Category Archives: Philosophy

Speculative vs practical reason in theology

I am reading Philosophical Introduction to Theology by J. Deotis Roberts. The blurb on the back of the book states that he was (he is no longer listed on their website) the Professor of Philosophical Theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. So he is a Protestant Philosophical Theologian – a most rare of creatures.

In the Introduction he states :

I could also refer this section of the introduction as the hermeneutical role of philosophy in the theological task. … Throughout Christian history, philosophy has assumed the role of interpretation by which theologians have done their most profound work.

I like the quote as it states one side of the role of philosophy well. Reflect on what he is saying about philosophy (and hence human reason) in the above quote! Is reason here speculative or practical?

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Here is something I stumbled across:

I suggest that the use of proof-texts is a manifestation of laziness and the desire to get something for nothing.

From Facing the Proof Text Method by Henry E. Neufeld (who I do not think is a well known theologian of any denomination but I rejoice in Truth no matter who said it!)

The immediate context is a discussion of biblical hermeneutics. Yet, having just received a new copy of Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma, I think the same could be said about neo-scholasticism.

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Adjectival Theology

I have read a lot of theology lately and I have noticed something: why do we use adjectives and adjectival phrases when talking about the Faith? Do we need adjectives when we speak about the Faith? As a part-time philosopher, I wonder: do these accidents create a new ontological reality? Or to put it more in a scholastic framework: can language express truth?

Let me explain. An adjective is

… a word whose main syntactic role is to modify a noun or pronoun (called the adjective’s subject), giving more information about what the noun or pronoun refers to.

So an adjective modifies the noun. It changes it in some way. It opens up the noun and gives new meaning to the noun. Is this the same as accidents in Aristotle’s Metaphysics? Does the way we speak about something change the object?

So why do we use:

  • Evangelical Catholic
  • Traditional Catholic
  • Neo-conservative Catholic
  • Charismatic Catholic
  • Vatican II Catholic
  • Anglican Catholic

I have heard all of the above being used recently. Are not all the adjectives inherent in the noun? (With the exception of Anglican maybe?) So why use them? What I find even harder to understand is why do we use adjectival phrases such as these:

  • The Faith as we understand it.
  • The Faith in its Anglican expression.
  • The Faith once delivered to the saints.

Do not these modify the noun Faith to make it a new reality? The definite article makes the adjectival phrase even harder to understand. Is it just a way to escape an accusation of arrogance?

So my basic question remains: Why do we feel the need to use adjectives and adjectival phrases in theological discourse?

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The task of theology?

I am re-reading Avery Cardinal Dulles’ book on revelation, Models of Revelation. In the chapter on Revelation as Doctrine, Dulles quotes the evangelical theologian Carl Henry’s:

Christian Theology is the systematization of the truth-content explicit and implicit in the inspired writings. It consists essentially in the repetition, combination, and systematization of the truth of revelation in its propositionally given biblical form. The providence of theology is to concentrate on the intelligible content and logical relationship of this scripturally given revelation, and present its teaching as a comprehensive whole.

He goes on to point out that this Conservative Evangelical attitude to revelation is quite similar to the neo-scholastic within the Catholic Church. Neo-scholasticism injects the idea of tradition as the oral revelation systematized by the Church in her teaching role. Yet, both require the assumption that truth can be communicated via articulated speech and that this speech can be put into propositional statements.

But is that all theology is? Repeating and systematizing that which has gone before? It is a popular idea of theology. Orthodoxy is this context is easy: stick to the well trodden path. I have been told by good meaning Catholics that my eternal soul is in danger if I study theology. When I told an assistant at the local Catholic book store I was studying theology, she looked at me with all seriousness and asked, ‘Have you lost your faith, YET?‘.

Is theology just walking down the same path again and again? Using the same images and analogies?

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Baroque, Tradition, and doing theology

Exactly why is there such an attachment to this Baroque expression of Tradition? This, I suspect is a question which cuts to the heart of people’s perception of the nature of Tradition. It is a sociological issue also, which I am not qualified to comment on. Somebody put to me once that many people were greatly upset and even scandalised when Papal Rome made a wholesale rejection of the Baroque in the late 1960’s. The array of Papal ceremonial was replaced with something very functional and austere: somewhat like the ethos of the 1960’s itself. Consequently, and for precisely this reason, there is a very negative attitude amongst some to modern expressions in the style of vestments. Had 1960’s Rome decided to use beautiful damasks for the Papal vestments instead of the plainest of silk, perhaps attitudes might have been different.

From Just a question of taste?

A similar argument can be made about scholasticism and neo-scholasticism! Many who consider themselves traditional (and Traditionalists) see one method not only as normative but as enforced. They would like to stop things in the 60s. (Notice the continued use of Denzinger: The Sources of Catholic Dogma!) Distrust of individuals and their theology is based on the assumption that they have not used a particular method: they use new words, new ideas, new insights which may fall outside of what strict scholasticism had envisaged.

Although I have great respect and admiration for the scholastic method (and am by nature a more analytical person), I also realize that it is not the only way of doing theology (nor philosophy). Some of the great insights of modern thought cannot be ignored because they come from outside a perceived norm.

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THEOlogy vs theoLOGY

I am reading Principles of Christian Theology by Canon John Macquarrie. The opening chapter is an attempt at defining theology. (And the rest of the book is a working out of that definition.) It is a very difficult task (dare I say, impossible) but Macquarrie proposes the following:

[Theology] is the study which, through participation in and reflection upon a religious faith, seeks to express the content of this faith in the clearest and most coherent language available.

Interesting, yes! (Anyone who would like to give a definition of theology via the combox is most welcome!) It shows a fundamental question in theology:

THEOlogy vs TheoLOGY.

Where do we put the emphases? Does any reflection on the reality of God (the object of theology) through the faith community (the subject of theology) have to end in set of dogmatic statements? The emphases between the content of theology (material) vs the reality of theology (formal) is a fundamental issue.

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Reclaiming the Science of Theology

Why is it that when you say to someone that you are studying theology they instantly want to tell you what they think on all sorts of theological topics? If I were to say I was studying nuclear physics, would I still have to endure the phrase, Well, the way I see it … or What I think is … ? What makes people think they are on the same level with a theologian (a person whose vocation is theology) but not with a nuclear physicist (a person whose vocation is science)?

The only answer I can conjure is that people are culturally conditioned to see theology to be about belief while science is about knowledge. In short, we need to reclaim theology as a science in the strict sense of the word. That does not mean theology needs to adopt the scientific method. But theology needs to be aware that it is about knowledge flowing from the object of theology, God himself. Theology is not about drafting dogmatic statements derived from the Biblical text but rather it is an entering into the ecclesial experience of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Theology is more than the common salvific end but about God himself right here and now.

Here is a quote by E. Mascall which says it much better than I can:

… a recovery among Anglicans [and all others as well!] of Christian theology in the strict and classical sense of ‘the Science of God’, as a living and growing intellectual activity organically rooted in the Christian tradition and consciously operating within the worshipping and redemptive community which is the Body of Christ.

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