Theology: Christian Theology

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The word theology always means discourse or speech about God. But which God is meant and what does this God do? Plato, in his Republic, assigns theologia to the poets (379a5); by theology he means narratives about the gods and theogonies. Aristotle contrasts the "theologians," who offer mythological explanations of the world, with the "philosophers," or "physiologists," who look for the explanation of things within things themselves. On one occasion he divides "theoretical" philosophy into three parts: mathematics, physics, and theology, this last being identical with "first" philosophy, or metaphysics (Metaphysics 6.1025a). Toward the end of the second century bce, Panaetius of Rhodes distinguished three kinds of theology and was followed in this by Varro, whom Augustine cites (City of God 6.5): mythological, "natural" or philosophico-cosmological, and civil or political. "Civil theology" or "political theology" referred to the cult of the Caesars.

Among Christians, the first applications of the term theology to knowledge of the God in whom they believed occur in the writings of Origen (d. 254). For Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339), theologia no longer applied to paganism at all but designated exclusively the knowledge of the Christian God and of Christ. Eusebius was also familiar with the distinction that would become classic among the Greeks and would be known to the Latin Middle Ages as well, between theology, which means discourse about the inner life of God, and economy, meaning God's activity for our salvation, which includes Christ, church, sacraments, and eschatology. Proclus (d. 485), the Greek philosopher, wrote an Elements of Theology, a treatise on the ultimate principles of reality.

In the West, theologia was for a long time used only infrequently; other terms prevailed, such as sacra scriptura ("sacred scripture"), sacra erudito ("sacred knowledge"), and divina pagina ("divine pages"). Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) preferred sacra doctrina ("sacred doctrine"). But in his time, theologia, which Peter Abelard (d. 1142) had used as the title of a work on Christian dogma in its entirety, meant the knowledge elaborated and taught in the faculty of the same name. Our modern use of the term was thus established.

Historical Development

Theology exists because the godhead is revealed in historical actions or events, the meanings of which are conveyed in language or inspired writings. The words of a sage, even one who is "inspired," are not enough. The writings provide food for a meditation of a sapiential kind that is geared to the conduct of human life. God revealed the relationship he wants to establish with man and in the process was also self-revelatory.

Before the end of the first century after the Hijrah, Islam was already discussing the dilemma of predestination and free will. Next to be discussed were the last things and the salvation of unbelievers who were in good faith. In these discussions and in the texts of the mystics were to be found only fragments of a theology. While Judaism had too lofty an idea of God's absoluteness to make an effort to investigate his nature, it did gather into the Talmud the discussions and interpretations of the rabbis; it developed an apologetic for dealing with Islam; it reflected on the anthropomorphisms of the Bible; and it produced great religious philosophers (e.g., Maimonides, d. 1204).

Christians for their part not only had inherited the Jewish scriptures and the revelatory deeds that these scriptures narrate and explain; they also found themselves confronted with the fact of Jesus Christ. First an object of faith, this fact became also an object of thought. It was a complex fact: a man who is Son of God, dead yet living, weak yet Lord. It demanded that God be seen as Father of a Son, the two of them acting through a Holy Spirit who is at once immanent in the "hearts" of the faithful and transcendent over them. Help in expressing these ideas was found in the Stoicism of the day, which was widespread even among slaves. This philosophy provided the idea of a Logos and a Spirit (pneuma) that permeated the cosmos, kept it in motion, and quickened minds as well. On the other hand, to take this approach was to cosmologize God and turn the Logos and Pneuma into subordinate intermediaries between God and the things of the world. Before the Council of Nicaea (325), even Christians who proved their fidelity by martyrdom had been influenced by these ideas and had formulated their faith in an unsatisfactory manner. Various interpretations publicly expressed were judged to cast doubt on essential aspects of the object of faith. The result was that an orthodoxytrue praise, true faithemerged and, with it, the beginnings of a reflection on faith and in faith or, in other words, something of a theology.

Faith, which is already in the realm of thought, must necessarily express itself in an active way. It looks for coherence among many facts and elements that, however diverse, all come from the same God who is carrying out a homogeneous plan. Since faith is also fidelity, and therefore orthodoxy, it develops in response to deviations. Since it has to do with mysterious realities that are irreducible to the facts grasped by our sciences and are very complex, the very assent of faith is accompanied by the questioning that Augustine and Thomas Aquinas call cogitatio : "Credere est cum assentione cogitare" ("To believe is to assent while thinking"). When this reflection in faith ceases to be occasional and becomes systematic, it is theology.

This process began in the East. Schools of higher-level catechesis were established there; in these schools the quest was for gnosis, that is, a deepening both of knowledge and of Christian life. "True gnosis," as it is called by Irenaeus (Against Heresies 4.33.8), fights the false gnosis of Basilides and Valentinian in the name of the authentic tradition guaranteed by apostolic succession. This true gnosis is in accordance with reason (3.12.11). The Didaskalion, or Catechetical School, of Alexandria was headed by Clement and then by Origen, who in his On First Principles gives the first complete theological statement that is linked to a philosophical culture. As a result, he distinguished what we now call dogma and theology. In contrast to platonizing Alexandria, Antioch, another great Christian metropolis, practiced a more historical and literal reading of the scriptures. At Nisibis and Edessa, on the other hand, Ephraem of Syria (d. 373) theologized in a poetical and lyrical way that was alien to Greek culture.

