"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.


Fifth article: whether sacred doctrine is nobler that the other sciences

State of the question. Our contention so far is that sacred theology is a true science, and indeed one as such eminently speculative and practical. It is one and the same aspect in these three conclusions, namely, that sacred theology proceeds from principles that have been revealed by the higher science of God, a science that is not only most certain but also absolutely one and eminently speculative and practical. Our discussion now centers upon the nobility or excellence of sacred theology with reference to the other sciences, namely, as to the certitude and sublimity of the object.

The difficulty about sacred theology is that it proceeds from principles that are not evident and that are doubted by some. Thus it seems to be inferior to the mathematical sciences. Moreover, theology draws upon the philosophical sciences. Therefore it seems to be inferior to them. St. Thomas accepted several principles from Aristotle.

St. Thomas replies to this, however, as follows: sacred theology transcends all other sciences both speculative and practical. He proves this:

1) By the argument from tradition, in which philosophy and the other human sciences are said to be handmaids of sacred doctrine. He also quotes the following text of Sacred Scripture in support of his doctrine: "Wisdom hath built herself a house . . . and hath sent her maids to invite to the tower, and to the walls of the city." (44) The Supreme Pontiffs have often drawn attention to the dignity of sacred theology.(45)

2) In the argumentative part of the article this twofold aspect of the conclusion is taken up in turn and proved theologically. Among the speculative sciences it is because of the certitude and dignity of the subject matter that one is nobler than the other. Now sacred theology excels the other speculative sciences in both respects. Therefore it is nobler than the others.

The major is evident; for dignity is thus considered from both the objective and the subjective points of view. The minor is no less certain; for sacred theology derives its certitude not from the light of reason but from the light of the divine knowledge, from principles believed by divine faith. But faith in itself is more certain than all the sciences on account of the authority of God revealing.(46) The object of theology has reference to those things which by reason of their loftiness transcend both human reason and the angelic intellect.

Likewise, sacred theology is nobler than ethics and all the practical sciences, because it ordains and directs to a higher end, namely, to the ultimate supernatural end, which is eternal life. Since this latter is essentially supernatural, it surpasses the future life about which the nobler minded among the ancient philosophers spoke.

The argumentative part of the article presents no difficulty about what is meant. The formal aspect is clearly set forth, and is the same as in the preceding articles, namely, that sacred theology proceeds under the guidance of the divine light, and treats of the loftiest object that is both the supreme truth and the ultimate end.

There remains but the difficulty presented in the first objection, namely, that sacred theology, since it argues from principles that are not evident to reason, seems to be less certain than metaphysics, mathematics, and physics.

In the reply to the first objection it is stated that sacred theology is more certain than the other sciences in itself, but not to us. It is more certain in itself on account of its formal motive being higher, for this is virtual divine revelation. It is, however, less certain to us on account of the weakness of our intelligence, "which confronted by the light of those things more intelligible in themselves is as dazzled as the owl is by the light of the sun." (47) Yet, as Aristotle says, "the slightest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things." (48) Why is this? It is for the reason since knowledge is specified by its object, its worth is estimated more from the object known than from the way in which it is known. Thus the argument of the fittingness about the possibility of the Trinity is of a higher order than the rigorous demonstration of any property of the triangle.

Concerning the distinction made in this reply to the first objection between what is more certain in itself and not to us, and between what is more certain to us and not in itself, we must recall what Aristotle says on several occasions in his Metaphysics, namely, that those things which are more intelligible in themselves, as God, the pure Act, His immutable eternity, are less intelligible to us because they are most remote from the senses; for our human knowledge originates from the senses. On the contrary, motion and time, which are to us more intelligible than immobile eternity, are less intelligible in themselves. Eternity is most lucid in itself, for it is the measure of the subsistent Intelligence or of the pure Act, who is pure intellection.

