When theologians consider one truth in the light of another, by the dialectical method of disciplined meditation and discussion, they are often said to be engaged in the work of interpretation or of investigation of the meaning of the truths of faith. But one must distinguish between the effort to facilitate a given communication and the investigation of the ulterior significance of truths already formulated and accepted. The former is called “interpretation” in the strict sense discussed in Appendix 1; it is the chief work of positive theology. The latter might better be called “understanding” as in “faith seeking understanding”; this is the work of systematic theology.
The two tasks obviously are closely related and often confused. One reason for this is that theological reflection often begins from written documents, especially Scripture; documents are open both to interpretation and to understanding by systematic reflection. The interpreter of the Bible seeks to facilitate communication of what the language actually expresses; this is the quest for the literal sense of Scripture. Systematic reflection by disciplined meditation considers what Scripture literally communicates in one place and compares it with what it communicates in another (for example, by comparing the Old and New Testaments), or compares what Scripture literally communicates with other truths pertaining to faith and Christian life. Such systematic work is said to discover various spiritual or figurative (more-than-literal) senses of Scripture. In fact, the effort is to understand the realities which pertain to faith by the meditative comparison of one truth with another.
Confusion between interpretation and theological understanding not only occurs in the study of Scripture but also in treatments of defined doctrines and other truths of faith. For example, to interpret the Church’s teaching on original sin is to try to determine the literal sense of the documents in which this teaching is expressed, such as the decree on the subject of the Council of Trent (see DS 1510–16/787–92), and to rearticulate what the documents assert in such a way that someone today can understand them accurately and thus accept or reject what the Church actually teaches, not some other propositions. But systematic theologians sometimes say they wish to offer a fresh interpretation of original sin, when they actually mean they wish to propose a new theological understanding of the states of affairs picked out by the propositions which the Church teaches.
Interpretation helps us know exactly what God has revealed, precisely what he wishes to communicate to us, especially in the Incarnation, the words and deeds, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Theological understanding helps us discover what difference this revelation makes to all of created reality and what difference it makes or should make for our own lives, so that we can consciously and responsibly praise God for what he is doing and cooperate with him in doing it. Notice that one might say: Theological reflection helps one to discover what revelation means for all of creation and for our own lives. But this use of “means” does not refer to the meaning of linguistic expressions which interpretation seeks; rather, it refers to relationships in reality itself.
This distinction between interpretation and theological reflection of a systematic sort points to a very important aspect of theological method: The quest for understanding of the faith presupposes the acceptance of the truths of faith (see S.t., 1, q. 1, aa. 2, 5, 8). As the International Theological Commission states: “. . . theology can only be done in a living communion with the faith of the Church.”22 Theology is bound by the word of God in Scripture and in tradition; it is bound by the confessions of the belief of the Church in this and previous times; it is bound by the documents of tradition; and it is bound by pastoral and missionary responsibility, for theologians should take account of the impact of their publications on the belief of the faithful, on the proclamation of the gospel, and on catechesis.23
A dialectical method similar to that of theology can be used by one who does not accept the truth which God has revealed; in such a case, the discipline is a kind of philosophy. Or the method can be used by one—such as a believing Jew or Protestant—who does not think that the truth of divine revelation is present intact in the belief and teaching of the Catholic Church; in such a case, the discipline is theology, but not Catholic theology. One who is not a believer can try to interpret the Bible, using “interpret” in the strict sense of finding its literal meaning. But one cannot undertake to understand what one believes, using “understand” in the sense of systematic reflection, unless one believes some propositions.
Although this position might seem self-evident, some today deny it. Noticing that faith is a personal relationship with God, they exclude from faith itself all propositional content. To the extent that faith pertains to the mind, they reduce it to a kind of experience of God, a preconceptual and extrapropositional religious sense. The propositions which the Church believes and hands on as truths of faith are, on this view, only symbols or inadequate representations, which never fully express faith itself (see C, above, and accompanying notes).
This view presupposes the possibility of a more than sentient preconceptual and extrapropositional contact with reality. I indicated in chapter two, appendix three, why this presupposition is implausible. The teaching of Vatican I on faith (see DS 3008–20/1789–1800, 3031–43/1810–18) takes for granted throughout that faith itself includes the acceptance of some definite propositions. The nonpropositional notion of faith was put forward by certain theologians—referred to as “modernists”—around the beginning of this century.24 St. Pius X rejects this view (see DS 3484–86/2081–85). That assent to some definite propositions is essential to faith is obvious from the New Testament itself (see Acts 2.41; Rom 10.9–17; 1 Cor 15.1–8; 1 Tm 4.6; 2 Tm 4.1–5; and many other places).
Those who advocate a nonpropositional notion of faith should be asked several questions. First, precisely what is faith on this view, and how can one tell whether one has it or not? Second, can an individual refuse to believe? If so, how? Third, how can anyone communicate the faith? How can any group hold the same faith? Fourth, how can any proposition symbolize or express faith? Exactly what is the supposed relationship between faith and expression? Fifth, how can one tell whether one or another expression is more or less appropriate?
