Bernard Lonergan and the Functions of Systematic Theology

By Doran, Robert M. | Theological Studies, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Bernard Lonergan and the Functions of Systematic Theology


Doran, Robert M., Theological Studies


[Editor's note: The author affirms Lonergan's notion of the principal function of systematics as an understanding of the mysteries of faith, but maintains that his development of method in terms of functional specialties calls for emphasis on other functions and aspects as well. Seven areas of developments are suggested, all regarding elements already given at least marginal acknowledgment by Lonergan but, it is claimed, not sufficiently emphasized in his work. The suggested development includes a vision of the future of the discipline.]

This study results from a long period of reflection on Bernard Lonergan's notion of systematic theology. In the mid-1970s I taught a graduate seminar at Marquette University on Lonergan's Method in Theology.(1) In the course of that semester I began to believe that the conception of theology in terms of the functional specialization of the operations that theologians perform requires that more be said about systematic theology than is presented in the book's chapter on systematics. There is something about the dynamic movement of the process from data to results that comes to a temporary halt in that chapter, only to resume briefly in the seminal final chapter, "Communications." It is as if at this point Lonergan succumbed to a mentality that he really wished to overcome. This evaluation is similar to Lonergan's own judgment about Chapter 19 of his earlier work, Insight.(2) The position of Chapter 19, on the philosophy of God, is one that he continued to maintain; but he found fault with the context in which he had raised the issues, and he relocated the question so as to place it squarely in the center of his concrete explorations not only of the exigences of intelligent and reasonable intentionality but also of religious experience.(3) So it is also with Chapter 13 of Method in Theology: what the chapter does say is not to be contradicted, but it does not say enough, and the dynamic context of the movement of collaborative creativity that the entire book is devoted to promoting seems to be suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted.

The present reflections are driven by the questions that followed upon that discovery. They have been assembled at various intervals in the intervening two-and-a-half decades. Further study of Lonergan's notion of systematics, further teaching of his major texts (principally in graduate courses and seminars at Regis College in Toronto), and the editing of some volumes in his Collected Works have all influenced the proposals offered here.

Again, I have no quarrel with what Lonergan does say about systematics. To the contrary, I have come to a greater appreciation of just how important his emphases are. Four items in particular are of crucial importance.

The first is the insistence that the principal function of systematics, around which its other functions are assembled, is the hypothetical, imperfect, analogical, and gradually developing understanding of mysteries of faith that are already affirmed on other grounds than systematic argumentation.(4)

The second is the recommendation that systematic theologians take as their core or central problems those mysteries that have been defined in dogmatic pronouncements of the Church, and especially the mysteries of the Trinity, the hypostatic union, and grace.

The third is the proposal that systematic understanding proceeds, as much as possible, according to what Lonergan, following Aquinas, calls the ordo disciplinae or the ordo doctrinae, the order of teaching.(5)

And the fourth is the crucial importance of making the systematic move from description to explanation, and of doing so on the level of one's own time. This means that one must root or ground one's categories in what Lonergan calls interiorly and religiously differentiated consciousness, and that one must include the use of those "general categories" that theology shares with other contemporary disciplines. …

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