Doing theology: a reflection

"There is one dangerous science for women - one which they must indeed beware how they profanely touch - that of theology" (John Ruskin)

The space of theological reflection - not just for academics but for all Christians - is in the creative and imaginative gap between the unknowable mystery of God, and the knowable experiences of embodied living in God's creation.With regard to the truths of revelation, a theologian must prayerfully situate herself before the mystery of God, revealed in Scripture, and await the grace to believe truths which - from the perspective of human reason - might seem impossible. To quote Tertullian: 'Credo quia impossibile', which can be paraphrased as 'it must be true because it is impossible'. These truths are offered to those who are able to accept them through divine grace. They cannot and should not be imposed on others outside the Church, for they are a gift from God and not the product of any human intellectual endeavour. This does not preclude intellectual reflection - on the contrary, it requires it if we are to mature in our faith - but these truths are not obvious to others by way of reason alone.

Natural law, on the other hand, is that faculty given by God to human understanding as the kind of species we are, to discern and learn how to live well through reflection on the goodness of God that remains active and revealing within the natural goodness of creation. This Catholic understanding of grace is different from a Protestant understanding, which would posit a more radical destruction of the original grace of creation by the effects of original sin. The Catholic Church's theological understanding of creation and nature gives us the confidence to know that the world is good and truthful in its manifestations and laws, that our human knowledge is partial, muddled by sin and ignorance and subject to finitude, but it is nonetheless reliable when it is properly informed and seeks truth. To acquire such knowledge requires intellectual effort and reasoned reflection on our experiences and interactions, in a way which seeks dialogue with secular culture and those of other religions and traditions.

If I hold an informed view which I believe to be reasonable, which I discover that I share with others whose views I respect, which belongs within natural theology rather than revealed doctrine (i.e. it has to do with social and moral issues and not with the sacramental mysteries of the faith), and which is highly complex (as these issues usually are), in terms of evaluating its benefit or harm to human well-being and the common good, I can in good conscience differ from what the current magisterium officially teaches and what some other Catholics might believe to be true. For a profound reflection on concepts of religious freedom and conscience which might inform such a position, I would recommend the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae.

 In the process of cultural and theological change, there will always be some who lead the way too enthusiastically and others who lag behind too reluctantly, while wise leaders would seek to hold the two in creative tension and allow for organic and constructive change as our understanding increases. If this process were not true, the Church would be an anachronistic and obsolete entity, frozen in time, clinging to the values and practices first century Jewish life as a way of slavishly following Christ. As soon as we reject that model, we embark upon a process of dynamic and ongoing transformation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit within the unfolding narrative of the biblical story played out upon the stage of history. The human psyche is such that that process will always bring with it conflict and disagreement. The challenge we face is to navigate these changes while preserving a sense of integrity, mutual respect, and a willingness to acknowledge our mistakes and to change our views when persuaded that it would be just and reasonable to do so.

With that in mind, here are two shorts extract from my forthcoming book, Theology After Postmodernity: Divinising the Void (Oxford University Press, 2013). They express how I understand the vocation of a theologian in relation to divine revelation and natural law, and they are a brief guide to my theological method (which is, as these extracts make clear, the method that has shaped the Catholic theological tradition since the Middle Ages). For those who want to refer further to the quotations from the Summa Theologiae, a parallel English/Latin translation is available here.

The Bible and Divine Revelation

ThomasAquinas begins the Summa Theologiae by insisting upon the primacy of revelation over reason with regard to the knowledge of God, because philosophy is inadequate to the task of knowing the truths of God. (ST I, 1) Because doctrine originates in God and ‘treats chiefly of those things which by their sublimity transcend human reason’, (ST I, 1, 5), it is the most certain form of knowledge and entirely free from error, even although the limitations of human understanding might obscure its clarity and its certainty.

