While St. Thomas distinguishes between the formal object of faith and the material object of faith, it is important to keep in mind that form and matter are two principles or aspects of one thing: there is only one object of faith, namely God’s revelation. One way of getting at St. Thomas’s point is to see that faith does not have access to the speaker apart from what is spoken; faith does not come to God apart from God’s revealing himself. What I have called the “first moment” of faith, when one comes to realize the presence of a Voice, happens in the context of hearing a message. When the message is finally heard for what it truly is, namely “not as the words of men, but as the word of God at work in you who believe,” then faith perceives the speaker in the message (formal object) and trusts the message of the speaker (material object).
When St. Thomas turns from faith’s formal object (the speaker) to faith’s material object (what is spoken), he continues to emphasize the unity of faith’s formal and material objects. Speakers speak for some reason; in the case, he claims, the speaker only says things in order to draw the listener to himself. Here’s one way to translate the key sentence:
[Things other than God] only fall under faith’s assent insofar as they have some ordering to God, namely insofar as certain of the divinity’s effects help man to progress toward the enjoyment of God.
In ST I.1.3, St. Thomas puts it a little differently:
Sacred Doctrine does not deal with God and with creatures equally, but deals with God principally and with creatures according as they relate to God as to a principle or to an end.
He speaks similarly in ST I.1.7:
In Sacred Doctrine, everything is handled under the notion of God, either because they are God himself or because they have an ordering to God as to a principle or to an end.
In these texts St. Thomas says that God only speaks of creatures according as they relate to him, which is either as coming from him or as going to him. This is the most fundamental way of speaking about things, namely in terms of their ultimate cause, but that doesn’t seem to be St. Thomas’s focus. Rather, he seems to argue that God speaks in order to draw his creatures to himself, and as a result creatures are only interesting insofar as they relate to God.
The division between the formal and material object of faith and theology has a consequence for the division of theology. In ST I.1.7, St. Thomas notes:
But some, paying attention to what is deal with in this science and not to the aspect under which they are considered, have designated the subject of this science variously as “signs and things,” or “the works of reparation,” or “the whole Christ, that is, head and members.”
He refers to Hugh of St. Victor, Robert Grossteste, and others. As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, the contrast St. Thomas raises between theology about God and theology about the “works of reparation” is the ancient division between “theology” and “economy”: in some of the fathers, “theology” means something about God in himself, while everything about God’s external works is subsumed under the name “economy”—sometimes today one hears reference to the “economy of salvation.”
St. Thomas does not deny that faith or theology is about these other things; he does not say that Hugh of St. Victor is dealing “economy” and not “theology.” Rather, he finds a place for both under the one name “theology,” but with a certain order. This tends to confirm the second intuition I began with, namely that the word “theology” will turn out to have multiple analogous meanings in a certain order.