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 Fr Aidan Nichols

The Shape of Catholic Theology

by Aidan Nichols, O.P.


Chapter 2: The Task of Theology

I will begin by mentioning three possible definitions of the theological task that I cannot accept, on the principle that many good definitions are arrived at by ruling out what things are not. Each of these negative definitions will be to some extent a caricature, yet all caricatures have some relation to reality. Moreover, each of the rejected definitions will prove to have incorporated an element of value. This element is capable of being disengaged and used afresh in a positive definition of the theological task, to be offered in the second part of the chapter.

Three Negative Definitions

A first account of the theological task that one might meet has it that theology is the misguided attempt to turn into a science something that is strictly mysterious: the dogmas, or as we say more precisely, the mysteries of the Christian religion. Since these mysteries by definition transcend the scope of the human mind, what is the point of trying to work them out intellectually? As Lord Dacre of Glanton has put it, theology is "sophisticated ninnery. "[1] If we have accepted a revealed religion we must take the consequences. The consequences are that we cannot theorize about a revelation. We can only reform our own attitudes and feelings on the basis of it. In other words, one can have a spirituality but not a theology. One can claim that grace has changed one's heart, but it does not make sense to claim that grace has changed one's mind. This tendency to dismiss the rational claims of theology is not, of course, restricted to retired regius professors of modern history. A conviction of the superfluity of theology often accompanies periods of spiritual revival as well as of agnostic debilitation: classically, in the devotio moderna of the Netherlandish Middle Ages. More recently, Raissa Maritain, despite her admiration for the Catholic poet-prophet Charles Peguy, wrote blisteringly of his deliberate espousal of a "discord between the soul's infused faith on the one hand and on the other the actions and the very thoughts of a man who has received this gift of God . . . scorning, in the name of faith, the theological wisdom which he glories in not knowing."[2]

However, if faith contains, as Thomas Aquinas insists, an inbuilt tendency toward the vision of God, being the inchoate form of that vision, this first definition will not do. Though, to begin with, while faith is less perspicuous, less clear, than are other kinds of knowledge, it is in fact moving toward a state of total clarity, intellectual union with Truth himself. [3] If this is so, then faith must permit continuous growth in the understanding of what it believes, and the spiritual (or not so spiritual) antitheologism of the first definition may be set aside. En passant, we can note that in claiming for theology a continuity with the vision of God on the grounds that it is an intellectual habit rooted in the act of faith, we are accepting that it is a science - in the special, and now archaic, sense of the word indicated by Thomas. [4] For Thomas, theology is a science insofar as it draws its own first principles from an utterly certain and transparent or self-evident kind of knowing, namely God's own knowing of himself. Theology cannot be reduced to spirituality because it is a way of knowing and understanding and not just a way of feeling. While Christian affectivity is itself a valuable theological theme, this does not mean that the only sensible theology would be a description of Christian affectivity. [5]

The element of truth in the attempted transposition of theology into spirituality derives from the fact that the fire of spirituality should be burning in all theology. Faith, together with its necessary attendants, hope and charity, is the foundation of all spirituality, all lived relationships with God, while at the same time, by entering into union with studiousness, faith is also the foundation of the theologian's work. One cannot approach theology as though one were a humanist. The theological student needs the basic natural desiderata of all students of anything, which we have summed up as argumentativeness, retentiveness, and imagination. But such qualities, taken by themselves, are insuff icient equipment for a theological mind. The mind must be in some way in love with God or it will lose a certain fundamental sympathy, or tact, for Christian truth. There is indeed such a thing as theological sensibility, a kind of theological good sense which is not simply rational but which depends on our remaining within a spiritual culture. [6]

