Hunter/Dogmatic Theology/Introduction

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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology



1. Design. — It is intended in this work to give a brief outline of the Dogmatic Theology of the Catholic Church. No more can be attempted than the very briefest treatment of each portion of this vast subject, but it is hoped that even such a synopsis as is here presented will not be without its use. The student who is beginning to attend to Theology is often perplexed, through a difficulty in seeing how the various Treatises that come before him hang together, or why they should be taken in one order rather than another; a special endeavour will therefore be made here to point out the sequence of treatises, and to show how far each is dependent upon others, in accordance with the advice given by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Prologue to his Summa Theologica. It is hoped that the reader will find every important point of doctrine touched upon, so far at least as to show the place it holds in the general scheme; and references will be given, as far as possible, to English authors, in whose works further information can most conveniently be sought.

2. Theology. — The word "Theology " signifies "A discourse on God," as its derivation shows (Θεὀς, λὀγος) In its widest sense, therefore, it would include all systematic study which in any way concerns God or His works; including, therefore, the study of Nature, organic or inorganic, and of Man as revealed in history. But to take the word so very widely would be to fritter away the distinction of the sciences, and lead to confusion instead of orderly knowledge. It is well, therefore, that actual usage has very much restricted the meaning of the word.

3. Theology, Natural and Revealed. — A knowledge of the existence of God, our Creator and Lord, can be attained with certainty by man contemplating the world around him, by the exercise of the natural power of his reason. This truth is defined by the Vatican Council, in the second Chapter, on Revelation, and will be explained and proved hereafter in its proper place, in the second volume of our work. The knowledge of the Being and the Attributes of God which can be gained in this way, constitutes the science of Natural Theology, which is a branch of Philosophy. (See Father Boedder's work in the series called Stonyhurst Manuals of Catholic Philosophy.) The knowledge of God which Natural Theology teaches, however solid and valuable, is far from being all that we can know concerning Him, for, as will be shown in its proper place (Treatise I.), it has pleased God to give to the human race a Revelation concerning Himself, by which our natural knowledge of His being and of His dealings with us is confirmed and immensely enlarged. The knowledge that we gain through this Revelation constitutes Theology in the proper sense of the term; and it is of this that we treat in these Outlines.

4. Divisions of Theology. — St. Thomas, in his Summa Theologica, designed to treat of the whole of Theology in the sense just explained, having dealt with Natural Theology in his Summa contra Gentes. But death prevented the completion of his work, and subsequent writers have found that the design is too vast; no satisfactory result can be obtained unless the matter is broken up, especially because the different parts are found to require each its own appropriate method of treatment. Accordingly, besides Dogmatic Theology (τὰ δοκοὔντα ὄντα), or Doctrine, with which we are here chiefly concerned, there are authors who treat of Moral Theology, or the rules which God has laid down as obligatory upon all men as guides of their conduct (mores); Ascetic Theology (ἄσκησις), which, so far as it can be distinguished from Moral and Mystic, may be described as giving the rules for those who aspire to a closer union with God than is obligatory upon all, and who receive from Him that help without which they cannot secure this happiness; and Mystic Theology, which deals mainly with those extraordinary favours which God is pleased from time to time to bestow upon certain persons, not primarily for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others. This word Mystic is derived from the same root (μὺω) as Mystery, but by usage the two words bear different meanings; all truths known by Revelation are called Mysteries, however simple in themselves; thus we speak of the Mysteries of the Rosary, which are familiar to all Christians; but Mystic Theology is concerned with the visions of the saints, and the like. The boundary lines between Moral, Ascetic, and Mystic are not clearly defined.

5. Subsidiary Sciences. — All other sciences are in a sense subsidiary to Theology, for this is immediately concerned with God, the Source of all things, and Whose knowledge embraces the very truth about all things actual and possible. But there are some branches of knowledge which subserve Theology in a more direct manner. Chief among these is Philosophy, which discusses the general principles upon which all knowledge depends, and certain questions concerning existing things; especially, Philosophy is useful as exposing the futility of attempts that are sometimes made to prove that certain truths contained in Revelation are self-contradictory: the Real Presence of the Body of our Lord under the accidents of bread, for example. The theologian ought to be acquainted with certain parts of Physics, both in the ancient and the modern forms of the science; for otherwise he will be unable to understand the writings of divines of former ages, or to explain himself to men of his own day. He ought to possess himself of some portions of History and Archaeology, which teach what have been God's dealings with His rational creatures; and of Canon Law and Liturgical science, which show what has been the action of that Society which God has established for the purpose of guiding men to Him.

It is part of the proper subject of Theology to discuss the precise character of the writings which constitute Holy Scripture, and distinguish them from all other writings ; also, to lay down certain rules as to the authority that attaches to the Fathers of the Church. Again, since Theology founds some of its arguments upon particular passages of these monuments of antiquity, it necessarily discusses fully the precise meaning of these passages. But it is not necessary for Theology to give a continuous commentary upon Holy Scripture and the Patristic writings; the interpreter, however, no less than the historian, must have before his eyes the teachings of Theology, as the norm to which his expositions must conform. This rule results from the certainty which Theology attains, which is higher than the certainty that can be ascribed to any interpretation of a text or historical view.

This is explained in the sixth Treatise, on Faith.

