Dominican Theology

Excerpt from the article “Dominican Thought,” by Fr. Allan White, O.P., The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford, 2000) 175-77.

Dominican Thought

The Dominican Order was founded by Dominic of Caleruega, a Spanish cleric, in 1215. Originating in an itinerant preaching group combating the Albigensian heresy in 1205, it was transformed over the next twenty years, with papal encouragement, into an international religious order. Its mission was the defense of orthodox Catholic doctrine through preaching, teaching, and the disciplined study of theology in the context of a modified monastic discipline. The friars were to communicate the fruits of their ascetic contemplation in the exercise of their preaching ministry, hence their official name, the Order of Preachers.

By 1300 Dominicans were present in all the major European university towns and had attracted large numbers of university-trained clerics to their ranks. The work of Albert the Great (c. 1200-80) and his pupil, Thomas Aquinas, transformed scholasticism, giving the speculative and dogmatic outlook and method of the Dominican Order an abiding intellectual cast.

The Dominican vision focuses on God as the First Truth and orders experience and life in accordance with that truth. The basic doctrines of the Christian faith cannot be established by reason alone, but the intellectual integrity of Christianity demands that they be shown not to conflict with reason. In the Dominican scheme, the critical intellect is applied to the revealed truths of the faith in order to demonstrate their internal coherence. Intellectual enquiry is undertaken in the context of a life of prayer and worship marked by the vocation of Christian discipleship.

Dominican theological endeavor, bolstered by the appropriation and Christianization of the metaphysical structure of Aristotelian thought, engages positively with the objectivity of material reality, accepts the movement of divine revelation, and holds all knowledge as valuable because it leads ultimately to God. The communication of this “divine wisdom” is an exercise of compassionate intelligence that recognizes in every partner in theological dialogue an actual or possible Christian disciple. This approach accepts and incorporates what is true in an opposing argument, admitting the position of the other as the initial field of encounter.

Dominican thought is theocentric, seeing God as Alpha and Omega, the origin and fulfillment of all things and Christ as the way “who showed in his own person that path of truth which, in rising again, we can follow to the blessedness of eternal life” (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Prologue, III). Beginning in opposition to a metaphysical, dualist heresy which taught that the material world is evil and the product of an evil anti-God, it answered this challenge by proclaiming that the world is essentially good, that humanity is flawed and fallen but not totally corrupt, and that human beings are marked by an innate desire for God. This desire is often imperfectly satisfied by fixation on what is less than God. The integration and edification of this desire is achieved through the attentive contemplation of the objectivity of reality, which leads to a delight in the luminous divine intelligence whose essential simplicity informs the complex beauty of the natural and human creation.