This appeal to the authority of God as providing theology, via revelation and faith, with its distinctive epistemological basis may suggest a second definition of the theological task. On this second version, the task of theology is said to be the transcribing in a more intelligible, or rationally acceptable, form whatever the divinely guided voice of Church authority may determine. Certainly, theologians have a duty to defend the defined teaching of Holy Church and to cooperate with the pope and bishops in clarifying or refining such teaching as may have an inadequately articulated form. But such duties, on this view, drcumscribe the task of theology itself: they constitute the very borders of its home ground. Here the idea is that the starting point of all theology is the pronouncements of pope and bishops in both their extraordinary and ordinary magisterium, theology's job being to prove authorized ecclesiastical pronouncements by a regressive method which seeks arguments in the sources, Scripture and Tradition, as well as in reason, for their truth. The support given by Pope Pius XII to this picture of theology in his encyclical Humani generis of 1956 was rightly criticized by Fr. (now Cardinal) Joseph Ratzinger in his essay on the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution on revelation, Dei verbum.[7] Theology is something wider than the direct assistance the theologian can afford the magisterium. The bishops, and especially the pope, are the guardians of the fides quae, doctrine, the objective content of the Christian creed. But the fides quae itself is the heritage of every believer who, on the basis of theological wonder, explores the riches of this shared faith by putting ever-new questions to it and about it. There is no reason to think that episcopate and papacy have ever thought of all these questions, much less of the answers to them. The role of Church authority is to say when a given theology has detached itself from the fides quae. It is not to prescribe in advance what the theologian's work shall be. Let us also note here that the fides quae does not come to us simply from learning what the ecumenical councils or the popes when teaching ex cathedra have defined, nor by listening to what the bishops and pope are teaching today. It also comes to us, and in more ample fashion, from Scripture, and from Tradition - of which the past teachings of Church authority are only one element, one set of "monuments." From this point of view, we might even say that theology does not so much echo the present-day teaching of bishops and pope as make it possible - by providing the Church's pastors with an informed and circumstantial grasp of what the sources of revelation contain.

And yet there is a nugget of truth in the assertion that the task of theology is the transcription of the teachings of the magisterium. Because of theology's dependence on the Church's life of faith, it cannot ignore what the pastors of the Church are saying at any given time. By the sacrament of orders, the bishops, and preeminently the Roman bishop, are set over the Church by the Church's Lord. Through their distinctive activities of preaching the gospel to the unconverted, catechizing the faithful, explaining the mysteries celebrated in the Church's liturgy, and caring for the lives of Christians from the cradle to the grave, the bishops, and those other ministers - notably, priests - whom they co-opt to assist them, are in a good position to see the Christian faith as a lived totality. They can help the theologian to see the fides quae in its complete outline rather than to concentrate on some one aspect of it that may happen to be of particular interest in a given culture. Conversely, the pope and bishops may also, through their reading of what the Second Vatican Council called the "signs of the times," specifically encourage theologians on behalf of the whole Church to devote their attention to some aspect of theological research deemed likely to be especially helpful at some given time. [8] Finally, in those unresolved disputed questions, which from time to time mar the unity of the Church's life of faith, the theologian may, by and large, have confidence in the rightness of that side of a case to which pope and bishops lean - since the charism of truth bestowed on the apostolic ministry will naturally have its effect on the expression of that ministry, both in the local Church and in the Church universal. [9]

The appeal to the fides quae as a common inheritance, embedded in the rich historical data of Scripture and Tradition, might suggest, however, a third definition of the task of theologian. For some, theology consists in the acquisition of a very large number of facts about the Bible and the Church. Fundamentally, on this view, theology is an exercise in the memorizing of data. Theologians are "professional rememberers." The trouble with this picture of theology is that just heaping up facts and references does not in itself give one a coherent account of the Christian faith. Christian curiosity about the revelation received and the urge to connect its various facets, something that mirrors the ultimate unity of God and the mind of man, cannot rest satisfled with this purely factual or, in the technical word, "positive" view of theology. The emergence of historical theology in the sixteenth century as a mode of theological practice created the possibility of mistaking for the theological task the registering of what others have thought of God. It may be that Anglican theology has been peculiarly subject to this temptation, as such different voices in the Church of England as Dr. E. L. Mascall and Prof. S. W. Sykes have suggested. [10] In Catholicism, similar strictures have been levelled against Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), who roundly declared that theology was an affair of the memory and not of the reasoning faculty, and against his French disciple Antoine Arnauld (1617-94). [11]

