Sources of theology in the Vatican

Just yesterday, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a new document called "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church." Obviously, I am interested in the way they do theology and found …

  1. Tradition as principal source. Actually, nowhere in the text they cite Scripture as a theological source. Instead, there is constant reference to the tradition of the church, along with the assurance that they have no intention of deviating from this tradition.

    The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it.

    This was exactly what John XXIII said at the beginning of the Council[1]. Paul VI affirmed it[2] and commented in the act of promulgating the Constitution Lumen gentium: "There is no better comment to make than to say that this promulgation really changes nothing of the traditional doctrine. What Christ willed, we also will. What was, still is. What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach. In simple terms that which was assumed, is now explicit; that which was uncertain, is now clarified; that which was meditated upon, discussed and sometimes argued over, is now put together in one clear formulation"[3]. The Bishops repeatedly expressed and fulfilled this intention[4].

    It is only consequent, that all further arguments base themselves on "the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council."

  2. Praxis as a less acknowledged source, which is nevertheless present:

    In simple terms that which was assumed, is now explicit; that which was uncertain, is now clarified; that which was meditated upon, discussed and sometimes argued over, is now put together in one clear formulation.

    Actually, the English translation ("that which was assumed") of this quote from Paul VI is somewhat free. The original Latin document reads

    Tantummodo, id quod antea solum vitae actione continebatur, nunc aperta etiam doctrina exprimitur; quod usque adhuc considerationi, disputationi, atque ex parte etiam controversiis obnoxium erat, in certam doctrinae formulam nunc redactum est.

    Note the emphasis (underline inserted by me) on "vitae actione" — what has only been practised in "real life" before, now has become clearly expressed in doctrine. Thus, Paul VI actually acknowledged the possibility of praxis becoming doctrine. The use of the quote in this new text reiterates the same possibility. Praxis is thus, without an explicit statement, accepted as a second source of theology.

Of course, the reason I am discussing this is because I am interested in the use of different sources for theology. And if you have read the proposal for the Ph.D. dissertation I am (supposed to be) working on, you’ll know that I am not at all opposed to using tradition and praxis (which I would label "experience") as sources for theological work, as long as they are carefully balanced with other sources (of which Scripture will always be the principal) and proper functions of the Holy Spirit working in the theologian. Unfortunately, it is this balancing of sources, especially against Scripture, that is sadly missing from the Vatican’s document.

„Sola scriptura“ under criticism

The principle of sola scriptura, theological truth derrived from the Scriptures, has continued straight from the days of the Protestant reformation into the Evangelical mainstream of today. With postmodern thinking, a multitude of interpretations and hermeneutical methods, as well as an ever-growing number of denominations and churches, the very principle that was meant to provide the certainty of theological truth has come under criticism. Scott McKnight (HT to Brad Anderson) has published a JETS article analyzing a recent wave of Envangelicals converting to Roman Catholicism (yes, you read correctly!). Among the characteristic complaints about Evangelicalism, the uncertainty stemming from a limited sola scriptura principle lists as number one.
I think, the article is a must read, and there is work set out for us to do. None of the deficiencies listed in McKnight’s analysis is impossible to be overcome, and, I even think, Pentecostalism might already some (think of desire for healing, mystic encounters, …). Of course, the sola scriptura angle is a major focus of the ongoing research for my Ph.D. dissertation.

Antti Hirviniemi: Knowledge of God

Antti Hirviniemi has joined our recent discussion on post-modernism and the knowledge of God by posting to his own blog. In his summary of my statements about post-modern epistemology, he remarks that

[…] Christoph takes a generally pessimistic (perhaps realistically so) view of postmodernism […]

I’m not sure I do. I am in the process of formulating my stance towards post-modernism for my Ph.D. dissertation. So far, I haven’t completely worked out my conclusion on this question — which, first of all, depends on how you define post-modernism. And, again, that’s something I’m not sure you’re even able to do.

Anyways, I have recently written up a partial definition, along with the pros and cons I find in post-modern thinking in a presentation I made to my doctoral promoters while in Amsterdam. To summarize a little bit (you can read the article here), I find positive as well as negative aspects to the underlying philosophy.

Über Christoph

Christoph Fischer (* 1978) ist Pfarrer der Evangelischen Landeskirche in Württemberg auf der Pfarrstelle „Erlöserkirche“ in Albstadt-Tailfingen.

Christoph ist verheiratet mit Rebecca. Gemeinsam haben sie drei Töchter.