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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Definitions and Etymology. Theology, literally “the science of God,” is derived from the Greek Theos (God) and logos (study). The term was used by the Stoics in the third century B.C. to describe a reasoned analysis of the deity. Earlier uses were more naturalistic. Thus Plato in the Republic and Aristotle in his Metaphysics called Homer, Hesiod, and Orpheus theologians because they first determined the genealogies and attributes of the gods.

With the advent of Christianity theology came to mean what its etymology suggested, and was defined by St. Augustine as “reasoning or discourse about the divinity.” Through the patristic age to the period of the Schoolmen, this remained the acceptable generic meaning. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) is credited with first having used the term in its modern connotation. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) defended theology as a science because it investigates the contents of belief by means of reason enlightened by faith (fides quaerens intellectum) in order to acquire a deeper understanding of revelation. He also distinguished theology proper from “natural theology,” or what Gottfried Leibniz later called “theodicy,” which studies God as knowable by reason alone and independent of divine authority. By the end of the thirteenth century, the term was applied to be whole body of revealed truth and gradually replaced its rival synonyms.

Patristic Age to the Reformation. The early Fathers Sts. Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch adhered closely to the data of Scripture and the apostolic preaching with scarcely any development of doctrine. In the second and third centuries, however, contact with the pagan world produced a reaction. Two types of apologists arose, traditionalists like Tatian who rejected philosophy, and others like St. Justin Martyr, who were willing to use Greek speculation in the interests of the faith. Fortunately for the latter, who were in danger of absorption by the dualistic, Hellenized Gnostic heresy (See GNOSTICISM), St. Irenaeus urged the need of remaining faithful to the Church's tradition, the living depositary of revealed truth.

The more speculative line of St. Justin was developed by St. Clement of Alexandria and by Origen, with consequent influence on the great Fathers of Cappadocia in Asia Minor: Sts. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen. Characteristics of the Alexandrian school were a marked leaning toward Platonism, an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and a profound mysticism.

By contrast, the more positive, Aristotelian school of Antioch produced St. John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Theodoret, who affected the movement of theology through the whole patristic age. The high points of subsequent controversies coincided with the first seven ecumenical councils, which profited from both the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools in defining the principal dogmas on the Trinity and the person of Christ. Among the Fathers, no one contributed more to theological growth than St. Augustine. He synthesized the four centuries of tradition which preceded him, clarified and in many cases solved the most vexing dogmatic questions, and coordinated the ensemble of sacred knowledge which Aquinas and the Scholastics later organized into a unified system of Christian thought.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Carolingian school under Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus began the fusion of sacred and profane culture that became so characteristic of the Middle Ages. Yet the acknowledged “Father of Scholastic Theology” was St. Anselm (1033-1109), archbishop of Canterbury, who was not satisfied with gathering the statements of the Fathers on various questions but introduced and stressed the dialectical method, which Abelard exploited to an extreme and which St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) balanced along Augustinian lines by placing the faith above rational dialectic. Peter Lombard (1100- 1160) carried on the Anselmian tradition. His comprehensive and lucidly arranged Books of Sentences were the basic text in all theological schools up to the seventeenth century.

Theologically, the thirteenth was a century of synthesis, which produced the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, of whom H. Richard Niebuhr says that "he combined without confusing philosophy and theology, state and church, civic and Christian virtues, natural and divine laws, Christ and culture. Out of these various elements he built a great structure of theoretical and practical wisdom.” Preceding Thomas were speculative writers like Hugh of St. Victor and Alexander of Hales, on whom Aquinas depended at least for his external structure. Following Thomas was a period of decline, when theology often degenerated into formalism and pedantry, and brought on the discredit of the sacred sciences which typified so much of the Renaissance.

Catholic Theology Since the Reformation. Under the impacts of the Reformation and the Council of Trent, Catholic theology entered a new phase of orientation. The Protestant emphasis on the Bible and rejection of the Roman primacy stimulated Catholic theologians to investigate more closely the sources of revelation in Scripture and tradition and to establish the grounds for a rational apologetic in support of the Catholic claims. The first need was met by developing a system of positive theology, whereby the truths professed by Catholic Christianity were sought in the deposit of faith. The Jesuits, led by St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), became the main expositors of this system, as they also laid the groundwork for fundamental theology, which seeks to prove from history and philosophy the credibility of the Christian religion.

