BREAKING!: New Document Promotes Priority of Scripture in Theology

Today[March 8th 2012] has been an extremely exciting day!

The International Theological Commission has a new document out, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria. This is an incredibly helpful guide to doing Catholic theology.

To be sure, this is not a magisterial document—an official document from the Church’s teaching office. Nonetheless, this is important reading for Catholics interested in theology. Even non-Catholics I think will find it illuminating.

It contains some rather strong—even surprising statements. Something that will surely surprise non-Catholics (and even Catholics!) is the stress put on the centrality of Scripture in Theology! Indeed, as I’ll explain, some of the statements are downright shocking! But more on that in a minute.

Consider this a basic introduction to the document and then some words the stress it puts on Scripture. I’ll close here with a shameless plug for my school, JP Catholic, which offers a graduate program in Biblical Theology.

I have cited certain sections and put certain passages in italics to highlight key ideas.

Theology after Vatican II

Theology Today begins by discussing some of the advances made in theology since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). However, it also notes certain challenges that have arisen in the post-Conciliar era:

“[The period after Vatican II] has also seen a certain fragmentation of theology, and in the dialogue just mentioned theology always faces the challenge of maintaining its own true identity. The question arises, therefore, as to what characterises Catholic theology and gives it, in and through its many forms, a clear sense of identity in its engagement with the world of today.”(no. 1)

Diversity in Unity and Unity in Diversity

This document then addresses this this question, recognizing that Catholic theology involves both unity and diversity. Of course, this is one of the things I love most about the Catholic Church—we have a unity in diversity. We include Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, not to mention members of Eastern rites—each of these groups have their own distinctive approach to theology. And make no mistake about it, there are some profound differences! Yet the Church maintains a unity!

Why such diversity?

The sheer fulness and richness of that revelation is too great to be grasped by any one theology, and in fact gives rise to multiple theologies as it is received in diverse ways by human beings.” (no. 5)

Or, perhaps, to put it more carefully:

To some extent, the Church clearly needs a common discourse if it is to communicate the one message of Christ to the world, both theologically and pastorally. It is therefore legitimate to speak of the need for a certain unity of theology. However, unity here needs to be carefully understood, so as not to be confused with uniformity or a single style. The unity of theology, like that of the Church, as professed in the Creed, must be closely correlated with the idea of catholicity, and also with those of holiness and apostolicity.” The Church’s catholicity derives from Christ himself who is the Saviour of the whole world and of all humanity (cf. Eph 1:3-10; 1 Tim 2:3-6). The Church is therefore at home in every nation and culture, and seeks to ‘gather in everything for its salvation and sanctification’.[3] The fact that there is one Saviour shows that there is a necessary bond between catholicity and unity. As it explores the inexhaustible Mystery of God and the countless ways in which God’s grace works for salvation in diverse settings, theology rightly and necessarily takes a multitude of forms, and yet as investigations of the unique truth of the triune God and of the one plan of salvation centred on the one Lord Jesus Christ, this plurality must manifest distinctive family traits. (no. 2)

The document therefore describes its purpose as follows:

The present text seeks to identify distinctive family traits of Catholic theology.[5] It considers basic perspectives and principles which characterise Catholic theology, and offers criteria by which diverse and manifold theologies may nevertheless be recognised as authentically Catholic, and as participating in the Catholic Church’s mission, which is to proclaim the good news to people of every nation, tribe, people and language (cf. Mt 28:18-20; Rev 7:9), and, by enabling them to hear the voice of the one Lord, to gather them all into one flock with one shepherd (cf. Jn 10:16). That mission requires there to be in Catholic theology both diversity in unity and unity in diversity. Catholic theologies should be identifiable as such, mutually supportive and mutually accountable, as are Christians themselves in the communion of the Church for the glory of God (no. 3)

The Priority of the Word of God

Going on, Theology Today begins—following the document Dei Verbum from the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church—by emphasizing the centrality of the Word of God. We read:

“Theology, in all its diverse traditions, disciplines and methods, is founded on the fundamental act of listening in faith to the revealed Word of God, Christ himself. Listening to God’s Word is the definitive principle of Catholic theology; it leads to understanding and speech and to the formation of Christian community . . . . The unity of theology, therefore does not require uniformity, but rather a single focus on God’s Word and an explication of its innumerable riches by theologies able to dialogue and communicate with one another. Likewise, the plurality of theologies should not imply fragmentation or discord, but rather the exploration in myriad ways of God’s one saving truth.” (nos. 4-5)

The Importance of Scripture in Catholic Theology

The “Word of God” is, of course, Christ (John 1:1). Thus, Catholics do not believe in sola Scriptura.