The second half of the fourth century and the first half of the fifth saw in both the East and West a flowering of geniuses and saints: the Fathers. These included Athanasius (d. 373), Basil of Caesarea (d. 379), Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 391), Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395), Chrysostom (d. 407), and Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), in the East; and in the West, Hilary (d. 367), Ambrose (d. 397), Jerome (d. 420), Augustine (d. 430), and Leo I (d. 461). These men defended and lent luster to the Christian faith chiefly by a rational explanation of scriptures that focused on the Christian mystery and made use of typology. In Origen's thought, and that of some others, typology is pushed to the point of allegory. Even at this time, however, there were signs of a difference in the way theological activity was carried on in the Greek East and in the Latin West, at least beginning with Augustine in the West.

The Latin fathers (including Augustine) regarded the literary and philosophical culture of the patristic age (Second Sophistic, Platonic, and Stoic) to be a human formation of the Christian although it was acquired in the pagan schools of the time. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Chrysostom insisted on the value of this formation, while Julian the Apostate denied Christians access to it to prevent their being weakened by it. The Fathers engaged in argument chiefly in order to invalidate the conclusions drawn by heretics, but they did not use philosophical concepts and arguments in order to develop new theses that went beyond the traditional faith. From the philosophers, and especially from Platonism, they borrowed certain broad ideas and expressions but little with conceptual content new to their faith. They saw the philosophers rather as fathers of heresies. This did not prevent later philosophical borrowings by John of Damascus (d. 749), Photios (d. about 891), Cerularios (d. 1058), and Michael Psellus (d. 1078?). Even today, however, Orthodox theology dutifully follows the Fathers. The nineteenth canon of the Trullan Synod (692) says "The church's pastors must explain scripture in accordance with the commentaries of the Fathers." While the medieval and modern West has been receptive to many questions and currents of thought and has even formulated new dogmas, thus making the proof from tradition difficult and complicated, Eastern Christianity has kept a kind of direct contact with its patristic tradition. It derives its faith directly from the liturgy, in which that tradition finds expression. When the attempt was made on numerous occasions to introduce into Eastern Orthodoxy a creative appeal to reason, especially because of the influence of the West and in imitation of it, there was a reaction. Thus there was a reaction against John Italus, who succeeded Michael Psellus as head of the University of Constantinople; the seventh article of his condemnation in 1082 reads "Cursed be those who devote themselves in depth to the sciences of the Hellenes and do not use these simply to exercise the mind but instead adopt their sterile opinions." The reaction was even more vigorous in the fourteenth century when, after the great Latin classics had been translated into Greek, rationalist and humanist claims roused the opposition of Gregory Palamas (d. 1359), who developed a new systematization of the spiritual tradition of the Greek East. Since the fourth century this tradition had devoted itself to reflection on the incarnation of the Word and the divinization of creatures, to the union of the divine and the human, the uncreated and the created. This was the background for the two great debates peculiar to the Eastthe iconoclastic struggle, which was the final phase of the christological controversies (union of the spiritual and the sensible), and the debate over Palamism (divinization, communication of God to the human creature, and rejection of any rationalism in theology)the victorious outcome of which is celebrated by the Feast of Orthodoxy. Established in 843, this feast commemorates the restoration of icon worship and Orthodox rejection of the theological rationalizers.

There have been other developments in Orthodox theology; for example, in the nineteenth century, the influence of G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Schelling in Russia. But even in fairly personal systematizations this theology has remained faithful to its special character. It is not a simple intellectual exercise but a call to live in a personal way the truth revealed by Jesus Christ and proclaimed in the faith of the Orthodox church, which draws its life and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. Theoretical knowledge must be integrated with life experience and with prayer that is practiced as part of the church community and in its liturgical celebration.

The Latin fathers differ very little from the Greeks. However, beginning with Anselm and continuing throughout Scholasticism, a favorite formula of Augustine's became the motto for an exercise of reason in theology that is peculiar to the medieval West. In Augustine, reason and faith supply each other with nourishment within the unity of contemplation, in accordance with his formula: "Intellige ut credas, crede ut intelligas" ("Understand that you may believe, believe that you may understand"; Sermons 43.9). The second part of this formula has often been expressed by means of Isaiah 7:9: "Nisi credideritis non intelligetis" ("Unless you believe, you shall not understand"; Septuagint and Vulgate). Augustine himself focuses less on the duality of the two spheres than on the union of the two activities or ranges of activity in reaching the fullness of truth. For truth in itself is one. It exists in the triune God; it is to be found in the Wisdom of God that has come to us in sensible form in Jesus Christ. On our side, there is an intelligere, or knowing, that prepares for and nourishes faith, and an intellectus, or understanding, which is the fruit of a devout and loving faith that makes use of the resources and analogies supplied by nature and reaches the intellectus fidei, or understanding of faith, so that "what faith grasps the mind sees" (On the Trinity 15.27.49).

