Theological commentary

Theology aided by Philosophy

by John Young

I mentioned to a group of Baptist theological students that Catholic seminarians do two years of philosophy in their studies for the priesthood. Several of the group seemed quite surprised that so much time should he devoted to philosophy. In a typical Protestant theological college, by contrast, there is little formal study of philosophy - perhaps no more than an elective on, say, the philosophy of religion.

The fact that the Catholic Church wants so much philosophy for future priests, in addition to all their other studies, indicates the importance she attaches to it. One reason it is so important is that it provides a unique way of better understanding the Faith. My course at the Centre for Thomistic Studies this year is focused on gaining a greater appreciation for the main doctrines of Revelation through philosophy.

If God had never given us a supernatural Revelation, the science of sacred theology would not exist, and the highest science would be philosophy. But Revelation and theology are not in a world of their own; they are intimately linked to philosophy, for grace perfects nature. It follows that reason can aid us in seeing more clearly, deeply and exactly what God tells us through Revelation. In this brief article let us glance at some key doctrines and indicate how philosophy enables us to plumb their meaning more profoundly.

Our Understanding of God

Even in heaven, when God is seen face to face, we will not fully understand him. Infinite being can be fully grasped only by an infinite intellect. How imperfect, therefore, is our present understanding of Him! But as Aristotle says, even a little knowledge of the highest things is worth more than great knowledge of lower things. So we should ever strive to deepen our knowledge of God.

Philosophy helps in this, as in so much else, by purifying the intellect. It enables us more easily to rise above sense knowledge and seize the intelligibility of things; to break the dominance that the imagination so readily exercises over the intellect.

Frank Sheed refers to the mental picture of God as an old man with a beard, and maintains that "...even those who laugh most scornfully at its naivety would, I think, if they were skilled at exploring their own thoughts, find that they were still dangerously affected by it" (Theology and Sanity; London 1948, p. 23). In the natural order it is above all through philosophy that we purify the intellect from distortions introduced by the imagination, thus allowing us to gain a more penetrating understanding of God.

Natural theology is the study of God by reason. It proves his existence, shows something of what he is, and deals with his activity in the world. The knowledge thus gained is in perfect harmony with divine Revelation, for reason canít contradict faith; and when applied to the truths of Revelation, it makes them much clearer. They acquire in our minds a vividness, a concreteness, a reality greater than we had previously experienced when thinking of them.

The Trinity is known only by Revelation. But the concepts of person and nature are accessible to philosophy, and are essential for getting such penetration as we can into the dogma of the Blessed Trinity.

Creation from Nothing

Revelation teaches that God made the world from nothing. Philosophy establishes the same truth; and when we prove beyond a shadow of doubt, in natural theology, that God made everything from nothing, this truth comes alive in the mind with a force it did not previously have for most of us. One realises more acutely what it means and what its implications are. Godís closeness to us and our utter dependence on Him from moment to moment - these can be seen with a startling clarity they lacked before.

Human Nature and Original Sin

Scripture shows man to be a unity of body and soul: he is one being, not a spirit dwelling uneasily in a body. Yet his soul will survive death. Philosophy proves his unity through the doctrine of matter and form, completely ruling out dualism and reincarnation. It also establishes the spirituality and immortality of the soul. All this reinforces what Revelation tells us, and removes the vagueness we might feel in the absence of philosophyís lucid statements and compelling evidence.

There is great confusion about original sin. What is it? What are its effects? How can a just God allow us to suffer for a sin for which we were not responsible? How should one proceed in assessing Calvinís theology of the depravity of human nature? Or the opposite view taught by Pelagius?

Philosophy is necessary if we are to clarify this complex question. With its help we gain a better understanding of human nature, and are able to distinguish the natural, preternatural and supernatural. From there we can proceed to analysing the questions arising from the doctrine of original sin.

Christ: God and Man

As with the Trinity, the concepts of person and nature must be known if we are to get some grasp of Jesus Christ as both God and man. Obscurity here will show if we are confused by questions like these: Whatís wrong with the claim of Nestorius that Mary should be called mother of Christ but not mother of God? (How could God have a mother?) If God died on the Cross, who kept the world going while He was dead?

Problems about Christís knowledge are made more difficult if one lacks the insight philosophical psychology gives into the nature of human knowing. With that insight one easily distinguishes between sense and intellect; and one also has a basis for studying the teaching of Revelation about Christís infused knowledge, his beatific vision and his divine knowledge.

The Eucharist

In the Eucharist, what looks like bread is really Christís body, and what looks like wine is really his blood. This statement seems to many non-Catholics to be against reason. Is it a denial of what the senses show to be the case? Does it imply that an adult human body is reduced to an almost microscopic size? (If not, why not?) Does it mean that a piece or bread is converted into divinity ó that it becomes divine?

Transubstantiation is above reason, not against it. But unless one has a firm concept of the distinction between substance and accidents, and of what they are, it can seem that Catholic dogma about the Eucharist is absurd. With that philosophic grasp, however, the solution to the difficulties can be seen. Further, one gets a much more living awareness of the reality of Christís presence, an awareness which can greatly help oneís Eucharistic devotion.

The Last Things

After death the soul will exist separated from the body. What can philosophy tell us about this mode of existence? And can reason provide an argument for an eventual resurrection of human bodies? The light thrown on these questions by philosophy helps in gaining a deeper and sharper appreciation of what Revelation tells us.

Then there is the question of manís natural destiny. Had he never been raised to the supernatural order, what would have happened to him after death? This is not an idle question, but one that helps us get our supernatural destiny in better perspective.

At the end of the world our bodies will he raised to life, and we will live forever as complete human beings, body and soul, either in heaven or hell. Fascinating questions arise about this future life, many of which we canít answer. But such light as we can gain is due in part to truths established by philosophy: for example, truths about the nature of matter, about space and time, about our powers of knowing and loving.

The supreme happiness of heaven is the face to face vision of God. We cannot learn from philosophy that this is our destiny, but we can realise more clearly its meaning and awesomeness through what reason shows of the nature of knowledge. In knowledge the knower becomes the known. Meditation on that truth, and on its application to the Beatific Vision brings a new depth of understanding.

In conclusion, the extent to which sound philosophy assists in penetrating the mysteries of the Faith is well indicated by Pope St. Pius X when he says that the capital theses in St Thomasí philosophy "are to be considered as the foundations upon which the whole science of natural and divine things is based; if such principles are once removed or in any way impaired, it must necessarily follow that students of the sacred sciences will ultimately fail to perceive so much as the meaning of the words in which the dogmas of divine revelation are expressed by the magisterium of the Church" (Motu Proprio Doctoris Angelici).


John Young is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 3 (1999), No. 1.
Permission is granted to copy or quote from this article, provided that full credit is given to the author and to the
Centre for Thomistic Studies, Sydney, Australia.
We would be grateful to receive a copy of any republication.