Is Theology a Science?

In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas asked the question whether theology was a science. The first objection in this article asserted that theology could not be called a science, because science is said to proceed from human reason, whereas theology proceeds from faith. Aquinas’s re­sponse to this objection is illuminating:

I answer that sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arith­ metic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the prin­ ciples taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is estab­ lished on principles revealed by God. (ST I­I, q. 1, a. 2)

For Aquinas, theology was a science.

Theology is not a science in the sense of an empirical science because it does not circumscribe its data in the way the empirical sciences do. However, theology is similar to the empirical sciences in that it is rational discourse methodically developed. Without limiting itself to the data of sense or the data of consciousness, it nevertheless uses human reason with all its native capabilities. Moreover, like the modern human and natural sciences, theology too is scientific in that it adopts methods based on the self­same cognitional operations the empirical sciences are based on: data­ hypothesis­ verification, while adding to this a method for evaluation. Its methodology, as we shall see later, can be inductive, as a reflection on the data of consciousness and experience, but it can also be deductive, as faith seeking understanding.

Theology is most similar to critical scholarship: for example, philosophy and history. Like all scholarly endeavors it has its own mode of discourse, a technical terminology, and methods of demonstration. It endeavors to relate itself ultimately to the data of consciousness and to internal, per­ sonal realities. Together with research and interpretation, it also includes judgment and evaluation. But unlike both empirical science and critical scholarship, theology has as its specific focus the data of divine revelation: God, the revelation of Christ, being a religious person and a member of a religious community.

This data is communicated partly as an “outer word,” that is, through the transmission of certain historical data about Christ and his teaching, and partly as an “inner Word,” that is, through the internal religious experience of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, making a person capable of hearing and open to the Gospel. The data of revelation—the gift of faith—broaden, deepen, and transfigure human horizons. Beyond both science and scholarship, and without losing the rationality of both, theology views the data of sense and the data of consciousness in relation to—as shot through with—divine revelation. Faith is the “added extra” that makes theology transcend the worlds the empirical sciences study and the worlds critical scholarship studies, to study human beings in their relationship to God. It is this realm of faith that gives theology its specificity (see figure 4) and makes it sui generis, unique. Theology, it could be argued, “sublates” or subsumes both science and scholarship and becomes in itself the most general and comprehensive, the most profound and fundamental of all studies.

Source: Philip A Egan (2009) “Philosophy and Catholic Theology: A Primer” Liturgical Press


2 thoughts on “Is Theology a Science?

  1. Pingback: A Foundation of Faith: An Introductory Study of Systematic Theology « A Robin Hood's Musing

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