The intellectus fidei of Anselm (d. 1109) is not quite the same as that of Augustine. Anselm means a use of reason on the basis of faith ("I desire to gain some understanding of your truth which my heart believes and loves"), but reason, for him, has the power to discover at its own rational level the necessary connection that gives the truth of faith its objective coherence. That is what he means by understanding what we believe; this is true of the existence of God and it is true of redemption, which we can think out "as though we knew nothing about Christ."

The monastic theology of Bernard of Clairvaux, who was nineteen years old when Anselm died, is quite different in character: a theology of the spiritual struggle and of the life of mystical union as experienced in the cloister. However, from Anselm and the theologians at Bec came the initiatives, timid at first, that produced Scholasticism. Anselm of Laon was a disciple at Bec. He in turn had Abelard for a pupil, but the pupil was too gifted and too aware of his gifts to find satisfaction at Laon. Abelard inaugurated what became systematic theology and the dialectical method of bringing together opposed theses that call for a solution. This method of the quaestio (interrogation) was applied in commentaries on Peter Lombard's Book of Sentences, which was to be the textbook for the teaching of theology down to the sixteenth century. The teaching was done in schools or universities and came to be known as "Scholasticism."

Scholastic theology had very great practitioners in Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas (both of whom died in 1274). Thomas's intention was to search out and express, with the help of analysis, the perceived order of things and reason, an order determined by God. That which revelation discloses to us provides the starting point, of course, but the Scholastic also had a fearless trust in the rational mind as trained in the school of Aristotle. Profound insights, rigorous arguments, honesty about the data, and sureness of Catholic sensibility have made Thomas the "Common Doctor" of the Catholic church. Following the Augustinian tradition, Bonaventure insisted more on the interior supernatural enlightenment and transformation that are necessary conditions for understanding sacred doctrine.

Although opposed to one another as realist and nominalist, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham in the fourteenth century were at one in criticizing the trust in speculative reason when this takes God and Christian realities for its object. Ockham marked the beginning of the via moderna which was introduced in the universities in the fifteenth century. The development of a theology marked by abundant discourse and nice distinctions led by way of reaction to spiritual currents and a mysticism that were unrelated to dogma (Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ ). But another and different current was also born: humanism with its cultivation of the ancient languages, its criticism of Scholasticism, its publication of texts that printing carried far and wide. Martin Luther (d. 1546) was heir to all three currents: Ockhamist voluntarism, mystical inwardness, and the textual resources of humanism. Nonetheless, he would mark a new beginning.

The Protestant Reformation led, in Catholic theology, to the development of a scholarly apologetics (e.g., the Controversiae of Bellarmino, 1621); the criticisms of the philosophes likewise elicited an abundant apologetic production in the eighteenth century and down to the first third of the twentieth. Theology found itself faced with new activities of critical reason: history, science of religions, critical exegesis, psychology of religion. The serious urgency of the questions thus raised led to the modernist crisis. There had been creative minds that cultivated a healthy openness to modernity as well as close ties with tradition (Johann Adam Möhler, Matthias Joseph Scheeben, John Henry Newman), but the chief fruit of the Catholic restoration that the nineteenth century found necessary was a renewed scholasticism possessing little creativity. Once the modernist crisis was past, theology regained its vitality from a renewed sense of the church, a renewed contact with its own sources (Bible, Fathers, liturgy), and with the questions raised by twentieth-century thinkers (ecumenism, problems of unbelief, theology of liberation, and so on).

Luther began his Reformation with a reform of theology. In reaction to Scholasticism and Aristotle he eliminated philosophical concepts and expressed the religious relationship of salvation in biblical terms. The object of his theology is man as sinful and lost and God as the one who justifies and saves him; a "theology of the cross," not a theology of the inner ontology of God; a theology that draws its life not from a symbiotic relationship with metaphysics but from pure faith in the gospel of grace, which is consonant with the spirit of scripture. Luther himself did not compose a comprehensive systematic treatise. His disciples made up for the lack by their loci communes, or dogmatic expositions (Melanchthon, 1531; Chemnitz, 1591; Gerhard, 16101625; Hutter, 1619). John Calvin produced his Institutes of Christian Religion as early as 1536, but he also commented on scripture daily. Protestant theology took the form of an exposition of what the church ought to be teaching in the light of its biblical norm and also in the light of the church's own past. Thus Luther and, to an even greater extent, Melanchthon and Calvin, referred back to the Fathers and especially to the ancient symbols or creeds and the first four ecumenical councils.

