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Catholics in the last fifty years or so have almost completely ceased to do dogmatic theology. Save for a handful of admirable holdouts, we have practically given up the fruitful enterprise of a millennium: the believing mind’s effort to understand the Christian mysteries. The deep things of God, the mysteries of his own life opened up to us in Christ, we now think we need not, or fear we cannot, search out. Unless this development is reversed, the consequences of this unwelcome development for the Church and for Catholic life are likely to be grave. Whether dogmatic theology fares better in the Protestant world I will leave for others to say. For Catholics, Matthias Joseph Scheeben, more than any modern theologian, can show us how to get started again.

In the summer of 1888, Scheeben died in Cologne, having spent most of his fifty-three years teaching dogmatics and moral theology in the archdiocesan seminary there. He was Germany’s most persuasive defender of Vatican I’s decision on papal infallibility and an impassioned advocate of religious freedom in the Kulturkampf, Bismarck’s determined but finally unsuccessful effort to subject the Catholic Church to the control of his new German state. He was also the author of three major dogmatic works: Nature and Grace (1861), The Mysteries of Christianity (1865), and the massive Handbook of Catholic Dogmatics, left unfinished at his death.

The generations that followed Scheeben regarded him as one of the greatest minds of modern Catholic theology. His books were repeatedly republished in Germany up into the 1960s and translated into other European languages, including English (the Dogmatics, alas, only in highly truncated form). Since the Second Vatican Council, though, he has mostly been neglected by theological teachers and students who have wrongly imagined the nineteenth-century Catholic tradition to be a period of antimodern darkness. 

The Catholic world of a hundred or more years ago was quite right, I think, to see the Cologne seminary professor as perhaps the finest modern Catholic dogmatic theologian. His writings not only yield rare insight into the mysteries of Christian faith, they draw the attentive reader ever more deeply into the mysteries themselves. Scheeben is more important now than he has ever been. He can teach a theological generation that has sold its inestimable birthright how to restore and renew dogmatic theology.

One of Scheeben’s favorite terms for the dogmatic enterprise is “speculative theology,” suggesting as it does the aim of seeing or looking into (spectare) the truths of the faith clearly and deeply. Theology so understood calls for specific intellectual virtues. These virtues are richly embodied in Scheeben’s work. His theology is rationally rigorous. He makes precise and often elaborate conceptual distinctions, identifies relevant objections to his ideas, and offers detailed replies. His interpretation of the Christian mysteries relies on vigorous and careful argument rather than mere currency, first-person authority, or pragmatic usefulness.

His theology is, moreover, charged with speculative boldness, even audacity. He seeks the deepest possible understanding of the mysteries of Christianity, not simply one by one but as a whole and in their luminous interconnection, what he calls their “wondrous harmony.”

Important as the virtues of disciplined argument and speculative courage are, even more important for our time are three further qualities everywhere manifest in his work. First, Scheeben habitually talks about God, focusing intently on the supernatural mysteries of God’s own nature and life. Second, he is an immensely learned theologian with an intimate and sympathetic knowledge of the theological traditions of the Church. Finally, Scheeben undertakes theology in humility, with reverence, joy, and submission before the divine mysteries he seeks faithfully to serve. Today we need to recover these three virtues—supernatural focus, sympathetic learning, and humility—if we are to restore dogmatic theology.

That theology should talk about God and that the theologian should be the “God-intoxicated man” may seem too obvious for comment. Scheeben thought it essential, though, for theology to avoid open-ended musings. Dogmatic theology must discipline itself to be about God in a specific way, one that draws us into the mysteries revealed only in Christ. These mysteries all concern nothing less than God’s sharing of his own uncreated nature with another. As such they are alone the truly “supernatural” mysteries.

