Works By John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Woodstock Home | Woodstock Theological Center Library | Bibliography

The Thesis Form as an Instrument of
Theological Instruction


If the question before us concerns merely the value of a particular pedagogical technique, it is neither important nor interesting. The value of pedagogical techniques is a matter for practical judgment. Arguments pro and con will be arguments of a practical order. And arguments on this level are not likely to come to conclusions that would be important by reason of their universal bearing, or interesting by reason of their implications of principle.

The question of the thesis-method only becomes interesting and important in so far as it is related to much more fundamental question—the famous historical question, what is the ordo disciplinae proper to Christian theology—the right order, form, and method of learning and teaching it.

This question is not subject to arbitrary solution, nor to solution purely in terms of practical pedagogical values. In the case, the ordo disciplinae is essentially related to the natura disciplinae. The right order, form and method of learning and teaching Christian theology must emerge from the nature of Christian theology itself. Immediately the difficulty appears; it is inherent and obvious, and it has occasioned much discussion in the history of Scholasticism.

The Christian religion is first and foremost a sacred history, a series of historical facts, all of them the issue of free divine initiatives, all of them contingent, and irreducible to necessary principles. On the other hand, the Christian religion is a sacred doctrine, which theology undertakes to transform into the state of science, a body of knowledge that is reflectively constructed out of factual material, and organized in accord with certain architectonic principles of intelligibility (e.g., hypotheses in scientific disciplines, first principles in philosophy). The problem of the ordo discipline 'therefore is the problem of finding an order of teaching and learning the sacred doctrine that will be scientific in itself, and suited to an exposition, likewise scientific, of the sacred history.

The earlier Scholastics found the problem baffling. Hugh of St Victor, for instance, was content to follow a purely historical order, the order of the facts themselves, the "narrationis series," divided into two parts: first, from the beginning of the world to the Incarnation; second, from the Incarnation to the consummation of all things. In these terms he effected an exposition of the historical economy of salvation. But the exposition lacked the mode of generalization and organization proper to a science.

Abelard, in contrast, attempted a systematic order constructed in terms of the three categories, fides, caritas, sacramentum. Faith included the primal mysteries (Trinity, Incarnation, creation, original sin) ; charity included the whole Christian life (virtues, moral precepts) ; and the "sacrament" included the Church and the means of grace. Here indeed was systematization, but of an abstract, arbitrary, purely practical kind. And in the course of the systematization the element of the historical disappears.

Everyone is familiar with the solution coaceived by St. Thomas through his utilization and adaptation of the Platonic concepts of emanation and return (exitus, reditus). In terms of these concepts the order of the discipline becomes universal in its scope, inclusive of all nature. And the discipline itself acquires unity from a principle interior to it, namely, God, who is the common root of the intelligibility of all things that proceed from Him and return to Him. At the same time, this systematic order is also historical; the exitus begins a history which the reditus concludes.

This was a genial solution to the problem of the ordo disciplina in its broadest structural lines. St. Thomas also made a further contribution—his perfecting of the method of the "question" as the technique for the exposition of individual truths within the larger framework. We need not here delay on the details of the historical evolution of the method of the "question" out of all the prior Scholastic techniques—glossa, littera, expositio, sensus, sententia, disputatio. The point here is the change this method effected in the role of the teacher. Earlier on he had chiefly been the exegete of texts (all medieval pedagogy was based on the lectio, the reading of texts, auctoritates). Now his major function became the determinatio. He was the master who "determined" problems, and engaged in personal elaboration of the doctrine itself through the composition of articuli, the "article" being a developed unit of thought containing all the material necessary for the position of a question, its discussion, and the solution of difficulties.

The question occurs here, whether and in what sense St. Thomas brought a definitive solution to the problem of the ordo discipline in theology. There is also the minor question, whether and in what sense the Summa theologica is the permanently definitive theological textbook. Perhaps some of the gathering will wish to speak to these questions. As John Stuart Mill suggested, positions are best defended by those who are committed to them and who can therefore best "make the case" for them.

Whatever may be the answers to these questions, it remains true that the achievement of St. Thomas illuminates the principles and values that should serve as criteria for a reasonable critique of the thesis-method and its correlate, the "manual." These principles and values are methodological; but precisely for this reason they are necessary principles and high values. A right understanding of the method of theology is essential to a theological education. Only this grasp of method gives an insight into the nature of the theological enterprise as such, and thus guarantees both a present understanding of it and a permanent interest in it.

I should not wish to maintain that all the pertinent methodological principles and values received their full development at the hands of St. Thomas and the medieval Schoolmen In any event, they were known and—what is more important—the§ were used. The following list does not pretend to be well organized; but perhaps it will serve onr purposes here.

(1)  The method of theology is essentially the method of the "question," the method of inquiry. The inquiry is twofold—into the existence, and into the intelligibility, of some theological reality. There are the two questions: "An sit?" and "Quid sit?"

(2)  The method of theology is essentially the method of the "lectio," the reading of texts that are, in one way or another, "authorities." These texts furnish the basis of the theological inquiry.

(3)  The theological inquiry is pursued in two phases, doctrinal

and historical. Their distinction corresponds to the nature of the discipline itself, which is both historical and doctrinal.

(a)   The major Scholastic emphasis has been on the doctrinal inquiry. What the Scholastic chiefly questions is the intelligibility of the sacred doctrines and his understanding of them. Traditionally, this doctrinal inquiry has centered on two aspects of the matter. The more narrow inquiry centers on the intelligibility of the individual truths, regarded in the mature and developed formulation that they have assumed at the historical moment when the inquiry is made. The question therefore regards the present state of the Church's knowledge of her faith. The broader inquiry centers on the internal constitutive order of revealed truth, as an ordered body of knowledge. The question here regards the "relations of the mysteries with one another and with the final end of man" (Vatican).

(b)  The minor Scholastic emphasis has been on the historical inquiry. It seeks to understand the varying states in which Christian truth is found in the sources of revelation and in subsequent elaborations. It consequently seeks to understand the influences that bore on the shaping of the truth—heresy and error, the philosophical ambiance, literary forms of composition, etc. Several comments on this historical inquiry are necessary.

First, its method is regressive. It starts from the developed understanding of the faith, possessed in the present; hence it moves backward, as it were, into the scrutiny of sources. Second, the historical inquiry proper to Scholasticism is limited. The limitation is necessary if one is to preserve the distinction between Scholastic (speculative) theology and positive (historical) theology. The distinction is indeed only material; and it is not easy to explain. But it does impose a limit—itself not easy to determine—on the historical inquiry which the Scholastic as such undertakes. His enterprise must include a topological survey, a study of the sources. This study is conducted for its own sake, in pursuit of an understanding-of faith in its historical dimension: "quod ubique, quod semper." .But this study will have limits set to it by the nature of his enterprise. Third, the historical inquiry undertaken by Scholasticism does not center on the problem of the development of doctrine, as this problem is understood today (if indeed it is understood today). The primary concern of the Scholastic is the intelligibility of the truths of faith as they are proposed by the Church in the. present. He cannot overlook or neglect the fact that this present proposition of the truth has a long history behind it. But his concern with the history is secondary and limited. Nonetheless, it is real; in theology the ordo disciplinae must essentially include a moment of historical inquiry.

To say this much is to raise the difficult problem of the place which a theological education today must accord to that enlargement of the historical inquiry which is known as positive theology. This further manner of inquiry is characteristic of the modern development, and its importance has been officially recognized by the Church. The problem is difficult not least by reason of the fact that positive theology has not yet found its theorist, in the sense in which St. Thomas is the theorist of Scholasticism. Here I should be content to say that the student should receive at least that measure of initiation into positive theology—its methods and its purposes—which will enable him to acquire a sense of the problem of development. It will probably be sufficient if he comes to understand the problem itself, in its generality and in its concrete mode of position in one or other area of theology—say, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity.

(4) The last principle to be noted regards the role of the teacher. His essential function is the "determinatio," the position and discussion of "questions." His office is debased, if he becomes a mere exegete of texts, even when the texts are magisterial or papal. The temptation to equate theology with exegesis of ecclesiastical texts seems to be felt particularly strongly today.

The question now is, whether the thesis-method satisfies the requirements of these principles and values, which are basic to the ordo discipline. It should, of course, be borne in mind that the student never encounters the thesis-method in the abstract. He meets a textbook and a teacher. And probably the decisive encounter is with the teacher. Our question therefore becalm concrete: does this encounter with the thesis-method in the concrete, as represented by a teacher and a textbook, serve to make the student a theologian? The student is subjected to the art of education, which, as an art, looks to a "making"—in our case, the "making" of the kind and quality of mind proper to a theologian. When the teacher employs the thesis-method as the instrument of his art, does he achieve the end of his art?

This question resolves itself into three more particular ones. First, does instruction by the thesis-method oblige or induce the student to a sufficient amount, and a right quality, of lectio, reading of texts? Second, is the student made conscious of the fact that he is embarked on an inquiry—a particular kind of scientific inquiry? In this sense, is he really "theologizing," and does he consciously get caught up in the theological enterprise? Finally, does the thesis-method assist the student rightly to understand the two essential phases of the theological inquiry—the historical and the doctrinal—in themselves and in their relations? Upon your answers to these questions will depend your judgment on the validity and value of the thesis-method. I shall append three personal judgments of my own.

First, underneath the schematization of the thesis-method (statement of the thesis, state of the question, "note" of the thesis, adversaries, the array of "proofs," so called, and the solution of objections) it is possible to discern the methodological principles that control the teaching and learning of theology. Hence the way to an appreciation of these principles is not per se blocked by the use of the thesis-method, when it is used by both teacher and student in a way that is intelligent, flexible, and illuminated by a common understanding of right methodology. Even when he uses the thesis-method, it is altogether possible for the teacher to fulfill his eternal hope, which is to do no positive harm to the minds of his students. Major harm is done when the ordo disciplinae is perverted or adulterated or simply missed.

Second, as a formal method of instruction, the thesis-method is liable to the danger that threatens any form—the danger of formalism. Damage is done when the living processes of theological inquiry and understanding are crippled or killed by rude confinment within the categories' of exposition associated with this form of instruction.

Third, the most notable failure of the thesis-method is likely to be in the line of the historical inquiry. The topological survey proper to Scholasticism is usually done under the rubric of "proof" (also to some extent under the rubric of "adversaries"). Therefore the point and purpose of this survey are likely to be misunderstood; the survey itself is likely to be truncated; and the right method of conducting it is likely to be lost from view. There is the further disadvantage that this study of the sources is conducted after the thesis has been stated and the state of the question defined. More correct method would transpose this order. Normally it is the study of the sources that gives rise to the theological problem, the "question" (e.g., the celebrated patristic problem of the human knowledge of Christ). Therefore this order of teaching and learning gives greater reality to the method of theology as a method of inquiry based on the reading of sources.

Fourth, given the ordinary limitations of time, and the hardly less ordinary limitations of knowledge, to which the teacher is subject, the best hope would seem to be that the teacher should intersperse pieces of genuine theologizing with stretches of what really amounts only to indoctrination in theses.

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Search the Murray Collection: