from personal preference and pastoral questions- that Wright needs to learn St. Thomas, but that St. Thomas doesn’t need to learn Wright. Over time the two will perhaps form an organic whole, but this requires many years to make, and it requires a world-historical genius of the first order who we cannot count on showing up. But you have to choose a single basis and master if you want him to show up at all.

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