First and foremost is the mystery of the Holy Trinity. From all eternity, the Father imparts the one divine nature to the Son by generation, and Father and Son communicate their one nature to the Holy Spirit by spiration, or active procession. That the divine nature, the source and goal of creatures, is the nature of persons who are themselves originated or produced—that the divine essence subsists as a Trinity of divine persons—is the most primordial of all mysteries, the source of any possible communication of the divine nature to creatures.

God does not only share his life within himself. Temporally and freely, the triune God makes his own uncreated nature that of a creature in the incarnation of the Son. God joins a created nature—our own—to his nature in the person of the Son. This is the most complete and intimate way in which the divine nature can be shared with created reality, the divine and the unconfused, yet undivided. So comes to be the mystery at which every knee will bend: God is the human being Jesus, and the human being Jesus is God.

Further, God offers to share his life with each of us. In the Word made flesh, God bestows upon the human creature by grace a participation in his own nature, which reaches its goal in the glory of immediate vision of him as the Holy Trinity. By uniting us with the incarnate Son, grace brings about a participation in the divine nature so intimately deifying that we become members of the eternal Son.

Therefore, we “really enter into the very same personal relationship in which the Son of God stands to his Father.” When we call upon the Father of Jesus as “our Father,” we lay claim to “the same relationship by which [God] is the Father of Christ.” This mystery of incorporation into Christ gathers around itself a wider field of teachings, including the luminous mysteries of original justice, the Eucharist, the Church and the sacraments, justification, and predestination, and also the “dark” mystery of sin.

These mysteries—the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, and our life in Christ—concern the innermost depths of God’s own nature and will. If we are to know of them, God himself, whose interior mysteries they are, must tell us of them, as a friend discloses his inmost heart to a friend. That God opens up his innermost life to us is sheer generosity on his part, a gift to which no creature has any inherent claim. This is essentially what Scheeben means when, following Catholic usage, he calls these primary mysteries of Christianity “supernatural truths.” They are beyond the ken of our natural powers of reason, as what they offer is beyond the reach of our natural powers of attainment. We know them, and can reach them, solely because God makes himself so liberally available to us.

Once the interior mysteries of God are revealed, however, we are able, indeed bidden, to contemplate them, so that we may enter more deeply into them. This is what makes dogmatic theology unique and unlike any other use of reason. Dogma is Greek for “teaching,” and dogmatic theology involves reason taught or tutored by God in the fullest sense. God both teaches us the truths about his own nature that are the distinctive subject matter of dogmatics and, by the gift of faith, enlightens reason to understand these supernatural truths. Dogmatic theology has its own domain, made up of mysteries unavailable to natural reason and therefore beyond the competence of any other science. This accounts for the great dignity and sublime vocation of the dogmatic theologian, who is called not only to know the truth but to speak rightly, even wisely, about the very source of all truth.

Recognizing and sustaining this dignity requires a lucid distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Scheeben insisted upon this distinction and did a great deal to illuminate it for modern Catholic theology. Lacking a clear distinction between nature and grace, we will be unsure what our enterprise as theologians is supposed to be about. For whatever reasons, Catholic theology since Vatican II has generally exhibited confusion about what distinction, if any, to make between the natural and the supernatural, even when it has deliberately used the terms. As a predictable result, theologians now talk about anything and everything, on the assumption, or in the hope, that they are thereby already talking about God.

Among the most common topics for theological talk in this unsettled situation are formative personal or group experiences and social, political, and economic conflict—inside the Church as well as outside it. Liberation and feminist theologies are obvious examples, at least as often practiced, but so are theologies for which the Church must be a countercultural community of character, purity, and virtue. At times, it seems as though such discourse is meant to count as theology simply because psychological description or social theory is overlaid with a patina of piety or moral seriousness.

Even when theology is clearly in earnest about speaking of God, however, ambiguity about the proper subject matter of theology dims its chances of success. The interior mysteries of the triune God are simply not accessible to us from our apprehension of created natures and their activities, including our own. These mysteries are intrinsically supernatural and, as a result, suprarational.

