Academic journal article Theological Studies

Quarrels with the Method of Correlation

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Quarrels with the Method of Correlation

Article excerpt

WHENEVER A SCHOLARLY discipline goes through a period of rapid transformation, interest in questions of method increases. Questions arise not only about the content of the discipline but also about the very process of moving from the subject matter under investigation to the end results of a disciplined study. Thus the major scientific advances of the last hundred years--special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, the theory of evolution, and so on--have been followed by the profound methodological investigations of Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and others.(1) Significantly there is a shift in this process from scientists doing scientific work to philosophers of science engaged in philosophical debates, where few scientists are literate.

The last hundred years have also seen a major transformation in the scholarly discipline of theology. The integration of historical studies, a diversity of philosophical starting points, modern approaches to Scripture, and other factors have transformed the doing of theology, particularly in Roman Catholic circles. The relative uniformity of an earlier scholasticism has been replaced by a pluriformity of approaches and methods--personalist, historical-critical, liberationist, neo-Thomist, feminist, transcendental, political, to name a few. A modern student of theology is confronted not only with a multiplicity of theological questions and topics, but also with a multiplicity of theological methods for moving from questions to acceptable answers.

And here we see a significant difference between theology and science. While most scientists can afford to be philosophically illiterate and still do good science, the same cannot be said of theologians. Many, if not most, scientists carry on their researches according to the demands of the discipline with little concern for the methodological disputes going on around them. Even if they do take note, there may be a world of difference between their methodological musings and the harsh realities of laboratories and review boards.

Theologians, on the other hand, cannot afford to be philosophically illiterate. The history of theology and its subject matter are too closely intertwined with philosophical issues for theologians to plead ignorance. Philosophical assumptions, with methodological consequences, necessarily impinge on the ways one does theology. One cannot seriously discuss the issue of "real presence," for example, without a fairly clear understanding of what one means by "real." Nor can one evaluate its significance without at least an implicit affirmation of a set of criteria for reality.

This note cannot investigate the full range of theological methods and their various philosophical bases.(2) That would be a major, though worthwhile task. I plan to focus on one particular method, that of "correlation." This method is significant because it has received widespread use and acceptance in a variety of theological styles and projects. It has also been the subject of occasional but pointed criticism by Robert Doran in his work Theology and the Dialectics of History.(3) My aim is to explore the nature of Doran's criticisms and to spell out some of their implications.


We should begin the discussion with a description of the method itself. What does it mean and how is it used? While there are many descriptions given in the literature, I shall draw upon the one given by Roger Haight:

A method of correlation rests on this necessary fusion of past and present in the reception of revelation. It consists in distinguishing and then bringing together original revelation as mediated through its traditional symbols and the situation of human consciousness in which it is received at any given time. What are correlated are the meaning of the original revelation and present-day human experience.(4)

Thus the method involves two movements. …

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