Academic journal article Theological Studies

System and History: The Challenge to Catholic Systematic Theology

Academic journal article Theological Studies

System and History: The Challenge to Catholic Systematic Theology

Article excerpt

IN A RECENT ARTICLE in this journal I discussed Bernard Lonergan's understanding of systematic theology and suggested several ways of developing that understanding. In the present article I want to follow up on one of those suggestions, namely, the idea that "a contemporary systematic theology in its entirety would be a theological theory of history."(1) There is evidence to support this idea in some of Lonergan's papers. The development that I present here is my own, but it is based on my understanding of a number of Lonergan's texts, published and unpublished.

The present article has a broader scope, however. In the fall of 1959 at Rome's Gregorian University, Lonergan gave a course called "De systemate et historia." The handwritten notes that he used for this course, which are available in the archives of the Lonergan Research Institute, Toronto, have yet to be adequately deciphered, let alone interpreted.(2) However, it is clear that the expression "system and history" had a more complex meaning for Lonergan than is captured by saying that systematics should be a theology of history. It expresses a set of problems that are at the core of the methodological advance that he was struggling to achieve. In the present article I assign four meanings to the expression "system and history," only one of which is that systematic theology is to be a theological theory of history. I do not claim that these meanings capture all of Lonergan's concern, and in fact I believe that they do not, that his concerns in the course on this matter were more far-ranging than my discussion here.(3) Here I am limiting myself to the four meanings that presently concern me, aware that I have not covered all of his concerns regarding this issue. But I will try to spell out all four meanings, not simply the meaning that claims that systematics is a theory of history. It is my view that theologians influenced by Lonergan are poised to move to a new plateau of operation governed by the reconciliation of the ideal of system with the reality of history. In fact a few have already moved there. I t is also my view that Lonergan makes this reconciliation possible. But the problem has at least the four dimensions that I wish to discuss, and the claim that systematic theology is to be a theological theory of history is but one of these four meanings.

SYNTHESIS AS DEVELOPMENT

Human understanding, however systematic, always occurs within a context or set of ongoing and mutually influencing contexts. All concepts have dates, and the acts of understanding that ground them are historically conditioned in multiple ways. From this fact we gain the first two meanings of the expression "system and history."(4) The first has to do with anticipating the future of systematic theology, and the second with grasping its past.

First, then, to speak of "system and history" is to evoke the notion of an ongoing genetic sequence of systematic theologies. I use the term "genetic" here in the sense that Lonergan intends when he speaks in Method in Theology of genetic as opposed to complementary or dialectical relations among horizons. "Each later stage presupposes earlier stages, partly to include them and partly to transform them. Precisely because the stages are earlier and later, no two are simultaneous. They are parts ... of a single history."(5) The first meaning of "system and history" has to do with anticipating a seriation of systematic theologies, and indeed with the possibility of a new way of anticipating such a series. The newness lies not in expecting discontinuity with the truly significant achievements of the doctrinal and theological past, but in the fact that the theologians who move the series forward can now quite knowingly and deliberately take their stand on a ground that is generative of all such achievements.(6) The ground has only recently begun to be cleared, namely, in the work of Lonergan. As yet no series of systematic theologies has been explicitly and deliberately built upon it, though of course every genuine achievement has relied on it in actu exercito. …

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