Consequently, no analysis of psychological and social reality, indeed of any created reality, can provide us with a knowledge of God as he is in his triune self and as he has generously willed to be for us. Within the counsel of his own inner life, God has determined to be the giver of a supremely intimate share in that life, by the incarnation of the Son and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Theology can never succeed in speaking of God as Christians know him to be save by focusing on these supernatural mysteries of God’s nature and will.

When theology tries to speak of God by drawing the supernatural mysteries of the divine life down into the more familiar sphere of created realities, it wanders away from its sublime vocation. Theology that has lost a clear sense of the supernatural mysteries uniquely its own will merely see in a poor and confused way created things that other disciplines, designed to know just those things, see clearly and well. No wonder that such theology, whatever its good intentions, eventually begins to be unsure why it exists at all.

Of course anything and everything, including every aspect of experience and society, nature and history, can be an appropriate subject matter for speculative theological reflection. Precisely as a theologian, Scheeben himself wrote extensively on the social and political problems of his time, especially in resistance to Bismarck’s persecution of the Church. But as he saw clearly, nothing becomes a topic for genuinely theological reflection save by being drawn up into the sphere of the supernatural mysteries that are the proper subject matter of theology. Created natures, open as such to reason’s gaze, belong to theology just insofar as they can be drawn into the light that shines from the interior mysteries of the divine life. Genuinely theological talk of anything presupposes faith’s knowledge of the divine mysteries, a knowledge that cannot stem from creatures, and that no creature can provide for itself.

Another favorite topic of theological talk today is other theologians, especially those of the recent past. Here Scheeben’s engagement with the history of Christian thought has a great deal to teach us about the genuinely theological use of other theologians.

Scheeben was a staggeringly erudite theologian. This is immediately obvious in the Dogmatics and Nature and Grace, but he could not keep it entirely hidden in the Mysteries of Christianity, even though that book was intended for a less specialized audience.

Reflecting on the intimate relationship by which we exist as Christ’s living members, Scheeben observes that further insight into this matter may be found in the commentary on Ephesians of Jacobus Naclantus (in the vernacular, Jacopo Nacchianti, O.P., ca. 1500–69), and gives a substantial quotation illustrative of the riches he expects the reader will find there. Articulating his idea that the mission of the Holy Spirit culminates in “the substantial hypostatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit into us,” and thereby in our “possession of his substantial being,” Scheeben suggests that we study Expositio moralis et mystica in Canticum Canticorum, a mammoth commentary on the Song of Songs, by Luis de la Puente, one of the great spiritual writers of the early-seventeenth century. Scheeben’s citations are not merely decorative but informative, and his readers today are virtually certain to learn much about the history of theology that they did not know.

Scheeben’s regular and sometimes extensive use of the Greek Fathers—especially Cyril of Alexandria, for whom he has an obvious affinity—calls into question the common assumption that an interest in the Eastern tradition, and in the Fathers more generally, entered modern Catholic theology only with the ressourcement theologians of the mid-twentieth century. He draws more or less constantly on most of the great theologians of the Middle Ages, from Anselm to Bernard of Clairvaux and the Victorines, and from Alexander of Hales to Bonaventure, Albert, Thomas Aquinas, and Scotus. Only the intellectual tradition stemming from Ockham generally fails to elicit any sympathy from him

It is not just his learning, however, that impresses. Scheeben does not lord over the past and judge it, as if the modern mind were in a superior position to know divine truths. Nor does he equate genuinely dogmatic theology with rigorous adherence to a past master, no matter how much we may learn from him. His use of the thirteenth-century scholastics, for example, is remarkably catholic. He does not play them off against one another, or adhere to a particular school, but makes constructive use of all of them, usually in mutually reinforcing ways. This is quite clear, for example, in his nuanced treatment of the motive of the Incarnation and its relation to sin, where he follows St. Thomas Aquinas in holding that the Incarnation is contingent on the fact of sin, but with Bl. Duns Scotus sees the Incarnation as realizing goods—in particular, creation’s perfect glorification of its Creator—beyond the remedy of the evil that occasioned it.

