What in Fact Is Theology?

 by Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger  |  Source

The following essay is excerpted from the recently published Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion. On the occasion of Cardinal Ratzingers’s seventy-fifth birthday, his former students selected essays, lectures, letters, and conferences that Ratzinger has written in recent years— writing that they feel best represents his position on issues of theology, the modern world, secularism, non-Christian religious, and other key topics of the Catholic Church. This book, characterized by Ratzinger’s concisely reasoned style, is an invaluable resource to those who wish to understand the modern Church and the thinking of Pope Benedict XVI, as well as a treasured volume for those who are students of Ratzinger’s theology.

Expression of thanks for the conferring of the degree of Doctor honoris causa at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarre in Pamplona

Excellentissimo y Reverendissimo Señor Gran Canciller!
Dear Professors!
Ladies and Gentlemen!

I should first of all like to express to you, my dear Chancellor, and likewise to the most honorable Theological Faculty, my profound thanks for the great honor you have shown me in conferring on me the title of Doctor honoris causa. Most especially I should like to thank you, my very dear colleague, Señor Rodriguez, for the sensitive and very thorough way you have praised my theological work far beyond my just deserts. Through discovering and furnishing the critical edition of the original manuscript of the Catechismus Romanus, you have rendered a service to theology that goes beyond the present moment and that was of great significance for my own task in the preparation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You are a member of a faculty that, in the relatively short period of its existence, has won a significant place in the worldwide discussions of theology. Thus it is a great honor and a joy to me, through this doctorate, to belong to this faculty, to which I have already long been bound by personal friendships as also by academic discussion.On such an occasion, the question inevitably arises: What in fact is a doctor of theology? And besides that, in my case, the quite personal question: Am I justified in regarding myself as one? Do I come up to the standard implied by this dignity? As far as I personally am concerned, for many people a serious objection will arise: Is not the office of Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which people nowadays like to characterize and also thereby criticize with the title “inquisitor”–is this not in contradiction to the very nature of academic study and, thereby, with the nature of theology? Are not scholarly study and external authority mutually exclusive? Can scholarship recognize any authority other than its own insights and perceptions, other than that of argument? Is not a teaching office that tries to set limits for thought in academic study a contradiction in itself?

Such questions, which touch on the very nature of Catholic theology, no doubt demand a constantly renewed examination of conscience by theologians, as also by those in official positions, who of course also have to be theologians in order properly to fulfill their office. They bring before us the basic problem: What in fact is theology? Has it been adequately described when we say that it is a methodically ordered reflection on the questions of religion, of men’s relationship with God? I would answer: No. For that takes us only as far as what is called “religious studies”. The philosophy of religion and religious studies in general are no doubt very significant disciplines, but their limitations can least of all be overlooked at the point at which they try to move beyond the academic world. For they can offer man no counsel. Either they are talking about what is past or they describe what exists in contradictory fashion, side-by-side and linked together, or else they become a fumbling after what has to do with man’s ultimate questions, a fumbling that must always in the end remain a question without being able to overcome the darkness that surrounds man most of all when he is asking where he comes from and where he is going, asking about himself.

If theology wishes and should be something other than religious studies, other than occupying ourselves with ever unsolved questions concerning what is greater than ourselves and nonetheless makes us what we are, then it can only be based on starting from an answer that we ourselves have not devised; yet in order for this to become a real answer for us, we have to try to understand it, not to resolve it. That is what is peculiar to theology, that it turns to something we ourselves have not devised and that is able to be the foundation of our life, in that it goes before us and supports us; that is to say, it is greater than our own thought. The path of theology is indicated by the saying, “Credo ut intelligam”: I accept what is given in advance, in order to find, starting from this and in this, the path to the right way of living, to the right way of understanding myself Yet that means that theology, of its nature, presupposes auctoritas. It exists only through awareness that the circle of our own thinking has been broken, that our thinking has, so to say, been given a hand and helped upward, beyond what it could achieve for itself. Without what was given in advance, which is always greater than we can devise ourselves and never becomes part of what is just our own, there is no theology.