“The Church greatly venerates the Scriptures, but it is important to recognise that ‘the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book”; Christianity is the “religion of the word of God”, not of “a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word”’.[11]

Nonetheless, though the “Word of God” is a Person, not reducible to Scripture, Scripture must remain the “soul of Catholic theology”. In fact, the document describes Scripture as the “normative witness” to the truth theology must explicate:

The ‘study of the sacred page’ should be the ‘very soul of sacred theology’.[29] This is the Second Vatican Council’s core affirmation with regard to theology. Pope Benedict XVI reiterates: ‘where theology is not essentially the interpretation of the Church’s Scripture, such a theology no longer has a foundation’.[30] Theology in its entirety should conform to the Scriptures, and the Scriptures should sustain and accompany all theological work, because theology is concerned with ‘the truth of the gospel’ (Gal 2:5), and it can know that truth only if it investigates the normative witness to it in the canon of sacred Scripture,[31] and if, in doing so, it relates the human words of the Bible to the living Word of God. ‘Catholic exegetes must never forget that what they are interpreting is the word of God…. They arrive at the true goal of their work only when they have explained the meaning of the biblical text as God’s word for today.’

Did you catch all that? That’s a paragraph that merits reading and re-reading. Let’s put these points in bullet form:

  • The core affirmation (!) the Second Vatican Council made regarding theology is that the study of Scripture should be “the very soul of sacred theology”!
  • Theology must essentially be the interpretation of the Church’s Scripture!
  • Theology in its entirety (not just “biblical” theology!) must conform to the the Scriptures!
  • Scripture must sustain and accompany all theological work!
  • The “normative witness” to the truth theology seeks to expound is found in the canon of Scripture!
  • Exegetes must explain the meaning of the biblical text as God’s word for today!

Going on the document reiterates that the importance of Scripture applies to all the theological disciplines (e.g., systematic theology, moral theology, etc.):

“In saying that the study of sacred Scripture is the ‘soul’ of theology, Dei Verbum has in mind all of the theological disciplines. This foundation in the revealed Word of God, as testified by Scripture and Tradition, is essential for theology. Its primary task is to interpret God’s truth as saving truth. Urged on by Vatican II, Catholic theology seeks to attend to the Word of God and thereby to the witness of Scripture in all its work.[41] Thus it is that in theological expositions ‘biblical themes should have first place’, before anything else.[42]

In fact, when the document lists the different fields of theology, “biblical theology,” is listed first: “The various forms of theology that can basically be distinguished today (e.g., biblical, historical, fundamental, systematic, practical, moral). . .”

The centrality of the Bible in Catholic theology is emphasized over and over again.

A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should draw constantly upon the canonical witness of Scripture and should promote the anchoring of all of the Church’s doctrine and practice in that witness, since ‘all the preaching of the Church, as indeed the entire Christian religion, should be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture’.[45] Theology should endeavour to open wide the Scriptures to the Christian faithful,[46] so that the faithful may come into contact with the living Word of God (cf. Heb 4:12). (no. 24).

Sacred Scripture is not simply a text but ‘locutio Dei’ and ‘verbum Dei’, testified initially by the prophets of the Old Testament and ultimately by the apostles in the New Testament (cf. Rom 1:1-2). Having arisen in the midst of the People of God, and having been unified, read and interpreted by the People of God, sacred Scripture belongs to the living Tradition of the Church as the canonical witness to the faith for all time. This process is sustained by the Holy Spirit, ‘through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church – and through her in the world’. Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. . . ‘(no. 30)

One Last Plug!

I just have to mention that at John Paul the Great Catholic University, we’ve been trying to do exactly what this document is calling for! Our graduate Catholic theology program focuses on integrating Biblical Studies with the other theological disciplines and aims at teaching students Biblical Theology.

Unfortunately, many Catholics go on to earn advanced degrees in theology without ever learning Scripture; oftentimes programs only require 1 or 2 courses in Scripture, and that’s about it as far as the Bible goes! Theologians can name obscure Russian theologians and talk about intricate theological debates from the 14th century, but often can’t tell you much about the book of Ezra or Nehemiah, the significance of the book of Psalms being divided into five books, the meaning of Old Testament feasts, e.g., Tabernacles, that form the background for New Testament texts, such as John 7, etc.

If Scripture is really to be “the soul of Sacred Theology,” this is tragic! Scripture should be the soul of sacred theology—not supplemental reading!

At JP Catholic we offer courses in Catholic philosophy, in all of the major theological disciplines, etc.—but the heart of our theological program is Scripture. You even get to take courses in Hebrew and Greek!

Interested in a M.A. degree in Biblical Theology? We’d love to have you on campus! We have scholarships for graduate students that can involve getting a full-ride for the second year of your program.

But we also give you the option of taking courses on-line through our state of the art e-Learning program!

Not ready for a full M.A. degree? Check out our undergraduate degree in New Evangelization, which involves a heavy concentration in Scripture courses, with philosophy and theology as well as a mix of media courses. Or you can check out our certificate programs—take a few courses in Scripture and earn a certificate, and if you pull all the certificates together you’ll finish the M.A. in Biblical Theology.
For more information, call Justin at 858-653-6740 or go here for more details.