Scheeben did not habitually draw historical dividing lines or dismiss whole periods or schools of theology, as we so often do today. He had a vast knowledge of early modern scholasticism, from Cajetan to Cano and Soto, Gregory of Valencia, Suárez, Ruiz de Montoya, and Ripalda, and on to eighteenth century-scholastics like Gotti, Viva, and the Wirceburgenses. To this may be added his assimilation of the so-called positive theology of the seventeenth century and after, particularly of Petau and Thomassin. This mass of difficult material he does not simply know but puts to use as he carries out dogmatic theology’s own task of understanding the supernatural mysteries of Christianity.

All this learning was not the work of an unusually superannuated lifetime. Much of it was already in place by the time Scheeben published the Mysteries in 1865, at the age of thirty. Yet this only stands to reason. If we want to do speculative theology, we must learn how from those who have done it especially well, not only at one time or another but in every age of the Church. These are the deep wells from which we must drink.

Remarkable as it is, Scheeben’s erudition is not simply the work of a genius few of us can hope to emulate. If it differed in degree, his learning did not differ in kind from that expected of any academic theologian in the European world of his time. His erudition was the accomplishment not only of him but of the rich theological culture he inhabited when it met with an unusually capable and receptive mind. The theological culture that produced him and many others has largely disappeared. With it has gone much of the possibility of dogmatic theology such as he was able to write.

The theological culture of breadth and sympathy apparent on his pages has largely disappeared. For two generations now Catholic theologians have drawn a bright line between the theology before Vatican II and the theology after. The theology of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is for the most part labeled “neoscholasticism,” and thereby dismissed. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Catholic theology is almost entirely forgotten, unknown to all but a tiny handful of historical scholars. The theology of earlier centuries, having been written before the Enlightenment, may sometimes be of real interest, but the interest is almost always historical. Any such theology, we presume, comes from a world too different from our own to help us address our present needs and problems, at least in any direct way. Only the theology of the recent past has intrinsic value; all other theology matters only in relation to where we are now.

Scheeben teaches us to view the relationship between theology past and present quite differently. He practiced what has lately come to be called, with reference to the Church before and after the Council, a hermeneutic of continuity. On his reading, a very broad swath of theological material is relevant to present speculative work, from the ante-Nicene Fathers to his own contemporaries.

Unlike his teacher and contemporary Joseph Kleutgen, he does not have a preference in principle for “the theology of earlier times” over that of his own day. Conversely, unlike some of his own near predecessors and contemporaries like Georg Hermes and J. J. I. von Döllinger, he sees no bright line in time before which theology cannot address our present questions—whether that line is drawn at the Enlightenment, Kant, Hegel, or wherever. The speculative theologian may find either old tools or new ones useful in his task of understanding what the faith teaches. He has no reason to assume in advance that only one sort of tool will do the job.

We need to recover Scheeben’s clarity about the supernatural character of theology and his profound and sympathetic knowledge of the Christian tradition. But it will be for naught if we do not learn Scheeben’s most important lesson: Humility is a speculative virtue, indeed the cardinal virtue of the dogmatic theologian.

Modern theology has grown used to thinking of the theologian as an intellectual virtuoso. He surveys the whole of the Christian tradition with an earnest desire to improve upon the past. He seeks an insight previously unpossessed, or possessed only by a few, in the hope that by it he can set right unresolved problems in the tradition, or problems heretofore unrecognized. Such problems, those worthy of the virtuoso’s effort, will naturally be systemic in nature rather than isolated difficulties of the sort that a good doctoral dissertation might clear up. In modern Protestant theology, virtuosity has been pretty much a vocational obligation for the dogmatic theologian. But Catholic theology too has been wooed by virtuosos.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Scheeben’s theological writing is his utter humility before the divine mysteries he seeks to understand. Like all real humility, it stems not from timidity or abjectness but from love for and gratitude to the God who, solely for the good of his creatures, has exalted us beyond all that we could otherwise ask or imagine, by opening up to us the innermost treasures of his own life. Immensely learned though Scheeben is, he is wholly indifferent to virtuosity. He seeks in love to understand with all the resources of mind and reason what he knows can be understood only by the poor in spirit.

