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Christian Theology, Born of the Light of Faith: A Response to Paul Griffiths

Summer is normally a quiet time when theologians retreat to their library carrels or beach front cottages for research, writing, and contemplation, but this summer has started with a bang in Catholic theological circles as a result of a plenary address by Paul J. Griffiths, the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University Divinity School, given at the Catholic Theological Society of America’s annual convention on June 6. Griffiths’ address, on the nature of theological disagreement and its relation to the proper task of theology, comes amidst an ongoing discussion of the relationship between Catholic theologians and the church’s magisterium, the role of the theologian as a member of both the church and the academy, and theological diversity within the major Catholic theological associations, a conversation punctuated by the critiques of Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman’s The Sexual Person and Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine and a notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Margaret Farley’s Just Love, conferences on “The Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization” sponsored by the Committee on Doctrine to promote dialogue between the bishops and untenured Catholic theologians in 2011 and 2013, and meetings between the Committee on Doctrine and representatives of the major Catholic theological societies in 2013 and 2014.

To provide the briefest outline of Griffiths’ address, he outlines the method for theology in three steps: discovery, interpretation, and speculation. By discovery, he refers to the task of uncovering in the tradition what the magisterium has taught on a given topic. The task of interpretation involves understanding the precise meaning of these doctrines, often in relation to other doctrines. And speculation refers to the more creative task of drawing on church doctrines and their interpretation to answer new questions.

Although not specifically aimed at political theology, liberation theology, and other contextual theologies, Griffiths’ address does offer a critique of these theologies. My ultimate purpose is to offer a response to this critique, but also take it as an opportunity to clarify what we might mean by political theology in a Catholic context. In this post, however, as a prelude to that larger task, I want to consider two striking lacunae in Griffiths’ account of theology, lacunae which to my knowledge have (surprisingly) hardly been addressed in the responses to the talk. First, Griffiths does not adequately consider the role of faith in the practice of theology, and second, he fails to reckon with the fully ecclesial task of theology as shared reflection on the faith of all believers. On Tuesday, I will return to the larger task of showing how the critiques outlined here contribute to a defense of political theology.

1. Griffiths is ambivalent about the role of faith in the practice of theology. At first glance, Griffiths even seems dismissive:

 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. All you need is sufficient skill in the discourse to be able to contribute to it, and it is not such a difficult skill to obtain—no more difficult, I should think, than getting the skill to be able to contribute to discourse about monster-truck rallies or about the bouquet of wine made from Sicilian grapes. (5)

Different forms of theology use different standards of discourse, and Catholic theology is defined by the Scriptures and magisterial teaching. Griffiths does add that this discourse is “self-consciously and intentionally responsive to what the LORD has given of himself to his bride, the Church,” suggesting that a faithful response to Christ is necessary at least for Catholic theology, although that is hard to square with his claim that being able to contribute to the discourse is as easy to learn as discoursing about monster trucks. At the very least, Griffiths is unclear about the relationship between faith and theology.

By way of contrast, Pope Francis makes this remarkably straightforward connection in his encyclical Lumen Fidei: “Clearly, theology is impossible without faith; it is part of the very process of faith, which seeks an ever deeper understanding of God’s self-disclosure culminating in Christ” (#36). Here there is no doubting that the task of theology requires personal faith. Katie O’Neill makes a similar point by appealing to St. Anselm’s notion of “faith seeking understanding,” which has become normative for the church’s definition of theology.

