What is the Function of Philosophy in Theology? Some Help From Thomas Aquinas

I continue to immerse myself in the writings of Fr. Robert Barron in preparation for his coming visit in July. Thomas Aquinas is often faulted for his use/dependence on philosophy in general and Aristotle in particular. I found this summary by Barron very helpful and enlightening. All italics are his. The bold is mine for emphasis.

“But is the spiritual nature and teleology of Thomas’s project not compromised, as many of his critics have alleged, by his prodigal use of philosophical method and sources? Once again, his treatment of this issue is surprising and illuminating. The overly enthusiastic advocates of natural theology notwithstanding, Thomas in no sense bases his theology on philosophical premises or findings. As we saw, the basis for enterprise is God’s own self knowledge. Aquinas is clear that theology does not depend upon philosophy but rather uses it ‘as something inferior and ancillary’ due to a ‘defect’ in the human minds that theology wishes to address. In a word, the function of philosophy in theology is not foundational but pedagogical. It is worth exploring a bit precisely what Thomas means when he speaks of this defectum in our reason. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, he speaks, in a rather patristic vein, of the Incarnation as the salve for the eyes of the soul, a healing balm that enables fallen minds to understand. The debilitas or defectum in the mind is the inordinate tendency, born of sin, to orient ourselves to the things of this earth rather than to the power that lures us from above. In light of this clarification, we can understand Thomas’s insistence on the pedagogical necessity of lesser sciences in order to prepare us for the fullness of theological truth. ‘It may well happened that what is in itself the more certain may seem to us the less certain on account of the weakness of our intelligence, which is dazzled by the clearest objects of nature as the owl is dazzled by the light of the sun.’ Theology does not depend upon rational science for its supposed clarity; rather, it uses that science in order to ‘lead by the hand’ the mind that is unaccustomed to the brilliance of the Light itself. Rational argumentation is not so much a foundation for theology but a tool used by the theologian in order to prepare the fallen mind for vision. When his opponents accused Thomas of diluting the wine of theology with the water of Aristotle, he turned the metaphor around: ‘I am hardly diluting wine with water; rather, I am transforming water into wine.’” (pp. 90-91)

“Thomas Aquinas’s Christological Reading of God and the Creature” (pp. 87-106) in Bridging the Great Divide (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers).

Bridging the Great Divide


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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