The speculative side of the science began a new era, occasioned by the challenges of Protestantism on almost every position of the Catholic Church. During the twenty years of the Council of Trent (1545-1565), the combined intelligence of Roman Catholicism concentrated its efforts on so defining the nature of grace and justification, the sacrifice of the Mass and the priesthood, the sacramental system and ecclesiastical authority, that insights were gained on which writers since Trent have built an imposing theological structure. Their framework was mainly the Summa of St. Thomas, with commentators in all the major schools of thought. Among the Dominicans was John of St. Thomas (1589-1644), professor at Alcalá, so named from his wholehearted devotion to the teachings of Aquinas. The reformed Carmelites edited a celebrated Cursus Salmanticensis; Franciscans published treatises on Duns Scotus, harmonized with St. Thomas; the Jesuits produced Francesco Suárez (1548- 1617), a dogmatic theologian famous for his works on jurisprudence, which became of paramount importance for legislators on the Continent and in America.

Moral theology as a distinct science was also born during the Counter Reformation. Since patristic times moral questions had been treated simply as part of theology, and for a while after the Council of Trent writers as prominent as Francis Toletus, Domingo Báñez, and Suárez followed the ancient custom. But the need for specialization and solution of individual problems (or casuistry) was too evident. Under Thomas Sánchez, Martino Bonacina, John de Lugo, and Hermann Busembaum, the autonomy of moral theology was assured. After a period of decadence through preoccupation with casuistry, it was re-established on a theoretical and scientific basis by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), whose authority in this field ranks with that of Aquinas in dogma.

To this period belongs the celebrated controversy De auxiliis, on the relation of grace to free will. The Dominicans, under Báñez, were concerned to safeguard the divine sovereignty; the Jesuits, led by Luis de Molina, defended human liberty. Ostensibly academic, the still-unsettled dispute arose from conflict with the Protestant theory of predestinarianism.

Influenced by Calvinism, Cornelis Jansen (1585-1638) claimed that grace was irresistible and that Christ died only for the predestined. In answering the Jansenists, theologians further developed the doctrine of predestination and the supernatural life. Gallicanism, which denied the Roman primacy, stimulated research in ecclesiology, which terminated in the Vatican definition in 1870 of papal infallibility. Traditionalists who traced all religious knowledge to revelation, and rationalists who eliminated revelation by making reason the measure of all truth, equally contributed to theological growth. To meet their arguments Catholic apologists clarified the limit of natural cognition, the necessity of supernatural communication of knowledge, the meaning of faith, and the function of the Church as authorized religious teacher of mankind. The Vatican Council (1868-1870) confirmed these clarifications by solemn decrees.

After the Vatican Council, Catholic dogmatics passed through the crisis of Modernism, provoked by the ex-Jesuit George Tyrrell (186l-1909) and the Abbé Loisy (1857-1940). St. Pius X condemned the Modernists in 1907 for their rejection of scriptural inspiration, purely subjective concept of revelation, religious pragmatism, and theory of natural evolution of dogma. Simultaneously a strong impetus was given for the scientific study of the Scriptures, which led in recent years to the creation of a new and separate discipline, Biblical theology.

The principles of Catholic Biblical theology have been the Church's common possession for centuries: a divine and not merely human authorship of the sacred text; continuity of revealed doctrine; progressive development from Genesis to the Apocalypse; freedom and individuality of the inspired writers, and their mode of writing determined by the time, place, and circumstances of composition. Yet there is a definite newness in the way these principles are being applied.

There are two principal viewpoints on the purpose of Biblical theology. One stresses subordination to Christian dogmatics. It works through the ensemble of analyses furnished by exegesis, correlates ideas with facts, synthesizes them on the basis of an organic principle consistent with their nature and respective value, and places them into the stream of the history of revelation. In the New Testament its function is to elaborate on what was only implied in the works and words of Christ. The beginning of Biblical theology is research on the humble literal sense of Scripture and its end the expansion of exegesis into dogma.