Nevertheless, we can agree that without positive theology, without a knowledge of facts about the Bible and Church tradition, the content of systematic theology would be extemely thin gruel. In the opening question of his Summa theologiae, Thomas gives the impression at one point that the only materials theology has to go on are the articles of the Creed. [12] Were this true, theology would be mightily diminished. In point of fact, Thomas had an impressive familiarity with Scripture, the Fathers, and the early medieval divines as well as with the teachings of councils and popes, the texts of the Roman liturgy, and the principles of canon law. The quality of his factual or positive resources concerning the fides quae is one major reason for the quality of his theology as a whole. [13]The same could be said of the work of more modern writers like Matthias Josef Scheeben (1835-88) or Hans Urs von Baithasar (1905-88). [14] Thus it is true that facts are important, though they are not all-important.

To sum up, then, what theology is not. It cannot be dissolved without remainder into spirituality, though it cannot do without spirituality either. Nor can it simply be a commentary on papal or episcopal utterance, though papal and episcopal utterances are vital to it, as it to them. Nor, again, can it just consist of positive theology, facts and figures, though these give it much of its concrete substance.

A Working Definition

What, then, is the task of theology? The working definition I propose to suggest is brief and unadventurous yet would suffice to sustain the rest of a theological life. The task of theology is the disciplined exploration of what is contained in revelation. Each of the main component terms of this definition, "disciplined," "exploration," "revelation," must now be unpacked.

Starting first with "revelation," it is surely plain that we would not be interested in theology without an acceptance of revelation. If we regarded Catholic Christianity as one religion among many, a belief system that happens to exist in some parts of the world just as do, say, Buddhism or Hinduism, we might be interested in studying theology from outside, as spectators, but we would not wish to study it from inside, as participators. Theology presupposes the truth of the Christian faith. It assumes from the outset that what we are involved with in the life of the Church is a divine reality and not just a figment of the corporate imagination of a group of people. Whereas in pursuing religious studies, we are not committed to the view that a given religion is true, or even partly true, in learning to be theologians we are committed from the start to the position that at the origins of the Church, an authentic revelation of the one true God took place, and that we are put into contact with this same God revealing himself through our share in the Church's common life. Theology is, therefore, essentially concerned with revelation.[15]

Theology may be termed, indeed, a ministry carried out in the service of revelation. Theologians have a high calling, and they must acquit themselves with a profound sense of responsibility. They are servants of the divine Word, the Logos, just as much as are the bishops or the pope, though in a different mode. Theologians consecrate themselves to the meaning of revelation, and this suggests a more intimate relation with revelation than that possessed by the Church hierarchy, who are its guardians more than they are its interpreters. Unfortunately, the Holy Spirit has not been vouchsafed to theologians qua theologians, whereas the Spirit has been vouchsafed to the guardians of revelation, the Church hierarchy. The reason for this is simple. If the deposit of faith has not been successfully guarded, there will be nothing there to interpret. If the deposit of faith has not been successfully interpreted theologically, it will still be there for someone else to interpret in another age.

