Because God is not an intellectual construct, theology is not an intellectual process.


31 Responses to Theology

  1. MG says:


    I agree.

  2. Robert says:

    I certainly hope not. 🙂

    If we are made in the image of God and we hold that God is not, then it would stand to reason we are not.

  3. Codgitator says:

    Is human nature an intellectual construct?

  4. Thomas says:

    Andrea —

    Thank you for the wonderful quote from Dr Bradshaw. I think that it is the ‘truly authentic knowledge, gained only by actual experience, apart from reason or concepts’ which precludes true theology (as opposed to so-called ‘academic theology’) from being an intellectual process.

    MG —

    I agree that not every intellectual enterprise is an intellectual construct. But I believe that in the case of the Holy Trinity which is beyond Being and therefore cannot be an intellectual construct (as I believe the ‘god of the philosophers’ is), cannot be understood via an intellectual enterprise.

    My favourite quote from St John of Damascus (‘God then, is Infinite and Incomprehensible, and all that is comprehensible about Him is His Infinity and His Incomprehensibility’) reflects this well, I think.

    Certainly, we can ‘talk about’ knowledge of God and to do so with particular skill is definitely an intellectual process which requires the use of logic and reason. So I certainly don’t mean to denigrate rationality. But I do think ratiocination has very definite limits that are all too often ignored (forgotten? denied?) by those who ‘do theology’.

  5. MG says:


    I don’t think that the subject of every intellectual enterprise is an intellectual construct. The subject of an intellectual enterprise should be *reality* (the discipline of history isn’t about our theories of history per se, but about objective events). Our attempts to accurately represent reality are subjective constructs, but they arise in the context of trying to understand something that is not just a construct.

    Sure, true theology is not an intellectual enterprise but noetic experience, and I think the St. Maximus quote Andrea offered captures this quite well; but can’t we legitimately speak of *talk about* theology? Isn’t this *to some extent* an intellectual thing? Tell me what you think of this: We can be more or less accurate when talking about humankind’s experiences of God’s revelation. And our success or failure to do so depends on our successful exercise of intellectual virtues such as intellectual humility, openness to revising our false beliefs, sensitivity to evidence, and intellectual honesty. It also depends on making inferences and searching for evidence. All of this requires moral character as well, which presupposes some degree of noetic awareness of God, who is the goodness that we gain when we actualize virtue. But the process of “talk about theology” requires the exercise of the intellect and the use of conceptual frameworks in a way that noetic experience does not. Is this consistent with what you’re saying?

  6. Robert says:

    No I meant darkness in which concepts stand in complete and utter silence, useless in the presence of the Unknowable. That is a paradox in my book. 🙂

  7. If you mean by “nasty conundrum” that it means negating the concepts, I don’t agree. They are still true, it’s just that one progresses from knowing about to knowing. My friend, John Doe, doesn’t nullify the fact that he’s a WASP, it’s just that knowing these facts aren’t the same as knowing him. Instead of a just being a WASP, he becomes a complex, sum is greater than the parts, person. He doesn’t cease to become white, anglo-saxon, or Protestant, though he could change the last.

    Knowing or believing that God is good, almighty, and loving can be done by faith without experience, or awareness of the actual experience. Proceeding to experiencing his goodness, etc is advancing to another level. When it is experienced, it doesn’t make the concepts untrue but fulfilled.

    The Orthodox are also very cautious about presuming that we know God. A person can be very easily deceived, so a firm foundation is these concepts can prevent some of these exaggerations, misjudgments, and doctrinal errors that lead to not knowing God as well as one could.

  8. Robert says:


    The shedding of concepts is what is often referred to as this darkness. A nasty conundrum.

  9. Speaking of St. Maximus, Dr. Bradshaw in Aristotle East and West provides this quote from Questions to Thalassius, about what sounds like the organizing principle of reason:

    “The scriptural Word knows of two kinds of knowledge of divine things. On the one hand there is relative knowledge, rooted only in reason and concepts an lacking in the kind of experiential perception of what one knows through active engagement; such relative knowledge is what we use to order our affairs in our present life. On the other hand there is that truly authentic knowledge, gained only by actual experience, apart from reason or concepts, which provides a total perception of the known object through a participation by grace.”

