ANCILLA THEOLOGIAE (maidservant of theology)—a description of medieval philosophy sometimes intended to be pejorative.
This formula emphasizes the lack of autonomy of a philosophy created as if under the dictate of theology and disparages its value as knowledge. This negative appraisal of medieval philosophy did not arise from impartial studies by historians of philosophy nor was it an invention of Marxist ideologists, but it came from an anti-papal campaign during the Reformation. A publisher in the foreword of A. Tribechovii’s book, De doctoribus scholasticis (written in 1665, published 1719 Je), stated that this work could not have been published earlier because it disagreed with the scholastic conception of philosophy in the service of papal theology. This propaganda has been so enduring that to this day medieval philosophy is associated with servitude to theology, and the Middle Ages are considered the darkest period in the history of European culture. Meanwhile, philosophy was treated as the ancilla theologiae well before the Middle Ages, and the subordination of philosophy to theology was not what it is commonly thought to have been.
We must recognize Philo of Alexandria, a neo-Platonist Jewish philosopher in the first century AD, as the first author to subordinate philosophy to Revelation. Philo used the term “wisdom” not to describe metaphysics but to describe the Old Testament. Philosophy should serve the knowledge contained in the Old Testament. This view was not a complete novelty because Philo, and Aristobulos before him, thought that Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras derived their philosophy from the Bible. Philosophy came from Scripture and so all the more it may be ordered to the Bible. Philo made this comparison just as the liberal arts (’εγκυκλια [enkyklia]) are necessary for mastering philosophy, so philosophy is needed to acquire wisdom; philosophy is an exercise in wisdom, and wisdom is the doctrine about the causes of divine and human things. Philo said that just as encyclic music is the servant of philosophy, so philosophy is the servant of wisdom (‘ωσπερ ‘η ’εγκυκλιος μουσικη φι&lambdaοσοφιας ‘ουτω και φιλοσοφια δουλη σοφιας [hosper he enkyklios mousike philosophias, houto kai philosophia doule sophias], De congressu eruditionis gratia, 79). Philo illustrated the subordination of philosophy to theology by the example of how the Egyptian Slave Hagar was subordinate to her mistress Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
Clement of Alexandria was influenced by Philo and made the conception of philosophy as the handmaiden of theology part of the Christian tradition. Clement used the analogy of the relation of the liberal arts to philosophy, and the relation of philosophy to wisdom, and concluded that wisdom is the mistress or lady of philosophy (κυραι τοινυν ‘η σοφια της φιλοσοφιας [kyria toinun he sophia tes philosophias] Stromata, I, 5). St. Gregory Thaumaturgus did not use the term ancilla, but adiutrix (helper) or socia laboris (companion in labor—συνεριθος [synerithos]), but the meaning was more or less the same. Other Greek Fathers such as Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, Amphilochus Iconiensis, and Didymus the Blind, were of a similar opinion and repeated the biblical allegory of Sarah and Hagar to show the supernatural dimension in the relation of philosophy to theology.
In the Latin tradition, St. Augustine never used the expression ancilla theologiae. A close description would appear in the twelfth century when St. Peter Damian said that the so-called artes humanae should be ancillae dominae, that is, the “human arts” should be “maidservants of the Lady” who is Sacred Scripture. We should mention, however, that when people in the eleventh and twelfth century spoke of philosophy, they were thinking primarily of dialectics rather than metaphysics, because the specifically philosophical writings of Aristotle were not yet available in translation. Dialectics was in fact the maidservant of theology, in accordance with the Aristotelian understanding of dialectics as an assisting field (an organon or tool). The understanding of philosophy in the eleventh and twelfth century as the maidservant of theology did not mean at all that Sacred Scripture dictated particular views that philosophy should take up, but that theology used the logical tools of dialectics. Therefore Robert Meledunensis wrote: “non tamen ipsae artes eius [theologiae] sunt ornamentum, sed instrumentum”—the liberal arts are not the ornament of theology but its tool.
When metaphysics blossomed in the thirteenth century, it methodological status did not include a relation to theology. Metaphysics was not a “servant of theology” but an independent science whose object was being as being, and this object as known by the natural light of the reason (St. Thomas Aquinas). The premises of metaphysics are not derived Sacred Scripture or theology. This did not mean that theology did not need philosophy, but theology did not need philosophy in such a way that it would impose its premises upon philosophy. Revelation concerns “divine matters”. Revelation needs to be understood and so it needs philosophy or metaphysics as the field that rationally explores reality. The Church insist that a philosophical system should meet the external criterium of realism when it recognizes some philosophical systems and not others as able to serve theology. This does not mean, however, that theology or some office in the Church can interfere in the content of philosophical theses.
The expression ancilla theologiae is ultimately a metaphor that cannot be explained merely on the basis of the verbal formula or by any biblical context. The proper context is the cognitive and methodological status of philosophy (metaphysics) and theology (natural and revealed); apart from this context the metaphor in the expression is not properly interpreted but is subject to ideological manipulation.
G. Severino, Philosophia christiana cum antiqua et nova comparata, Na 1878; B. Baudoux, Philosophia “Ancilla Theologiae”, Anton 12 (1937), 293–325; M. D. Chenu, La théologie comme science aux XIIIe siècle, P 1957; L. J. Elders, Faith and Science, R 1974; É. Gilson, Études de philosophie médiévale, Str 1921; Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio, CV 1998; M. A. Krąpiec, Filozofia w teologii [Philosophy in theology], Lb 1998, 19992.