But there is also for Thomas a subtle distinction between knowing and comprehending: we can know God, but this does not amount to comprehension. While philosophical reflection can provide us with limited but truthful knowledge about the world and with the knowledge that God is, only the self-revelation of God in the Christian scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ can tell us who God is and the true meaning of the world. These different ways of knowing have the same source in God, so they serve to complement one another: there can be no fundamental conflict between the demands of faith and the demands of reason. Rather, ‘we have a more perfect knowledge of God by grace than by natural reason’. (ST I, 12, 13) This is why Thomas is able to say repeatedly and in different ways that ‘grace perfects nature’. (cf. ST I, 62, 5) Ostensibly then, there is no possible conflict for Thomas between grace and nature, faith and reason, providing we struggle to free ourselves of the distorting effects of sin upon our ways of knowing and desiring, and providing we accept the finitude of all mortal knowing with regard to the things of God.

Thomas also makes clear at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae that only the authors of the canonical Scriptures can be considered ultimate authorities with regard to divine revelation. (ST I, 1, 8). All other authoritative sources, including not only natural philosophers but even the doctors of the Church, may be open to error and subject to correction. Only once scriptural revelation is accepted as the authoritative first principle of all doctrinal and theological debate, can that debate proceed according to the demands of reason. While reason can never bridge the gap between the mind and God, it can play a secondary role in enabling us better to understand the truths communicated by way of divine revelation. These are truths that creation cannot reveal, for they belong not to the works of creation but to the being of God. They pertain to God ‘as far as He is known to Himself alone and revealed to others.’ (ST, I, 1, 6).

It was this insight about the vocation of theology to probe the frontiers of possibility in the context of scripture but also in the context of new philosophical and scientific resources that made Thomas such an innovative thinker in his engagement with Aristotle. Today, theologians face very different challenges from those confronting Thomas, but the underlying question does not change: how can Christian theology remain faithful to its own scriptural and doctrinal traditions, while taking seriously the changing perspectives of different historical, scientific, intellectual, and cultural contexts? These invite a theological response that emanates, not from a spirit of complacent triumphalism nor from an abandonment of core Christian doctrines through conformity to the latest intellectual fads, but from an intellectually rigorous and ethically committed struggle towards an elusive and mysterious truth which Catholic Christianity nevertheless holds to be opaquely recognizable within the ‘books’ of both scripture and nature.

This entails acknowledging with Thomas that, as the self-revelation of God, scripture constitutes a concealing as well as a revealing, for it delineates a rupture in the order of knowledge and the opening up of a mystery before which all other forms of knowledge fail. In the very process of the divine self-revelation, God withdraws from language and conceptualization. This means that all language about God, including the language of scripture, is approximate: it uses what is knowable and familiar to us, to express what is beyond comprehension and experience.

Scripture communicates its truths in the veils of metaphor, but this means that ‘the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.' (ST I, 1, 10) There is therefore a multi-layered function to scriptural language, which opens itself to ever deeper levels of mystery the more one allows its meanings to unfold. In order to approximate to the abundance of the divine mystery, theological language must resist the temptation to attach itself to its object, but must ceaselessly remain open to new forms of expression if it is to communicate the unknowability of that of which it speaks. So, says Thomas, ‘new names had to be found for the God of ancient faith when arguing with heretics. Nor should such novelty be avoided, for it is not profane and it does not disagree with the sense of Scripture.’ (ST I, 29, 3).

The universe is a complex interweaving of signs within signs, whether these are words or objects, which refer to God but which can in no way make God present to human comprehension. The more we allow ourselves to reflect on the material objects that present themselves to our senses, the more we focus our desire upon them, the more translucent they become to a mysterious otherness that eludes our comprehension but awakens some deeper intuition of love. 

Natural Law and Human Reason

Revelation and reason mutually illuminate one another, and that means that we are able to read 'the book of nature' alongside the book of scripture, in order better to discern the harmony and beauty of the divine within the order of creation. The scholastic understanding of natural law is rooted in what Jean Porter describes as three ‘traditional loci for moral reflection: nature, reason, and Scripture.' (Natural and Divine Law, p. 51) Scripture reveals the meaning and purpose for which the cosmos was created, and within that story it allows the Christian to discern the contours of the good life through reasoned reflection on nature, bearing in mind that we are created for eternal happiness with God.