    Since my “active engagement” isn’t what it’s supposed to be, I need to order my life according to concepts that will hopefully help me ascend to the darkness at the top of the mountain which is described before this quote.

  10. The use of our mind and reason is indeed part of our experience. I don’t know too many Christians east or west that would claim that their knowledge of God is solely based on abstract doctrines. As a matter of fact, most evangelicals I know prefer talking about their personal experience of God rather than reasons for God. I have even heard evangelical philosopher William Lane Craig claim that even without any evidence for God he would still believe Christianity is true based on his experience. I don’t think pitting reason vs. Experience is very helpful. I think it is a much better approach to engage the west on the issues like ads, the Filioque, the sola’s, etc… as Perry has often done on this blog. It would be easy for someone to get the impression from some of the above comments that the Orthodox do not value reason, which is blatantly false, and one page from St. Maximus the Confessor or St. Photius would disprove.

  11. castleman711 says:

    Could this be understood also in the patristic understanding of doctrine? Not just of thought, but ethics being tied together? That theology is not just of understanding, but of practice. What is good pertaining to Christ, and ethics?

    Maybe I am missing the point, but the more I read Orthodoxy, and the fathers, the more I see the reality of God being known not from our minds, but experiences, and interactions. Maybe I am way off..

    Interesting post though, I will entertain this thought some more.

  12. Ariston says:

    The problem is often in our modern definition of science, as a narrowly–defined enterprise for that which is not the arts, or for what was once called natural philosophy. “Science” used to be a much broader term in the West, encompassing more what in Greek was episteme, though the sense in which it is related to techne was likely never wholly absent. The problem with the specifically Thomist view of theology as science is that it sees theology as capable of grasping the divine essence, and, furthermore, that the fulfillment of theology is in the beatific vision, which in this sense is a direct contemplation of the divine essence. Applying to Thomism the full weight of Barlaam’s teaching, however, seems to be to be suspicious, but better scholars than I should weigh in, there.

    Even those actions commonly seen as “sciences” are not merely discursive enterprises which can proceed infallibly from first principles, wholly understanding their objects. Surrendering to that view not only damages the term “science”, but fundamentally misunderstands the demands Orthodoxy theology can rightly ask of those engaged in all scientific work.

    I would never use the term “science” for theology, because of how it is generally understood. And I think that the sense in which many modern Thomists use the idea of theology as “queen of the sciences” is suspect because it often thinks of the sciences in the purely modern sense, and expects theology to be one such as queen. (I do not think this was Aquinas’s view, mostly because the modern sense of science isn’t attested before the 17th century, and doesn’t really become dominant until the 19th. It is unfair to place our impoverished language on him.)

  13. David Richards says:

    It seems to me that to call theology a science stems from a category mistake. From what I understand Orthodox consider theology knowledge of God attained through prayer, hence the quote from Evagrius and later echoed by others. The method of prayer – hesychasm – is the science, but the science is not that knowledge itself which is attained by and through the method of prayer. To me, it is as if someone said all our knowledge about the natural world is a science unto itself, rather than the methods we used to investigate and discover what we know about the natural world. A further problem with the notion of theology as a science is it seems to imply that one can discover truths of revelation hitherto unknown, a sort of doctrinal development. But of course the Orthodox flat out reject that.

  14. Ariston says:


    No fallacy, there.

    You can’t “contain” natural systems or objects within their respective sciences, either. I am not saying theology is a science in the Thomist sense as your Dominican interlocutor above, rather, I am saying that your “aphorism” is poorly thought–out.

    No, God cannot be contained, or even contemplated in His essence by the human intellect. But that does not make theology, which by its very definition is an act involving the reason, a non–intellectual category. The root of theology is in the experience of God, primarily in the sacramental life of the Church, and then in the life lived in solitude before God. But it is also a spoken teaching, it is proclaimed and constrained in the boundaries set by the Councils, but it inevitably uses the intellect when it speaks.

  15. Mike Spreng says:


    Reformed theology requires and starves for concepts and formulas, where as historic theology (Eastern, in particular) requires and starves for the body of Christ in all of its sacramental and ecclesiastical experiences.

