Thursday, July 5, 2012

On the Use of Scholasticism

Well before de Lubac and Nouvelle Theologie, a Dominican Master of the Order defended the scholastic method against "modern" positive theology:

Without scholasticism, the theologian would have little depth in understanding dogmatic truths, and little precision in formulating them. Indeed, it is scholasticism which explains the truths of our faith in a way that is fair, methodical, and according to the rigor of the terms. It is also necessary for defending religion against the cunning assertions of heretics, because it grasps with precision what is false and weak in their reasoning; that is why they unleash so much animosity against it. Moreover, scholasticism has, if not as declared enemies, at least as disparagers, the supporters of novelties and of misunderstood progress in the sacred sciences, because it displeases them by belittling their false brilliance, or shows clearly that, behind these novelties, are hidden dangerous and suspect ideas relating to religious teaching.

The objection will perhaps be raised that scholastic theology contains much quibbling that wastes our time. But even the best things, in the hands of men, are subject to abuse. If such useless things are found in certain books, this is not a consequence of scholasticism, but the deficiency of some authors who, on forgetting that theology has God as its object, Sermo de Deo, lose themselves in fanciful questions or give to points of secondary utility as much importance as if it were a question of establishing against heretics the principal articles of our faith. As for genuine scholastic theology, after having used authority to establish each religious dogma against its adversaries, it then explains them by well-linked arguments drawn from the principles of the faith which are suited to convince our reason. Finally, it clarifies the metaphysical subtleties by which the heretics try to obfuscate dogmas, so that no shadow of a doubt remains in the mind. It is on this account that, in the School, there are many questions which at first glance seem useless, but which are, in fact, necessary to rebut the quarrels of the enemies of the Church or to establish our sacred beliefs by means of reason.

 Without overlooking in prejudice the services which positive theology offers, we especially, as Friars Preachers, should therefore apply ourselves to scholastic theology more than to anything else. Should we hear some persons praise the former and denigrate the latter, we must remember that positive theology — besides the fact that it lacks the advantages of scholastic theology enumerated above — can fall into the drawbacks about which it reproached its rival. Indeed, many of its proponents also propose useless problems, concerning, for example, facts of history which have no connection with dogma, morality, or ecclesiastical discipline. They treat these historical questions too extensively; they lose sight, in the midst of many citations and incidents, of the center of the question. Instead of clarifying, they can even inject uncertainty by including a number of contradictory inferences which baffle the mind. In short, discernment is needed to study theology, whether scholastic or positive, and to profit from either of them.

   --Bl. Hyacinth Cormier, seventy-sixth Master of the Dominican Order (1832-1916)

1 comment:

Chance said...

Could we perhaps have greater specificity vis-à-vis those supposedly "useless problems concerning, for example, facts of history which have no connection with dogma, morality, or ecclesiastical discipline"? In general I would completely agree with the overall thrust of the point being made here, but it seems woefully misguided to ignore questions of historical particularity. This unavoidably gets us back to a previous discussion/debate relating to the importance of a narrative in the history of philosophy. It seems worth pondering that the formative years of Christian orthodoxy produced creedal statements not by way of scholiastic method but rather by debates regarding specific terms (being, nothing, co-eternal, etc.) that had evolved different connotations in different historical contexts. Again, I'm not challenging the point in this post, but we cannot ignore historicity as if to engage in scholastic theological debate in a cultural vacuum. To take one example, we are all familiar with the teaching of creation ex nihilo, but the meaning of "nothing" in antiquity was polysemous. Before scholastic methodology can be effective, there needs to be a great deal of throat clearing about the historical particularity of terms through different historical epochs.