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  • On The Speculative, Practical, or Affective Nature of Theology
  • Gregory F. LaNave

IS THEOLOGY a speculative or a practical science? The question is familiar to students of St. Thomas Aquinas from the first question of the Summa theologiae, and a glance at any study of the nature of theology in the thirteenth century will discover that it was a common question among Aquinas's contemporaries, who were thinking through the ramifications of Aristotle for understanding revelation. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see this topic presented as emblematic of a fundamental difference between Dominican and Franciscan theology: Dominicans regard theology as a speculative science, while Franciscans regard it as a practical science.1

Such popular perceptions almost always have a legitimate point. They are also almost always imprecise. Even more importantly, they can obscure the significance of a question. Why did the masters of the medieval universities begin to ask the question of whether theology is speculative or practical, and what did they regard as essential elements to be considered in coming up with an answer?

The point of the present article is to address such questions by looking at the period in the mid-thirteenth century when the greatest early Franciscan and Dominican teachers were composing their theological syntheses. The authors I will consider are [End Page 87] the Franciscans Alexander of Hales, Odo Rigaldus, and Bonaventure, and the Dominicans Albertus Magnus and Aquinas.2 Thanks to the considerable scholarly attention devoted to the nature of theology in the thirteenth century in recent decades, many of the texts are already well known.3 The point here is not to introduce them to the reader, but to focus on the distinctions made by these authors in the course of answering the relevant questions.

Any investigation of this topic runs immediately up against the fact that the word theologia among these masters is not obviously what we mean today by "theology." Henry Donneaud, in his magisterial study of the topic, notes that in the early Church theologia most simply meant "the word of God," that is, God's revelation in sacred Scripture, while by the sixteenth century the word (along with its cognates, such as sacra doctrina) signified a "rational investigation of the revealed given, in particular through the deduction of conclusions virtually contained in the revealed given."4 The Middle Ages thus marks a time of transition, requiring of the modern reader some precision. As Donneaud says,

Even today, one does not know what precise reality the medievals are designating by this word: the Word of God? Christian doctrine? biblical exegesis? the reasoned investigation of the deposit of faith? The question is important, for it serves nothing to explain how some master of the thirteenth century was able to define theology as a science, as a practical or speculative [End Page 88] science, using such and such a procedure if one does not already know what reality is encompassed under the term.5

Our investigation in this article will pay attention to this distinction. In the interest of precision, theologia will hereafter be used to name the knowledge revealed by God, while "theology" will be used to name the intellectual, academic discipline that is based on this. Yet, as we will see, even when our authors ask whether theologia is speculative or practical, they are also committed to the existence of theology, and their view of the nature of the former affects their view of the nature of the latter.

In a preliminary way, one might say that the significance of the question depends on whether one is talking about theologia or theology. Insofar as theologia is equated with Scripture, it seems dissatisfying to regard it as a speculative science (if it is a science at all), for surely the reason divine truth is revealed to us in Scripture is not simply for the satisfaction of our speculative intellect. It is more satisfying to say that the point of this revelation is the rectification/salvation/sanctification of the whole person, and thus that theologia has a practical or perhaps an affective end. If, on the other hand, one is talking about theology, the discipline that forms part of the academy...


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