Get access to over 750,000 titles
About This Book
These pages offer a new edition of Yves Congar's History of Theology. This work began as a lengthy article appearing in the multi-volume Dictionnaire de Théologie in 1946 entitled 'Théologie'. Congar wrote that he, Fr M-D Chenu, and Fr Henri-Marie Féret in the 1930s planned to write a history of theology. Their work load, World War II, and Chenu's teaching in Canada interfered. He used some of his notes for that project for the article begun in 1938. The manuscript was completed by the Dominican priest as he was mobilized for service in the French army because World War II was just beginning. After being captured by the Germans he attempted to escape; that was punished by internment in the stricter camps of Lübeck and Colditz. Those experiences of repression prepared him—he later observed—for the censorious measures to come in the 1950s from the Vatican because of his advocacy of ecumenism and historical approaches to ecclesiology. Later he did not hesitate to compare the Holy Office with the Gestapo. Returning from the war, Congar looked at what had been published in the Dictionnaire and found that his text had been cut by about two-fifths. He edited and improved the original text, restoring many of the deletions; that work was not published in French but translated into English in 1968. Yves Congar's family lived in Sedan in northeast France, although he was of a people whose native land was to the west, Celtic Brittany. Congar's mentor was the great medieval scholar of the structure and synthesis of Thomas Aquinas, M-D Chenu. He founded a school emphasising historical knowledge as well as contemporary ministry. In that French Dominican seminary of Le Saulchoir Congar studied and then taught. History was the way to bring past ages and thinkers to life and, equally important, let them contribute to contemporary renewal. Aquinas—not only in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries but in the twentieth century—could be a force for leading the Roman Catholic Church in new directions. Congar spent his life studying the history of the structures and institutional theories of the ecclesia. He catalogued topics and ideas from publications in ecclesiology appearing in Europe and around the world. He was also a Roman Catholic pioneer of ecumenism with Protestant and Orthodox churches. After World War II there was no lack of teachers and pastors, theologians and activists who said that the Roman Catholic Church needed to enter into a revitalisation to help present the Gospel in a positive and attractive way. That renewal energized a spectrum of ideas and church institutions. Not a few seminaries and schools north of the Alps broke out of the sterile intellectual framework imposed after 1850 by the Vatican, a monopoly of one philosophy and its related philosophical theology drawn from medieval scholasticism. The sole purpose of theology was to defend doctrinal definitions and ecclesiastical laws. Years passed, and that new version of 'school-thinking', a neo-medievalism, was dominant up to Vatican II. It was mainly philosophical, Aristotelian, a textbook collection of definitions and divisions. Some claimed it to be the thought of Aquinas, but the neo-Thomism from 1850 to 1950 was neither a medieval thought nor the prized theology of Aquinas. According to Otto Pesch, neo-scholasticism held the real theology of Aquinas 'under house arrest'. Franciscans and Benedictines, Dominicans and Jesuits, universities like Louvain and Munich—each developed after 1900 accurate, expansive, and Christian interpretations of medieval thinkers. That theological rebirth could serve the present and could be in dialogue with the approaches of modern philosophers. Christian ideas and church forms had the power to express in new ways the reality of the church, local and universal. 'Anyone who did not live during the years of French Catholicism after the war missed one of the finest moments in the life of the Church. Through a slow emergence from misery, one tried in the great freedom of a fidelity as profound as itself, to rejoin in a gospel way the world, a world of which the church could become an integral part for the first time in centuries.' While Congar was composing the article, 'Théologie', he was also organising a series of future books in ecumenism and ecclesiology, Unam Sanctam, and was writing the first volume for that collection, Chrétiens désunis, a pioneering study of Catholicism within the ecumenical movement. Congar's 'Preface' to the history published in 1968 discussed how theology since 1939 had unfolded as new approaches to theology began to replace neo-scholasticism. Patristic and biblical studies appeared in a considerable number. The related to a new secular appreciation of time and emphasised the historical structure of revelation. Theologies after 1950 faced new questions and areas of discussion: some did this by employing the traditional, creedal arrangement of information (Michael Schmaus), while others fashioned a theology out of personal or social thought-forms and orientations drawn from contemporary philosophy (Karl Rahner). If Vatican II has opened the way further, 'it has given only a vague indication of the theological work of the future'. Congar's temporal overview of 1500 years of intellectual history, after a discussion of the history of the word, 'Theology', treats six periods, six cultural ages of Christian thinking. Here theology is a spectrum including, for instance, spirituality, moral theology, and ecclesiology along with the thought-forms behind all of them. Hervé Legrand sees Congar's overall method and approach as beginning with the history of doctrines but presenting and locating them in a wider realm of culture. He sees the unity of Christian teaching and of Catholicism to be a unity in diversity. The dialectic of revelation and culture, repressed in recent decades, is now being restored. The New Testament follows this approach as do the first centuries of Christian teaching and thinking. While Congar's book has its limitations in terms of treating mainly the Western Church in Europe, the sections themselves are something vital and relatively new. They look at history as cultural periods, each with a beginning, a flourishing center, and a conclusion leading to the next epoch. Out of a moment of originality and newness a particular cluster of ideas has wide influence. In each age human activities from metaphysics to painting have an identity through a collection of particular forms. History is neither a rigid narration nor one age or philosophical expression. Faith and church are developmental, varied, vital, and organic. The six epochal chapters offer not only information but historical context and insight: they retain their value today. The Dominican historian treats somewhat the cultural context of these six periods of theology. For instance, patristic theology first existed in the world of pagan culture with its philosophies and religions. Christians were not arguing against some dubious teachings of religion, but they lived within a world of science and morality that was in various ways not Christian or Jewish. The second section, 'From the Sixth Century to the Twelfth Century', describes the little known age leading from the early theologians of the