Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Please Weigh In: What is Theology?

There are more than a few theologians who read this blog. I was just sitting here adding their number in my head. The following is an excerpt from something I have written, an essay entitled "What is Theology?" which is an assigned reading in my Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas course. I would love to hear from these theologians who read thetheologyofdad in the shadows of the internet... In fact, everyone should always feel free to comment here!

This is the final two-fifths of the essay. Yes, two-fifths. I have been doing a lot of carpentry over the Christmas break.

Why would I assign such an essay in a class on St. Thomas? Because I have found that students generally do not know what theology is. Many confuse it with catechism, some with apologetics, etc.

Please, enjoy...

 The Sources of Theology Beyond the Bible
Theology, as we have said, has an historical profile, because divine revelation was given in time, a long time ago, and because natural theology attends almost indiscriminately to all times and places –  including times passed. There are, however, as we have mentioned in passing above, certain privileged moments in history, and certain privileged texts to which we pay greater heed. These can roughly be grouped into two classes: Patristic texts and the texts of the (mostly) Medieval Doctors of the Church. Both groups are difficult to pin down, and even within those broader groupings further distinctions can be made. Above all stands Augustine amongst the Fathers and Aquinas amongst the Medieval Doctors. It is almost silly to compare their respective authorities, even though this is done all the time. The silliness of the comparison lies in the fact that Aquinas was a thorough-going Augustinian; Thomism cannot exist as more than disjointed theses independent of what it owes to Augustine.

These are the two giants of Catholic theology; there is no other to compare with them. Yet neither are their teachings identical; neither are their teachings interiorly seamless. The early Augustine is as different from the mature Augustine as Aquinas is to the mature Augustine; Aquinas himself advanced greatly from work to work, but not, of course, in as great a degree as his African father. It is the mature Augustine who teaches the Church, not the younger man who was still discovering the doctrine of original sin, grace, the sacraments as opera operato, that the soul was not pre-existent, and that Christ was not adopted into Son-ship. All of these discoveries and more he handed on to the Church, to thinkers like Aquinas who did not have to strain after them. Almost immediately did the Church recognize in the sheer force of Augustine’s teaching charism the authority that God bestowed upon him, although this was also periodically recognized formally by popes like Boniface I, Siricius, and Leo I. Likewise, formal declarations leave the authority of Thomas unquestioned, yet, of course, not his infallibility, nor the exaggeration that all theology must be Thomistic from start to finish. Just like later popes take precedence over earlier ones, Thomas takes precedence over Augustine, since in this latter case, in affirming Thomas the Church both affirms and corrects Augustine.

Yet it is never their texts that close off discussion. It is the Magisterium by formal and informal declaration that alone has care for the Church and that, with Scripture, is the source of definitiveness in doctrine. As Bl. J. H. Newman wrote, “St. Augustine and St. Thomas are such great names in the Church that he must be a bold Catholic, who, knowing what they are, should contradict them. But they cannot rightly be taken instead of Her Voice.” It was once thought that a very casual glance to the Fathers provided an unassailable wall of agreement in theology with which to oppose any heresy. This was called the Vincentian Canon, after its famous exponent, St. Vincent of Lerins. Today the same error is more often associated with Aquinas’ writings – that he is in all things an infallible guide to the truth. Advances in historical study have proven the Vincentian Canon to be an insufficient guide for dogmatic clarity on many matters. It is much better to look to the testimony of the Fathers as a source of probability, although in some key matters we can begin to speak of something like consensus – i.e., the key doctrines of Christology, of Trinitarian theology, and of biblical theology. Recent teachings of the popes have preferred to speak of Thomas as an important and essential component for theological formation, but not as providing the sole source of truth and the only legitimate theological method. In many places Thomas offers definiteness and finality, in others probability and wisdom, and in some places error. To canonize is not to deify, and that is a lesson students would gain from the writings of both St. Augustine and St. Thomas if they care to study them attentively; both eschewed any idea of their own infallibility.

Straight Lines in Learning?