Starting at the end of the sixteenth century, Lutherans reintroduced into theology the metaphysics of Aristotle along with that of Francisco Suárez. Seventeenth-century Lutheran orthodoxy was much like Catholic Scholasticism. In the eighteenth century, however, two divergent currents exercised their influence: Pietism, which expressed theology in terms of personal experience, and rationalism, which interpreted religion and God in terms of man and not of God and rejected the heteronomy involved in supernatural faith. An example of this theology based solely on reason is Julius Wegscheider's Institutiones theologiae Christianae dogmaticae (Institutes of Christian dogmatic theology; 1815). The culture of the day had cut itself off from the faith as celebrated by the church. Some philosophers who had begun as theologians (Fichte, Hegel, Schelling) treated religion as a branch of their philosophy. Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834) took up these challenges and ushered in a new era of Protestant theology. He asserted the originality of religion, which is not to be identified with either metaphysics or morality: "The essence of religion is neither speculation nor action, but intuition and feeling," and specifically the feeling of dependence, which constitutes our relation to God. Jesus Christ gave supreme expression to this feeling, and a community of believers took shape that found its origin in him. Theology, for Schleiermacher, is the sum total of scientific knowledge without which the life of the Christian community could not be ordered.

All subsequent Protestant schools of theologythe confessional, the orthodox, the liberal, as well as the contemporary restoration in the form of a return to the Reformers under the influence of Karl Barth (d. 1968)have depended on Schleiermacher. Rejecting a simple description of what is believed and preached (Glaubenslehre), Barth began with the sovereignty of God's word understood as an act of God. The Bible as such is not the word of God, but only a testimony to the acts through which God spoke and ultimately to Jesus Christ, who is God's Word made flesh. The word can be received only in faith, which is the act by which God (the Holy Spirit who bears witness within us) enables us to understand when he speaks. This word has given rise in the course of history to the special community, the church, whose mission is to confess its faith in the word of God within the circumstances of the particular historical moment. At this point theology comes on the scene. Theology is the reflective critical act by which the church goes back over the word it speaks and the confession it makes of Jesus Christ; the purpose is to test the truthfulness of that word and confession, that is, their conformity to the word of God as attested in scripture. This theology has three parts: does the Christian word come from Christ? (biblical theology); does it lead to Christ? (practical theology); is it in conformity with Christ? (dogmatic theology).

The whole of Protestant theology is, of course, not reducible to Barth, and not all Protestant theologians accept his radicalism. Thus, while the pragmatism of William James (d. 1910) is not a genuine theology, the dogmatic theology of Emil Brunner (d. 1966) admits the validity in theology of a natural knowledge of God. There are even strict Calvinists in Holland, Scotland, and France, who allow a value to a natural knowledge of God. Paul Tillich (d. 1965) sought to bridge the gap between the modern mentality or culture and Christianity by establishing a correlation between the ultimate questions raised by human beings and the ever new challenge of the word of God. His work elicited an enormous response.

Catholic theologians for their part carry on their work not only under the supervision of a teaching authority but also in the context of a fidelity and a continuity that is provided by a tradition developed through the centuries. Protestant theologians, on the other hand, are bound solely by the word of God and think under their own responsibility. They do, however, have the aid of the faithful witnesses who have gone before them and of their church's profession of faith. Many Protestant theologians work within a confessional dogmatics that derives its norms from the creedal documents and classical writings of their churches. In our time we find, for example, Werner Elert, Paul Althaus, and Edmund Schlink among the Lutherans, and Auguste Lecerf and G. G. Bekouwer in the Reformed church.

Since its beginnings Anglican theology has endeavored to integrate three tendencies and has been unwilling to abandon completely any one of them: a traditional and "Catholic" tendency (Fathers, liturgy, episcopate), a Protestant and Puritan tendency, and a rational and critical tendency (history; in extreme cases, certain "modernist" theses). One or other tendency may dominate in a given age or in a particular author but without excluding the other values and while endeavoring to remain in a via media. Thus a writer like Richard Hooker (d. 1600) resists the Calvinist tendency but rejects a number of Roman positions (papacy, transubstan-tiation) and remains closely associated with the political structure of the nation. After him it is the "Caroline divines" who are the classical authors of Anglo-Catholicism, which was revitalized in the nineteenth century by the Oxford Movement (18331845). In the interval, however, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had been marked by a rational and liberal current of thought (Latitudinarianism), and then by the "evangelical" movement (John Wesley, Methodism). After 1860, rational criticism began to be heard, but this was also the time of the Oxford Movement and ritualism; the second half of the century saw the appearance of great scholars now classical in biblical and patristic studies. In the twentieth century, Anglican theology has focused chiefly on Christology, on the vital ecumenical questions of the day (church, ministry), and on the problems of modern society. On the whole, Anglican theology is a theology that always seeks a balanced outlook. It endeavors to express the realities of Christian existence but without pressure from a Roman-style teaching authority.

The Practice of Theology

Theology is discourse through which believers develop and express the content of their faith as confessed in the church; to this end the theologian uses the resources of the culture and focuses on the questions asked by the mind of the time. This activity involves the theologian, who is first of all a believer, in a series of intellectual operations, such as those analyzed by Bernard Lonergan (d. 1984). The theologian's starting point is the witness given to God's revelation of the divine plan and mystery in the Bible, tradition, and the current life of the faithful; the theologian attempts to lay out, explain, and communicate the rich and complex content found in this witness. In addition to the labor required in handling the great mass of data, theologians face two major difficulties. (1) How are they to express supernatural mysteries when they have at their disposal only concepts and terms from our earthly experience? (2) How are they to overcome the dislocation between ancient testimonies that reflect histories and cultures no longer ours, and the needs and desires of our own day?