6. Modes of Treatment. — Christian writers of all times have left us commentaries, sermons, letters, and treatises on particular points of doctrine, directed against various errors as they have arisen; and by the study of these writings it is possible to ascertain what was the belief of the writers on various points. But for a thousand years or more, little attempt was made to systematize the body of doctrine, and to show how it formed a coherent whole. Afterwards, however, this work was done by the labour of the Schoolmen, so called because the earliest of them taught in the schools, which having been established in cities and monasteries through the act or influence of Charlemagne, grew into the Universities of mediaeval Europe. St. Anselm, who died in 1109, is commonly reckoned the first of the Schoolmen, just as St. Bernard was the last of the Fathers, having closed his life in 1153.

Scholastic Theology is, therefore, a particular treatment of the subject, where every term is precisely defined, doctrine is clearly stated without superfluous matter, order is strictly observed, the questions why? and how? are raised and answered, and objections are put shortly but plainly and replied to in the same manner. In contradistinction from this, Positive Theology does not concern itself with formal definitions, adopts a flowing style, chooses its matter with a view to some practical object, ignores all subtle inquiry into the reason and manner of things, and incorporates the answers to difficulties in the general discourse.

The difference between Positive and Scholastic Theology is then a difference of method, not of doctrine. It happens, however, that most of the great Scholastics followed one system of Philosophy, founded on that of Aristotle; from which it resulted that this body of philosophical doctrine received the name of Scholastic Philosophy, and under this name it still holds its own in most Catholic schools, witnessing the rise and fall of countless rival systems.

A third method of treating Theology was rendered necessary by the circumstances of the sixteenth century. The teachers who carried a large part of Europe with them at that time, were not content with denying one or another point of Catholic doctrine, but they attacked the system as a whole and in every point. To meet them it was necessary to establish the authority of the Church, which had not been called in question in previous ages, and also to defend all particular doctrines against a new method of attack. This Controversy or Polemic Theology (πὸλεμος, war) was put into shape by Cardinal Bellarmine, whose method can scarcely be improved upon, and Polemics still continue to be a principal, but by no means the only, employment of a theologian. The result of the discussions of the last three centuries has been the separation of one portion of Polemics, and its formation into a compact whole, which goes by the name of Apologetics or Fundamental Theology. Its nature will be explained directly. A judicious combination of Positive, Scholastic, and Controversy is what is required at the present day. It will be remembered that St. Ignatius of Loyola lays it down as one of the Rules for preserving harmony of feeling with the Church (Rule II), that we must approve of both Positive and Scholastic Theology, each being useful in its place. He wrote before Polemic had taken shape.

7. Is it a Science? — The question is sometimes raised, whether Theology is a science. The answer is that it is not a science in the sense of being founded on self-evident principles, like Geometry, for its principles, while they are supremely certain, are of a different nature from those of other sciences. But it deserves to be called a science, and the chief of sciences, on account of the pre-eminent certainty of its principles; as shall be explained when we treat of Faith. (Treatise VI.)

8. Division of Subject. — In the arrangement of our matter, we shall for the most part follow the order adopted by St. Thomas in his Summa. The Saint first treats of God, one Substance existing in three Persons; then of the creatures of God, especially the rational creatures, the Angels and Man. He then discusses the end for which man was created, and how he is to attain that end, by the use of his free-will; and it is here that Moral, Ascetic, and Mystic Theology would find their place did our design extend to them. Afterwards we have the Treatise on the Incarnation, inasmuch as Christ is the way by which man attains his end; on Grace; and on the Sacraments, the great means by which the benefit of the work of Christ is applied to individual souls. Had not death interfered, St. Thomas would have finished the work by Treatises on the Four Last Things.

This sufficed in the thirteenth century, when no one called in question the authority of the Church. But at the present day, as already explained, it is necessary to add certain Treatises which are especially Polemical, inquiring what is the True Religion, which will be shown to be the Christian Revelation; what are the sources of our knowledge of this Revelation, namely Tradition and Scripture; what the position of the Church as guardian of Revelation, and her constitution, which is monarchical, under the Roman Pontiff. The name of Fundamental Theology is sometimes given to this group of five Treatises, with which it is convenient to begin. A sixth Treatise, on Faith, completes the volume.

9. Method. — In discussing each point in its turn, we shall in general observe the following order. First we shall point out how the question arises, and what room there is for difference of opinion consistent with the truths that are considered as already established at this place; this will involve all necessary explanation of the terms employed. The Catholic doctrine will then be stated, or if the point be open, then that which seems preferable, and proof of it will be given derived from the three great loci, Scripture, Tradition, and Reason; where by Reason is meant not merely the pure unassisted reason of man, but more commonly theological reason, that is to say, the analogy of other parts of revealed doctrine. Objections that may be raised against the doctrine will then be considered, if necessary; but it will often be found that they have been anticipated in the introductory explanation, for difficulties are very commonly based on an ignoratio elenchi: mistake of the point.

10. Recapitulation. — So far we have explained the nature of Theology and its branches, Dogmatic, Fundamental, Moral, Ascetic, and Mystic; also the different modes in which it can be treated, Positive, Scholastic, and Polemic. The convenient distribution of the subject was then shown, and the arrangement which will here be observed in the treatment of each question.

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