Sometimes getting at the truth means doing something that is very different from the way people ordinarily operate. When it comes to giving arguments for and against Oneness Pentecostal theology, I don’t think anybody has considered doing what I’m about to do. And that’s not because there’s something great about me. It’s probably rather because I have a sort of defect: I have an obsession with arguments.
One medieval thinker that we might justifiably say was obsessed with arguments was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.). In the Summa Theologiae—one of his best-known works—Aquinas wrote page after page of arguments answering all sorts of questions about philosophy and theology. At the time of his death this work was incomplete, but what Aquinas did write there provides some of the most rich theological thinking of the Middle Ages.
Aquinas is my jumping-off point for introducing a series called “Summa Saturdays” here at The Oneness Exchange. (Summa is pronounced “soom-muh”.) Now I’m going to explain what this series involves, and how Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is the inspiration for it.
What is a “Summa”?
The word summa is a Latin term that carries over into English as the word—you guessed it—”summary.” But what is a summa a summary of? In order to understand that, you have to know a little bit about how medieval universities (like the one Aquinas taught at) worked.
According to Otto Bird, articles like the ones we find in the Summa Theologiae are “a literary expression, in a simplified and perfected form, of the disputations that the masters held with their students and other masters in the 13th century university.” What would happen is something like this. The master (professor) would present “disputed questions” (questiones disputatae)—questions one could answer “yes” or “no” to—to their students during a session (called a “disputation”). The students would then present arguments for and against that question during the session. The next day the master would then write an article (his “resolution” of the question) by summarizing the arguments pro and con that occurred the day before.
But the master did more than that. He provided his own answer to the question in the resolution article. So what we find, for example, in the Summa Theologiae, are the answers that Aquinas (the master) gave to disputed questions and the arguments pro and con for them.
The Structure of a Summa
Each of the articles in the Summa Theologiae have a particular structure. That structure goes like this.
First, a question is raised and is phrased in such a way that one can answer “yes” or “no” to it. This kind of question is sometimes called a “closed-ended” question. For example, we might as the question “Does Deuteronomy 6:4 teach that God is one Person?” That question is answered with either a “yes” or a “no.” An “open-ended” question doesn’t terminate with a “yes” or “no” answer and is therefore unruly with this kind of format. An example of a open-ended question would be “How should we interpret Deuteronomy 6:4?” It simply doesn’t make sense to answer “yes” or “no” to that question.
Second, objections are raised at the beginning of the article. An objection, in this sense, is a reason for thinking the opposite of what the article-writer is going to argue. So, if the article-writer answers “yes” to the question, the objections give reasons for thinking the answer is “no.”
Third, a quotation from an authority or reputable source is given that gives a position that is the opposite of the objections. This quotation begins with the phrase “On the contrary.” Essentially, this quotation is an introduction to the main part of the article.
Fourth, the main part of the article, where the article-writer gives his answer, is prefaced by the phrase “I answer that.”
Last, the article-writer gives responses to each of the objections raised at the beginning of the article.
Those are the basics of a summa article. However, keep in mind that the article is meant to be a SUMMARY of what could be said about the question. It isn’t necessarily meant to be exhaustive, even though the article-writer thinks that his definite answer to the question is correct.
The Structure of a Summa Saturday
Every Saturday (ideally) I will write a single argument or objection to a question I’m considering in an “Argument Archive” for a particular question. The Argument Archive for a question is essentially a repository that contains every argument for or against the question that I am aware of. Sometimes the arguments will be ones that I have come up with myself. I don’t plan on giving exhaustive footnotes because, again, these are summaries.
Regardless of how the question is formulated, the Oneness Pentecostal arguments will be presented first. Here’s an example of an Argument Archive for a question:
Does Deuteronomy 6:4 teach that God is one Person?
Argument 1. The Jews understood Deuteronomy 6:4 (the Shema) to refer to God as a single Person.
Objection 1.1. This argument inconsistently rules out a progressive revelation of God’s nature.
Response 1.1. [Oneness response to Objection 1.1.]
Counter-response 1.1. [Self-explanatory.]
Objection 1.2. This argument is also question-begging because . . .
Argument 2. [Argument.]
Objection 2. [Objection.]
Argument 3. [Argument.]
Objection 3. [Objection.]
Just a few of things to note about the Argument Archive here. First, for every argument there will be a response to the argument (called an “Objection”). The objections will be indented under each argument and will begin with a primary number (like 1, 2, etc.). Second, if there are multiple objections to an argument, I’ll provide a secondary number after the primary number to indicate this (like 1.1., 1.2. etc.). Third, the purpose of the Argument Archive is to be thorough. That means that even really bad arguments and objection will be included in it. Fourth, I may include responses and counter-responses to objections if necessary. Fifth, being thorough does not mean that each argument or objection will be fully-developed. As a keep stressing, these are summaries.
Once I think all of the best Oneness Pentecostal arguments for the questions have been given in the Argument Archive, and if I think I have a good answer to the question myself, I will write up an “Article” on the question. The Article will be my summary of the best arguments for and against the question in the Argument Archive, and will expand those arguments if necessary. But again, the Article is still a summary. If I have written posts giving more detail on any of the points, I will link to them in the Article. If an argument from the Argument Archive doesn’t make it into the Article, it’s because I think there is an adequate response to it that is already provided in the Argument Archive.
The structure of the Article will be just like the structure of an article in the Summa Theologiae (see the previous section above). When I list the objections, I will list them from what I think are the strongest to the weakest objections.
Every Article will be provisional and therefore subject to correction and the addition of new information. If I change my mind on any of them, I will write a new Article and make it a part of the Retractions series.
On the Series Index page for Summa Saturdays, each question will look something like this:
Does Deuteronomy 6:4 teach that God is one Person? (Argument Archive, Article, Retraction)
Of course, the Retraction link will only be provided if I change my perspective from the one I defended in my first Article.
What’s the Point?
I bet you might still be asking questions like “Why go through all of this trouble?” and “What’s the point?” My answer will be brief.
The best answer by far is that I think it’s fun to write this way. You might disagree, but that’s fine. This is my website.
It’s also a great way to organize thoughts on a subject and to keep discussions focused on the arguments. The one thing we don’t want to do in theology is make decisions that are based too heavily on emotion. If we want to decide what we think about what God is like, we should focus on the arguments.
I also have a bit of a pragmatic reason. By giving only one argument or objection to a question a week at a time, I can break up these questions into smaller, manageable portions. That way I can continue to research them in a consistent, focused way that will allow me to make up my own mind about them. Since this blog isn’t the only thing I do, this will help me think through these questions for myself.
Finally, to maintain the goals of this website, this structure provides accountability. I hope each of the Articles that I write for the Summa Saturdays series will show that I’ve carefully thought through the questions by considering the best arguments pro and con. And by retracting my Articles as needed, it shows I’m willing change my mind if I have too.
In the end, all I want is to believe what is true about God, even if I don’t end up taking the Oneness Pentecostal perspective.
See you next Saturday.
 Otto Bird, “How to Read an Article of the Summa,” 130-131.
 Ibid., 131.