 The temptation to follow the most efficient path to truth can lead to a whole host of theological problems. To want to travel quickly, without turning to right or left, to the font of truth is not an unwholesome desire, but it is un-theological, unfortunately. Theology, we have said, is about mysteries, and although it is foolish to reinvent the wheel, it is foolish as well to believe that the Mysteries of the Faith are ever fully revealed. One thing that all the Doctors have always taught is that learning is a life-long endeavour. It is a process of volitional and intellectual assimilation to the One-Who-Is. After two thousand years, the broad outlines of the Articles of the Faith have been filled in, but they can still be plunged indefinitely. It is our human need to so plunge into them. Theological formation moves from learning what has been filled in with certainty (called catechism) to the study of the realm of the probable. Advanced theology is about probabilities. When a theologian falls back to questioning what has already been received, he errs, and ceases to act for the Church. But this is an aberration. The rule is that theologians dwell in the realm of probabilities. They study the dogma and the tradition, assessing which way the evidence leads. This is a worthwhile enterprise, one that does not only become justified at the moment of ecclesiastical intervention. His work might never actually become the subject of a decision by the Magisterium. Nevertheless, it is spiritually and intellectually profitable as an exercise, both on the level of the individual researcher and on the level of the Body of Christ, of which he is a member. His research must be careful, never hurried. It may be as removed from the pastoral realm as necessary. There is no superfluous question. Here we can make a distinction between the theologian as researcher, as teacher, and as human being. Each informs the other, but they are not identical. The idea that everything the researcher reads and considers must directly inform his teaching and his everyday life is one that can lead to significant errors. How can he know what is useful before he has completed his research? Commonsense and the sensus fidelium are invaluable to the theological method but they are not infallible measures of anything. How many heretics have claimed these as their own? All of them. Indeed, the single greatest obstacle to theological truth is the arrogation of the sensus fidelium to oneself.

The Mission of the Theologian in the Church Today

It is not possible to overestimate the value of truth, especially of divine truth. But theology is not about position and power. In essence, what the theologian does is testify to the truth of God to man. It has sometimes been thought that the theologian has an office in the Church in virtue of his expertise, but that is clearly not the case. In the Early Church the theologian was often considered to be gifted with a charism which it only made sense to honour, practically speaking. But the theologian’s function need not be considered an official one. His function is to proclaim the truth which is giving to him, where he is, whether as a layman or as one deputed by the bishop to teach in an official capacity.

When we conceive of his office as one that is lived only in relation to the truth essentially, not to anything else essentially, this brings into clearer focus the fact that his task is not limited to the narrow functions of clarification or condemnation, as many would have it. We must continually point to truth itself as the focus of his interest. Practical concerns should not contain him – politics and humanitarianism, that is. Some err in thinking that theology is simply catechism; some err in thinking that it is nothing other than apologetics; some fail to treasure the past, or theory for itself; some reduce theology to a professorship. Yet, while it is true that the divine truth has light to cast upon all of these things, it is not any one of them in essence.

If the office of the theologian is no office at all, it cannot be limited to the needs of catechetical instruction or evangelization. The theologian need not justify his preoccupation with speculation – he is fulfilling the essentially human vocation, which is to think about God. As we have said, all truth is not simple and ready at hand. And the best apologists and catechists are born in contemplation. Great errors in theology are the result of truths that have only been superficially understood. Marx’s complaints of the impracticality of theory (in this case of ‘the German philosophy’) resonates with so many today, and many Catholics have unconsciously adopted his thinking and imposed it upon Christian doctrine. Christian doctrine and worship are not justified only insofar as they function as leaven in the world. Christian truth is not ordered to the beauty and goodness of the world; this beauty and goodness are simply the fruit of the higher good that is man in relationship with God.

And so it is easy to see why it is true that, in addition to knowing God himself and telling other people about God, one valuable service the theologian can perform today consists in challenging the narrow utilitarian conception of knowledge that is the predominant vice infecting educational theory today. A simple illustration suffices to prove why the good of knowledge cannot be reduced to the material benefits it can produce. This consists simply in the idea of benefit itself. If knowledge is only worthwhile when it offers material benefits, what is the character of the thought that discovered in what true benefit consists? It is surely not so reductive. In fact, there is no other matter more theoretical. Utilitarianism is unequipped to offer an answer. So the utilitarian simply operates from his own unchallenged, impure, naive sense of the good, which, he hopes – we all hope – actually corresponds to our true good. Theory, contemplation of the good-in-itself, of God, of the Word of God revealed, is the only place where reasoning can flourish, there unimpeded by narrower concerns. Without God knowledge cannot flourish, for the divine science has no terminus.

Concluding Points:

Why theology?