church (increasingly neglected) to the new kinds of European schools with some knowledge of Aristotle and literary figures like Alcuin. The twelfth century receives its own section, for that century sees the emergence of the school, the inquiring question, the open discussion, and the organic summa. The section of sixty pages on the thirteenth century (some of the final pages are dedicated to a decline in the fourteenth century) offers Congar in the realm he knows so well and has creatively formed, Thomas Aquinas and medieval theology in the universities. There follows a section on the Reformation. The pages on scholasticism in the sixteenth century and after Trent remain a valuable summary of that age with its theological method, organized textbooks, and theology as spirituality. The period from the seventeenth century is informative, and its understanding of thought forms like pyramid or descending Dionysian illumination are helpful for understanding the model of central church administration that has lasted up to the present time. Neo-scholasticism yielded in the late sixteenth century to a 'Tridentinism'. That was not the Council of Trent (which has its place in tradition) but a system developed under the influence of popes after Trent. It sought to control and reduce to one ideology every aspect of Catholic life and faith, furthering Roman centralization and the repression of all that was new and extra-Roman. There was a particular emptiness in the control exercised by Rome between the end of the Baroque and Vatican II. Congar learned from history to reject what he called the hyperinactivity of the Vatican, the church as thoroughly defensive, and the neglect of Christology and pneumatology. The last section carries forward the movement of the late Baroque and then looks at the nineteenth century, particularly at ecclesiology and theological method among German theologians. It reaches the twentieth century by surveying theologians and books that represent some dialogue between Catholicism and modern philosophy. This concluding section ends with pages on 'Conditions of Theological Work and Progress'. They treat the relationships of theology to the Christian spiritual life and to the universal church. What are the contributions of theologians to the church? Is not some freedom necessary for the theologian to proceed? Congar, however, offers little here on theology in the future, perhaps because that was considered in the 'Preface'. History is omnipresent and liberating. 'Everything is absolutely historical including the person of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is historical; Thomas Aquinas is historical; Paul VI is historical. Historical does not mean just that Jesus came at a certain point in time but that one must draw today the consequences of this fact, He is conditioned by the time in and through which he lives.' At Vatican II among the theologian-experts, the 'periti', Congar was remarkable for his influence, past and present. Illustrative is an entry in Congar's diary for the end of the Council on December 7, 1965. 'I left the Basilica slowly and with difficulty; a number of bishops congratulated me, saying that this was very much my work. Looking at things objectively, I did do a lot to prepare for the Council, to elaborate and diffuse the ideas the Council made its own. At the Council itself I worked a lot.' He lists sections of the documents on the church and on revelation that are from him as well as the introduction and the conclusion of the text on ecumenism and that on non-Christians. Parts of the documents on foreign missions, priests, and religious liberty hold his ideas. 'In short, this morning, that which was read came very extensively from me.' Richard McBrien wrote: 'By any reasonable account, Yves Congar is the most distinguished ecclesiologist of this century and perhaps of the entire post-Tridentine era. No modern theologian's spirit was accorded fuller play in the documents of Vatican II than Congar's.' Vatican II is a significant marker and goal in the history of Western Christian theology as presented in this book. The European ecclesiologist Hervé Legrand observes: 'It is very rare that the personal destiny of a theologian prefigures and influence the course of the life of the Church.' In some ways the course of the recent history of theology in this volume is heading towards Vatican II. Within this history of theology Congar's own theology is present: seminal, historical, global, and structural. The Church was moving from a past, Latin set of precise doctrines and religious rituals back to the sources of the New Testament and the early theologians. The institutions of today are themselves products of the past. A biblical and pneumatic reality may have grounded this or that papal ritual. Sacramentality or ministry had a source and history greater than Baroque episcopal vestments or Latin canons. In the incarnational process of the Christian church underlying sources lead historical forms and ideas to becomes concrete in new movements for social justice or in expanded ecclesial ministries. At the same time, an absence of philosophy as the inner dynamic (and not as another aspect of a historical culture) is rather absent. The history of Christianity is very much a dynamic continuity of institutions (including the papacy). An emphasis on important ideas and perennial institutions is central, while schism and heresy and separation are to be avoided as abnormal. Thus unity, church, tradition, and history emerge as aspects of Congar's way of thinking and writing. They are, of course, the titles of his important books. For the Dominican, Vatican II was not a group of regulating documents but an event whose challenging time and broadly influential creativity was beginning. When he was asked about deliberations in the United States on ecclesiological issues like a national pastoral council or a role for members of the church other than archbishops in the selection of bishops he observed: 'The upheavals in the post-conciliar era have their roots not in Vatican II but in the constrictive decades or centuries before it... It is astonishing how the post-conciliar period has so little to do with the Council. The post-conciliar questions are new and radical. "Aggiornamento" [now] means changes and adaptations to a new situation.' The Ecumenical Council liberated Christian realities for the church. This will not just be for Europe. 'The requests from Africa or Asia for a true inculturation are authentic requests from the church as its moves in the journey of the human race.' In the 1950s Congar had called a 'wide world' the church's 'parish'. Now he observed a new 'Catholicity' in the Church. It has two sources: the fullness of the grace of Christ, and the virtual infinity of creation and the development of the human species. The challenge posed by the modern person and contemporary society is twofold: the perspective and creativity of the subject and the unfolding of history. 'It is not in spite of time and its course but in them that the Church brings forth the gifts of God and realizes them.' Christians cannot avoid time with its expansion and its delays, for into that dynamic stream God's gifts come. Yves Congar spent his life serving history, and it rewarded him with change and even progress.