The answer to the first question is to be found in analogy. Certain terms contain an inherent imperfection and limitation: the Bible calls God a "rock," a "lion," a "fortress." These are metaphors expressing not the being of God but God's relation to us and the divine manner of acting. The Bible uses such language because it is concerned primarily with what God is for us and we for God. Other terms, however, do not inherently, or in their very notion (ratio), contain any imperfection, even though they exist only imperfectly in us: being, intelligence, wisdom, goodness, truth, substance, person, and so on. These terms are open to infinity. They can be applied to God, although we do not fully understand the nature of their existence in God. In the case of many of these concepts and terms, however, only positive revelation allows us to predicate them of God. Without revelation we would not have thought of applying to God such terms, for example, as father, son, and generation (for a discussion of this last, see Thomas's Summa contra gentiles 4.11).

The answer to the question concerning the dislocation of past and present is supplied by hermeneutics. This enables the theologian to express the meaning of a traditional statement in the language of the day and in response to present needs. But in the form hermeneutics takes today it is not restricted to the expressing of traditional statements in the language of contemporary culture and in response to its needs. Nor is theology a body of knowledge organized on the basis of an objectivist reading of the revealed "given" (scripture, dogma, tradition); it is not what Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticized, even in Barth, as "revelational positivism." The act of theologizing is an act of interpretation that actualizes the meaning of revelation, the event that is Jesus Christ, and the church's experience, and makes these relevant to contemporary believers. The danger in this process is to introduce the subject into the object in such a way that we substitute our ideas and questions for those of God. Hermeneutics can turn into a way of evading the authority that imposes itself on the subject. Was there not something of this in certain of the moral and allegorical readings of scripture by the early Fathers? Texts, after all, intend to say something. A text is not simply a stimulus to an existential decision (the demythologization program of Rudolf Bultmann). And there are certain objective normsdogma, the ecclesial community's profession of faith: "The living tradition whose agent is the interpreting community defines a hermeneutical field that excludes erroneous or arbitrary interpretations" (Claude Geffré). It is true, however, that the inheritance is open to rereadings which are not simply repetitions.

Theology as science

Theology claims the status of a science, and this claim is supported by its publications and its place among the university disciplines. Its status as a science is justified (1) because it has a specific object given to it by the foundational events of Christianity, which were historically real; and (2) because it employs a specific method for taking possession of this datum and organizing its complex content in a coherent intellectual way. This method, moreover, is not naive but critical, making use of the rational disciplines that study the religious fact: history, philology, critical exegesis, psychology, sociology, sociology of knowledge, and so forth. Theology is thus able to enter into competition with these disciplines, which, because they offer various interpretations of religious facts, are in danger of being reductionist. Theologians, however, must maintain the twofold fidelity mentioned above. They would cease to be theologians if they were to betray the originality of the faith, even as they employ the methods of other disciplines to analyze it. Theology may not, therefore, be reduced to a philosophy of religion. Contrary to David S. Adam, in his essay "Theology," philosophy of religion is not "the highest stage or form of theology" (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 12, 1921, p. 299). The philosophy of religion analyzes the religious fact and reflects on religious experience as thematized in religions. This is, after all, one area of human experience. The philosophy of religion may therefore have the same material object as theology. It differs from the latter, however, (1) because it does not consider the objects of beliefthe mysteriesas such, but studies religion as an activity, along with its conditions and the categories it uses, and (2) because it does not take revelation as a normative source of true propositions. On the other hand, unlike the science of religions or even religious psychology, the philosophy of religion is not purely descriptive. It studies the whole range of religious activity in order to discover the rational structures implied in it, examines these in a critical way, and sometimes strives to provide a critical justification of them. Theology goes further: it pursues its task while certain about the supernatural reality of what faith asserts.

Parts and forms of theology

Considered in its own proper nature, theology has some constituent parts. Materially, it includes various statements its object calls into being, for example, doctrines concerning the Trinity, Christology, the sacraments, ecclesiology, and Mariology. Formally it includes positive theology and speculative theology. Positive and speculative theology are two parts, or phases, that must not be separated but must rather be cultivated together. They incorporate the necessary appropriation of the "given" (the positive phase) by a scientifically competent study of the sources (scripture, monuments of tradition, magisterium, experience of the Christian people and of mankind generally) and the act of contemplation (the speculative phase) leading to the organization of a developed and communicable discourse.

