Renewing dogmatic theology: Matthias Scheeben teaches us the virtues theologians need.

Author:Marshall, Bruce D.

Catholics in the last fifty years or so have almost completely ceased to do dogmatic theology. Save for a handful of admirable holdouts, we have practically given up the fruitful enterprise of a millennium: the believing mind's effort to understand the Christian mysteries. The deep things of God, the mysteries of his own life opened up to us in Christ, we now think we need not, or fear we cannot, search out. Unless this development is reversed, the consequences of this unwelcome development for the Church and for Catholic life are likely to be grave. Whether dogmatic theology fares better in the Protestant world I will leave for others to say. For Catholics, Matthias Joseph Scheeben, more than any modern theologian, can show us how to get started again.

In the summer of 1888, Scheeben died in Cologne, having spent most of his fifty-three years teaching dogmatics and moral theology in the archdiocesan seminary there. He was Germany's most persuasive defender of Vatican I's decision on papal infallibility and an impassioned advocate of religious freedom in the Kulturkampf, Bismarck's determined but finally unsuccessful effort to subject the Catholic Church to the control of his new German state. He was also the author of three major dogmatic works: Nature and Grace (1861), The Mysteries of Christianity (1865), and the massive Handbook of Catholic Dogmatics, left unfinished at his death.

The generations that followed Scheeben regarded him as one of the greatest minds of modern Catholic theology. His books were repeatedly republished in Germany up into the 1960s and translated into other European languages, including English (the Dogmatics, alas, only in highly truncated form). Since the Second Vatican Council, though, he has mostly been neglected by theological teachers and students who have wrongly imagined the nineteenth-century Catholic tradition to be a period of antimodern darkness.

The Catholic world of a hundred or more years ago was quite right, I think, to see the Cologne seminary professor as perhaps the finest modern Catholic dogmatic theologian. His writings not only yield rare insight into the mysteries of Christian faith, they draw the attentive reader ever more deeply into the mysteries themselves. Scheeben is more important now than he has ever been. He can teach a theological generation that has sold its inestimable birthright how to restore and renew dogmatic theology.

One of Scheeben's favorite terms for the dogmatic enterprise is "speculative theology," suggesting as it does the aim of seeing or looking into (spectare) the truths of the faith clearly and deeply. Theology so understood calls for specific intellectual virtues. These virtues are richly embodied in Scheeben's work. His theology is rationally rigorous. He makes precise and often elaborate conceptual distinctions, identifies relevant objections to his ideas, and offers detailed replies. His interpretation of the Christian mysteries relies on vigorous and careful argument rather than mere currency, first-person authority, or pragmatic usefulness.

His theology is, moreover, charged with speculative boldness, even audacity. He seeks the deepest possible understanding of the mysteries of Christianity, not simply one by one but as a whole and in their luminous interconnection, what he calls their "wondrous harmony."

Important as the virtues of disciplined argument and speculative courage are, even more important for our time are three further qualities everywhere manifest in his work. First, Scheeben habitually talks about God, focusing intently on the supernatural mysteries of God's own nature and life. Second, he is an immensely learned theologian with an intimate and sympathetic knowledge of the theological traditions of the Church. Finally, Scheeben undertakes theology in humility, with reverence, joy, and submission before the divine mysteries he seeks faithfully to serve. Today we need to recover these three virtues--supernatural focus, sympathetic learning, and humility--if we are to restore dogmatic theology.

That theology should talk about God and that the theologian should be the "God-intoxicated man" may seem too obvious for comment. Scheeben thought it essential, though, for theology to avoid open-ended musings. Dogmatic theology must discipline itself to be about God in a specific way, one that draws us into the mysteries revealed only in Christ. These mysteries all concern nothing less than God's sharing of his own uncreated nature with another. As such they are alone the truly "supernatural" mysteries.

First and foremost is the mystery of the Holy Trinity. From all eternity, the Father imparts the one divine nature to the Son by generation, and Father and Son communicate their one nature to the Holy Spirit by spiration, or active procession. That the divine nature, the source and goal of creatures, is the nature of persons who are themselves originated or produced--that the divine essence subsists as a Trinity of divine persons--is the most primordial of all mysteries, the source of any possible communication of the divine nature to creatures.

God does not only share his life within himself. Temporally and freely, the triune God makes his own uncreated nature that of a creature in the incarnation of the Son. God joins a created nature--our own--to his nature in the person of the Son. This is the most complete and intimate way in which the divine nature can be shared with created reality, the divine and the unconfused, yet undivided. So comes to be the mystery at which every knee will bend: God is the human being Jesus, and the human being Jesus is God.

Further, God offers to share his life with each of us. In the Word made flesh, God bestows upon the human creature by grace a participation in his own nature, which reaches its goal in the glory of immediate vision of him as the Holy Trinity. By uniting us with the incarnate Son, grace brings about a participation in the divine nature so intimately deifying that we become members of the eternal Son.

Therefore, we "really enter into the very same personal relationship in which the Son of...

To continue reading