Unsurprisingly, then, Scheeben concludes the Mysteries by finding in Mary’s humility “the ideal of reason,” precisely the reason of the speculative theologian. “As the call to be the mother of the God-man,” he writes, “raised Mary from a lowly handmaid to the Queen of all things, so there is no greater distinction for reason than its call to cooperate with faith in producing theological knowledge. In this way reason is raised above its natural lowliness to the highest nobility.” Even thus ennobled, reason continues to recognize its lowliness. “As Mary,” he continues, “was taken up to be the Mother of God precisely through the humble obedience of the handmaid of the Lord, and as Mother of God retained the humility of the Lord’s handmaid, so reason can take faith into itself only through a humble recognition of the rights of revelation, and an obedient submission to the call of God.”

Dogmatic theology is most creative when it is most genuinely submissive. True speculative achievement comes not from trying to be creative but from humbly seeking to understand the divine mysteries as God wills in love to make them known. Creativity is a mere by-product of this effort.

Vatican II was understood by many, and rightly so, to urge a renewed engagement with the scriptural and patristic sources of the faith, a ressourcement. Of this there has been much, and historical study of the Fathers and the medievals flourishes among Catholic theologians. The Council certainly did not recommend, either by what it said or by what it did, the abandonment of dogmatic theology or of the scholastic traditions, which have so deeply informed Catholic theological speculation since the Middle Ages.

Yet Catholic theology quite soon began to take the Council as proclaiming a release from captivity to “neoscholasticism,” an opprobrious designation of uncertain, but often very broad, meaning and application. Coupled with this was a cheerful dismissal of the innumerable “manuals” or “handbooks”—many, like Scheeben’s Handbuch der katholischen Dogmatik, actually far too bulky to be carried about by hand. These books had been the standard literary form for comprehensive dogmatic theology in the Catholic world since at least the early nineteenth century.

No doubt those who dismissed neoscholasticism thought that new and more-fruitful forms of speculative theology would rise up to take the place of what were assumed to be the scripturally barren and rationalistic, crabbed and hairsplitting manuals. This has not happened. The rejection of established dogmatic traditions and approaches has led not to new and more-vital forms of Catholic systematic reflection but to the effective disappearance of dogmatic theology altogether. While the decades since Vatican II have certainly seen a renewal of Catholic theology on many fronts, it would be hard for even the most optimistic among us to claim that speculative theology has seen such a renewal.

Of course many Catholic theologians today will vehemently contest this judgment and point in proof to Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, or Bernard Lonergan (perhaps all three) as undeniable examples of renewed, postscholastic forms of dogmatics.

Whatever the merits of their highly influential and often contested substantive proposals, the extent to which either Rahner or Balthasar actually ought to count as a dogmatic theologian is, I think, far from clear. The distinctive, not to say eccentric, style and structure of their theologies raise questions on this score, as do the temptations to virtuosity they (especially Balthasar) sometimes exhibit. Lonergan is another story, but he (like Rahner) produced only pieces of a dogmatic theology, and the genuinely dogmatic parts of his corpus are also those that have had the least influence.

For the moment, though, let’s grant that, as many now hold, the dogmatic contributions of these three remarkable theologians (or at least one of them) will prove to be of enduring value. If so, this only underscores the disappearance of dogmatic theology as a fact of contemporary Catholic intellectual life. Rahner, Balthasar, and Lonergan have certainly produced followers, but their followers have not done dogmatic theology. Whatever their own intentions, the great figures in the decades following the Second Vatican Council have been influential not primarily in prompting others to talk about God but in prompting others to talk about them.