Dogmatic theology and moral (or practical) theology are two different types of knowledge, but since no mystery is proposed for our belief except insofar as it is a source of salvation for us, the faith that seeks understanding (dogmatic theology) finds in this understanding the rules for our living (morality or ethics). In Protestant theology, practical theology includes what Catholics call pastoral theology, and even ecclesiology. In the fifteenth century, when Scholasticism was getting lost in purely logical or dialectical subtleties, writings on spiritual or mystical theology multiplied in isolation, being connected less with the mysteries than with spiritual experience. Pietism played a comparable role in seventeenth and eighteenth century Protestantism. The separation was not a fortunate one; it pointed to a lack of spiritual depth in scholastic methodology. Similarly, we must not distinguish or separate "kerygmatic theology"the communication of the essential gospel messagefrom dogmatic theology, a position proposed in 1936 in Austria by Franz Lackner. There must certainly be a connection between knowledge and a life-giving communication of a message. This connection is the problem of the apostolate and may call for an output of adapted works of theology, but it must not be turned into a division of theology.

The term negative theology comes from the unknown author at the end of the fifth century who wrote under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius). Apophatic theology would be a better term. This is not a special theology but a way of respecting the "unknowableness of God" (which is the title of a work of John Chrysostom). In it positive statements are put negatively, as in the Chalcedonian christological definition: "a union without confusion, without separation."

It is commonly assumed today that one person's work can no longer embrace all areas of theology because theology has become so comprehensive and complex and requires such a variety of knowledge. We may think, however, of the work of Barth, Michael Schmaus, and others. It is even more legitimately acknowledged that theology can no longer claim to control the culture through an all-embracing body of knowledge, as it could do in the West in the thirteenth century. It might more accurately be said that a pluralism is required in a world that has grown complex and secularized and in which ideas are exchanged without any possible compartmentalization. It should be observed, however, that there has always been a pluralism in theology: Alexandria and Antioch; Augustinianism, Thomism, and Scotism; realism and nominalism; pietism and rationalism; liberalism and confessional tradition; and so on. Pluralism is valuable. It is a quality of unity itself, provided the unity involves plenitude and communion. Nevertheless, all theology is required to be faithful to the apostolic confession of faith.

Contemporary theology

In contemporary theology three dimensions or functions in particular are being developed.

  1. In a world of secularized cultures, fundamental theology is being developed as a critical justification of the foundations of faith and therefore of theology. It has replaced the apologetics of a bygone time. Apologetics sought to provide rational proof of the suitability and existence of a revelation, and of the divine authority of the Roman Catholic magisterium. Fundamental theology, however, starts with the facts of the Christian message and shows its meaning and the way in which it meets the needs of the contemporary world. Christianity represents one existential possibility. We can see immediately that this approach is very close to the idea of theology as a hermeneutic and is subject to the danger, mentioned earlier, of giving too large a place to human subjectivity.
  2. In dealing with contemporary men and women, theologians must take them in their real situations and with their real dimensions, and thus fundamental theology allies itself to a "political theology" (J.-B. Metz; Jürgen Moltmann). The latter seeks to overcome the "privatization" characteristic of bourgeois religion and establish itself as critic of society in the name of suffering and the cross of Jesus Christ; in so doing it brings a message of hope and Christian eschatology. Latin American "theology of liberation" examines the situation of the poor, who are deprived of their rights and their dignity, and determines the "given" which is to serve as a starting point for rethinking God, Christology, and the church and its mission (Gustavo Gutiérrez). The practice of struggle becomes a matrix within which theological reflection develops. The same is true, with modifications, of the theologies directed to the liberation of all those who are oppressed or excluded from a place in history: black theology, African theology, feminist theology.
  3. Ecumenism has its theological literature, its periodicals, its meetings, but it is above all a dimension of every vigorous theology today. The name "ecumenical theology" is given more specifically to a well-informed reflection on ecumenism and its purpose and methods, to a theological study of the World Council of Churches, or to the subject matter of a professorship in Konfessionskunde : the study of the Christian churches in their history, worship, theology, and life. It is no longer possible to theologize without taking account of ecumenical questions and of the contributions of all the churches, the theological originality of each, and the confessional life of each. As theology reexamines the sources of particular Christian beliefs and continues to develop in a pluralistic setting, it is becoming "metaconfessional"; chapters on particular subjects in works of theology are sometimes written by theologians from different churches. Closely associated with the ecumenical outlook is a critical attitude toward "dogmatism"a dogmatic fundamentalism that has no sense of the historical development of dogmas.

All churches have their traditions. Many have norms for orthodoxy and the regulation of life. The work of the theologian is a specific ministry alongside the ordained or hierarchical pastoral ministry; it continues the ministry of the didaskaloi, the teachers, in the New Testament and the early church. The two ministries are subject to the same rule of apostolic faith and serve the same believing people and in the same world, but their tasks and responsibilities differ. Theologians are dedicated to research; they associate with intellectual and cultural innovators; they claim a legitimate freedom to be innovators themselves. The hierarchic pastors, who are responsible for keeping communities united in orthodox faith, intervene at times in the theologians' work, depending on the discipline of the various churches. Many churches have institutions and laws for settling such conflicts.

