Monday, June 8, 2009

Art and the True Theologian

It is often said that "theology is the queen of the sciences" and that all secular learning is the "handmaiden" of theology. Bonaventure wrote in De reductione artium ad theologiam (On Retracing the Arts to Theology) that "all divisions of knowledge are handmaids of theology" and that "theology makes use of illustrations and terms pertaining to every branch of knowledge." He identifies four lights or illuminations ("lumen") which increasingly reveal knowledge to man: (1) lumen exterius, scilicet lumen artis mechanicae (the exterior light of the seven mechanical arts: weaving, armor making, agriculture, hunting, navigation, medicine and drama); (2) lumen inferius, scilicet lumen congnitionis sensitivae (the inferior light of sensory cognition corresponding to the five natural senses); (3) lumen interius, scilicet lumen cognitionis philosophicae (the interior light of philosophical knowledge, rational, natural and moral); and (4) lumen superius, scilicet lumen gratiae et sacrae Scripturae (the superior light of grace and sacred scripture). Elsewhere (in Itinerarium mentis ad Deum, or The Mind's Road to God), he employs the image of a ladder whereby one ascends from knowledge of that which is natural to that which is divine: "Since, then, we must mount Jacob's ladder before descending it, let us place the first rung of the ascension in the depths, putting the whole sensible world before us in a mirror, by which ladder we shall mount up to God." He sums up the aim of these ascending lights or ladder rungs in De reductione artium ad theologiam: "And this is the fruit of all sciences, that in all of them, faith may be strengthened, God may be honored, character may be formed, and consolation may be derived from union of the Spouse with His beloved, a union that takes place through charity, to the attainment of which the whole purpose of sacred Scripture, and consequently, every illumination descending from above, is directed. And this charity is that without all knowledge is vain, because no one comes to the Son except through the Holy Spirit Who teaches us all the truth and Who is blessed forever."

Herman Witsius, likewise, speaks of ascending knowledge and in this context shows how the arts are of value in his famous 1675 inaugural oration at the University of Franeker, De vero Theologo, or, On the Character of a True Theologian, pp. 28-30 (1994 Reformed Academic Press ed.):

Let us begin, therefore, with the lowest stage. He who would be a true theologian, and worthy of that honorable appellation, must lay the foundation of his studies in the lower school of nature and from every quarter of the universe, from the wonders of divine providence, from the monuments of ancient as well as modern history, from the shrines of all the arts, from the beauties of the various tongues, bring together and store up in his memory, as in a treasury of the most sacred kind, those things which, when afterwards advanced to a higher school, he may lay as a foundation for a nobler superstructure. It is not in vain that God has impressed visible marks of His invisible excellencies on His works. It is not in vain that He has introduced man, gifted with a discerning mind, into the magnificent theater of this world. It is not in vain that, in the government of the universe and in the vicissitudes of human affairs, He dispenses all things with an uncertainty that yet is regular -- with a good pleasure yet so wise. It is not in vain that He has so arranged the works of nature that in them may be discerned a sort of type of the works of grace and glory and, as it were, the rudiments of a better world. On the contrary, He has designed that from the attentive consideration of all these things, we should learn who and what He is, the Eternal, the Infinite, the Omnipotent, the Supremely Wise, at once the best and the greatest of beings, sufficient of Himself for His own full blessedness, since He gives life, and breath, and all things to all; worthy, in fine, of our worship and our imitation -- one to whom we should unreservedly give ourselves -- one in whose love, and in the enjoyment of whose excellence, we should place our highest happiness...Nor would we have our theologian contemplate only the works of God. Let him, on the contrary, labor to be thoroughly master of whatever aids of human industry has contrived for the guidance of the mind in the investigation of truth, or for that of the tongue, that it may prove a suitable interpreter to the mind. Let him consult in no cursory manner those who are masters in the sciences of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, using them as the Israelites of old did the Gibeonites, whose work it was to cleave wood and draw water for the use of the Sanctuary. The former furnish rules for definition, division, and arrangement; the latter teach the art of discoursing, not only with purity and precision, but also with elegance and effect. Their united influence can thus afford the most appropriate aids to those who serve in the Tabernacle of God. Let the theologian collect moral precepts from the opinions of the philosophers, and examples from the monuments of history, that they may prove a spur in his pursuit of higher attainments, or if less effectual for such a purpose, that they may at least serve to put to shame habits of sluggishness and inactivity. Let him apply himself diligently to the acquisition of different languages, and especially of those which God has distinguished by making them the channels of conveyance for His heavenly oracles, that he may understand God when He speaks, as it were, in His own language, that he who acts as the interpreter of God and hears the word at His mouth, may not require an interpreter for himself. Whatever is sound and judicious in human arts, whatever is true and substantial in philosophy, whatever is elegant and graceful in the wide extent of polite literature, all flow from the Father of Lights, the inexhaustible Fountain of all reason, truth, and beauty; and all this, therefore, collected from every quarter, ought again to be consecrated to Him. Although such things may appear trifling and earthly, yet these same trifling and earthly things form the needle by which we may introduce the golden threads of heavenly truth and fasten them securely in our minds. They are as a mirror by whose aid the exquisitely delicate ideas of spiritual objects may be more clearly perceived by our renewed eyes. These are the elementary studies of the future theologian. If they are contempuously despised, it is scarcely to be expected that his engaging in those of a higher description will be attended by the wished for fruits, or fulfil what is justly expected in one of his name and office.

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