    In Reformed theology, one is bound to medieval confessions and paradigms. These confessions are a direct result of medieval scholasticism. From the very beginning of the Great Schism, the west has aggressively pursued a totally different perspective of the gospel that eventually resulted in one “getting saved.” First millennium Christianity taught no such thing. Scholasticism developed over the second century beginning with Anselm’s doctrine of atonement. This developed into the penal substitution doctrine of the west. Roman Catholicism was now forced to teach a legalistic form of Christianity. People received eternal life by submitting to the “sacramental” system, including indulgences, etc.

    Reformed theologians simply turned scholasticism on its head by introducing a new form of legalism: saved through doctrine, or, as Luther called it, “Five Solas.” Rather than wrapping the gospel in to Roman scholasticism, which at least involved some sacramental unity, he wrapped it in conceptualism. Again, this resulted in the modern concept of salvation where one gets saved in an instantaneous intellectual “experience.”

    The hermeneutic of Reformed (Protestant) theology is based on finding scholastic nuggets within the Bible. A Christian becomes dependent not on the life of the body of Christ and all of its wealth but on “doctrine alone.”

  16. “May those who happen upon this work have it as their purpose to bring their mind safely through to the final blessed end- which means to be guided by their sense perceptions up to that which is beyond all sense perception and comprehension, which is He who is the Author and Maker and Creator of all.” -“Philosophical Chapters” by St. John Damascus

    “But since everything that is moved is moved by another, then who is it that moves this (the heavens)? And who is it that moves that? And so we go on endlessly in this way until such time as we arrive at something that is immovable.For the first mover is unmoved, and it is just this that is the Divinity. Furthermore, how can that which is not locally contained be moved? Therefore only the Divinity is unmoved, and by His immovability He moves all things. Consequently, one can only answer that Divinity is without Body.” Orthodox Faith, Book 1, Ch. 4 by St. John Damascene

    “John also began a systematic presentation of the patristic teachings on all aspects of faith. This became his most important work:The Fountain of Knowledge. It has the hallmark of a scholastic compendium comprised of three parts: On Philosophy, On Heresies, and on the Orthodox Faith. The last section soon assumed the status of one-volume authority on Orthodox theology, and also exerted a massive influence on the medieval western Church, not least because it was a primary source for Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae.”Patristic Theology” by Fr. John McGuckin

  17. Br. Gabriel, OP says:


    There is a difference between rationalistic and systematic. Your critique seems to focus on literal presentation. But, even there, Aquinas argues that a more poetic language while being less precise can more adequately communicate the mystery who is God. However, he wold argue that Theology is properly communicated in a more systematic manner.

    On your second critique I would suggest that you are correct for the rationalists beginning in the late Medieval period and forward. This is directly the result of the neo-Humanism of the Renaissance and its influence on thought at the time. Trent, however, was a direct reaction against this move. In particular, they used Aquinas to combat this problem.

    Also, I was considering your critique of the multiplicity of modes of Theology. Your understanding of them is not quite accurate. They are not independent theologies. Rather, they are a critiques. So, for instance the so-called “feminist theology” is more properly called “a critique of theology using a feminist hermeneutic.” But this, and the like, are not Theology, properly speaking.

  18. Thomas says:

    Sorry, Br. Gabriel, OP, but my reading of Aquinas finds his writings one of the most rationalistic modes of so-called ‘theology’ I have ever encountered. The ‘god’ he writes of is not the God I know.

    IMO, one of the problems with the so-called ‘theology’ in Papal Christianity is its failure to recognise the ‘fallenness’ of the faculty of discursive reasoning. This leads to, among other errors, the false belief that God ‘can be known through “natural” reasoning’.

  19. Br. Gabriel, OP says:


    I will agree with your comment in part. The part that I agree with is your critique of late medieval theology. However, you are committing the genetic fallacy in applying rationalistic modes of Theology to someone such as Aquinas.

    The presupposition of Aquinas and any good Theologian is that they are a believer. The sceptic cannot, by definition, do theology. This mode of skepticism is at the foundation of the “hard” sciences and is thus a necessary mode for their investigation. However, this is not the proper way to proceed in the science of Theology, which as you have noted, begins in prayer. I would even go further and say that good Theology begins in prayer, is informed by prayer, and leads to deeper prayer. If this is not the case, then it is a rationalistic theology and will indeed fall into the errors that you cite.

    For this reason Aquinas says:

    “It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I, 1q, 1a, c.)