How can our theological efforts be said to serve revelation? The wonder, curiosity, and ever-deepening pursuit of truth implicit in the act of faith generates (as we saw in the last chapter) a variety of questions, which may be sorted into five portmanteau categories. These are fundamental, historical, systematic, moral, and practical theology. The attempt to answer these questions has applications of great utility to all actual or potential recipients of revelation. Thus, fundamental theology helps one to help other people keep the faith by removing difficulties they may have about believing. It also helps one to convert others to the faith by suggesting considerations relevant to the truth of Catholic Christianity. Historical theology helps one to discern the impression Jesus Christ made upon those who first met him (the New Testament), the situation he lived in (the Old Testament), and the way his image and teaching have been preserved and presented in the Church (the history of doctrine). In these ways, historical theology enables one to present the faith in a way that is concrete, circumstantial, and historically correct. Systematic theology helps one to show people how the faith hangs together, how it all makes a satisfying design that is an inspiration to live by. Moral theology is useful in showing people how they might be growing personally in relation to God and their neighbor. Practical theology shows them the relevance of their religion to their professional work or private passions, to their general knowledge or social situation. In putting it so, I may be giving the impression that it is nearly always someone else who wants help and never, well, hardly ever, oneself. In fact, just as preaching is directed first toward (or even against) oneself, so is theology.

Theology, then, is bound up with revelation, and is a form of service by some individuals on behalf of the whole Church. From this, certain other things immediately follow. Above all, it must follow that the primary sources of theology will not be found in the world around us as with other disciplines, but in the revelation to which the Church is the witness. These primary sources, therefore, will be Scripture and Tradition. How Scripture and Tradition are related as the source of revealed understanding is a question of some moment in its own right, but the first thing to realize is that they are our primary materials. Whether they are seen as two separate but complementary sources or as two aspects of a single source is a relatively minor question compared with the basic point: Scripture and Tradition are the font of theological knowledge. This means, in turn, that in order to be theologians we must have a good knowledge of, on the one hand, the Old and New Testaments, and on the other, of the Tradition of the Church as expressed in ways other than Scripture. If one asks, What are these other ways of expressing Christian truth that bring us revelation, the only possible answer is that in effect, they are everything involved in the Church's life. They include the liturgy, the Fathers of the Church, the creeds and other doctrinal definitions, the evidence of Christian art and archaeology, the witness of ordinary believers. When we talk about the Church's Tradition we are referring to all these (and more), seen as an interconnected unity, the life of the Church.

As we come to study these primary sources, Scripture and Tradition, we find that we have two what may be termed "aids to discernment" which will help us. In the first place, we have our own Christian experience. The gift of faith makes possible for each of us our own Christian sense of reality. Through the sensibility which faith gives, each of us can to some degree recognize what is an exaggeration in theology, what is a deviation in theology, and what, on the contrary, sounds right in theology. In the second place, we have the help, as already mentioned, of the contemporary day-to-day teaching of the pope and bishops, what is termed technically the "ordinary magisterium." In all these ways - Scripture, Tradition, Christian experience, and the teaching office of the bishops - theology is concerned with and dependent on revelation and the personal and corporate grace which accompanies and enables our response to the self-revealing God.

But I also said, in my working definition, that theology was the disciplined exploration of revelation. First of all, then, theology is an exploration. It is not simply the reassertion of something that is obvious to all believers. The statement that, for instance, God is our Creator is a straightforward statement of a truth of faith such as might be found in a catechism or a prayer book. It is not in itself a theological statement, or perhaps a better way of putting this would be to say that the ability to make this statement does not yet prove that one is a theologian. The exploratory role of theology takes many different forms. I have outlined the five great questions that theology asks, questions that lead to its primordial forms: fundamental, historical, systematic, moral, and practical theology. But in order to answer these questions, theology finds itself moving out into a whole host of subdisciplines. For example, in order to understand the context of the life of Jesus, central to historical theology (taking this to include the history of Christian origins) and vital also to fundamental theology, the theologian may want to learn more about the geographical sites involved in the ministry of Jesus. Thus arises biblical archaeology as an offshoot of theological exploration. Or again, for the same basic reasons, one may wish to know more about the way the Gospels were written so as to achieve a better insight into the reactions to Jesus of the first disciples. So a new theological subdiscipline joins the club, historical-critical exegesis. In such ways a question which has started life in historical theology pure and simple, or even in fundamental theology, cannot be answered without further exploration, which generates whole new disciplines like biblical archaeology and New Testament criticism. It should be obvious that answers to questions about what exactly happened in the ministry of Jesus, in the concrete context of his time and place, are going to be quite complex and detailed. A catechism answer would hardly suffice. So theology is not just any expression of revealed truth. It is different from the expression of revelation that we find in preaching or in catechizing or in devotion. It differs from these by being an exploration of what is not at first obvious, even to someone who knows and accepts the faith of the Church.