Others emphasize the autonomy of Biblical theology. They conceive the development of exegesis into theology as the work of reason enlightened by faith. Its purpose is to enter, through grace, into more intimate contact with transcendent reality as revealed in the sacred text. This effort never reaches its terminus, but every advance in knowledge or deeper understanding still leaves more to be found, so that Biblical theology is an ideal that must always be tending toward a goal without stopping at the results already achieved.

Actually the two aspects of Biblical theology, as auxiliary to dogma and as instrument to religious insight, are not incompatible. They are mutually conducive to heightening the value of both Scripture and dogma, by reintegrating two areas of religious knowledge which derive from a common divine source. Bare exegesis is thus raised to the level of a theological science that can do much to vitalize the meaning of Scripture and promises to play a prominent role in the current ecumenical effort to meet a Protestant emphasis on the Bible with the Catholic stress on revealed doctrine.

Protestant Theology. The early Protestant Reformers were constrained by the logic of separating from Rome to defend their new doctrinal positions. Thus we find Luther writing numerous treatises on faith, grace, and justification, and Calvin producing in 1536 his Institutes of the Christian Religion, as the first systematic compendium of Protestant doctrine. “My design in this work,” wrote Calvin in the introduction, “has been to prepare and qualify students of theology for the reading of the divine word.” The beginnings of the Reformation were thoroughly dogmatic in character.

Protestant writers describe the original Reformation theology as Biblical in the direct sense. It did not take philosophy as a basis or ally. Its first business was to know and expound the Bible. It did not claim Aristotle and Plato as friends or forerunners. It used reason, but reason derived only from the Bible and put to a Biblical use.

Actually there was a philosophy behind this theologizing, notably the nominalism of William of Ockham (1280-l349), whom Luther called “my teacher” and rated in learning far above Thomas Aquinas. Two strains in Ockham, sometimes called “the first Protestant,” became imbedded in the Reformation: a distrust of reason in dealing with religion, and a theory of voluntarism which made right and wrong depend on the will of God. The first strain appeared prominently in Lutheran or evangelical thought, with the emphasis on revelation and grace as the exclusive media of religious knowledge and salvation. The second affected Calvinism and the Reformtheologie, postulating, in Calvin's words, that “God chooses some for the hope of life, and condemns others to eternal death….For all men are not created on an equal footing, but for some eternal life is preordained, for others eternal damnation.” The divine will, therefore, and not as in Aquinas the divine wisdom, is the ultimate norm of man's existence and destiny.

Had Luther and Calvin alone formulated Reformation principles, there would certainly have been Protestant dogmatics, but scarcely a Protestant theology. Credit for the latter belongs to Philipp Melanchthon (1497-l560), professor of Greek at Wittenberg and author of two basic compendia of Reformation belief: the Confession of Augsburg and the Apology for the Confession, both compromise documents which differed from Luther and Calvin in many points and paved the way for a speculative theology. Melanchthon made important concessions on the doctrine of free will and unconditional predestination, on the power of reason to reflect on matters of faith, and on tradition as found in the Churches of Rome and the East. These concessions were more or less reconciled with the opposition in the Formula of Concord (1580).

The latter part of the sixteenth century and most of the seventeenth was the period of Protestant scholasticism, using the Institutes of Calvin and the Formula of Concord as the base of operation. Despite an essential difference in content, the method was not unlike that of the medieval Schoolmen. Typical of the doctrines treated was the infallibility of the Bible, to which the same kind of intrinsic efficacy was attached as Catholics attached to the sacraments.

Partly in opposition to this rigid dogmatism and partly the result of Deistic influences from England, Protestantism in the eighteenth century faced a serious crisis. Immanuel Kant (1724-l804), the “philosopher of Protestantism,” questioned the foundations of the Lutheran faith in which he was reared and died. Kant's notion of religion was consistent with his general theory of knowledge and reality. Just as he held that phenomena are not in themselves things, “They are nothing but ideas, and cannot exist at all beyond our minds,” so he believed that revelation and the Church are only “adventitious aids.” Man's ultimate religious authority is his own mind. “The inner voice of reason is always his surest guide.” It is impossible to exaggerate the effect of Kantian ideas on subsequent thought, directly in Protestant rationalism, and indirectly by encouraging sentimentalism and dogmatic voluntarism.