But now the next question arises: What does this advantage, which was given in advance, look like–this answer that alone can get our thinking under way and that shows it the way? This authority is a word, we can say to start with. Given the subject we are dealing with, that is quite logical: the Word comes from understanding and is intended to lead to understanding. The advantage given to the seeking human spirit is the Word, which is quite reasonable. In the procedure of science, the idea comes before the word. It is translated into the word. But here, where our own thinking fails, down to us from the eternal reason is thrown the Word, in which is hidden a splinter of its splendor-as much as we can bear, as much as we need, as much as human speech can encompass. To perceive the meaning in this Word, to understand this Word-that is the ultimate basis of theology, something that can never be entirely absent from the path of faith, not even from that of the most humble believer.

The advantage, what is given in advance, is the Word–thus, it is Scripture, we might say, and we might at once ask: Beside this essential authority of theology, can there be any other? The answer would seem to have to be No: this is the critical point in the dispute between Reformed and Catholic theology. Nowadays, even the greater part of evangelical theologians recognize, in varying forms, that sola Scriptura, that is, the restriction of the Word to the book, cannot be maintained. On the basis of its inner structure, the Word always comprises a surplus beyond what could go into the book. This relativizing of the scriptural principle, from which Catholic theology also has something to learn and on account of which both sides can make a new approach to each other, is in part the result of ecumenical dialogue but, to a greater degree, has been determined by the progress of historico-critical interpretation of the Bible, which has in any case learned thereby to recognize its own limits. Two things have above all become clear about the nature of the biblical word in the process of critical exegesis. First of all, that the word of the Bible, at the moment it was set down in writing, already had behind it a more or less long process of shaping by oral tradition and that it was not frozen at the moment it was written down, but entered into new processes of interpretation–”relectures”–that further develop its hidden potential. Thus, the extent of the Word’s meaning cannot be reduced to the thoughts of a single author in a specific historical moment Pent; it is not the property of a single author at all; rather, it -lives in a history that is ever moving onward and, thus, has dimensions and depths of meaning in past and future that ultimately pass into the realm of the unforeseen.

It is only at this point that we can begin to understand the of inspiration; we can see where God mysteriously into what is human and purely human authorship is transcended. Yet that also means that Scripture is not a meteorite fallen from the sky, so that it would, with the strict otherness of a stone that comes from the sky and not from the .:earth, stand in contrast to all human words. Certainly, Scripture carries God’s thoughts within it: that makes it unique and constitutes it an “authority”. Yet it is transmitted by a human history. It carries within it the life and thought of a historical society that we call the “People of God”, because they are brought together, and held together, by the coming of the divine Word. There is a reciprocal relationship: This society is the essential condition for the origin and the growth of the biblical Word; and, conversely, this Word gives the society its identity and its continuity Thus, the analysis of the structure of the biblical Word has brought to light an interwoven relationship between Church and Bible, between the People of God and the Word of God, which we had actually always known, somehow, in a theoretical way but had never before had so vividly set before us.

The second element that relativizes the scriptural principle follows from what we have just said. Luther was persuaded of the “perspicuitas” of Scripture-of its being unequivocal, a quality that rendered superfluous any official institution for determining its interpretation. The idea of an unequivocal meaning is constitutive for the scriptural principle. For if the Bible is not, as a book, unequivocal in itself, then in itself alone, as a book, it cannot be what was given in advance, which guides us. It would then still be leaving us again to our own devices. Then, we should still be left alone again with our thinking, which is helpless in the face of what is essential in existence. Yet this fundamental postulate of Scripture’s unambiguousness has had to be dropped, on account of both the structure of the Word and the concrete experiences of scriptural interpretation. It is untenable on the basis of the objective structure of the Word, on account of its own dynamic, which points beyond what is written. It is above all the most profound meaning of the Word that is grasped only when we move beyond what is merely written. Yet the postulate is also untenable from its subjective side, that is to say, on the basis of the essential laws of the rationality of history. The history of exegesis is a history of contradictions; the daring constructions of many modern exegetes, right up to the materialistic interpretation of the Bible, show that the Word, if left alone as a book, is a helpless prey to manipulation through preexisting desires and opinions.