Finally, in my working definition, I said that this exploration which is theology has to be disciplined exploration. Certain elements of order and structure should be present. The question as to what these elements of order and structure ought to be is the question of theological methodology, method in theology. It seems to me that the structural or ordering element in theology is twofold. First, there is a principle of order in all theologies which derives from outside of theology. In a broad sense, this pretheological principle of order may be said to come from philosophy, assuming that we take the word "philosophy" in a sufficiently general kind of way. Many people have what are in effect philosophical convictions or philosophical questions without realizing that these are in fact philosophical. Every culture carries with it one or more basic ways of interpreting the world, of saying what is important in life, what questions are the most urgent, what values are paramount. From this pretheological or, in a broad sense, philosophical background, we come to the exploration of revelation with a certain agenda, a certain list of priorities, a certain number of already formed convictions about the nature of reality. Because of the intrinsic richness of revelation, no matter what questions we bring to it, it is able to throw light on them. So we interrogate the sources of revelation, Scripture and Tradition, using our aids to discernment, Christian experience and magisterium, and we come up with a theology, a disciplined or ordered exploration of what is contained in revelation.

The second structural element in theology derives not from outside revelation but from inside it. Once again, because of the intrinsic richness of revelation, no one theology can hope simply to reproduce revelation in some kind of complete and unconditional way. We can say of no one Christian theology, There, that is the Christian truth. Every theology takes as its central axis some facet of revelation and tries to relate everything to that. It selects one item within revelation and arranges all the others around it, like planets circling a sun. So, for instance, Augustine's theology revolves around the theme of grace; Thomas' theology revolves around the idea of the coming forth of creatures from God and their return to him; Rahner's theology, around a version of the doctrine that people are the image of God, and so on. Here we have a second ordering or structuring or disciplining principle in theology, and this time it is itself strictly theological, that is, it derives from within revelation and not from outside it.[16] So far as this theological principle of order is concerned, I want to defer consideration of it until, having mastered the other elements of theology, we come to look at the history of theology in Part 6 of this book. The reason for this is that until we have some idea of the enormous variety of writings that have counted as Catholic theology in past and presents what I might have to say about the theological ordering principle would be somewhat rootless and abstract.

That suggests that I plan to take the other three elements we have identified -sources, aids to discernment, and philosophical principle of order - in that chronological sequence. But in fact I propose to deal with the role of philosophy in theology first, and only then to go on to look at the sources and the aids to discernment. The reason for this is that, really, philosophy has two roles to play in theology, and one of these two roles is logically prior to a consideration of the sources and how we might be helped to interpret them.

