A rose by any other name? What is theology?


“I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I believe–that unless I believe, I should not understand.”

  – St. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogium, Chapter 1


The interwebs have been hot in the past two weeks with delectable tidbits about what sounds like a very passionate and interesting CTSA experience.   As someone unable to attend the CTSA this year I had to feast on the crumbs of the experiences of others.  It seems that the flashpoint of the encounter was Paul Griffiths’ talk on the nature of theology.  I would like to engage his definition of theology.  I would like to say upfront that I think the move on the part of the CTSA to include voices that have not been heard is a good one.  In Griffiths’ three concluding points he notes that the CTSA would benefit from better representation of Catholic experiences especially in the US. This is an important point. The breakdown of conversation based in truth (however ugly that truth is) engaged from a hermeneutics of appreciation (however challenging it is to resist the temptation of “otherising” our opponent) is the foundation of our community.  In all honesty none of us should be receiving communion if we are seperated from our brothers and sisters in Christ.  The purpose of this post is not to disparage theology done from any particular place within the heremeneutical circle.  It is rather to challenge Paul Griffiths’ definition of theology.  On this feast of Corpus Christi I would like to aver that Griffiths’ definition of theology needs some serious editing to fit the Anselmian traditional definition of “faith seeking understanding.”  (You can find a link to the text here)

Faith Seeking Understanding

First I’d like to point out my point of departure in the conversation.  In the Proslogion Anslem discusses the nature of the existence of God and famously defines theology as “faith seeking understanding.”  Now any freshmen at a Catholic university in this country has probably heard this in some manifestation of Intro to whatever 101.  (Whether or not they heard or remembered it is a different question, I once had a student repeat this quote on a final and attribute it to St. Ann Selm.)  I think Griffiths would likely agree that the Anselmian definition has specific, normative claims on ANYONE doing theology.  To move beyond this seems to move beyond the tradition in a negative way.  If it does have a claim on us then, what does it mean?  Well first it means that theology is done from a hermeneutical perspective of a person of faith in Jesus Christ in communion with the body of Christ, as that was certainly the hermeneutical context in which Anselm wrote.  The 19th and 20th century debates about authority in reaction to Modernism in and around Vatican I certainly have a normative claim on every theologian and his or her work.  But that is a secondary litmus test through which theology must pass.  The primary orientation of theology is that of faith…specifically faith in the person and works of Jesus Christ which implies in communion with one another.  Griffiths’ definition of theology does not meet this first requirement.  “In this broadest sense of theology, almost anyone can do it. You don’t have to be a believer, certainly not a Christian, and still less a Catholic; you can be a Jew; you can be a Muslim; you can be a pagan,” (Griffiths CTSA plenary address 4).   I think what Griffiths has termed theology here should likely be termed Religious Studies or Philosophy of Religion.

Theology and Craftsmanship

This might seem like a minor point to his broader talk but it is an important point.  In order for theology to be done well it needs to be well made.  But I would argue that one of the problems with where Griffiths’ talk ends up is that it isn’t well made in this initial instance.  To open a definition of theology and not bind oneself to Anselm is not a good opening move…by anyone.  I don’t care if you are arguing for openness in dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox or the role of women in the church or whether or not we should change the priests’ vestments on Laetare Sunday to Tiffany Blue with chocolate brown polka dots, departing from Anselm’s definition of theology should give us pause.   It seems to me that Griffiths’ initial understanding of theology is a very modern departure from the traditional Anselmian approach and this makes me very uncomfortable.  And it is specifically the faith seeking understanding part that he misses that causes his definition of theology to come across as lacking contextualization to many.

Faith is a human assent that happens in time and space.  Faith is a gift from the Holy Spirit that is beyond time and space.  Faith is something that happens in the context of history in which Kairos interrupts Chronos.  There is no way around context for theology as theology is always done in a context (even Augustine responding to the Manicheans, even Thomas responding to Aristotle and Averroes did theology in a context, they are not ahistorical realities).  But within the context there are norming rules for faith seeking understanding and Griffiths is right about that.  We are bound to orthodoxy, meaning the magisterially interpreted understanding of the Truth or the Word.  If we draw outside the lines as theologians, we are outside the lines and need to be called on it. (Now how we deal with theologians who have drawn outside the lines is a different matter.)  But if we are bound to Anselm’s definition of theology we must first recognize that our work arises out of an interruption of Kairos into Chronos that is the encounter of the Christ event in faith.  Griffiths is at great pains to remind us that theology is about bringing us to cognitive intimacy with the LORD.   But part of that cognitive intimacy with the LORD has to be the the way in which the LORD chose to engage with us…in our history.  We are Catholics, not Gnostics after all!  If we are to take Pope Francis’ leadership of the church seriously, theologians must see ourselves in line with the image of the church as field hospital.  Theologians must engage the culture and the cultural questions where they arise in the context of the church serving as a field hospital for people’s lives.

Doctrine and Theology…what up with that?


Another question that arises out of reading the Griffiths’ talk is the question of the way in which doctrine arises out of revelation.  It is my understanding that Griffiths argues that doctrine is something that is established by the episcopal authority of the church in the magesterium.  Now it is certainly true that it is the magesterium who formalizes and articulates the content of doctrine.  It is also true that it is the magesterium (and in a special way since the Inquisition, the CDF) has the final authority to determine when a Catholic is outside of the lines of orthodoxy.  But surely Griffiths cannot think that doctrine falls out of the sky into the laps of the episcopal authority in the church!  Doctrine arises out of God’s revelation in the Scripture and the creeds which themselves represent an interruption of Kairos into Chronos.  Doctrine arises out of the incarnation and the transhistorical encounter with the interruption of the incarnation.  Doctrine does not fall from the bishops to the people, rather the bishops themselves are born of the people, apprenticed in the faith of the people, engage with the people’s encounter with the Christ event and make doctrinal assessments and determinations as the pastors of the flock.  Doctrine arises out of this common encounter we have with revelation and the guidance of the Holy Spirit of which the magesterium has a special authority, but nonetheless it is a common encounter.

It is because of this that I had difficulty understanding Griffiths’ understanding of the development of doctrine in the following statement.  “Theologians may and should teach Church doctrine by ordering it, systematizing it, writing books and essays in which it is set forth, giving lectures on it, speculating about it, and so on. But that is not the same as establishing what the Church’s doctrine is. Doing that requires an authority theologians lack: the authority to pronounce, performatively, on the question of what it is that the Church teaches about this or that, and in the act of pronouncing to make it so.” (Griffiths CTSA plenary address 12).  Surely Griffiths must know that the bishops have historically always relied on theological experts in the development of doctrine.  Whether it was Athanasius and the Council of Nicea or Soto and the council of Trent or Pope Benedict at Vatican II, theological work has always served as an important resource for doctrinal statements.  This theological work often arose out of real questions on the ground (within the sheep themselves) that people had about their faith.  Griffiths is correct in stating that the magesterium does the performative act of proclaiming doctrine but theological work has throughout history (and often very controversially at the time) served as source material for doctrine.  Of course theology is not the same as doctrine but I think there’s an element here of the process of the development of doctrine in Griffiths’ articulation of theology and the parameters around it that needs development.   No one is disputing that the magisterium has the ultimate authority in determining doctrine or deviations from doctrine but theologians also have a role to play in the development of doctrine. (There is a phrase I am not going to use here that is related that I’m hoping my colleague Amanda Osheim might write on later and that is the issue of reception and the Sensus Fidelium).

I really like the idea that the CTSA is having a conversation about diversity and a plurality of voices in the academy.  But I think that in engaging this conversations we need to find conversation partners from all perspectives of the heremeneutical circle who embrace the whole of the tradition.  This is the tradition to which we are bound…from the New Testament sources to the present.  I would also say that the relatively polemical tone of the response to Griffiths’ talk and the responses to the responses of Griffiths’ talk should give all of us Catholic theologians pause.  We are the body of Christ, we should treat one another as such.  This tendency to “otherize” members of the body of Christ is a scandal in our community.








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