Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture
by matthew levering
baker academic, 384 pages, $44.99
atthew Levering’s prodigious scholarly output, his editing of significant theological handbooks, and his co-editorship of the English edition of the important international journal Nova et Vetera place him in the forefront of American Catholic theology. His work reflects Vatican II’s insistence that Scripture is “the soul of theology.” At the same time, it cogently affirms the indispensable place of a speculative, indeed, a metaphysical moment in the theological task.
Levering’s latest book, Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation, resists what he calls “ecclesiastical fall narratives,” which fault the Church for befouling and poisoning the living waters of the Gospel. Against this view, he mounts a forceful and sustained counter-argument: “The Church truthfully mediates God’s revelation to us, due to the efficacious missions of the Son and the Spirit.” Levering neither denies nor minimizes the failures and scandals in the course of the Church’s history. The Church of Jesus Christ is most certainly a corpus permixtum. But its earthen vessels, thanks to the grace of the exalted Christ and the promised Holy Spirit, bear and transmit the divine treasure with which it is entrusted and for which it is commissioned.
Hence Levering argues and affirms a distinctively Catholic “both/and.” The divine missions are the source of revelation; but that revelation is communicated and transmitted through human mediation. The law of Incarnation stands fully on display. Through human mediation the Word of God comes to us today and does not remain relegated to a distant past.
evering traces the multiple modes of mediation in chapters treating Church, liturgy, priesthood, Gospel, tradition, development, inspiration, and philosophy. In each instance the presentation is enlivened and rendered dramatic by his respectful dialogue with contrary views. Respectful dialogue, however, by no means excludes trenchant argumentation and disagreement. Many of the chapters, in effect, present an extensive videtur quod non that provides, often at considerable length, a contrast position to his own. In the process one is introduced to a wide sampling of contemporary theological views, both Protestant and Catholic. The forty-five-page bibliography at the end of the volume provides striking testimony to the astonishing breadth of Levering’s reading. However, at times the laudable effort to consider and do justice to a variety of authors and views can border on overload. The numerous and lengthy footnotes introduce new voices to the discussion, sometime at the risk of distracting from the argument unfolding in the body of the text. But, if these be blemishes, they stem from an admirable intellectual engagement and generosity.
Taking his lead from von Balthasar, Levering considers the mystery of the Church from the vantage of mission. The Church is born of the inseparable missions of the Incarnate Word and the Pentecostal Spirit. Therefore, its very nature is missionary. Though in press before the issuance of Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium, the book can appeal to the papal document to support this central ecclesiological claim: The Church is constitutively missionary, permanently “in mission.” It is called to mediate, through Word, sacraments, and service, the divine life. To be, in Francis’s memorable phrase, the “field hospital” for a needful and wounded world, or, in the striking claim of Vatican II, “the universal sacrament of salvation.”
crucial point in Levering’s argument is to identify liturgy, and, in particular, the Eucharist, as the privileged locus for the mediation of revelation and the empowering for mission. Here Levering suggestively draws upon the insights of Orthodox liturgist Alexander Schmemann, as well as those of Joseph Ratzinger. He strongly seconds Schmemann’s contention that “theology must begin with our encounter with the risen Christ in the Eucharist.” And he endorses Ratzinger’s assertion that, in the early Church, “the reading of Scripture and the confession of faith were primarily liturgical acts of the whole assembly gathered around the Risen Lord.” As the Eucharist makes manifest, revelation always originates with the free and gracious initiative of God in the consecratory missions of Word and Spirit. But revelation’s fruitful reception summons the community beyond itself to ongoing transformation in the Spirit of its Risen Lord.
Tradition also figures prominently and distinctively in Catholic life and theology as mediation of revelation. However, developments since Vatican II seem often to relativize or even to reject appeals to it. Levering puts the matter starkly: “Catholic theology of Tradition has also been challenged in recent years by concerns that, having first emerged within classical Protestant liberalism, now dominate much of the Catholic theological academy.” Appeals to social contexts and human constructs threaten to eviscerate any appeal to “a divinely authoritative word with doctrinal content that transcends the vicissitudes of history even while being embedded in particular times and places.”
n a telling aside Levering maintains (I think correctly) that Yves Congar’s magisterial Tradition and Traditions today represents the “conservative” view. Congar recovered a far richer understanding of tradition than that conveyed in the theological manuals of the time. This recovery is reflected in the epochal second chapter (“The Transmission of Divine Revelation”) of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. But Congar never doubted that the revelation entrusted to the Church has a concrete cognitive content, a true “deposit,” which the apostolic ministry of the Church must safeguard and whose interpretation into new situations it must guide. Indeed, such is Vatican II’s explicit teaching.
