Medieval ‘Reductio’ vs. Modern Reductivism

When, after a series of disputes, the great medieval doctor of the Church, St. Bonaventure was finally incepted as a Regent Master of Theology at the University of Paris, he delivered as one of his two required inception addresses: a text now known as The Reduction of the Arts to Theology. This title can be misleading, however, because what Bonaventure means by the Latin word reductio and what we mean by “reduction” are two very different things.

For us, “reduction” means making things smaller. Literally, however, the Latin word reductio means to “lead back.”  Thus Bonaventure’s “reduction” of the other disciplines to theology does not involve shrinking them down into theology.  Not at all.  Rather, the goal was to show how all the other disciplines, operating according to their own proper methods, can lead us back to God.

It’s not that we expect chemistry, biology, or physics professors to do theology in their classes. Quite the contrary. On the Christian understanding of creation as an expression of the divine Logos and an embodiment of God’s love, when professors of the natural sciences teach students the truths about the world or about the human person, they are in this very act leading people to the Creator-God.  They are helping students “read” what medieval scholars called “the Book of Nature,” written by the same Hand that wrote “the Book of Scripture.”

If these teachers add a prayer to begin class, or if they remind students that “everything we study helps us understand how God writes in the Book of Nature,” this is all to the good. But that should be the presupposition everyone brings to the class; it’s not the subject matter of the class. There’s no extra requirement to do social justice stuff to prove you’re “Catholic.” Charity begins in the classroom, teaching with generosity and excellence.

Professors of chemistry, biology, and physics do their part to foster a Catholic education when they teach chemistry, biology, and physics.  Professors of theology should not be telling them how to teach in those classes any more than a theologian should be telling a bricklayer how to make a strong brick wall.  The Catholic tradition has long understood that each discipline has its own proper methodology.

And yet, there will also be certain guidelines – or perhaps we might call them “guardrails” – that help Catholic institutions protect the disciplines from outside forces, from each other, and sometimes from themselves.


A Catholic university will remind each discipline that they should not become subservient to the temptations of pride, wealth, or power and that they should not bow to the coercions of governments or other state agencies. Their primary devotion must be to the truth.

So, for example, economics at a Catholic university can never merely be about profit; politics can never merely about power; the scholarship in the other disciplines (including philosophy and theology) should never merely serve the ends of professional prestige or personal pride.  We serve our students, not ourselves and our own egos.  Nor do we serve ideology; we serve the truth because when we serve the truth, we serve God Who is Truth.

The Catholic institution will also remind each discipline that it must respect its disciplinary boundaries. Biologists, chemists, and physicists should not be making philosophical claims not supported by the methods of their discipline, such as “evolution proves God does not exist.” (It does no such thing.)  So too philosophers and theologians should not make proclamations about “science” ignorant of the latest developments in science.

In all its efforts, a Catholic university should engage in reductio, but should resist all unwarranted forms of “reductivism.” What is the character of these “unwarranted” forms?

For present purposes, we can identify three forms of “reductivism.”

First, “methodological reductivism,” whereby scientists seek to “reduce” phenomena to their constituent elements.  We “reduce” material things to their atomic structures.  We “reduce” physical traits to genetic causes. This “methodological reduction” is common to the natural sciences and proper to their methodology.

The problem is that the scientists, or more often the public, especially those in the media, will also engage in “epistemological reductivism” – the claim that once we’ve reduced things to the constituent parts, there is nothing else to know about them. Sometimes, more radically, they even engage in “ontological reductivism,” the claim that things are nothing more than their constituent parts.

The Catholic intellectual tradition has always resisted these latter two forms of reductivism.  Asking natural scientists not to veer into these forms of reductivism is no more than asking them to stay true to their own discipline and not veer off into epistemology or metaphysics.

The Catholic institution, moreover, will insist that all the disciplines remain open to the fuller vision of the human person and human flourishing that is at the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  All who are in an earnest search for truth belong at a Catholic university.

Those who hate the Catholic faith or who find any faith ridiculous or who believe the Catholic vision of the human person is odious and abhorrent, or who want the Catholic university to seek the money and prestige of other schools, should probably not make themselves miserable at a Catholic university and take a job somewhere else.

So, Bonaventure’s reductio and the Catholic university’s desire to envision all truth from whatever discipline as “leading us back” to God is not at all like the claim of modern “scientism” that the only form of knowledge is scientific knowledge and that all reality, including humans, are nothing more than a collection of atoms.  The Catholic intellectual tradition affirms that every bit of truth we gain about the world gives us a glimpse of God’s creative love and wisdom.

But no one discipline tells us everything we need to know, because the realities God has created, especially human beings, are so much more than we can grasp by reducing them to something small, something we can dominate and control.


*Image: St. Bonaventure Holding the Tree of Redemption by Vittorio Crivelli, 15th century [Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris]

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Helen Freeh’s Pursue Truth, Find Her, then Do Something

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Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.