There are many reasons to study theology. They all have something to do with each other. If the question is why study theology rather than something else, that limits the number of answers we need to present here. We study theology rather than, or in addition to, something else, because theology is the most direct route to the most important truths of human life. It does not have a monopoly on important questions, but it is the most direct route to their answer. Our relationship with God is the most important thing in our lives and listening to God is the “one thing necessary” that we have to do. This does not mean we must do it in an academic setting. Far from it. What we do in the academic setting is valuable in part because it is for most people the one opportunity life affords them for applying their minds to the truth of God formally. Theology is a more direct route to the most important truths than philosophy is because philosophy, although necessary, is not able on its own to attain the answers required for a happy life. Philosophy (natural reason) is necessary for theology, because it alone is able to properly dispose the human mind to the Deposit of the Faith. Encountering God in the depths of the soul always involves intellect in some way, even in its most mystical form. Love cannot by definition exist without knowledge of the object loved coming into play. A fully actualized person – a holy person – is one whose mind and heart have been dramatically expanded by the operation of grace. In other words, when it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as ‘holy ignorance’ in the literal sense of the word. There may be ignorance of some sciences in the saint, but not ignorance per se. Holiness does not thrive in ignorance. Holiness thrives in knowledge that is ordered with God front-and-centre. In fact, holiness grows in proportion to our knowledge of God, that perfection of knowledge where to know is not other than to know as to love. This is no simple notion. We might look at it like this: the best, the truest, kind of knowledge of God is clear knowledge of His goodness, is to recognize Him as good, is, as the tradition states it, to see His essence. Whether or not one knows a great number of theological propositions (facts) or a few is almost irrelevant, especially if one’s perspective is off and if these propositions are mixed with errors and false impressions. The process is one of intellectual purification (warding away these errors), but it is even more about moral purification, since it is the will more so than it is the intellect that sets up obstacles to the vision of God’s essence. Knowledge of God makes good, but God only allows enough of Himself to be seen in this life to make truth and goodness possible, not to make them inevitable. He can overwhelm the will with Himself; He simply chooses hardly ever to do so.

With such a view in mind of the relation of knowledge and will, how do the actual theology courses we take here at OLSWA fit in? The matter being studied is important, but not to the extent that we can say one course is better than another with absolute precision. Perhaps better is the way the material is approached: all theological topics require reverence. Reverence is the real beginning and life-blood of theology, or, in Thomas’ terminology, the ‘specific difference’ of theology – what distinguishes it from the other disciplines.     

Theology is Not Piety

But theology does not end when reverence arrives. Poor theology is the outcome of poor reasoning which cannot be made up for – on the human side, anyway – by piety. Bad people cannot do good theology, but neither can lazy or unintelligent people. To reverence must be added something more for true scholarship to arise. Love of the truth for truth’s sake and readiness to admit error must also be present.

Faith and Reason Well- and Ill-Conceived

The point of theology is neither confutation of simplicity nor equivocation in the midst of strong criticism. The data of reason constantly challenge naive forms of belief and require the traditional formulations of the Faith to justify themselves. On the one hand, naiveté must give way to greater circumspection, but, on the other, the sacred formulas must be vindicated. At first glance these tasks seem opposed. At least it is true that they draw upon different arrangements of the virtues. Predominant in rooting out naiveté is love of wisdom, a trust in the power of truth. Predominant in protecting the formulations of the Faith is loyalty to the Body of Christ, caution against novelty, and trust in the dispensations of divine providence – trust that what is needed by men was given by God in the way and at the time it was required. But we cannot find the truth simply by guessing which way virtue would lead. When is the time to trust that change is good and when is the time to remain loyal to what has been given? When working out complex problems it is more often than not the case that both things will be operative simultaneously, for the essential form of the theological question is both conservative and progressive: what does the doctrine of the Faith imply for this? The question would be a superfluous one were it merely a matter of elucidating the received tradition. At the very least, the virtue of theological loyalty staves off iconoclasm. At the very least, trust in the power of reason guided by revelation and grace staves off theological diffidence. Are not both of these aspects implicit in the classic definition of theology as faith seeking understanding? Faith is something capable of performing an action. It is a before that is not annihilated by the after; it is something uniquely capable of producing something more. It can be drawn upon again and again as understanding deepens. Fear is as detrimental to growth in understanding of God as is love of novelty. It should also be noted that the good intention to love and honour God (piety) is not sufficient for good theology, because the stain of original sin has consequences for both will and intellect. As Augustine said in On Christian Doctrine (Prol. 4), God does not choose to reveal everything directly, but often through the intellect and through other people. Limiting theology to the outcome of prayer is akin to praying not to get hit by a car while walking across the street with one’s eyes closed. God could have made good theology the outcome of prayer alone, but He did not choose to.

Teaching against Doubt or Teaching out of Faith?

Theology can convict people of error. Why upset people by casting a critical light on their faith, even if their faith is guilty of being simplistic? For one reason only: God calls, saying only this: know me. This is something that He says to every single person, and, though one might escape asking theological questions in the formal sense, one cannot escape the desire to know and to have purpose. It is a desire that can lead to difficulties and anxieties. These are things, it is strange to say, that God intends. Pain urges us to seek a cure.