This is important for two reasons. First, consider Griffiths’ definition of the material of theology:

 [Scripture and magisterial teaching] are what theologians, those who practice theology, attend to first and last; this is the material with which they—we, as Catholic theologians gathered here in fellowship—work; this is the corpus of doctrine, sacra doctrina as some Catholic theologians have liked to call it, to which we conform our thought and about which we endlessly think. (6)

Although Griffiths claims to here rely on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1990 Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, there is in fact a subtle but important difference in how that document defines the material of theology. According to the CDF, “The theologian’s work . . . responds to a dynamism found in the faith itself.” The encounter with God is what theologians should attend to first and last. The CDF continues:

 Since the object of theology is the Truth which is the living God and His plan for salvation revealed in Jesus Christ, the theologian is called to deepen his own life of faith and continuously unite his scientific research with prayer. In this way, he will become more open to the ‘supernatural sense of faith’ upon which he depends, and it will appear to him as a sure rule for guiding his reflections and helping him assess the correctness of his conclusions (#8).

Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei echoes this point, that theology arises from the very personal dynamism of faith: “Since faith is a light, it draws us into itself, inviting us to explore ever more fully the horizon which it illumines, all the better to know the object of our love. Christian theology is born of this desire” (#36). My point here is certainly not to sever personal faith from doctrine; as Francis continues, “because it draws its life from faith, theology cannot consider the magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him as something extrinsic, a limitation of its freedom, but rather as one of its internal, constitutive dimensions, for the magisterium ensures our contact with the primordial source and thus provides the certainty of attaining to the word of Christ in all its integrity” (#36). As Francis make clear, the magisterium is an internal, constitutive dimension of theology because it ensures that our faith is an authentic response to the Christ revealed in history, but that response itself, and not magisterial doctrine, is the true material of theology.

The second reason why Griffiths’ ambivalence about faith is significant is because his account risks reducing theology to an intellectual game. He writes that “the point and purpose” of theology is “to bring the Church to greater cognitive intimacy with the LORD” (14), which he distinguishes from the “deeper” intimacy found in sacramental life. We see the same ambivalence here, since “intimacy” suggests a fully personal response, and yet Griffiths limits this intimacy to “knowledge.” By way of contrast, Thomas Aquinas avers that the purpose of “the science of sacred doctrine,” precisely because it elucidates our knowledge of God, is the salvation of humankind (Summa Theologica I.1.1). Griffiths risks making a sharp dichotomy between intellectual knowledge of God on the one hand, and our deeper faith response to God on the other. The CDF’s Instruction reminds us, however, that “In the Christian faith, knowledge and life, truth and existence are intrinsically connected” (#1). Without that connection, theology risks becoming simply an object of intellectual curiosity. Is it telling that all of Griffiths’ analogies for the task of theology—baseball, monster-truck rallies, wine tasting—are all trivial? One could become knowledgeable about these things without radically changing one’s life. Pope Francis, on the other hand, compares faith to falling in love, the radical experience of being offered the life of another, and in turn giving one’s own life to the other, an experience which opens up a new way of seeing and knowing (##26-28). As he adds later, “[T]heology is more than simply an effort of human reason to analyze and understand, along the lines of the experimental sciences. God cannot be reduced to an object. He is a subject who makes himself known and perceived in an interpersonal relationship” (#36).

2. The second lacuna in Griffiths’ address is that the church, the body of believers, is almost completely missing from his understanding of theology. The ecclesial vocation of the theologian, in Griffiths’ telling, is practically reduced to obedience to the magisterium. There is no sense in which the theologian’s task is to reflect on the lived faith of the church.

This problem is obviously linked to the first. As Francis writes in Lumen Fidei, “the life of the believer becomes an ecclesial existence, a life lived in the Church. . . . [J]ust as Christ gathers to himself all those who believe and makes them his body, so the Christian comes to see himself as a member of this body, in an essential relationship with all other believers” (#22). The church itself is the subject of faith, and not simply the individual believer. Further, as the Second Vatican Council states in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, the church as a whole “cannot err in matters of belief” when, through “supernatural discernment,” the people of God “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” agree on matters of faith (#12). Although guided by the magisterium, the faith itself is that of the church. The CDF’s Instruction adds that magisterial authority is in a sense a manifestation of this more basic infallibility of the church (#13).