The reaction was not long in coming. In 1821, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) published his Christian Faith, which dates an epoch in the history of modern theology. While rationalists and supernaturalists carried on their struggle, Schleiermacher took the ground from under their contention by removing its main presupposition. The Christian faith, he said, does not consist in any kind of doctrinal propositions. It is a condition of devout feeling and, like all other experience, simply an object to be described. Against the supernaturalists he maintained that Christianity is not something to be received on authority from without, but an inward condition of our own self-consciousness. Against the rationalists, he said religion is not a product of rational thinking, but an emotion of the heart, a feeling which occurs independently of the mind. Moreover this feeling is not merely personal but social in its Protestant form, since it is the common experience of a historical community derived from the Reformation.

Parallel with Schleiermacher's theology of religious experience was an accent on ethical values, borrowed from Kant and crystallized under Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889). But Ritschl gave offense by his conviction that the final revelation of God has been mediated through the facts of history and by ignoring the findings of comparative religion. The leader of the opposition was Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), in whom Liberal Protestantism, fully conscious of itself, assumed the stage. Troeltsch held that three laws on inquiry obtain in the study of the Christian religion: the law of criticism, according to which no historical judgment can assert more than probability, even as regards the life and teachings of Christ; the law of relativity, which bars out all facts of a unique or absolute character, including those of an alleged supernatural order; and the law of analogy, which places the doctrines of Christianity on a par with other faiths in the stream of religious history.

At the present time, theologians in the Protestant tradition may be conveniently divided into the orthodox or conservative, the liberal, and those on the border line between liberalism and orthodoxy.

Conservative theology until lately has been confined to the re-exposition of traditional Lutheran and Reformed confessions of faith. At least in America, however, it is taking on new significance as the fundamentalist churches are growing in membership and stature and defending, as Machen explained, the right of Christianity to regard doctrinal issues as matters of supreme importance.

Liberalism has passed through a number of stages. In the very moment of its triumph over fundamentalism in the thirties, it began to disintegrate, mainly because liberals found themselves in the dilemma of choosing between humanism (without revelation and almost without God) and the fundamentalism they opposed. Liberals like John C. Bennett, Walter Horton, and Henry Van Dusen formed a school of thought whose future is still in doubt, but which tends more in the direction of neo-orthodoxy than back to the naturalism of Troeltsch and Adolf Harnack.

Undoubtedly the most creative feature of contemporary Protestant theology is the rise of a new conservatism, whose essence is a return to orthodoxy, but to orthodoxy with a difference. Its followers are usually former liberals, who repudiate the Biblicism of the fundamentalists and yet accept Biblical criticism in its most extreme forms. Their spiritual ancestor was Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish philosopher-theologian who drove a wedge between liberals and the orthodox by asking not “what is the content of Christianity?” but “what does it mean to be a Christian?” Kierkegaard believed that one could become a Christian only by a blind commitment of one's whole life to God in Jesus Christ.

Two men in Europe and two in the United States typify the modern trend toward neo-orthodoxy. Karl Barth (1886-1968) in Switzerland began as a liberal, became active in the ecumenical movement, and in more than a dozen volumes, especially his monumental Church Dogmatics, has revolutionized Protestant theology. Barth warned against identifying the Word of God with the words of the Bible, making it a kind of “paper-pope.” The words of Scripture and of Christ are simply tokens through which the Word of God is revealed when, to whom, and under what circumstances He desires to make the revelation. Thus the Word of God is its own proof, for it cannot be proved by reason. Christ comes to every man with the challenge “Follow me,” and thereby sets up a crisis in his heart. He must choose, and his choice is Kierkegaard's leap of faith in the dark and a gamble that there is a God. “Theology of Crisis” and “Dialectical Theology” are familiar synonyms for the Barthian system.