A great deal of difference persists between the work of the Scholastics and us. Today we will find our confreres amongst the Fathers, I think, and not the Scholastics. We live in an age of pluralism, as did they, not in an age of ideological homogeneity. Every reasoning person will spend at least some time with doubt in the ultimate sense: does God exist? But this is not the only kind of doubt there is. In theology another kind predominates. How much of my relationship with God, my idea of God, is associated with other things whose truth can be doubted or reconceived? Perhaps as one begins to examine his faith critically a great deal of his idea of God will be challenged. But a very great good is promised in this: to divest oneself of false notions is to begin to see Him as He really is. Undergraduate theology is meant as a beginning of this slow process. Instructors at best can act as guides within a process that is otherwise God’s alone. It is an interior process that the instructor can at best ‘occasion.’ He can buy the chips and the dip, but not make the party fun. That is for God alone, and requires a willingness in the person to open his mind and heart to God.

Today theology should be presented in the manner that I call ‘against doubt,’ or perhaps, ‘in light of doubt.’ At other times it has been taught from the strength of faith or ‘in light of faith.’ This shift in approach means that the reality of doubt must always be considered part of the learning context and, thus, taken into consideration in how the material is presented. In other words, theology must be robustly apologetic and philosophically rigorous. This fits in perfectly with the methodology of the university. What is this methodology? University-level education is critical. This means that it is directed towards the analysis of propositions, to determine their intellectual credibility. This does not mean that all room for faith is removed. What it does mean is that even for the credenda – things to be believed – analysis is directed towards their greater understanding, to coordinate them with the other truths of the Faith and, as well, the other truths of reason. There are, then, three ways in which the critical method can assist the Faith:

(1) The Faith can be erroneously comprehended by the individual.

(2) He may not know how certain aspects of the Faith relate to certain other aspects. In other words, it is correct but not as sophisticated as it could be.

(3) He may not know how the truths of Faith relate to his experience of the world. In this sense, faith may be correct and interiorly sophisticated but esoteric, that is, out of touch with any other facet of life.

The ‘academic method’ aids with all three of these.

We cannot for a moment think that theology ought to extend no further than the first two tasks. That is not the Catholic position on faith and reason, a doctrine that distinguishes Catholicism from nearly all other religions. As John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, “Deprived of what Revelation offers, reason has taken side-tracks which expose it to the danger of losing sight of its final goal... faith and philosophy [must] recover the profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony with their nature without compromising their mutual autonomy.” In other words, the deposit of faith must engage, be shaped by, and in turn shape our knowledge of the physical world. The power of the Scriptures to speak to state of the world was spelled out by Hugh of St. Victor, who wrote that those who do not grasp the depth of the meaning of the Scriptures, “turn their attention to the writings of the philosophers precisely because, not knowing the power of Truth, they do not understand that in Scripture there is anything beyond the bare surface of the letter.”

These tasks – especially the third – are not easy to perform. The greatest insights occur precisely in the most problematic points of intersection between faith and reason. No benefit can follow from a chauvinistic sense that Catholic is better, that it constitutes a very easy road to truth and wisdom. Catholic is better, but it does not mean that the particular Catholic approaching the question is better. In the actual hands of people, true premises lead to false conclusions almost as easily as false ones occasion true conclusions.

It is not enough to know what the Church teaches. These do not become useful and life-giving doctrines until they begin to cast light on the whole life of man. How Christ defines humanity, how the natural universe is an expression of divine love, how history has meaning that wants to be discovered, how prayer and education lead to peace in the heart and in the world – these are just some of the intersecting points between the domain of faith and the domain of reason. These are for the man of today focal points for the construction of a Christian culture.

The biggest problem in theology lies with human defects: ill-will, pride, pettiness, narrowness of outlook, cliquishness. What he is called to is as great as the subject itself. The theologian must have the heart of a philosopher and the industry of an historian.


  1. I think this is a good intro to theology, especially as geared to OLSWA students. It also demonstrates why I preferred you to the other main theology teachers at the Academy: whereas they taught information, often coloured with their own opinions, you aimed to provide an 'occasion' in which the individual could deepen his own intellectual pursuit of God. You presented puzzles which forced the individual to think for himself, while professing Church authority, the Fathers, etc. as the sure starting point. Students who want to spit back what they've been told might resent you, but some, like me, will appreciate being challenged to think and engage with God while doing so.

  2. You are very kind, anonymous. I'm gald you appreciated what I was up to.