The Limits of Christian Theology

"By way of conclusion, it will be well to draw the reader's attention to the inherent limitations of the philosophical principle of order in theology.  Philosophy is reckoned as quite a high card in theology: let us call it the jack, the fourth-highest card the pack possesses.  This card can be trumped by three other cards.  First, it can be trumped by the king, which is divine revelation itself.  Obviously, if a philosophical principle of order is tending in some way to distort revelation or leads to our leaving out of count things that are manifestly important to the faith of the Church, then the king will trump the jack.  But in between the king and the jack is the queen.  Between divine revelation and the philosophical principle of order in theology there is always some theological principle of order.  As I mentioned in the course of roughing out a definition of theology, no one theology can ever present divine revelation in its totality.  It will always take up a particular standpoint, choosing one theme as its preferred point of entry and considering all the other theological themes in relation to this (for it) central motif.

"Because a theological principle of order is equally necessary to theology and yet is derived from within revelation and not (as is the case with the philosophical principle of order) from outside it, it must be regarded as more important than the philosophical principle and so have the right to depart from it if and when it so wishes.  Last, then, there is the ace.  If divine revelation is the king, how can there be a card which can trump divine revelation?  The ace is the mystery of God in himself.  We cannot assume that divine revelation tells us everything there is to know about God's being and purposes.  It tells us enough for our needs and more than enough.  Behind historic revelation there lie the unknown depths of the divine essence.  Certainly, we believe that the divine essence cannot be in contradiction to anything God has made known in revelation.  As Christians, we approach the mystery of that essence from the disclosure, in the self-emptying of the Son of God made man, of that self-emptying's transcendent pattern, the eternal event of the divine processions.  As von Balthasar has written, 'That essence is forever "given" in the self-gift of the Father, "rendered" in the thanksgiving of the Son, and "represented" in its character as absolute Love by the Holy Spirit.'  Nonetheless, there is no reason to think that in the revelation to Homo sapiens, to the inhabitants of this planet, the total divine mystery has been laid bare.  Beyond even revelation there lies the vision of God, which is not for wayfarers but for those who have arrived in the assembly of the angels.  Not for us now, even with divine revelation, is that perfectly unified, complete, and luminous intuition of God and beings, which Dante sings of in the Paradiso [Canto XXXIII]: 'O abounding grace, by which I dared to fix my look on the Eternal Light so long that I spent all my sight upon it!  In its depth I saw that it contained, bound by love in one volume, that which is scattered in leaves through the universe, substances and accidents and their relations, as it were fused together in such a way that what I tell of is a simple light.'  We must have a proper reverence for the mystery of God--founded on a just sense of the limitations of the human mind and heart, as of God's excess, in his being and plan, of all our concepts and imaginings.  Such reverence is not simply also necessary for theological students.  It is particularly necessary in their case--since their little knowledge, as that of their teachers, may be a dangerous thing.  This warning is appropriate as we turn now to study the sources of revelation: Scripture and Tradition."

--Aidan Nichols, O.P., The Shape of Catholic Theology: An Introduction to its Sources, Principles, and History (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 94-95.


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