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The Shape of Catholic Theology

by Aidan Nichols, O.P.

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An exemplary summary of the state of Catholic theology and what appears to be its future.

This historical treatment of Catholic theology looks not to the content of that theology but rather to the form in which that content is contained and how it is expressed. Faithful to Catholic teaching yet critical, discerning yet impartial, Nichols offers this introduction to dogmatic theology, with the firm belief "
that dogmatics are the center of theology, and that any theological discipline which cuts itself off from these heartlands does so at its own peril. For it is in dogmatics that theology is in touch with the heart of revelation, and only by virtue of the quality of its contact with that revelation is thinking Christian at all."

Though comprehensive and far-reaching, this work is not beyond the understanding of people just commencing a study of theology. It makes an excellent text for study groups.

"This is a sound introduction to the doing of Catholic theology designed for use by the theological student but entirely accessible to the general educated reader. " - ADRIS


Abbreviations 9

Part One: Introducing Theology
1 The Habit of Theology 13
2 The Task of Theology 27

Part Two: The Role of Philosophy in Theology
3 General Principles 41
4 The Existence and Concept of God 55
5 Theodicy and the Idea of Salvation 66
6 The Possibility and Historicity of Revelation 74
7 The Philosophical Principle of Order in Theology 91

Part Three: Scripture as a Source in Theology
8 The Authority of Scripture: Canonicity 99
9 The Authority of Scripture: Inspiration 110
10 The Authority of Scripture: Inerrancy 131
11 The Interpretation of Scripture: The Letter 141
12 The Interpretation of Scripture: The Spirit 154

Part Four: Tradition as a Source in Theology
13 The Nature of Tradition 165
14 The Liturgy and Christian Art 181
15 Fathers, Councils, and Creeds 200
16 The Sense of the Faithful 221

Part Five: Aids to Discernment in Theology 
17 Experience 235
18 The Magisterium 248

Part Six: Plurality and Unity in Catholic Theology
19 Soundings in Theological History 263
20 The Theological Principle of Order 349

Appendix on Encyclopedias and Bibliographical Aids 357

Select Bibliographies 359

Index of Names 366

Index of Subjects 371


This study is entitled The Shape of Catholic Theology because it is not an introduction to the material content of that theology, its subject matter, its themes and topics, but to the form in which that content is contained: its basic patterns, its constituent elements, the way or ways in which the assertions of Catholic theology are arrived at. So the reader who expects to find here a set of mini-treatises on the great compartments of Catholic theology - the Trinity, Christology, ecclesiology, and the sacraments; Mariology and the communion of saints; the last things -will necessarily be disappointed. He or she must look elsewhere. As the subtitle indicates, this is an introduction to the "sources, principles, and history" of theology in the Catholic tradition.

Although little or no technical knowledge of Catholic doctrine is presumed, it is presupposed throughout that the reader either already finds himself or herself within the tradition of Catholic Christianity or is willing to enter that tradition imaginatively, by an effort of sympathetic understanding, with a deliberate suspension, at least, of disbelief. For this no apology is offered. It is impossible to give an account of theological rationality except from within some tradition of reflection and experience, inhering in a community and uniting its members, as they believe, to a transcendent source of what it is they reason about and the manner in which they do so.

In this book, though I have tried to be as accurate as possible, the extent of the ground covered means that there is neither the fullness of treatment nor the precision that would otherwise be desirable. The select bibliographies (and the notes) are meant to help the reader to fill in these gaps. Finally, this is, overwhelmingly, an introduction to dogmatic theology. I believe that dogmatics are the center of theology, and that any theological discipline that cuts itself off from these heartlands does so at its own peril. For it is in dogmatics that theology is in touch with the heart of revelation, and only by virtue of the quality of its contact with that revelation is thinking Christian at all.

I am grateful to my students at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (the Angelicum) in Rome for their contribution to this text which was originally in lecture form. Their comments, questions, and criticisms have led me to modify its shape, and encouraged me to offer it to a wider audience. The result is, at times, as much prescriptive as descriptive; to some degree, this is one man's vision of what shape, structure, or form Catholic theology should possess -though it is a personal view informed by the common tradition. The overview of the history of Catholic theology offered at the end of the book will help the reader to place the author's prescriptions against his or her historical background.

Given that my own teachers have been Anglican and Orthodox as well as Catholic, I could hardly, without churlishness, restrict my citations and references to those in peace and communion with the Holy See. And in any case, from the ancient Greek philosophers to the Russian Orthodox ecclesiologist Afanas'ev, cited at the Second Vatican Council, such exclusiveness would sit ill with the historic practice of the Church in, at any rate, those luminous periods of her history where enemies without (or even within) have failed to shake her calm.

Chapters 1 and 2 consist largely of material already published in, respectively, The Downside Review, CV. 361 (1987) and New Blackfriars 60.819 (1988). Thanks are due to the editors of these journals for permitting their reprinting here. They make, I hope, a gentle introduction to a book whose demands on the reader tend to increase as it goes on. At no point, however, should it be too difficult a text for those commencing the study of theology to take in their stride. Blackfriars, Cambridge, Christmas 1990.

DS H. Denzinger and A. Schönmetzer, eds., Enchiridion symbolorum, 33rd ed., Freiburg, 1965.

DTC Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, Paris, 1903 ff.

Mansi Mansi, J.D., Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, Florence, 1759-98; Paris, 1901-27.

NCE New Catholic Encyclopedia, New York, 1967.

PG Migne, J.-P., Patrologia Graeca, Paris, 1857-66; 1928-36.

PL Migne, J.-P., Pat rologia Latina, Paris, 1841-49; 1850-55; 1862-64.

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Section Contents Copyright ©; Mark Alder and Order of St Benedict, Inc., 1991, 2001.

This Version: 9th November 2017


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