Apart from being a principle of order in theology, philosophy also has a vital part to play in laying the foundations for acceptance of revelation and so in providing the essential groundwork for theological activity. Philosophy is vital to what is called the "preamble of faith," in other words, to the way in which we justify our acceptance of revelation in the first place. Philosophy has to help theology to get started by showing the basic compatibility of revelation with human rationality. Obviously, if revelation were basically incompatible with human rationality, then there would be no point in doing theology as classically understood, and the "spiritual antitheologians" mentioned above would be fully justified. In the preamble of faith, theology calls on philosophy to help deal with such issues as the existence of God, the problem of evil, the possibility of revelation, and the nature of the claim that the actual revelation we have is historically well grounded. But this role of philosophy vis-à-vis theology is obviously prior to anything else in theology, because without it theology could not get off the ground at all. Consideration of the task of philosophy in the preamble of faith then leads naturally to looking at philosophy as a principle of order in theology, since many of the ideas philosophy uses in the preamble of faith—ideas about God, for instance - are still relevant when one comes to theology proper. Another way of putting this would be to say that philosophy has two contributions to make to theology: one is to fundamental theology, to an account of the foundations of the act of faith; the other is to systematic theology, to an explication of the content of faith. So this is the order we will be following: the role of philosophy, both as rational foundation of theology and as principle of order within theology; the roles of Scripture and Tradition as sources; the roles of experience and magisterium as forms of illumination of those sources; and, finally, the theological principle of order in the context of the history of Catholic theology, its plurality, and its unity.


1. Cited in H. A. Williams, Some Day I'll Find You: An Auto-Biography (London: 1982, 1984) 90.

2. R. Maritain, Les Grandes Amities (Paris: 1948) 272.

3. See Summa theologiae IIa IIae, qq. 1-7; Compendium theologiae 1, 2. For Thomas' account of faith and its intellectuality, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, vol. 31: Faith, ed. T. C. O?Brien (London: 1974) passim.

4. Ia q. 1, a. 2, corpus.

5. For a splendid example of such spiritual theology, fully conscious of its task and limitations, see C. A. Bernard, Théologie affective (Paris: 1984) and notably 10.

6. The value of a spiritual culture vis-à-vis theological activity is evoked in J. Leclerq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (2nd ed., English trans., New York: 1974). Needless to say, monastic culture provides a paradigm for a christian culture here, rather than being its exclusive content.

7. In Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. H. Vorgrimler, III (English trans., New York: 1969) 197.

8. For the mutual aid which should mark the relations of episcopate and theologians, see the International Theological Commission's "Theses on the interrelationship between the ecclesiastical magisterium and theology," which can be consulted, with a commentary, in F. A. Sullivan, Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church (Dublin:1983) 174-218. For the concept of the "signs of the times," see M.-D. Chenu, "Les signes du temps," Nouvelle revue théologique 90 (1965) 29-39.

9. Sullivan, Magisterium 172.

10. E. L. Mascall, Theology and the Gospel of Christ: An Essay in Reorientation (2nd ed., London: 1984) xvi. The difficulties such "positivism" can create for an entire ecclesial tradition are characterized in S. W. Sykes, The Integrity of Anglicanism (London: 1978) 79ff.

11. This must surely have had its effect in their reading of Augustine's achievement as Jansenism.

12. Ia q. 1, a. 2, ad i.

13. Well brought out in M.-D. Chenu, Toward Understanding Saint Thomas (English trans., Chicago: 1964) 150-55.

14. An introduction to the work of M. J. Scheeben can be found in C. Fritz, "Scheeben, Matthias Joseph," DTC 14/i (1939) cols. 1270-74. A full study is E. Paul, Denkweg und Denkforin der Theologie von Matthias Joseph Scheeben (Munich: 1970). A useful introduction to von Balthasar is the prefatory essay by D. MacKinnon in H. U. von Balthasar, Elucidations (London: 1972). A well-nigh exhaustive account is found in A. Moda, Hans Urs von Balthasar (Ban: 1976). See also A. Nichols, "Balthasar and his Christology," New Blackfriars 66, 781-82 (1985) 317-24.

15. See R. Latourelle, "From Revelation to Theology," in Theology: Science of Salvation (New York: 1969) 3-10. This section can be regarded as a bridge to the subject of theology from his earlier study of revelation, Theology of Revelation (New York: 1966).

16. See for a fuller account of this idea, A. Nichols, "Unity and Plurality in Theology: Lonergan's Method and the Counter-claims of a Theory of Paradigms," Angelicum 62 (1985) 30-52. Also, ch. 20 in this book.

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

This Version: 6th February 2008