See Also

Atonement, article on Christian Concepts; Attributes of God, article on Christian Concepts; Canon; Christian Ethics; Church; Councils, article on Christian Councils; Creeds, article on Christian Creeds; Eastern Christianity; Enlightenment, The; Heresy, article on Christian Concepts; History, article on Christian Views; Humanism; Icons; Jesus; Justification; Mary; Merit, article on Christian Concepts; Neoplatonism; Philosophy, article on Philosophy of Religion; Platonism; Proofs for the Existence of God; Protestantism; Reformation; Roman Catholicism; Scholasticism; Trinity.


For further elaboration of the topics addressed above, see my "Theologie," Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (Paris, 1946), vol. 15, pp. 341502. This essay has been partially translated as A History of Theology (Garden City, N.Y., 1968). See also my La foi et la théologie (Tournai, 1962).

From among the many books on theological method, see Johannes Beumer's Theologie als Glaubensverständnis (Würzburg, 1953), which follows the program outlined by Vatican I, and Bernard J. F. Lonergan's Method in Theology (New York, 1972). See also Henry Duméry, Claude Geffré, and Jacques Poulain's "Théologie," Encyclopaedia universalis (Paris, 1968), vol. 15, pp. 10861093.

On the history of the conception and practice of theology, see "Théologie," by Duméry and others, listed above; Klassiker der Theologie, edited by Heinrich Fries and Georg Kretschmar, vol. 1, Von Irenäus bis Martin Luther (Munich, 1981), and vol. 2, Von Richard Simon bis Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Munich, 1983); R. P. C. Hanson's Allegory and Event: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Origen's Interpretation of Scripture (Richmond, Va., 1959); and René Arnou's "Platonisme des Pères," Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (Paris, 1933), vol. 12, which defends Origen against the accusation of having given Platonism precedence over the pure Christian message. Also valuable are E. P. Meijering's Orthodoxy and Platonism in Athanasius: Synthesis or Antithesis? (Leiden, 1968) and Josef Hochstaffl's Negative Theologie: Ein Versuch zur Vermittlung des patristischen Begriffs (Munich, 1976).

The Greek and Latin fathers started the elaboration of theological treatises on the basis of scripture; this development is discussed in Aloys Grillmeier's "Vom Symbolum zur Summa: Zum theologiegeschichtlichen Verhältnis von Patristik und Scholastik," in Kirche und Überlieferung, edited by Johannes Betz and Heinrich Fries (Freiburg, 1960), pp. 119169. Because of their documentation and clarity, the works of Martin Grabmann are still required reading: Die Geschichte der scholastischen Methode, 2 vols. (19091911; reprint, Basel, 1961), and Die Geschichte der katholischen Theologie seit dem Ausgang der Väterzeit (Freiburg, 1933). For Anselm, see G. R. Evans's Anselm and Talking about God (Oxford, 1978); for Thomas Aquinas, consult the stimulating studies of M.-D. Chenu, La théologie comme science au troisième siècle, 2d ed. (Paris, 1943), translated as Is Theology a Science? (New York, 1959), and Introduction à l'étude de saint Thomas d'Aquin (Montreal, 1950); for Bonaventure, see Georges H. Tavard's Transiency and Permanence: The Nature of Theology According to St. Bonaventure (New York, 1954).

In the modern age one of the most important developments has been the emphasis intellectuals have put on history. See, for example, Historische Kritik in der Theologie: Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte, edited by Georg Schwaiger (Göttingen, 1980). For a discussion of Catholicism, John Henry Newman remains a model that is unfortunately too little known; see, for example, Thomas J. Norris's Newman and His Theological Method: A Guide for the Theologian Today (Leiden, 1977). One of the many interesting studies of the crisis of modernism, which, however, errs in reducing it to an almost orthodox liberalism, is Thomas M. Loome's Liberal Catholicism, Reform Catholicism, Modernism (Mainz, 1979). Two important books on contemporary theology are Bilan de la théologie du vingtième siècle, 2 vols. (Paris, 19701971), edited by Robert van der Gucht and Herbert Vorgrimler, and Theology in Transition: A Bibliographical Evaluation of the "Decisive Decade," 19541964 (New York, 1965), edited by Elmer O'Brien.

On the general characteristics of Orthodox theology, there are several noteworthy articles, now rather old, by competent specialists. See, for example, articles by Aurelio Palmieri, Studi Religiosi 2, no. 2 (1902): 115135, and 2, no. 4 (1902): 333351; and Venance Grumel, Echos d'Orient 30 (1931): 585596. For the cultural climate of Eastern Christianity, see Endre von Ivanka's Hellenisches und Christliches im frühbyzantinischen Geistesleben (Vienna, 1948). The best of today's specialists is doubtless John Meyendorff; see his Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, 2d ed. (New York, 1979), and his studies of Gregory Palamas. On the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century debate between the hesychast spiritual tradition and humanist rationalism, see Gerhard Podskalsky's Theologie und Philosophie in Byzanz (Munich, 1977). Philip Sherrard's The Greek East and the Latin West: A Study in the Christian Tradition (London, 1959) perhaps rigidifies and oversimplifies the differences, but this work has some stimulating things to say on the approach to the mystery of God.