One way this lacuna weakens Griffiths’ account of theology is that it becomes unclear what motivates a theologian to tackle one topic or another. In Griffiths’ account, theological speculation is apparently limited only by the absence of clear doctrinal teaching and the intellectual interest of the theologian. But if the purpose of theology is ultimately the salvation of humankind, shouldn’t the theologian’s interests be guided by the needs of the life of the church, arising from internal dispute over matters of importance or challenges from the society in which the church finds itself? I suppose there is something to be said for the contemplation of God as something of value for its own sake, without regard for its contemporary “relevance,” but even here the ultimate purpose is deepening one’s own faith, which, if it is truly Catholic, is at heart an ecclesial faith linking one with the entire community of believers.

I believe these are serious lacunae in Griffiths’ account of theology. Although at first glance having little specifically to do with political theology, I believe that these critiques can also provide a starting point for articulating the task of Catholic political theology and a response to Griffiths’ implicit critique of political theology. I will return to these themes next Tuesday.

2 thoughts on “Christian Theology, Born of the Light of Faith: A Response to Paul Griffiths

  1. Matthew: Many thanks for your thoughtful post here. I look forward to seeing your next installment on Catholic political theology. I find your criticisms of Paul Griffith’s CTSA address to be helpful and illuminating. I thought I’d add a few more thoughts here, having been mulling over the address since I heard it and perhaps anticipating some of your thoughts next week.

    I thought your point was on target about the address’s relative lack of interest in the role of faith in the life of the theologian and, by contrast, the more appealing understanding of the task of theologian as “faith seeking understanding.” But I think the criticism can be taken further. I’m reminded of a talk by Jon Sobrino in which he argues that the task of theology now is better understood as “love seeking understanding.” I thought of that phrase as I listened to Griffiths’ talk, all of the charming but (as you note) inconsequential examples, and thought: There’s very little sense here of engagement with the joys and sorrows of life and the world. Sobrino’s definition points us much better in that direction and, in doing so, corresponds much better to the dynamic, outward thrust of Christian life.

    Similarly, I think Griffiths’ talk pretty much enclosed the theologian within the body of the Church — an enclosure in terms of whom it is one is to be serving and to whom it is that one is to be accountable. But I found such a sense of enclosure to be very problematic in theological terms. More correctly, the Church exists for the sake of the Kingdom. This seems to me to rightly create a different set of priorities for the theologian in terms of service and in terms of accountability. None of what I say here is meant to discount the necessary belonging to the Church nor the necessary role of ecclesial authority. But, if we think more in terms of the Church in light of its service to the Kingdom, then we see such belonging and accountability in a broader and more appropriate light.

    Last, I thought Griffiths’ talk also was very deficient in its treatment of the Holy Spirit. For instance, he appears often to say that the “Lord” established the Church and, from that beginning, to make any number of other inferences about the role of hierarchical authority, the nature of the Church, etc. But it is more accurate to say that the Spirit of the Risen Christ established the Church. The whole account of Pentecost tells us this. And, if we allow for that role of the Spirit, we also allow for a greater breadth of thought, a greater space for human judgment (how did the apostles interpret the call of the Spirit?), a smaller space for the tight, confining triad of Christ-Magisterium-Church so appealing to Griffiths, a more appropriate room for the theologian who, as you nicely put, is called first to reflect on his or her faith in encounter with the Risen Christ.

    This is a bit provisional but, even so, I hope it advances our collective conversation a step or two down the road.

    1. David, thank you for the response. Your point drawn from Sobrino is quite similar to a point I am developing in the second part, so I am glad to get some confirmation.
      I appreciate your second point. In my own response I was focused on the topic of method, which is Griffiths’ own topic, but I think you raise a good point about audience as well, and the theologian’s responsibility to engage with the world outside the church. I would like to see your point about responsibility toward the Kingdom developed more, I think that is interesting. I think your second and third points are related, too, since the Spirit is not bound to the visible church, let alone the magisterium.

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