Emil Brunner (1889-1966) is often coupled with Barth, although the two parted company when Brunner publicly criticized Barth for his repudiation of natural theology and leaving no room for the new nature of the redeemed man. Brunner popularized the “I-Thou” concept of relationship with God, which originated with the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965). Unlike objective knowledge, which seeks to control the object known, the “I-Thou” relation means a personal communication of God to us and of ourselves to Him. Critics of Brunner charge him with confusing analogy and reality by taking a description of faith for the definition of man's intimate knowledge of God.

In the United States, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) has been the leading follower (and critic) of Barth, from whom he differs especially on the function of reason in relation to faith. He accused Barth of making Christianity irrational. If, he asked, revelation has nothing to do with what we know by reason, how can we understand it? Niebuhr's most distinctive concept is that of sin, which arises from man's finite nature constantly urging him to deny his limitations. Man expresses his pride by identifying himself with social groups like nations and churches, where he finds a sense of security in their power, knowledge, or goodness. The only cure for man's sin lies in the doctrine of salvation by grace.

Paul Tillich ( 1886-1965), described as “the last liberal,” stands in a class by himself. All religious thinking, according to him, is an expression of some mode of law. Heteronomy is an imposition of law upon man from the outside, as in the Churches of Rome and creedal Protestantism. Autonomy is a rebellion against heteronomy, and we are now in the midst of a disintegrating autonomous order. Theonomy is the essential principle of Protestantism, an eternal protest against any Church or creed, which claims to teach as a spokesman of God. Even Christ may not be viewed as a heteronomous authority who demands obedience nor may Christianity claim superiority over other religions as a religion. Kantian idealism, in the guise of Schelling’s romanticism, finds in Tillich its most prominent modern exponent.

Theology of the Ecumenical Movement. Since the first meeting at Lausanne in 1927 of the World Conference on Faith and Order, Protestant and Eastern theologians have been seriously studying and clarifying their doctrinal differences. They hope to find, said the secretary general of the World Council of Churches, “the way that leads beyond mere cooperation to a true unity which will make it clear to the whole world that as there can only be one body of Christ, so there is only one Body which is the Church of His people.” The basic problem, therefore, is ecclesiological.

At one extreme are theologians who believe there is strength in doctrinal divergence, for whom the ecumenical movement should lead only to a federated cooperation among the churches with no ambition to organic unity. They are “keenly sensitive to the gains in vitality” which come from church differences. At the other extreme are Eastern churchmen, for whom the unity of the Church already exists, and, in fact, is to be found within the exclusive limits of their own communion.

Between these extremes lie the majority of denominations within the ecumenical movement. They are undecided either on the nature of the Church or on the kind of unity it is supposed to have. Some maintain that “the unity of the Catholic (not Roman) Church is an existing historic reality,” within certain theoretical boundaries. Their problem is in defining these boundaries, within which the Church may be united and beyond which diversity is allowed.

Others believe the Church is a purely invisible entity, a community known only to God. Its unity therefore is also known only to Him, and the task of theology is to give better expression to this existent—so far mostly invisible— unity among the divided members.

Still others hold that the Church is essentially visible but without restricting limits and capable of embracing all those who profess and call themselves Christians, however diverse their belief and practice. This seems to be the majority opinion in the present World Council of Churches.

The Roman Catholic Church has not been indifferent to the efforts of scholars outside her ranks to reunite a dismembered Christian world. Following the lead of popes Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII, Catholic theologians have promoted the most extensive study of Church unity since the Reformation. While holding firm to their conviction that unity is possible only through union with the see of Peter, they stress the sincerity of ecumenical efforts outside of Rome and the presence of the Holy Spirit in such deliberations.

One of the main purposes envisioned by Pope John XXIII for the Second Vatican Council has been reunion of the Christian Churches. To this end a special ecumenical agency was organized to help non-Catholic theologians follow the work of the council and to enable them “to find more easily the path by which they may arrive at that unity for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to His heavenly Father.” The favorable reaction among Protestant and Oriental churchmen shows great promise for the future.

John A. Hardon, S.J.

Collier’s Encyclopedia
Vol. 22, pp. 269-272

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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