“As a bachelor arms himself for disquisition in silence till the master sets the terms for defending, not deciding, the proposition; so did I arm myself…”
When one has the pleasure of meeting the first Vicar of Christ, one knows it is time to learn and not to teach. But if the teacher asks, one must answer. Dante prepares himself for the questions on faith, hope, and charity, the three theological virtues, of which the great apostles in heaven will ask of him an explanation. One of the primary roles of a teacher is not only to teach the content, but to know what content is worth teaching. Therefore, it is not for Dante to answer the questions he deems appropriate, to answer those of the master, who not only knows the answer to the question, but the importance of the question.
“Therefore my pen leaps and I do not write; not words nor fantasy can paint the truth: the folds of heaven’s draperies are too bright.”
St. Thomas, a master of the Sacred Page himself – he wrote, besides his more well known works, countless Quaestiones Disputatae, – spoke similar words when it was begged of him to complete the writing of his Summa Theologica. Just as “not words nor fantasy can paint the truth,” as Dante must admit more and more often as he nears the vision of God, just so, all that St. Thomas had written seemed to him “as so much straw.”
Luckily for us, it was well before this point that St. Thomas began his Summa. In the first question, we learned the nature of sacred doctrine. Certainly this influenced Dante’s account in Canto XXIV:
“Faith is the substance of what we hope to see and the argument for what we have not seen. This is the quiddity as it seems to me…Starting with this belief, it is evident, we must reason without further visible proofs. And so it partakes, by nature, an argument.”
The two most important points, I believe, of this first Question, as it relates to theology being a true science, are from the 2nd and 8th Articles respectively:
“We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence…There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science… So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God…sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.” (Article 2)
“…it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science…Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation… Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.” (Article 8)
Understanding of these two articles underlies much of what Dante says here and in the following Cantos (and, in fact, in the entire Commedia).