Methodology (Theology)

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Methodology is an area in scientific theology that is not included in the traditional divisions because it is only beginning to be developed. Only a brief outline of this problem can be given here. It consists in the accomplished theologian's reflections on the historical development of his science in order to achieve an understanding of theological methodology. The growth of theology is like the growth of a child. A child must grow to maturity before he can reflect on and understand the process of maturing. Likewise theology must achieve some maturity before it can understand its own process of development. Only a chemist can write the history of chemistry, and only a theologian can write the history of theology.

Processes. In reflecting on the historical development of theology, the theologian becomes aware of various processes at work, especially the transcultural process, the theological process, and the dogmatic process.

The transcultural process is the transposition of the message of revelation from the thought patterns and ways of understanding commonly used in one culture to the thought patterns and ways of understanding in another culture; for example, from the Hebrew mentality and culture to the Hellenistic, to the Roman, to the medieval, to the modern Western, to the modern Oriental, etc. Because the gospel is to be preached to all nations in all ages in language and forms that the faithful of each particular age and culture can understand, one of the fundamental problems the theologian has to face is that of finding the transcultural principles operating in this transposition.

The theological process consists in passing from an understanding of revelation in terms of a particular culture to an understanding that is more universal, transcending individual past cultures. This process moves from an understanding of the truths of revelation in relation to a particular past cultural context to some understanding of the truths in themselves and in their relation to one another. It involves passing from what comes first in the acquisition of knowledge (prius quoad nos ) to what is first in the order of being and intelligibility (prius quoad se ). It does not terminate in a stage determined by past cultural circumstances. It was this process that achieved an analogical conception of the Divine Persons as consubstantial, of the Incarnation as the union of two natures in one Person, of grace as absolutely supernatural, etc.

The dogmatic process is that by which the Church as the teacher of all ages and cultures judges and defines an understanding of revelation that transcends past particular cultures and gives accurate expression to a more evolved understanding of revealed truth. Such judgments do not belong to the private theologian but to the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Reflection on Processes. The theologian can come, in reflecting on these processes in detail, to understand something about the methodology of theology: what operation and groups of operations are involved in theological development; how these operations become further differentiated; how particular persons and cultures, although potentially unlimited, are actually limited by their horizon, their need of subjective conversion (moral, intellectual, religious), and lack of authenticity. As the effort to analyze and group all the operations of theological development into an intelligible synthesis runs into a barrier, the theologian looks about for some tools of further advance. He notices that the dynamism of consciousness has led in the past to a differentiation between operations that have to do with things that man can master (the profane world) and those that deal with the fields that lie beyond his control (the sacred); he notices that the structure of consciousness leads to a differentiation between operations insofar as they deal with objects (the objective world) and operations insofar as they are the means by which the subject is present to himself (the world of subjectivity). He notices, moreover, that there is a kind of specialization within consciousness where intelligence functions only as a part of the whole man (the world of common sense involving also specialized intelligence, e.g., D. Petau, A. von Harnack, J. Lebreton, R. de Vaux). And there is also a specialization of intelligence in which everything is subordinated to understanding and intelligence dominates (the world of theorysymbolized by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Newton, Einstein, etc.).

The theologian can detect not only a great mobility within all of these worlds but also a movement from one world to another with development in one world affecting development in the other world. To illustrate briefly, historically there has been a movement from the world of common sense (the world of Scripture and tradition) to the world of theory (characteristic of medieval speculative theology) to the world of interiority (characteristic of modern theology). Morever, reflection reveals an inner dynamic of human intelligence that demands a movement from common sense understanding to theoretical understanding and on to an understanding of subjectivity and the subject who is engaged in all three worlds. The basic methodological problem for the theologian is to examine the differentiation and development of theological operations within each world and their relation to the operations of the other worlds in order to discover a principle or principles of integrating all three worlds. Theological method has to do with the order of these operations in achieving the goal theology sets for itself.

Theology as Science. A critical problem in modern theology is the place that theory is to hold in theology, whether the Aristotelian notion of science is any longer applicable to modern theology. In the Aristotelian notion of science, taken over by St. Thomas, science is concerned with certain knowledge, with the universal, the necessary, the immutable. Modern science, however, never claims more than probability. It is concerned with the changeable, the contingent, with movement, with the particular, with what exists in fact, with man as he actually exists instead of the ideal man. With the rise of historical consciousness and its repercussions in theology, one has an enormous theological development that does not fit into the medieval synthesis. Theology has shifted from a consideration of man as substance to a consideration of man as subject. Its current concern is more with the historical and concrete, with salvation history, than with universal conceptions. The theoretical element in theology is in danger of being pushed aside because seemingly irrelevant.

Nevertheless, the Church seems to have given a permanent status to the theoretical element in theology in Vatican Council I, in its Constitution on the Catholic Faith, which considered faith and reason (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 301520). The problem for the modern theologian, therefore, in view of the historical development of theology, is how to enlarge his concept of science so as to make room for modern developments in such a way that the contributions of modern theology are integrated with the achievements of the past. By studying past achievements more carefully, the theologian may be able to find the implicit foundations for modern development in such a way that he can see how modern theology is a prolongation and development of medieval theology.

To do this it seems that a theologian must understand what it is to understand, pursuing the path explored by B. Lonergan. He must investigate how understanding and judgment are related; how judgment is an act involving an ultimate personal commitment; how theological judgment, because it involves a view of the whole economy of salvation, is an act of Christian wisdom; why this requires a collaboration with the various particular natural wisdoms.

Theology has become very conscious of itself and sees the need of exploring the subject theologizing much more thoroughly if it is to understand what theological understanding is, how theological questions are to be ordered, and how the theologian is to integrate the three worlds in which he lives. A good beginning is being made in this area.

Bibliography: b. lonergan, Method in Theology (London 1972).

[g. f. van ackeren]