In truth, Dei Verbum serves as Levering’s lodestar in this chapter on “Tradition” and throughout the book. A case can be made that, among the four “constitutions” promulgated by the council, it enjoys pride of place, since everything said about the nature of the Church, as well as about the Church’s liturgical celebration and mission to the world, depends upon the fact of a revelation being given and then transmitted faithfully in the Church’s Scripture and tradition. All the participants at the Second Vatican Council, whatever their theological orientation, were at one in acknowledging the givenness, the fact of revelation—le donné révélé (the title of a book by Ambrose Gardeil, O.P., which Levering cites).
However, the current situation in Catholic theology raises the pressing question whether such a conviction can any longer be presumed. What gives rise to the question is the perception that, in many instances, Dei Verbum has been accorded benign neglect, if not rejection. Its foundational confession that “Christ is the mediator and fullness of all revelation” can appear too “dogmatic” to those leery of “absolutist” truth claims, or insufficiently sensitive to some engaged in interreligious or Jewish-Christian dialogue. So, for example, its confession of Christ as the fulfillment of Torah is criticized as promoting supersessionism.
Thus, even before exploring the diverse vehicles of “mediation,” this prior issue needs to be addressed. Is there, indeed, a revealed given (un donné révélé) whose consummation is Christ, a Word divinely authored and authorized that is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8; see Gaudium et Spes, #10)? For, absent this Christic center, the Church, its liturgy, and its tradition, drift aimlessly “tossed by waves and swept along by every windy teaching” (Eph. 4:14). To his credit, Levering faces the issue forthrightly. In full agreement with Cardinal Newman, he asserts that “the ‘idea of Christianity’ is not separable from a specific cognitive content, even if that content can always be unfolded more deeply.” And that defining “idea” is the unique Incarnation of the divine Word in Jesus Christ.
ther deficiencies that the book rightly challenges cluster around this contemporary Christological de-centering. Appeals are made to some nameless “Spirit,” in place of the New Testament’s proclamation (and Vatican II’s affirmation) that the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Or an amorphous pneumatology repeatedly celebrates “community” to the de facto omission of any reference to the Head from whom the ecclesial community derives its life and mission.
On another front, the reaction against the often arid propositionalism of pre-conciliar theology risks voiding revelation of substantive truth claims. Christian faith can then be reduced to culture-specific “practices,” whether pious or political. Thus fides qua (faith as trusting attitude, personal commitment) is privileged to the detriment of fides quae (the specific content of faith—what one actually believes). There is significant failure to recognize that religious practices and exercises themselves embody a theological vision, that praxis is always theory-laden.
Finally, a widespread mistrust of authority and the constant critique leveled against “hierarchy” in both Church and society can severely compromise the mediating witness proper to the apostolic ministry in the Church. Magisterial teaching then becomes only one, not disinterested, theological option—an exercise of power, rather than a discernment of truth.
In these and other matters, the promiscuous pluralism of wares in the theological marketplace, which Cardinal Avery Dulles lamented in his book The Craft of Theology, receives detailed cataloguing and spirited response in Levering’s volume.
Though Levering enters the lists with vigor, he does so with civility and affords those with whom he contends a close reading and attentive hearing. But by his uncompromising espousal and exposition of a Christological hermeneutic, which reads, as does Vatican II, both Scripture and history in the light of Christ, Levering’s welcome and much-needed book makes a salutary contribution to diagnosing theology’s present ills and providing resources for their cure.
hree brief observations in conclusion. The thesis announced in the book’s subtitle, “The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture,” would, in my view, be better served if the chapter “Gospel” were the book’s first chapter rather than its fourth. It would thus make structurally more evident that all the loci of mediation are rooted in the Good News of Jesus Christ and are measured by his paschal mystery.
Second, while I applaud Levering’s insistence on the importance of propositions in expounding faith’s cognitive content and truth claims, he might have brought into greater relief their mystagogic nature, as true but never exhaustive articulations of the mystery of the faith.
A final factual point: The pope who created the “Mixed Commission” charged with rewriting the rejected initial schema on divine revelation in the fall of 1962 was not Paul VI (as the book states) but John XXIII.
Robert P. Imbelli, emeritus associate professor of theology at Boston College, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization.