On the speculative and normative in theology

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photo by Robert Kozloff

I am a theologian. Theo-logy, “logos”—speech, reflection, thought about and eventually knowledge of “theos,” God as first principle—is the goal or end of the science (science here used in the traditional sense of methodological inquiry) called first philosophy or metaphysics. It is called “natural theology.” But theology can also be the starting point of another science, one that works on the supposition not only that God exists but that God has spoken. The fundamental supposition of revealed (in contrast to natural) theology is that this direct divine communication culminates in the divine self-revelation of the Incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ. This divine communication is mediated by way of inspired canonical Scriptures, the apostolic tradition, and is explicated in normative teaching (dogmas and doctrines). This is why revealed theology is at its center essentially sacred teaching. Everything that is revealed and everything that can be inferred from this revelation belongs to the scope of this science, whose interior unity is that of a single academic discipline with interpretive, historical, and normative aspects. Metaphysics, philology, and history play important instrumental roles for theology. The goal of revealed theology or sacred teaching is to ever deepen our understanding of the truth conveyed in revelation, to display its coherence with the truths attained in other sciences, to dialogue with other religious and philosophical traditions, and to meet their objections. One of the most profound and influential practitioners of theology as sacred teaching (metaphysics being its privileged instrument) was Thomas Aquinas.

My own work belongs to the speculative and normative aspects of theology. This aspect is in contemporary parlance most often called systematic theology and encompasses dogmatic, moral, and also philosophical theology. I take my orientation and inspiration from Thomas Aquinas, and one of the interventions I want to make in my field is to reintroduce Thomas Aquinas’s vision of theology as sacred teaching into the contemporary discourse of systematic theology, which will demonstrate that he has constructive solutions for many of the dead ends we find in present theological discussions. One of the issues that drives my work is the recovery of human flourishing as a central purpose for our various academic efforts and enterprises. Rightly understood, everything is ordered to happiness or beatitude (blessedness). Aquinas has written a profound treatise on happiness/beatitude in which he draws upon the tradition of classical philosophy, especially Aristotle and neo-Platonism, and upon the tradition of the church fathers, especially Augustine. It is an integral account of human flourishing that stands up to modern philosophical alternatives and that actually advances powerful anticipatory critiques of such alternatives.

For Aquinas, attaining genuine and everlasting happiness in communion with God requires the virtue of religion. Everlasting happiness in communion with God is the final end divine providence has ordained for humanity. Aquinas sees the ultimate end of perfect and everlasting participation in the divine life—the beatific vision—as unattainable without the sojourner living the virtue of religion. This vital virtue signifies the stable disposition, formed by charity, which submits its will to God in the interior act of devotion, directs its mind completely to God in the interior act of prayer, and renders due honor and reverence to God in exterior acts of adoration, sacrifice, oblation, tithes, and vows.

Aquinas advances an account of the virtue of religion as happiness that is especially relevant for a secular world that believes religion is irrelevant. In combination with his theory of soul/body unity, and his theory of the emotions, dispositions, and virtues as working together for the greater good, Aquinas’s analysis of human flourishing and happiness could be profoundly useful to contemporary disciplines in search of interdisciplinary focus, offering a unifying theory that can encompass the humanities and natural sciences in one arch. It is an approach that begs for dialogue with contemporary philosophy, psychology, the bio-sciences, and related fields.


Reinhard Hütter is Professor of Christian Theology at Duke University Divinity School where he teaches dogmatic, philosophical, and moral theology ad mentem S. Thomae. He is presently the Paluch Chair in Theology at the University of Saint Mary on the Lake/Mundelein Seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago (2015-16). He is a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Professor Huetter will be at the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago to give a lecture and teach a master class this week. For more information, follow the links below.

Thursday, November 19, 4:30 5:30pm
Friday, November 20, 2 3pm