  20. Br. Gabriel, OP says:

    @David Richards

    A science, broadly defined, is a systematic investigation of some material object. Theology is the systematic investigation of Divine Revelation. Hence, Theology is a science.

    This should not be confused with the more colloquial use of the term science. Since the Modern Period the term science has generally been used to refer to the “hard” or empirical sciences. This is not my meaning. If Theology were a science of this sort then it would need to have empirically verifiable and falsifiable data. However, such is not the nature of the material object of Theology.

    By intellect I don’t strictly intend to mean simply the power discursive reason. However, this is the specific difference in the type of intellect that man possesses – as opposed to, say, the angels or God. However, there are other powers of the human intellect that are related to but not reducible to discursive reasoning. However, any systematic investigation in theology would necessarily use discursive reasoning to come to any conclusions about what has been received both naturally and supernaturally in Revelation.

    I would suggest a read of Question 1 of the Summa Theologiae. Aquinas discusses this this very topic quite well. An english version of this work can be found online at under the tab titled ‘Summa.’

  21. Thomas says:

    Br. Gabriel, OP’s comments appeared after I began my response and before I clicked ‘Post Comment’. All I will say is that I completely, utterly, totally, and categorically disagree with his statement.

    I am aware that Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics regarded theology as a science. But, IMO, they were all heretics.

  22. Thomas says:

    ‘If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.’

    ISTM that theology — literally ‘God knowledge’ — is not acquired through intellectual processes, but through the experience of prayer. And, IMO, too much ‘theology’ — esp. that which begins with the ‘prime mover’, ‘designer’, and such — starts with an intellectual construct (the ‘god of the philosophers’) rather than with the God of Abraham and Jesus Christ. For instance, it is an intellectually constructed ‘god’ that necessitates the Filioque.

    I suspect that it is because all too often there is an intellectual focus on god that there exist so many so-called ‘theologies’ (“moral theology”, “pastoral theology”, “biblical theology”, “systematic theology”, “feminist theology”, “spiritual theology”, etc.)

    I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about various logical fallacies (Perry, please help?), but I suspect there must be one in thinking that my aphorism can be interpreted to mean various branches of science must be ‘non-intellectual’. In any case, the subject of my aphorism wasn’t intellectual constructs, but God. I certainly recognise plenty of things that aren’t intellectual constructs can be examined intellectually. But God is utterly transcendent (beyond being) and not contained within that realm, IMO.

  23. David Richards says:

    “Simply put, man uses his intellect to come to know God.”

    Br. Gabriel, would you please elaborate on this? By ‘intellect’ do you mean the discursive reason? Why do you say theology is a science and in what sense do you believe it is a science?

  24. Br. Gabriel, OP says:

    Theology is a science. The object of theology is God and the things of God. However, the agent of this science is man. Man ordinarily comes to know things through deductive and inductive reasoning. Simply put, man uses his intellect to come to know God. This is a simple definition of the science of theology. Thus, the initial question rests upon a confusion of object and agent. Theology is an intellectual project because it employs the human intellect to come to know God not because of the nature of its object.

  25. Megan says:

    Reformed theology is getting a bad rap here. Mike, please back up your accusations with proof.

  26. Evan says:

    Reformed theology kicks experience out? I smell a strawman. I’m sure you could say that of any Christian tradition of theology if you squinted your eyes hard enough.

  27. Mike Spreng says:

    “Theology without action (praxis) is the theology of demons.” —St. Maximos the Confessor

    Theology has everything to do with how we experience God. This is the problem with Reformed theology. It kicks experience out and creates a very pure form of scholasticism. The very basic teachings of the fathers and the Bible such as reaping and sowing, fasting, and partaking of the sacramental life in general are reduced to empty formulas.

  28. Ariston says:

    This would make many of the “inquiry” sciences also non–intellectual; are geology, biology and medicine non–intellectual because they deal with actual objects?

  29. Lucian says:

    God cannot be deduced, but once known, everything falls into place, and it all makes perfect sense.

  30. Evan says:

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you; a more extended explanation of your statement may clear this up. But do “intellectual processes” always have “intellectual constructs” as their objects? Also, perhaps… does “theology” as an inquiry always only consider “God”? Surely there are intellectual constructs of great importance for theology? Theologians don’t simply contemplate God. They consider the sacraments, or the scriptures, or prayer, or concepts such as “revelation” as well.

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