The disappearance of dogmatic or speculative theology represents a great loss to contemporary Catholic Christianity. Dogmatics is the application of human reason, at once rigorous and submissive, to the highest matters of Christian faith. It is often argued, not least by Pope Benedict XVI, that when religious belief rejects the proper ministrations of reason—when it tries to carry on without the dogmatic virtues—it offers an open door to moral abuse in the name of religion, and at worst to murderous fanaticism.

With at least equal vigor (though with considerably less support from the wider world), Benedict has argued that reason, when it rejects the light that faith alone can provide, cannot help falling into relativism, moral and otherwise. Without the transcendent purpose provided by the dogmatic virtues, reason eventually inflicts upon itself a mortal wound, submitting not to the gentle light of faith but to the nihilism that reduces reason to a sinister technical instrument in the hands of the will to power.

That faith and reason need each other, though in different ways, is of course a deep principle of dogmatic theology. In the influential formulation of St. Thomas Aquinas, robustly embraced by Scheeben, the grace of faith does not eliminate natural reason but presupposes it, since divine teaching presupposes that we, as reasoning beings, can be taught. At the same time reason finds its perfection in the knowledge faith gives. Supernatural truths heal reason’s wounds and lift reason up to know the deep things of God.

Different religions may have different ways of looking at the role of reason in relation to what they believe. In Catholic Christianity, though, the deep things of God are meant to be searched out by the rational creature, as the rational creature is meant by God to find its perfection in the knowledge of divine mysteries. God reveals the secrets of his innermost life and the sublime destiny he holds out to us in himself, so that the mind can receive them, ponder them, and begin here and now its journey toward God.

To give up on the most diligent application of human reason to the highest mysteries of Christian faith, to give up on dogmatic theology, as contemporary Catholicism has unwittingly done, is not to honor these mysteries but to hold them at a safe distance. Seen only from afar, the divine mysteries remain vague to us, and as such they make few intellectual and moral demands on us. Our distance gives us the impression that we can make of these mysteries what we will, turning them into mirrors for our spiritual needs, real or imagined, rather than allowing ourselves to be reformed by them. Lots of very loose talk about the Trinity as little more than a high-sounding model for proper social or communal life provides an all-too-obvious example.

But we deceive ourselves. We must allow ourselves to be drawn close to the mysteries of God with Mary’s humility and to ponder them, as she has done, to the furthest limits of our creaturely reason. Failing to cultivate the dogmatic virtues—focus on the supernatural, sympathetic knowledge of the tradition, and the humility of the poor in spirit—does not leave us free to approach the mysteries of faith in other ways. It means we do not approach them at all.

In the deepest sense the value of dogmatic theology, and the need for it, lie with the interior life of faith. But the enrichment of the interior life in and through dogmatic reason also shapes communal and institutional reality. Vital speculative theology enables the Church to articulate the meaning and content of her faith as a whole, down to the most beautiful detail, and in a precise and persuasive way. When speculative theology languishes, the Church loses a great deal of her ability to say clearly what should be believed and why it should be believed—not only to outsiders whom she hopes to invite in but above all to herself and her own members.

We cannot by mere scholarship create, or reinvent, the almost vanished theological culture that Matthias Scheeben so richly embodies, as if doctoral programs and academic disciplines can make up for our deficit in dogmatic virtues. But we can read what he left us, and in a docile spirit quite out of step with our present-day cult of virtuosity we can let him lead us to others who have also used their intellectual gifts to enter into the divine mysteries. Most important of all, we can pray for the humility Scheeben brought to the task. The way back to a renewed and vital theological culture is long, but this is surely a good place to start.

Bruce D. Marshall is professor of Christian doctrine at Perkins School of Theology.