Divine Wisdom in Teaching and Learning
March 7, 2018
At the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome, the Dominican friars celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas on March 7 each year in order to celebrate their patron during the academic term. On March 7, 2018, Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P. gave the following homily at the Angelicum:
Who of us—whether student or professor—has not marveled at the fact that St. Thomas intends his Summa theologiae as a work for beginners in theology—ad eruditionem incipientium? To be sure, St. Thomas is not thinking of beginners simply speaking, for he would have presupposed in his readers a grounding in the humanities and in Sacred Scripture. But he wants to exclude useless questions and needless repetition in favor of a disciplined ordering of topics that arises from the inner logic of the subject matter itself and the sequence in which the truths of the Christian faith can best be absorbed by students at the beginning of their study of theology or sacra doctrina.
The confidence on St. Thomas’s part that this complex and learned work could function as a text for beginners rests on a conviction about the profound intelligibility of truths of the faith. I prayed and prudence was given me; I pleaded and the spirit of Wisdom came to me. Divine wisdom comes to us only as a gift. As granted to us in Baptism, it is radically unitary because the triune God who is at its center is one in being and in activity, and comprehends in one act of omniscience the fullness of his truth and wisdom. Through the infused gift of faith—thus called a theological virtue—the believer is rendered capable of a participation in this divine wisdom, but always and only according to human ways of knowing. We truly know God, but not in the way that he knows himself. According to Aquinas, the human form that divine wisdom takes in our knowledge and understanding is necessarily plural and in a true sense scientific in its structure.
When expounded in an orderly manner by a qualified teacher, the doctrines of the Christian faith can be seen and to a certain extent understood in their intelligibility and communicability even by the beginning student.
St. Thomas explains this relationship between the teacher and student of divine wisdom in his Inaugural Lecture at the University of Paris in 1256. He draws upon a verse from psalm 104: You water the mountains from your chambers; from the fruit of your labor the earth abounds (Ps 104:13)—rigans montes de superioribus suis de fructu operum tuorum satiabitur terra, (Vulgate Ps 103:13). Accordingly, he states in the opening words of his address, “The king of the heavens, the Lord, established this law from all eternity, that the gifts of his providence should reach what is lowest by way of things that are in between” (Rigans montes, c. 1).
Thus, Aquinas says, the minds of teachers can be likened to the mountains upon which the rain falls. Like the mountains, they are watered by the wisdom of God that is above and it is by their ministry that the light of divine wisdom flows down into the minds of the students who are likened to the fertile earth. In order for this transmission of divine wisdom to be effective, the teachers must be innocent, intelligent, fervent and obedient, while the students must be docile, able to assess what they hear, and have the capacity to discover things. Because the fruit of the mountains is not ascribed to teachers but to God, they can communicate divine wisdom only in a ministerial or instrumental role. Although no one is equal to this ministry by himself and from his own resources, he can hope that God will grant him the proficiency needed to communicate to others the divine wisdom he has received from God.
St. Thomas maintained this profoundly contemplative understanding of nature of theological teaching and learning throughout his life. In the inaugural address, theology involves a participation in the divine wisdom, and it is the mission of the theologian to transmit this wisdom to others. Ten years later, as he begins working on the Summa theologiae, he describes sacra doctrina as “an imprint on us of God’s own knowledge”—velut quaedam impressio divinae scientiae (1a. 3 ad 2um)—and later in the Summa describes his work as “contemplata aliis tradere”, deriving preaching and teaching from “the fullness of contemplation” (2a2ae, 188, 6).
But what is truly remarkable about this contemplative understanding of theology are its underlying convictions about the intelligibility and communicability of the divine wisdom that is it object. Notwithstanding the radical transcendence of divine wisdom—its essential incomprehensibility and ineffability—with respect to human cognitive capacities, it can be taught and learned. The limits here are on the human side: the problem is not that divine wisdom is opaque but that it is too dazzlingly bright for the human mind. In his astonishing love for us, God grants us a participation in the divine wisdom by the grace of faith. But because this faith cannot fail to plumb the mysteries of divine wisdom, as fides quaerens intellectum it devotes itself diligently to understanding what is endlessly intelligible but not beyond its ken. I preferred [wisdom] to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison to her….Beyond health and beauty I loved her, and chose to have her rather than the light, because her radiance never ceases.
Furthermore, although before the depths of divine wisdom, silence is sometimes the only appropriate response, there are also times when we must speak. Now God grant I speak suitably and value these endowments at their worth: for he is the guide of wisdom and the director of the wise. As we have seen, according to Aquinas, this is the teacher’s basic prayer. About what he has learned of the divine wisdom, he cannot remain silent.
Surely this applies not only to the masters of theology, but also to the preaching friars who are commissioned to preach the Gospel. Among the students of Aquinas throughout his lifetime of teaching, there would have been many preaching friars. In his inaugural address, St. Thomas says that an indication that someone has truly learned what a master has to teach is that the knowledge he has newly acquired becomes fruitful. Because it is infinitely intelligible, the divine wisdom can be understood by the student—whether as a future teacher or as a future preacher—who therefore must be enabled to communicate it to others. This involves not simply understanding that what the teacher says is true but understanding why it is true. It is for this reason above all that Aquinas insists that sacra doctrina is a proper form of scientia. In this way, both the intelligibility and the communicability of the divine wisdom can be insured. The more sacra doctrina approaches scientia, the more firmly and fruitfully does it implant itself in the student’s mind, and the more surely can he bring the Christian faith to life in hearts and minds of his hearers, whether his audience be a classroom full of students or a church full of the faithful.
St. Thomas’s insistence on the scientific character of sacra doctrina does not reflect a concession to philosophical or secular standards of rationality but arises from the logical coherence and inner intelligibility of divine wisdom itself. The body of Christian doctrines—that is, the formulation of divine wisdom according to human ways of knowing—thus demands and sustains a scientific exposition grounded in reasoning and argument. What is at stake is the very possibility of the assimilation and communication of truth of the Gospel. Consecrate them in the truth, Our Lord prays, “Your word is truth. As you sent them into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth. In this light, St. Thomas’s concern to demonstrate the scientific character of sacra doctrina reveals itself as pastoral and evangelical, not simply scholarly and academic. In the end, the solicitude of this saintly teacher for the advanced scholar no less than for the beginning student of theology is a passionate solicitude for the divine wisdom. Beyond health and beauty I loved her, and chose to have her rather than the light, because her radiance never ceases.