In Protestant theology two introductions may be mentioned: Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (New York, 1963) and Roger Mehl's La theologie protestante (Paris, 1966). Richard H. Grutzmacher's Textbuch zur systematischen Theologie des 17. bis 20. Jahrhunderts, 3d ed. (Leipzig, 1935) provides an excellent collection of representative texts from German theologians. The following books are also very useful: Wilhelm Gass's Geschichte der protestantischen Dogmatik in ihrem Zusammenhange mit der theologie überhaupt, 4 vols. (Berlin, 18541867); Isaak Dorner's Geschichte der protestantischen Theologie (Munich, 1867), translated as History of Protestant Theology, 2 vols. (1871; reprint, New York, 1970); and Otto Pfleiderer's The Development of Theology in Germany since Kant and Its Progress in Great Britain since 1825 (London, 1890).

The Anglican classics have been collected in the eighty-eight volumes of the "Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology" (Oxford, 18411863); extracts with bibliography are given in P. E. More and F. L. Cross's Anglicanism (London, 1935). On the same tradition, see A. M. Allchin's The Spirit and the Word: Two Studies in Nineteenth Century Anglican Theology (New York, 1963). Vernon F. Storr's The Development of English Theology in the Nineteenth Century, 18001860 (London, 1913) is regarded as a classic. It may be complemented by L. E. Elliott-Binns's English Thought, 18601900: The Theological Aspect (Greenwich, Conn., 1956) and Arthur M. Ramsey's From Gore to Temple: The Development of Anglican Theology between Lux Mundi and the Second World War, 18891939 (London, 1960).

On the practice of theology, see, in addition to the works by Congar and Lonergan already cited, E. L. Mascall's Existence and Analogy (London, 1949) and his Words and Images: A Study in Theological Discourse (New York, 1957). On the relation of theology to the scientific spirit, see Thomas F. Torrance's Theological Science (London, 1969).

On the hermeneutical movement, see Hans-Georg Gadamer's Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen, 1965), translated as Truth and Method (New York, 1975); René Marlé's Le problème théologique de l'herméneutique, 2d ed. (Paris, 1968); Jean Greisch, Karl Neufeld, and Christoph Théobald's La crise contemporaine: Du modernisme à la crise des herméneutiques (Paris, 1973); Le deplacement de la théologie (Paris, 1977) by J. Audinet and others; and various issues of Revue des sciences religieuses (Strasbourg), especially the volumes for 1977, 1978, and 1982.

Of the many works of theological discourse by the oppressed, only a few can be mentioned here: by several authors, Théologies du tiers-monde (Paris, 1977) and Théologie de la libération en Amérique Latine (Paris, 1974), which has been translated as Liberation Theology in Latin America (New York, 1982); Gustavo Gutiérrez's Teología de la liberación (Lima, 1971), translated as The Poor and the Church in Latin America (London, 1984); James H. Cone's A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia, 1970); Bruno Chenu's Dieu est noir: Histoire, religion et théologie des Noirs américains (Paris, 1977); Gerald H. Anderson's Asian Voices in Christian Theology (Maryknoll, N. Y., 1976); Tharcisse Tshibangu's Le propos d'une théologie africaine (Kinshasa, 1974); and Raymond Facelina and Damien Rwegera's Théologie africaine: Bibliographie internationale, 19681977 (Strasbourg, 1977).

For ecumenical theology, see Gustave Thils's La "théologie oecuménique": Notion, formes, démarches (Louvain, 1960) and the very extensive documentation in Siegfried Wiedenhofer's "Ökumenische Theologie (19301965): Versuch einer wissenschaftsgeschichtlichen Rekonstruktion," Catholica (Münster) 34 (1980): 219248.

For a critique of "dogmatism," see Josef Nolte's Dogma in Geschichte: Versuch einer Kritik des Dogmatismus in der Glaubensdarstellung (Freiburg, 1971) and my Diversités et communion (Paris, 1982), which raises the basic question enunciated in the title.

New Sources

Davaney, Sheila Greeve. Divine Power: A Study of Karl Barth and Charles Hartshorne. Philadelphia, 1986.

Gorringe, Timothy J. A Theology of the Built Environment. Cambridge, 2002.

Guntin, Colin E., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine. Cambridge and New York, 1997.

Hauerwas, Stanley. The Wilderness Wanderings: Probing Twentieth-Century Theology and Philosophy. Boulder, Colo., 1997.

Heffner, Philip J. The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion. Minneapolis, 1993.

Ingraffa, Brian D. Postmodern Theory and Biblical Theology: Vanquishing God's Shadow. Cambridge and New York, 1995.

Kamitsuka, David G. Theology and Contemporary Culture: Liberation, Postliberal, and Revisionary Perspectives. Cambridge and New York, 1999.

Kaufman, Gordon D. God, Mystery, Diversity: Christian Theology in a Pluralistic World. Minneapolis, 1996.

Parratt, John, ed. A Reader In African Christian Theology. Denver, 2002.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary. Cambridge, Mass., 1988.

Yves Congar (1987)

Translated from French by Matthew J. O'Connell
Revised Bibliography