First doubt. Does the greater degree of objective certainty though not of subjective certainty enjoyed by sacred theology over the other sciences apply to this same theology as possessed by us as wayfarers? We answer in the affirmative to this with the Thomists.(49)

Proof. It is repugnant for a formal cause to inform a subject and not give it its formal effect. Thus infused faith by the very fact that it is received in our intellect, notwithstanding the obscurity of the mysteries, imparts to our intellect a firmness or a greater certainty than that enjoyed by any natural science. St. Augustine says: "It would be easier for me to doubt that I am living than to doubt what I have heard (from God) to be true." (50) What indeed Christ says, "Heaven and earth shall pass away; but My word shall not pass away,"( 51) is therefore most firmly to be held as true. Hence St. Paul says: "But though we, or an angel from heaven preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema." (52) Hence, according to the teaching of St. Thomas,(53) infused faith, not only as it is in itself, and as if it were in the air, external to us, but as it is in us, is more certain than the first principles of reason, because its formal motive, namely, the authority of God revealing, surpasses in validity the evidence of reason, or the power of the light of reason. But sacred theology, since its motive is virtual revelation, though it is inferior to faith, shares in this certitude of faith which we truly possess.

Nevertheless faith and theology are less certain to us because an obscure object but partially dispels the doubt arising in our mind, but imperfectly corresponds to the connatural mode of knowing by our intellect. (54) St. Thomas says: "Certitude can be looked at in two ways. First, on the part of its cause (in itself); and thus a thing which has a more certain cause, is itself more certain. In this way faith is more certain than those three virtues (i.e., all natural knowledge); because it is founded on the divine truth, whereas the aforesaid three virtues are based on human reason. Secondly, certitude may be considered on the part of the subject (for us), and thus the more a man's intellect lays hold of a thing, the more certain it is. In this way faith is less certain" than the evidence of natural knowledge, because our intellect does not so connaturally and fully attain an obscure as an evident object. Obscure objects do not give us that pleasure and fruition which evident ones do. But St. Thomas goes on to say: "Each thing is judged simply with regard to its cause, but relatively with respect to a disposition on the part of the subject; hence faith is more certain simply, while the others are more certain relatively, i.e., for us." (55) But theology, since the source from which it argues is infused faith, shares in the certitude of faith.

So "we have this treasure (of faith) in earthen vessels," (56) but we have it. It is in us. This means that faith and also theology are more certain in themselves and in us than any natural knowledge whatever, although they are not so to us. Hence, if doubts suddenly arise on account of the obscurity of the object, these are merely subjective, resulting from the weakness of our intellect, but not from the formal motive of the habits of either faith or theology.

In this matter we must therefore take care to distinguish between the two expressions in us and to us. We have an example of this in the principle of finality. That every agent acts for an end is more certain in itself and in us than the objective existence of colors. Yet this existence of colors is to us (at least for many, for the majority of mankind) more certain than the principle of finality. All see colors by the sense of sight, but all do not perceive intellectually the absolute necessity and universality of the principle of finality. So, in like manner, faith in the Trinity is more certain in itself and in us than the existence of colors, but it is less certain to us. The reason is that the Trinity is the object most removed from the senses, from which our knowledge originates.

On the contrary, some cling most tenaciously to improbable opinions, for example, to political opinions. The formal heretic persists obstinately in his error, which is not in itself anything certain but is something stubbornly inhering in this badly disposed subject. Some do not firmly assent to truths that in themselves are most certain, and others cling most tenaciously either to the poorest of opinions, or to errors. Thus it is quite clear that there is a distinction between what is certain in itself and what is certain for us. Therefore sacred theology is nobler than all the other sciences. It is so objectively because of the dignity of the object, and subjectively because of the greater certitude accruing to it from the divine light.


Index Top


44. Prov. 9: 1-3.

45. Cf. Syllabus of Pius IX, props. 8, 9, 11, 12, against semirationalism. Also especially Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris.

46. Summa theol., IIa IIae, q.4, a.8.

47. Cf. Aristotle's Metaphysics, Bk. II, chap. 1.

48. Cf.. De animalibus, Bk. I, chap. 5.

49. Cf. Gonet, Clypeus theol. thomist., I, commentary on this article.

50. Confessions, Bk. VII, chap. 10.

51. Mark 13: 31.

52. Gal. 1: 8.

53. Summa theol., IIa IIae, q.4, a.8.

54. Consult the commentaries of Cajetan, John of St. Thomas, and Gonet.

55. Summa theol., IIa Ilae, q.4, a.8.

56. II Cor. 4: 7.


"What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. "

Thomas á Kempis

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"Obedience is a short cut to perfection."

St Philip Neri

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"It is well to choose some one good devotion, and to stick to it, and never to abandon it."

St Philip Neri

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