Sunday, January 13, 2008

Theology at sea

“The impression grew steadily that nothing was now stable in the Church, that everything was open to revision. More and more the Council appeared to be like a great Church parliament that could change everything and reshape everything according to its own desires…If the bishops in Rome could change the faith (as it appeared they could), why only the bishops? In any event, the faith could be changed—or so it now appeared, in contrast to everything we had previously thought. The faith no longer seemed exempt from human decision-making but rather was now apparently determined by it. And we knew that the bishops had learned from theologians the new things they were now proposing,” J. Ratzinger, Milestones, 132-33.

“The ‘signs of the times’ that I had begun to detect in Münster were now becoming more obviously dramatic. At first Rudolf Bultmann’s theology still dominated the theological climate, in the particular variation given to it by Ernest Käsemann…At almost a moment’s notice, there was a change in the ideological ‘paradigm’ by which the students and a part of the teachers thought. While until now Bultmann’s theology and Heidegger’s philosophy had determined the frame of reference for thinking, almost overnight the existential model collapsed and was replaced by the Marxist. Ernst Block was now teaching in Tübingen and made Heidegger contemptible for being petty bourgeois…Existentialism fell apart, and the Marxist revolution kindled the whole university with its fervor, shaking it to its very foundations. A few yeas before, one could still have expected the theological faculties to represent a bulwark against the Marxist temptation. Now the opposite ws the case: they became its real ideological center,” ibid. 136-37.

Ratzinger’s observations expose the inevitable fallout when theology ceases to have a functional doctrine of revelation. In the absence of revelation, theology is reducible to an exercise in the history of ideas. To a Hegelian dialectic in which one idea will supplant or modify another idea.

A thinker comes up with an idea. A disciple may modify his master’s idea. Further modification may occur until we reach the point where the original idea is unrecognizable after all the permutations.

Or, what also happens, one idea suggests an opposing idea. And that, in turn, suggests a contrary notion.

Now, even if the original idea happened to be true, it cannot survive an endless process of mutation and still be true. Rather, it becomes like a literary tradition. The story is told and retold with many variations, many changes in time, place, plot, and characterization. Even if the original story had a basis in fact, it ceases to be factual once the creative process has taken over and subjected the story to imaginative variants of every sort.

Once an idea undergoes open-ended internal development, it quickly loses its correspondence to an external state of affairs. It no longer describes the real world—assuming that it ever did. Instead, the idea undergoes endless refinement—like plastic surgery. Adding and subtracting.

One idea bounces off another idea. One idea invites its own negation. Inbuilt obsolescence.

Without revelation, theology becomes unstable and arbitrary. Without revelation, theology becomes a cipher for the theologian’s social conditioning. Without revelation, other disciplines like science, politics, history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and economics supply the methods, aims, and content of theology.

And these other disciplines are also subject to the Hegelian dialectic as one academic fad supplants another. Unless theology is anchored in revelation, it cannot be anchored in reality. For these other disciplines are also fleeting and competing currents in the history of ideas.

The next generation is impatient with the last generation. The next generation wants to say something new.

When you read Moltmann’s autobiography (A Broad Place) or Küng’s autobiography (My Struggle For Freedom), theology becomes indistinguishable from biography and culture. Indistinguishable from European political and intellectual history. 20C European history. The theologian is simply reacting to what went before. Reacting to the past. Continental theology becomes a transcript of the intellectual climate at their particular time and place in the history of ideas.

This doesn’t mean that he necessarily rejects the past. But he has his favorite thinkers from the past. He may be an Augustinian, Thomist or Origenist. If he’s a Thomist, he may filter his Thomism through Kant or Heidegger.

Once upon a time, the Catholic church had an answer to this problem. It may not have had a good answer, but it had an answer. It appealed to tradition, and it had a static model of tradition. Tradition was oral, dominical tradition. Jesus allegedly taught his Apostles a set of doctrines which were not committed to writing in the form of the canonical Scriptures. The distinctive dogmas of Rome were allegedly traceable to this disciplina arcana.

That introduced a measure of stability in to Catholic theology. Of course, old ideas can be erroneous ideas. And it’s possible to erect a tremendous superstructure over a false foundation.

Older Protestant theologians spent a lot of time attacking Catholic tradition as an alternative to sola Scriptura. But there’s a sense in which this particular debate has been mooted. For the Catholic church eventually ditched the static model of tradition for a dynamic model of tradition. At Vatican II, it codified Newman’s theory of development.

But the problem with this move is that as soon as Catholicism commits to the theory of development, it suffers the same fate as liberal Protestant theology. At this point, Catholic theology is just one more current in the history of ideas. Just another fluid expression of the theologian’s social conditioning. Just another a cultural phenomenon—like Andy Warhol or a Pepto-Bismol commercial.

Of course, Catholic theology has never been otherwise. Catholic theology has always been culturally conditioned and reactionary as well as traditional. It’s just that, with Vatican II, the mask was off. With Vatican II, it made this official.

Fr. Copleston is a microcosm of that development. As he explains in his Memoirs (94-96), he began his History of Philosophy as a Thomist, and ended his history as a Hegelian. And his own career straddled the paradigm-shift in Catholicism.

Liberal Protestant theology is prone to one intellectual revolution after another because it lacks a functional doctrine of revelation. Because its outlook is so secularized, it denies the possibility of divine revelation, or imposes so many constraints on the category that it ceases to have an operative doctrine of revelation. So you end up with the Hegelian dialectic applied to Protestant theology. Only it’s not progressing. It’s not moving from error into truth. Rather, it’s merely changing. Mutable for the sake of mutability.

With Vatican II, Catholic theology is officially prone to the same dialectical process. The same aimless evolution—like a stimulus-response organism which is merely reacting to its environment, adapting to its environment, changing color to suit the season.

There’s a symbiosis between 20C Roman Catholic theology and 20C liberal Protestant theology. They influence each other. Infect each other.

Of course, evangelical theology is not immune to social conditioning or the history of ideas. And, up to a point, there is nothing wrong with that. That’s the effect of God’s providence.

But because evangelical theology retains an operational doctrine of revelation, it can be countercultural. Scripture is a seawall against the ideological erosion. Against the reabsorption of theology into the historical flux.

Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with a theological system that has an ear for other fields of knowledge. But it must have a discriminating ear. An ability, not only to listen and learn, but to criticize what it hears.


  1. Regarding the link between current Catholic theology and 20th century Protestant theology, David Wells wrote in 1972, ("Revolution in Rome"), "Present-day Catholicism, on its progressive side, is teaching many of the ideas which the liberal Protestants espoused in the last century. Though progressive Catholics are largely unaware of their liberal Protestant stepbrothers, the family resemblance is nevertheless there. Since these ideas have only come into vogue in Catholicism in the last two decades, they appear brilliantly fresh and innovative. To a Protestant, whether he approves or disapproves of them, they are old hat. (pg. 8)"

    Of course, the one thing that Catholics say they have is that the Magisterium isn't necessarily translating this theology into Dogma. But Vatican II really did change some things. And it does seem that the pressure is going to be there to do more of it.

  2. I couldn't agree with this essay in anymore stronger of terms. Bravo!


  3. Steve Hays: "There’s a symbiosis between 20C Roman Catholic theology and 20C liberal Protestant theology. They influence each other. Infect each other."

    I don't think conservative Catholics like to hear this. But there's no way they can repudiate Vatican II, is there?

    By the way, brilliant essay!