"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


Fourth article: whether sacred doctrine is a practical science

State of the question. It seems that sacred doctrine is a practical science, because its purpose is the regulation of action, name direction in the Christian life; and it explains both the Old Law and the New Law, which direct human acts. It is to be noted that according to Scotus, who wrote very extensively on this subject, theology is a practical science because its proper end is action, especially the love of God and one's neighbor, since the whole law and the prophets depend upon these two precepts. Scotus inclines to this view because he thinks that the will is a higher faculty than the intellect, and that all knowledge, even the beatific vision ordained to love, as disposing one for a perfection of a higher order.

It must also be noted that we already detect this practical tendency in the writings of the Master of the Sentences, who divided his work, as to the acts of the will, into enjoyment and use, in the following manner:

1) The things to be enjoyed are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

2) The things to be made use of for the attainment of eternal happiness are the world and created things.

3) The things to be enjoyed and made use of are the humanity of Christ, the angels, and the saints.

St. Bonaventure said (39) that sacred theology is an affective science, since it is intermediary between speculative theology and practical theology, because contemplation and the performance of good constitute the end in view. St. Albert the Great expresses a similar view at the beginning of his Summa. In his opinion sacred theology is an affective study since it is directed to God's love. The nominalists along with Durandus admit that theology consists of two sciences, one of which is speculative and the other practical.

St. Thomas' reply is that sacred doctrine, being one, is both, eminently speculative and practical, but it is speculative rather than practical.

1i) It is proved in the counterargument from the nominal definition of theology, because it is chiefly concerned with God, who does not come within the scope of things operable, but who is the Being to whom our intentions and actions must be directed.

2) The first part of the conclusion is proved from the intrinsic end of this science in the body of the article as follows: A science which considers things speculative and practical from the same formal point of view, is eminently speculative and practical; but sacred theology considers all things speculative and practical as virtually revealed and directed to God, the first truth and last end; therefore sacred theology is eminently speculative and practical.

The term eminently is taken in the sense of formal eminence and not merely of virtual eminence. This means that, just as the absolutely simple perfections are contained in God formally and eminently (which is more than virtually), just as the human soul is formally and eminently sensitive and vegetative, so also, as we will state farther on, infused faith is eminently speculative and practical, since it is concerned with mysteries to be believed, the precepts, and the counsels.(40) In various passages St. Thomas says that the same applies to the gifts of understanding and wisdom.(41)

3) The second part of the conclusion is proved in the body of the article as follows: Sacred theology is more speculative than practical, because, as its name implies, it is more concerned with God than with human acts. God, however, is the object of speculation and contemplation, but does not come within the scope of things operable, as in the case of ethics that is concerned with things capable of being done, and of the arts that are concerned with things capable of being made. Thus St. Thomas distinguishes better than St. Bonaventure does between theology, which is acquired by human effort, and infused contemplation. This latter is truly an affective and quasi-experimental knowledge that proceeds from the gift of wisdom.(42)

But although theology, which is acquired by human effort, and the gift of wisdom are specifically distinct, yet they are most fittingly united, and this point is clearly exemplified in the great doctors of the Church, as in St. Augustine, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert, and others. In fact, the Church never declares any servant of God a doctor of the Church unless he has first been not only beatified but also canonized. This means that he must first have been of eminent sanctity, and hence that the gift of wisdom, and acquired knowledge are each possessed in a high degree.

Concerning the doctrine of this article, it is important to note here that Scotus denies the possibility of one and the same science being both eminently speculative and practical. To this Cajetan (43) replies that the practical and the speculative are not essential differences of a science, as it is a science, but as it is finite. The divisions we find in things of the lower order, for instance, in the philosophical sciences, are found united in those of the higher order, as in the case of faith and the gifts of understanding an wisdom. Gonet, too, ably defends the doctrine of this article by considering the loftiness of both formal objects quod and quo of sacred theology. For the formal object quod of theology is not on something speculative, such as being inasmuch as being, nor is something merely operable, such as human actions about which ethics is concerned, but its object is God considered under the aspect of the Deity, who is the first speculative truth and the last end to be attained and the first rule of our life.

Likewise, the formal object quo or light of sacred theology is virtual revelation, but it is virtual revelation that has its foundation in both speculative and practical knowledge. Thus formal revelation is the formal motive of faith, which is both speculative or contemplative, and practical according as it is concerned with the belief of mysteries or the fulfillment of precepts. The formal objects quod and quo, however, are correlatives, in that the latter is the searchlight enabling one to know the former.

Objection. If theology were both speculative and practical, then many of its acts would be both speculative and practical, because of the formal aspect of this science. But this is false; for there are in theology merely speculative conclusions, such as the four relations in the divine Persons, and there are conclusions that are merely practical, such as a particular act to be avoided.

We reply to this by denying the major. Although it is true to say that the rational soul is eminently and formally both vegetative and sensitive, yet it does not follow that its every act must be both vegetative and sensitive. So also each and every act of any science does not extend to everything included in this science. It is not necessary that each and every act totally and adequately share in the formal aspect of a science. Although this latter is formally indivisible, nevertheless it is virtually multiple.

Hence some theologians, such as St. Thomas, excel in dogmatic theology, whereas others, such as St. Alphonsus Liguori, are conspicuous for their knowledge of moral theology. In like manner, although the gift of wisdom is formally and eminently both speculative and practical, some saints, such as St. John of the Cross, are prominent in contemplation; others, however, such as St. Vincent de Paul, distinguish themselves by the wisdom of their direction in works of mercy. In the two saints just mentioned we see the gift of wisdom operating in a high degree; but in the former it manifests itself more in contemplation, whereas in the latter it concentrates rather on those things that pertain to the active life. In the former it is like a searchlight, but in the latter it is like a glow in the heavens that illuminates all things from on high.

From this article as also from the preceding we see that the unity of sacred theology is of a higher order, since it is, as it were, a participation in the science of God and the blessed, a subordinate science, as it were, to this latter science or rather to this higher vision.


Index Top


39. In Proem. I Sent., q.3.

40. This distinction between formal and virtual eminence is of great importance. First of all, it must be observed that when we say a being contains some perfection eminently, this means that the being in question contains the perfection in a nobler way than it is contained in any being of a lower order. Thus sensation in man is nobler or more refined than in the irrational animals. But when a perfection is contained in a being formally and eminently, this means the perfection denoted by the concept is contained actually in such a being, though in a nobler manner. Thus human wisdom is contained formally and eminently in the natural wisdom of the angels. When a being possesses the active power that renders it capable of producing a perfection found in other beings, then this perfection is said to be contained in such a being virtually and eminently. Thus local motion is contained virtually and eminently in the human soul, because through the will it commands the motion of hands or feet. (Tr.)

41. Summa theol., IIa IIae, q.4, a.2; q.8, a.3; q.9, a.3; q.45, a.3.

42. Ibid., q.45, a. 1, 2.

43. Com. in Iam, q. 1, a.4, no, 3.


"Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars."

Thomas á Kempis

* * *

"We must not be behind time in doing good; for death will not be behind his time. "

St Phillip Neri

* * *

"Whoever wants to stand alone without the support of a master and guide will be like the tree that stands alone in a field without a proprietor. No matter how much the tree bears, passers-by will pick the fruit before it ripens. "

St John of the Cross, OCD - Doctor of the Church

* * *