2018-10-15

The Queen of the Sciences?

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by Neil Godfrey

My attention was captured by theologian/biblical scholar Jim West’s post reminding readers that

theology used to be called the ‘Queen of the Sciences’. 

I’m not sure if that was meant to be a nostalgic recollection of something he wished were still true or if it was an expression of sardonic humour.

In the days when theology was crowned with such honour the word for “sciences” meant something quite different from what it means today.

Scientia is also the historical source of our modern term ‘science’. But the medieval and the modern terms do not mean the same thing(s): there is some overlap in their meanings, but the differences in their meanings must be recognized as being as important as the areas of similarity. . . . .

Seven liberal arts:

3 of language

  • grammar, rhetoric, dialectic/logic

4 of number

  • arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music

The kind of knowledge which was taught in cathedral schools, using the seven liberal arts, was known as scientia, that is human knowledge, knowledge about the world (at the theoretical level), and knowledge which can be shown to derive from firm principles.

For theology . . . was a matter of dialectical argumentation, not of insight gained by meditation, nor the decisions of episcopal or other authoritative sources. . . . For in this ‘theology’ mystery and revealed truth were to be investigated by the test of reason. This ‘theology’ was a new, God-centred subject, for which the seven liberal arts – and especially logic – were to be essential bases. Theology was the application of scientia to the understanding of the nature of God and of the Christian religion. 

In the thirteenth century there was a faculty of theology only in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge. But whether or not there was a theology faculty at a given studium, everyone regarded theology as the highest faculty. Indeed they regarded theology as the Queen of the Sciences, and theology continued to be seen like this for the next 600 years. It was Queen because it dealt with the highest study available to man, and it was a Science (scientia) because of course, like the other scientiae, it dealt in theory and it was built on sure and certain principles.

French, Roger, and Andrew Cunningham. 1996. Before Science: The Invention of the Friars’ Natural Philosophy. Aldershot, Hants ; Brookfield, Vt: Routledge. pp. 4, 55, 57-58, 64

3 Comments

  • John Roth
    2018-10-16 02:36:55 UTC - 02:36 | Permalink

    It’s kind of obvious if you’ve followed Jim West long enough. He’s engaging in one of his usual diatribes about the low level of actual theological knowledge and commitment in today’s Christians, and especially in certain areas of the Christian ministry.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-10-17 09:32:58 UTC - 09:32 | Permalink

      Jim recently pointed out that he grew up in a home without books; he went to a seminary, I think; he seems to me to know nothing but the Bible. He certainly demonstrates no awareness of legitimate scholarly attitudes and outlooks in more mainstream institutions. Yet he is very critical re the OT, but the total opposite with the NT. One wonders if it’s his theology that allows him to “reject” the OT; but dare try to apply the same methods to the gospels and he’ll denounce you — as I know from personal experience. What I don’t understand is the way certain “real” scholars seem to embrace or accept his inputs despite his clearly bigoted and unscholarly stance in so many areas.

      Oh, yeh. I think he is so in love with the Reformation figures that he even denies the clear evidence that Luther was antisemitic.

  • 2018-10-17 00:26:02 UTC - 00:26 | Permalink

    For instance: A principle which informs Aquinas’ analysis of creation is that the truths of science cannot contradict the truths of faith. So there is a strong tradition historically of religious maxims standing above the truths of the other academic disciplines.

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