How to be a good theologian in 3 steps
August 20, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — I have written previously about what theologians should not do. Can we say more positively what they should be doing in their work? Remember, the answer will apply not only to professors and authors, but also and above all to bishops, who are supposed to be the primary teachers of their flock and who should therefore be exemplary theologians — at least in the sense that they deeply ponder the mysteries of the Faith with the aid of the best sources and seek to share with others the fruits of their contemplation, knowing also when to have recourse to orthodox experts and when and how to condemn heterodoxy.
Doing theology well involves three basic steps: 1. defining with clarity a problem or opinion to be investigated; 2. consulting all significant prior judgments related to it, in this order: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium; the writings of Fathers and Doctors of the Church; and the speculations of other faithful theologians; 3. explicating the doctrine in a manner intelligible to the Catholic of today, without dumbing it down or distorting it.
1. Definition. What is the precise question I wish to investigate? In answering the question, I must appeal to the science of logic, not to the art of rhetoric. That is, I wish to know what the truth of the matter is, not how it will be clothed in accessible language or how a listener might be convinced of its truth. I will aim for precision in terminology and rigor in argument. If some terms are understood today in a manner different from their past meanings, I will ask if there are legitimate reasons for adopting a change in formulary language. For example, that the scholastic notion of substance is rarely taught in schools does not provide a sufficient reason for abandoning the use of the word “transubstantiation” when discussing the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The question must be stated in the terms hallowed by tradition and honed by centuries of theological discourse within the Church. If new means of expression are called for, care must be taken to ensure their complete harmony with those of the past. My language no less than my thoughts should indicate a mind thoroughly familiar with the various methods used, and conclusions reached, by past theologians faithful to the Church.
2. Consultation. How does Sacred Scripture speak to the question? How does the sacred liturgy in its age-old rites, Eastern and Western, furnish me with a witness to Apostolic Tradition? Have councils, popes, or curial offices made any declarations connected with it? I accept the revealed or magisterial teaching, submit reverently to it and its implications, and proceed to explore the subject with a fidelity that shies away from novelties. Having ascertained the mind of the Church, I then consult the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and, in a subordinate position, modern authors deserving of respect (e.g., Newman, Garrigou-Lagrange, Journet, Bouyer, Ott), all with a view toward improving my grasp of the question and the variety of ways that past and present authors have essayed an answer. My work does not begin in a Cartesian void, but builds on the basis of my predecessors.
3. Explication. Having defined the problem and sifted through the wealth of instruction provided by the Magisterium and other reliable sources, I recall to mind a certain “practical” dimension to my work as a theologian: to render the unchanging doctrine of Christ intelligible to my contemporaries. I will now bring to bear the art of rhetoric to convince my listener or reader that the propositions taught by the Church are not only free from error, but beautiful to behold and worthy of firm assent. If I must, I shall differ from Fathers or Doctors of the Church with the utmost hesitation and diffidence, and in bringing to light new aspects of the Christian faith, I make a point of linking my insights to their Patristic and scholastic roots. My own view on a given question, my “original contribution,” is introduced with humility and with deference to ecclesiastical authority.
The practice of theology within — that is, loyal to — the Church, will therefore always show the following traits: 1. the constant Magisterium is always followed and defended, even when individual bishops or popes deviate from it; 2. the witness of all of Catholic tradition relevant to the matter at hand is consulted and incorporated to the extent possible; 3. in particular, the teaching of Doctors and Fathers, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, is taken as a baseline and a safe norm; 4. any position that may cause scandal or harm to the faithful, especially as regards popular piety and age-old traditions, should be avoided; 5. theological opinions are to be willingly submitted to the final judgment of the Magisterium.
There are many rebel soldiers in academic fortresses who may be tempted to respond, or who would state outright, that theologizing according to our description must necessarily fall into a lifeless and repetitious routine of parroting Vatican pronouncements, when it does not just trickle off into frivolous variations on overplayed themes.
To these objectors I reply that the evidence of the past two millennia stands against them. The most fruitful theological enterprises have been precisely those that sprang from minds tethered to the great mysteries of the Faith and taking their points of departure and their guidance from the inexhaustible words of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.
As an example of the fertile fields that can be planted and harvested only by a fundamental commitment to orthodoxy, let us take the solemnly defined dogma of transubstantiation. By accepting this truth in its entirety — and surely, it is among the most profound and beautiful of all the mysteries our Lord has revealed to us — would we not then wish, in a spirit of devotion and love, to explore its endless riches, to bathe in the transfiguring light of its radiance and penetrate more and more into its depths? Surely, there is no limit to the work of theologians confronted by an infinite mystery — nay, by the “font and apex of the Christian life”! How ample the work that remains to be done on the relation of the Blessed Sacrament to Holy Matrimony, to the Virgin Mary, to the historical and the mystical Body of Christ, to human food and feasting, to the sanctification of daily work and the restoration of Christian culture, to the paradox of maximum glory and maximum humility in the liturgical re-enactment of the Sacrifice of Calvary! How abundant the resources in need of rediscovery and reintegration: the Eucharist in the writings of Greek Fathers and saints, or in the works of lesser known medieval authors and mystics!
And, in view of such a luxuriant superabundance, we are asked to believe ivory-tower intellectuals when they cry that submission to the Catholic faith as taught by popes and councils is restrictive, unimaginative, narrow, closed off to the world and the future? To believe them, one would have to be as uncreative and unresourceful, as era-bound and self-absorbed, as they. Theology can map undiscovered lands without suffering calamity only by treading first, and ever returning to, the well worn avenues laid down by Christ through His Church.
The theologian must, above all, see his vocation as originating in a call issued to him by Christ, the Head of the Church. His powers of intellect, his education, his family life, all the things that make up and define his personality, are gifts from Almighty God to be used in giving glory to Him. By recognizing the origin and purpose of his gifts, the theologian can aspire to be of the greatest service to the Church whose faith he studies, proclaims, and defends. Let his be the words of St. Peter when many disciples were walking away from Christ because they could not accept His teaching: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”