Monday, May 16, 2011

Theology and dogma: getting things right way 'round

“Dogmas arise, develop themselves and are made serviceable to new aims; this in all cases takes place through Theology. But Theology is dependent on innumerable factors, above all on the spirit of the time; for it lies in the nature of theology that it desires to make its object intelligible. Dogmas are the product of theology, not inversely; of a theology of course which, as a rule, was in correspondence with the faith of the time. The critical view of history teaches this: first we have the Apologists and Origen, then the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon; first the Scholastics, and the Council of Trent. In consequence of this, dogma bears the mark of all the factors on which the theology was dependent. That is one point. But the moment in which the product of theology became dogma, the way which led to it must be obscured; for, according to the conception of the Church, dogma can be nothing else than the revealed faith itself. Dogma is regarded not as the exponent, but as the basis of theology, and therefore the product of theology having passed into dogma limits, and criticizes the work of theology both past and future” (Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, Vol.1, trans. Neil Buchanan from the third German edition, pg. 18).

In a footnote Harnack points out that with his above-given observation “begins the ecclesiastical theology which takes as its starting-point the finished dogma it strives to prove or harmonize, but very soon, as experience has shown, loses its footing in such efforts and so occasions new crises.”


Indeed, something of the issue Harnack raised with his observation about the relationship of dogma to theology and of theology to “all the factors” that influenced the exposition of that theology at the time it was articulated, not least among which are the presumptive metaphysics and the language that arises from it, was expressed by Bl. John XXIII, who was also a church historian, in his address to open the Second Vatican Council: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a Magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.”

Harnack went on write "that theology gives expression only to the form of dogma, while so far as it is ecclesiastical theology, it presupposes the unchanging dogma, i.e., the substance of the dogma" (History of Dogma, Vol. I, pg. 18). In the end, "dogma...must at all times take up an ambiguous position towards theology, and ecclesiastical theology a corresponding position towards dogma; for they are condemned to perpetual uncertainty as to what they owe each other" (ibid). Thus, it seems to me that Harnack, who was a Protestant, by noting this circularity, demonstrates two things- the need for there to be a deciding and mediating authority in the church, what Newman unabashedly called "the Catholic principle," and for that authority not to be arbitrary, that is, willing to meet the expressed need of Newman's ultramontanist English contemporary and fellow convert, Cardinal Manning, who remarked that he would like nothing better than to find a new infallible papal statement in each morning's newspaper.

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