The Authentication of Doctrines: Hints from C. S. Peirce

By Gelpi, Donald L. | Theological Studies, June 1999 | Go to article overview

The Authentication of Doctrines: Hints from C. S. Peirce


Gelpi, Donald L., Theological Studies


FOR AUTHENTICATING THE TRUTH of some theological doctrines and for discarding others as false, Bernard Lonergan suggested a novel strategy.(1) In my present study I refer to this process of doctrinal discrimination as the authentication of doctrines, and I suggest specific criteria for either certifying the truth of a particular theological doctrine or for calling its truth into question. My criteria, however, do not derive from Lonergan's work but from the metaphysics of experience and the construct of conversion that I have been developing with hints from the thought of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).

Lonergan's strategy for authenticating doctrines presupposed his theory of functional specialties. In Method in Theology he argued, correctly in my estimation, that one cannot speak properly of theological method because theologians employ at least eight different methods corresponding to eight different kinds of theological questions and ways of thinking. He divided his eight functional specialties into two groups of four, calling the first four specialities "mediating theology" and the second four "mediated theology." Mediating theology retrieves a religious tradition; mediated theology undertakes the constructive reformulation of that same tradition. Mediating theology mediates mediated theology. In other words, one must first retrieve a religious tradition before one can go about reconstructing it creatively, because without retrieving the tradition one will have no clear sense of the issues with which its creative reconstruction must deal.

The functional specialities of research, interpretation, history, and dialectic divide mediating theology. Theologians conducting research provide the tools that the rest of the theological community needs in order to pursue their own functional theological specialties. Research theologians pursue religious and biblical archeology, edit sacred texts, and compile dictionaries and grammars of sacred languages. In other words, their research provides the texts and artifacts that need theological interpretation. The interpretation of religious texts and artifacts attempts to explain what those texts and artifacts originally meant to those who created them and what they might mean to contemporary believers. History supplies the factual and cultural context that makes interpretation possible. Historians tell the story of a religious community and propose theories that explain why it evolved in one way and not in another. The story of any vital religious tradition reveals, however, that its adherents argue constantly with one another about that tradition's real religious significance. Dialectic compares and contrasts the frames of reference of religious thinkers, distinguishes real from only apparent disagreement, and clarifies the issues that motivate real disagreement. In other words, dialectical theology clarifies the issues with which mediated theology must deal in attempting the creative reformulation of a religious tradition.

Four functional specialities also structure mediated theology: foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications. Foundations formulates a strictly normative theology of conversion. Foundational theologians seek to answer the question: How ought one to live? Moreover, Lonergan revolutionized theological reflection on conversion by suggesting that it occurs in more than one form. Besides religious conversion, Lonergan originally distinguished two other forms of conversion: moral and intellectual. Each type of conversion invokes different kinds of norms. Those norms allegedly provide the criteria that the functional speciality called doctrines needs in order to discriminate between sound and unsound doctrinal affirmations. The identification of sound doctrines sets the stage for systematic theological thinking. Systematics seeks to explain the connection between sound doctrinal beliefs. The normative insights of foundational theology also makes a significant contribution to theological communications.

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