It is worth noting that the discussion of natural law forms a relatively minor part of the Summa Theologiae and there is some debate as to how far it can be lifted out of its theological context. Thomas has only one question that deals specifically with natural law, (ST I-II, 94) and he situates that question in a wider context that addresses human law, Mosaic law and the New Law of the Gospel (ST I-II, 90-108). Western philosophy and legal theory have focused disproportionately on Thomas’s account of natural law and have elided its theological context, thereby giving rise to distorted and misleading interpretations.

Nevertheless, even within its theological context, it is clear that Thomas roots natural law within the order of creation and natural reason, and not solely within Christian revelation.The divine will is for the flourishing of creatures, including the human, within the natural order. Through the virtuous life – that is, a disciplined life in which our appetites, desires, and instincts are harmoniously orchestrated and moderated in accordance with our human nature – we discover a capacity for natural happiness which is a foretaste of the eternal happiness in God for which we were created. Although sin has distorted our capacity for virtue and our ability to act in accordance with the guidance of reason, we still retain enough of these faculties as a rational species for us to come to an awareness of the goodness of God in the order of creation, and to live in such a way that we experience and express this goodness in our own lives.

Our individual capacity for flourishing is inseparable from our social environment, for the human is by nature a social animal. Human laws hold the social order in balance by maintaining justice, punishing wrong-doing, and creating the conditions for individuals to flourish in hierarchically ordered relationships of mutual respect and responsibility. However, Porter argues that scholastics were more aware than many later natural law theorists of the constructed character of social conventions and institutions, which emerge not directly in response to the promptings of nature, but through historical processes of reflection and negotiation. She writes that

they never lost sight of the fact that social practices and institutions are always more or less conventional, and in some cases contrary to the law of nature, at least seen from some perspectives. In this respect they follow Cicero rather than Aristotle. That is, rather than endorsing Aristotle’s view that social conventions stem immediately from natural inclinations, in such a way as to reflect human nature directly, they appropriate Cicero’s view that human society reflects a long-standing process of human reflection and invention, in which natural inclinations are given expression through negotiation, legislation, and the emergence of custom. (Nature as Reason, p. 50)

This allows for considerable variety in political and social institutions and laws. Thomas argues, in agreement with Isidore of Seville, that positive law should be informed by custom so that it reflects a particular society’s values and practices. (ST I-II, 95.3) Moreover, because natural law pertains to general principles and not to specific contexts, it accommodates a diversity of interpretations by different societies. (ST I-II, 95.2)

All this means that, at least according to some readings, Thomas and the scholastics open the way to a more pluralist ethos and a more liberal interpretation of the individual in relation to society and the law than Aristotle (or, in a more modern context, Hegel), for whom natural law cedes its authority once it is inscribed within positive law. Thomas cites Augustine (De Lib. Arb. I, 5) in support of his view that an unjust law is not a law, and he goes on to argue that ‘every human law has just so much of the nature of law as is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law'. (ST I-II, 95, 2) In theory then, the laws of society are relative to the natural law, and an appeal to an informed conscience should usually take precedence over obedience to the law, even if one is in error. (ST I-II, 96, 4)


  1. I am researching 19th century gender roles among evangelicals.
    Which of Ruskin's work is your quote from? Thanks.

  2. Hello Deborah,

    Here's the reference: John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies (Whitefish MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), first published 1865, p. 87.

    Best wishes,

  3. I think your work: Catholicism, Choice and Consciousness: A Feminist Theological Perspective on Abortion is a very damaging paper. I think I can see how you have come to your conclusions, but I do not share them. You claim that absolutism is not appropriate when concerning the position the church should take on abortion and foetal personhood. Why? Either a foetus is alive with all the trappings of personhood from conception or it must gain this status, perhaps progressively, as it is nurtured in the womb. If, as the church teaches, the former is true, then a standard procured abortion is a sin of murder on the part of the parent(s). If the latter, then who could possibly give an objective teaching on so subjective a matter? Who in good conscious would wish to run the risk of such a morally grave sin? I feel you are on extremely treacherous ground, literally dicing with death. I urge you to reconsider the possibly that the churches’ stance on procured abortion is in fact both true and truly pro-woman; indeed, truly feminist.


Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.