Careful reflection upon such questions will make it clear that, although Christian faith is much more than assent to a set of propositions, anything called “faith” which does not include propositional content will be something completely different from what is called “faith” in the Bible and in the whole of Catholic tradition. It is possible for a person, like Plato, to carry on dialectical inquiry without accepting many propositions as certainly true; indeed, Plato perhaps assumed as truths which could never be contradicted only the things which must be so if dialectical inquiry is to be possible and worth carrying on. But usually those who engage in dialectic are not purely seekers of wisdom as Plato was; rather, they think that in some way they have ultimate truth.
Christians believe God has given humankind wisdom in the person of our Lord, Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor 1.18–2.16); Catholics believe that truths which belong to this wisdom are present in the belief and teaching which come to us in the Church from the apostles (see DS 1501/783, 3006/1787; DV 7–10). Therefore, Catholic theology is a dialectical reflection which begins not only from the belief that the quest for wisdom is possible and worthwhile, but also from the belief that God has mercifully responded to humankind’s quest for wisdom. In theology, every past linguistic expression is open to examination and improvement; every proposition which does not somehow pertain to faith is open to denial if it should turn out to be incompatible with a truth of faith; every truth of faith is open to development as the Church gradually grows in understanding of God’s revelation in Jesus. But not every proposition is open to denial, for then the proposition that God has revealed himself would be open to denial, and one’s inquiry would not be theological.
Similarly, in Catholic theology, the truths the Catholic Church proposes for belief cannot be denied. Some today, however, seem to reject certain truths of Catholic faith, yet say they do not deny what the Church believes, but only reinterpret it. What are we to make of this?
Certainly, more careful interpretation of the documents of faith can throw new light on old truths without contradicting them. But some people actually do deny the factual content of faith and continue to accept only certain general propositions entailed by the Church’s beliefs. They seem to feel a need to eliminate from faith everything which is factually unique, since the factually unique cannot be reduced to a phase in a rational system. For example, some writers say they reinterpret the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus; they fail to affirm (or they even deny) that he is not dead now; they accept a general proposition, such as that Jesus plays a vital role in the religious lives of his followers, which is entailed by the traditional teaching; and they claim that their account of the role Jesus plays in the lives of his followers is a reinterpretation of the traditional doctrine of the resurrection—a reinterpretation which at last arrives at its true meaning, after nearly two thousand years of naive misunderstandings.
This procedure is deceptive. Catholic faith is not simply belief in a system of general propositions, but in the flesh and blood reality of the revelation of God in the Lord Jesus.25 We cling to the Word Incarnate, to the intactness of his mother’s virginity, to the bloody reality of his death, to his fleshly risen life, to his bodily presence in the Eucharist, to the death-dealing effect of our first parents’ sin, to the life-giving power of our Lord’s risen body for our dead bodies, and to the confident hope that we shall embrace him in the flesh. Catholic faith is not afraid of what is too concrete to be intelligible. We kneel before matter: the Word made flesh.
Vatican I already condemns anyone who “says that as science progresses it is sometimes possible for dogmas that have been proposed by the Church to receive a different meaning from the one which the Church understood and understands” (DS 3043/1818). In a famous statement at the beginning of Vatican II, John XXIII calls for a suitable restatement of Catholic teaching. But he points out that this is only possible because “the deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment, is another.”26 By making this statement its own (see GS 62), Vatican II enhanced its importance.
However, this statement of Pope John’s often has been mistranslated and misrepresented. He is making it clear that the propositional truths of faith are distinct from their linguistic expression. The phrase, “keeping the same meaning and the same judgment,” usually is omitted by those who misinterpret this statement, because it would block the misinterpretation.
This phrase is a clear allusion to the classic statement of St. Vincent of Lerins (see FEF 2174) which Vatican I cites when it teaches that the “meaning of the sacred dogmas that has once been declared by holy Mother Church, must always be retained; and there must never be any deviation from that meaning on the specious grounds of a more profound understanding” (DS 3020/1800; cf. 3043/1818). Plainly, John XXIII is not opening the door to a merely verbal fidelity which would give the Church’s definitions of faith and her common, even if nondefinitive, ways of expressing her belief a meaning different from the one the Church understood when those expressions were used prior to the opening of Vatican II.
Anyone who claims only to reinterpret the Church’s beliefs yet seems to deny any aspect of them should be asked: Is yours the only reinterpretation of this doctrine or are there possibly others? In any case in which the deceptive procedure is used, there can be plural stories, each of them inconsistent with the others. The next question is: By what standard is your reinterpretation to be judged better or worse than any alternative? If the answer is: By the standard of the witnesses of faith, interpreted as the Church understands them, then one is dealing with a legitimate theological effort. If the answer is: By the standard of modern science, or by the standard of credibility to the contemporary mind, or by the standard of relevance to current problems, or anything of this sort—anything except the witnesses of faith understood as the Church understands them—then one is dealing with something other than a legitimate theological effort.
Often enough, those who claim to reinterpret the Church’s beliefs but really deny them fail to ask themselves the question about a standard; they offer no decision procedure for one who wishes to compare and critically evaluate so-called reinterpretations. In the absence of a decision procedure, reinterpretation is not science, not dialectic, not a disciplined form of inquiry at all. Rather, it is a form of storytelling, a poor kind of fiction.