Early-twentieth-century Catholic theology was dominated by the “modernist” school, marked by higher criticism, questioning of the Church, and assimilation with modern culture. Several popes fought this trend by silencing and deposing theologians. In 1962, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, bringing about significant change.
This list provides a good starting point for thoughtful Protestant Christians looking to understand post-Vatican II theology. It introduces some of the most important Catholic theologians and trends in recent history.
Karl Rahner (1904–84)
Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit priest and theologian, influenced Vatican II and post-conciliar theology significantly. He sought to craft a faithfully Catholic theology that mediated between traditionalism and modernism. Rahner believed that twentieth-century theologians had undermined God’s transcendence. Thus, building on Kant, Joseph Maréchal, and Heidegger, he crafted a “transcendental” method to balance God’s transcendence and immanence.
Rahner’s articles and essays were published in the 21-volume, 8,000-page Theological Investigations. The Investigations is quite expensive and a difficult read, even for seasoned theologians. Thus, most Protestant readers would do well to start with Foundations of the Christian Faith, an eminently accessible one-volume systematic theology written toward the end of Rahner’s career.
Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988)
Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss priest and theologian, was an influential member of the nouvelle théologie (“new theology”) movement that arose during the twentieth century, mostly among German and French theologians. Nouvelle théologie theologians wanted Catholic theology to return to its original purity of thought and expression. Thus, they advocated for ressourcement, a “return to the sources,” of the Christian faith, namely Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. Balthasar sought to cultivate a faithfully Catholic model of the continuity of being between God and humanity, doing so in conversation with the writings of Swiss theologian Karl Barth. He is known in hermeneutics for his advocacy of the four senses of Scripture.
Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord conceives of theology as the dramatic display of divine beauty, as a form of discourse that is attentive and receptive to God’s radiating glory. In The Word Made Flesh, Balthasar argues that the Church’s experience mirrors the divine-human union of Jesus Christ. In Theo-Drama, he seeks to restore theology’s dramatic dimension, portraying, for example, Christology in light of the Son’s mission rather than in philosophical categories of nature, being, and essence. A helpful introduction to Balthasar’s thought is Matthew Levering’s The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Henri de Lubac (1896–1991)
Henri de Lubac was a French Jesuit priest, cardinal, and theologian. His theological views continue to resonate among Catholics and have found a warm reception among many evangelicals. Perhaps his most significant theological contribution is his work on nature and grace, employing, as he did, a strategy of ressourcement in order to argue that nature is both made for grace and fulfilled by grace. For de Lubac, nature is itself a gracious gift, one that reorders and redirects itself (on this, de Lubac’s view is similar to that of Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck).
De Lubac argued that the Church had unfortunately allowed its understanding of the corpus mysticum to migrate from the Sacrament to the Church, setting the stage for the corpus mysticum to migrate again, this time from the Church to the nation-state. De Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum examines medieval eucharistic theology and argues against scholastic trends in more recent Catholic theology. In Surnaturel, he strengthens his earlier case against scholasticism. In Medieval Exegesis, de Lubac defends the allegorical biblical interpretation of patristic theologians. Perhaps the best concise treatment of de Lubac’s accomplishments is Balthasar’s The Theology of Henri de Lubac.
David Tracy (1939–)
David Tracy is an American priest and one of the most creative and sophisticated theologians of the late twentieth century. His writings focus on theological method, integrating modern theology, philosophy, and literary criticism into a complex synthesis. Tracy’s work has been attacked on many fronts: for parading his learning too ostentatiously; for appropriating the thoughts of nearly every contemporary thinker, even when those thinkers’ contributions contradict one another; for producing prose that consists of an almost incontinent welter of names and ambiguities; and for a high-mandarin intellectual style that elevates the anecdotal enthymeme—that is, a syllogism in which one premise, often the major premise, has been suppressed—to the level of his own literary genre.
First time-readers of Tracy should start with his first major treatise, Blessed Rage for Order. An exercise in fundamental theology, it argues that Christian theology must be faithful both to God and to contemporary thought. If the reader has not been beaten to his knees by Blessed Rage, he might wish to tackle The Analogical Imagination, in which Tracy argues that theology must be public and interact with three distinct audiences: the academy, the Church, and society as a whole. Finally, the reader might be interested in Plurality and Ambiguity, which explores postmodernity from a questionably Christian perspective and serves as one of the greatest triumphs of the twentieth century’s Linguistic Obfuscation Department.
George Weigel (1951–)
George Weigel is widely considered the most influential contemporary Catholic layperson. He is best known for his two-volume biography of Pope John Paul II, his writings on the ethics of warfare, and his analyses of the Vatican and of Catholicism worldwide, as well as his warnings about progressive ideologies that threaten to subvert Catholic teaching.
First-time readers would do well to start with Witness to Hope, Weigel’s first biography of John Paul II. Readers interested in his public theology should read The Cube and the Cathedral (an evaluation of European and American politics in light of Christianity’s shrinking influence) or The Fragility of Order (Weigel’s reflections on current socio-political issues).
Matthew Levering (1971–)
Matthew Levering is arguably North America’s finest Catholic systematic theologian. In addition to co-editing Nova et Vetera and the International Journal of Systematic Theology, Levering is the author or editor of over forty books. He has published significant volumes on Augustine and Aquinas, and is currently completing a nine-volume dogmatics, the first several volumes of which have already been published. First-time readers of Levering may wish to begin with Participatory Biblical Exegesis (an introduction to theological hermeneutics) or Engaging the Doctrine of Creation (a volume of his projected nine-volume dogmatics that shows his exegetical and theological method in action).
Scott Hahn (1957–)
Having converted from Presbyterianism, Scott Hahn is arguably North America’s finest Catholic biblical theologian. According to Rome Sweet Home, Hahn swam the Tiber after coming to grips with the Bible’s pervasive teaching on covenant. For Hahn, the new covenant established by Christ includes the installation of a worldwide family constituted by the Roman Catholic Church. In his view, Christ is the head of this new family while the pope functions as his “prime minister.” First-time readers of Hahn may wish to start with The Father Who Keeps His Promises (an accessible biblical theology of covenant) or Hope to Die (a reflection on death and resurrection). Readers interested in his exegesis may wish to read Romans (a scholarly commentary).
Bruce Riley Ashford is a fellow in public theology at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and author, most recently, of The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach.
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