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Reason and Faith for Saint Thomas Aquinas and Blessed John Duns Scotus

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(I) The problem

The question of faith and reason is thought in many cases to be a problem

of consistency among the dictates of reason and those of faith and is

formulated in terms of the reliability of the many ways of justifying true

belief. Thus the qualm `Which is more reliable?' may change into a doubt

and eventually it is asked whether faith justifies knowledge:

Another type of claim to knowledge ... is faith.

The same difficulty that plagued the claims to

knowledge by intuition and revelation occurs

here ... Thus sense experience and reasoning, not

faith, are the basis for the claim of reliability

... Indeed, it seems too obvious to mention that

when people appeal solely to faith as a way of

knowing, they do so because there is no

evidence that what they say is true ... 1

The above explanation taken from the finale of a section discussing the

sources of knowledge in a somehow outdated textbook of philosophical

analysis written in our century is not in essence very far removed from

the debates which had taken place among medieval philosophers after the

twelve hundreds. The former may be more straigtforward in rejecting faith

as knowledge. But the latter too must have comprised strong arguments

against the reliability of faith. Scotus formulates several of these

arguments, which reject the reliability of faith after a cursory

examination, in the first question of the Prologus to the Ordinatio.2 In

the course of ScotusЩ evaluation of the controversy for and against the

reliability of faith not only do we discover the familiar qualms about

faith in comparison to sense-experience and the employment of reason, but

also we learn about the two distinct manners in which Thomas Aquinas and

John Duns Scotus were teaching in favor of faith.

The first question of Scotus' prologue to the Ordinatio develops the issue

of faith from various perspectives. There are two questions which concern

us. The first question is about the reliability of faith in the eyes of

Scotus and Thomas. The other question is about the difference, if any,

between their thoughts on faith and reason. As to the first question, it

is quite clear that both doctors proclaim the reliability of faith. As to

the second question, the answer is that there are differences between the

two teachings.

Scotus states that there can not be conclusive arguments in philosophy pro

the reliability of faith; all that can be done is to use persuasive

arguments from faith and at the same time to keep making the effort of

showing with strictly philosophical reasoning that the arguments of the

philosophers for the reliability of the intellect, the senses or some

other source is not as foolproof as one would like to have them. (n. 12,

nn. 66-71).

Aquinas on the one hand holds that faith is reliable, but on the other

hand he maintains an Aristotelian theory of knowledge. All knowledge is

derived from the senses. The human intellect can not operate without

phantasms or sensory data. And yet, the human intellect is not dependent

on a corporeal organ for its proper operations and the human soul is

incorruptible. There is one human soul for each human person and that soul

is the form or act of the human body. It is the business of the intellect

to know natures and essences in their common or absoluteley considered

natures. But still, a knowledge both of itself and of particular things is

possible for the human intellect. The final cause for mankind is salvation

and felicity in beholding God. It will be presented below that Aquinas

leaves an allowance for philosophers who interpret Aristotelian philosophy

as a philosophy devoid of sympathy for faith. He suggests that the end of

man may also be known solely in philosophy without recourse to faith.

(II) The views of the two doctors

In the critical edition of the Ordinatio St. Thomas is cited by the

editors in the footnotes to the text. In the controversy between the

philosophers and the theologians, philosophers put forward three important

arguments. Philosophers uphold the perfection of nature. Theologians

recognize the necessity of divine grace and perfection. The Saint is

mentioned in relation to the second argument of the philosophers in

connection with Aristotle who divides the speculative sciences into

mathematics, physics and metaphysics.



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