Scripture, the Word we have been given, with which theology concerns itself, does not, on the basis of its own nature, exist as a book alone. Its human author, the People of God, is alive and through all the ages has its own consistent identity. The home it has made for itself and that supports it is its own interpretation, which is inseparable from itself. Without this surviving and living agent, the Church, Scripture would not be contemporary with us; it could then no longer combine, as is its true nature, synchronic and diachronic existence, history and the present day, but would fall back into a past that cannot be recalled; it would become literature that one interpreted in the way one can interpret literature. And with that, theology itself would decline into literary history and the history of past times, on one hand, and into the philosophy of religion and religious studies in general, on the other.

It is perhaps helpful to express this interrelationship in a more concrete way for the New Testament. Along the whole path of faith, from Abraham up to the completion of the biblical canon, a confession of faith was built up that was given its real center and shape by Christ himself The original of existence of the Christian profession of faith, howwas the sacramental life of the Church. It is by this criterion that the canon was shaped, and that is why the ‘Creed is the primary authority for the interpretation of the Bible. Yet the Creed is not a piece of literature : for a long time, people quite consciously avoided writing down the rule of faith that produced the Creed, just because it is the concrete life of the believing community. Thus, the authority of the Church that speaks out, the authority of the apostolic succession, is written into Scripture through the Creed and is indivisible from it. The teaching office of the apostles’ successors does not represent a second authority alongside Scripture but is inwardly a part of it. This viva vox is not there restrict the authority of Scripture or to limit it or even replace it by the existence of another-on the contrary, it is its task to ensure that Scripture is not disposable, cannot be manipulated, to preserve its proper perspicuitas, its clear meaning from the conflict of hypotheses. Thus, there is a secret relationship of reciprocity Scripture sets limits and a standard for the viva vox; the living voice guarantees that it cannot be manipulated.

I can certainly understand the anxiety of Protestant theologians, and nowadays of many Catholic theologians, especially of exegetes, that the principle of a teaching office might impinge upon the freedom and the authority of the Bible and, thus, upon those of theology as a whole. There is a passage from the famous exchange of letters between Harnack and Peterson in 1928 that comes to mind. Peterson, the younger of the two, who was a seeker after truth, had pointed out in a letter to Harnack that he himself, in a scholarly article entitled “The Old Testament in the Pauline Letters and the Pauline Congregations”, had for practical purposes expressed the Catholic teaching about Scripture, tradition, and the teaching office. To be precise, Harnack had explained that in the New Testament the “authority of the apostolic teaching is found side by side with … the authority of ‘Scripture’, organizing it and setting limits to it”, and that thus “biblicism received a healthy correction”. In response to Peterson’s pointing this out, Harnack replied to his younger colleague, with his usual nonchalance: “That the so-called ‘formal principle’ of early Protestantism is impossible from a critical point of view and that the Catholic principle is in contrast formally better is a truism; but materially the Catholic principle of tradition wreaks far more havoc in history.” [1] What is obvious, and even indisputable, in principle arouses fear in reality

Much could be said about Harnack’s diagnosis of where more havoc has been wreaked in history, that is, where the advance gift of the Word has been more seriously threatened, This is not the time to do so. Over and beyond any disputes, it is clear that neither side can dispense with relying on the power of the Holy Spirit for protection and guidance. An ecclesiastical authority can become arbitrary if the Spirit does not guard it. But the arbitrary whims of interpretation left to itself, with all its variations, certainly offers no less danger, as history shows. Indeed, the miracle that would have to be worked there in order to preserve unity and to render the challenge and stature of the Word effective is far more improbable than the one needed to keep the service of the apostolic succession within its proper bounds.

Let us leave such speculation aside. The structure of the Word is sufficiently unequivocal, but the demands it makes on those called to responsibility in succession to the apostles are indeed weighty. The task ‘of the teaching office is, not to oppose thinking, but to ensure that the authority of the answer that was bestowed on us has its say and, thus, to make the truth itself to enter. To be given such a task is exciting and dangerous. It requires the humility of submission, of listening and obeying. It is a matter, not of putting own ideas into effect, but of keeping a place for what the Other has to say, that Other without whose ever-present Word all else drops into the void. The teaching office, properly understood, must be a humble service undertaken to ensure that true theology remains possible and that the answers may thus be heard without which we cannot live aright.


[1] E. Peterson, Theologische Traktate [Theological tracts] (Munich, 1951), p. 295.

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