What is the nature and purpose of theology?

What is the nature and purpose of theology?

Fr John O'Neill PP

The following is not intended for those theologians whose studies bring them to loving Jesus Christ, which is theology's purpose: Per scientiam crescat amor (Through knowledge may love grow).

The recent book by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and petition from Dr Paul Collins et al have caused much discussion. People ask has one read the bishop's book, and I answer 'Why?' The same answer can be given to those who ask if the petition was taken up in 'my' parish. I did read the petition, but not the book. The petition's aim is plain enough and one gets something of the gist of Robinson's ideas from reviews of his work. Both, it seems, want to change some fundamentals of the Catholic faith and practice.

Why should we take any notice of them, except perhaps to enlighten any whom they lead off 'the narrow way that leads to life'? After all, they have merely added their names to a set of proposals that are as old as the Church, starting in St John's days with the gnostic, Cerinthus.

Such proposals come from minds that have proved themselves unfruitful, believing that truth in religion is a product of the mind of man, or of some sort of consensus of human opinion, and so they all make a very fundamental mistake, they forget that theology is the study of God: it does not construct Him.

The word theology derives, of course, from Greek, made up of two words, theou and logos, which mean the study of God. To accept this is vital to any good theology: note, it is the study of God and not the study of opinions about God.

Now, because God makes man and not man God, no one can study God unless He shows Himself to man: reveals Himself (revelation). Without revelation, men can share their ideas about God, but they can never arrive at clear knowledge of Him. People like Aristotle and Plato did very well without revelation, accepting there must be someone responsible for the existence of things.

Our little Green Catechism asked: 'How do we know there is a God?' and answered: 'We know there is a God by the things that He made;' and Paul criticised the genii on the Areopagus for not making that conclusion, and so discovering the 'Unknown God.' And he said they were blameworthy. What of us who have been given revelation?

We cannot make accurate study of God unless He shows Himself to us. This should be obvious: it applies to all study of objective things, that is, things that exist independent of man's thinking about them. If we want to know about the moon, it helps if someone has been there; a marine biologist will be able to tell us nothing about the habits of reef fish unless he gets his scuba gear and dives down to have a look at them.

It is the same for God: if we are to know Him well, then we need more than the fruits of our deductive powers working on the things He made; and if He does no more to make Himself known to us, then we are indeed left with only man's deductions from the evidence.


However, we do have divine revelation, by which He shows us, through His deeds in creating and saving, what He is like, and how He regards us. We have to be objective and logical in theology, and we have to be strict about metaphysical principles such as: something cannot be true and false at the same time; that God's nature is independent of what man thinks about it; that if God wants us to know Him, then He must show Himself to us in ways that are suited to our human nature.

Revelation is the means by which God shows Himself to us, and those means are chosen by God. The nature of those means is such that we will first be able to understand Him - though, of course, not fully - and then be drawn into the whole purpose of His creating and revealing - to be one with Him in love.

The means of knowing God are given to us by Him and must be suited to His nature and ours.

It is in the nature of light to let us see what things look like: it is in the nature of revelation to let us see what God is like, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and what man and his destiny are. So it is quite ridiculous for theologians to think they produce the content of Christianity, for this would mean the content would change with opinion, and we would have nothing stable at all.

Some think this would be acceptable - constant change - but the point is that if truth depends on the ideas of man, then we have as many 'truths' as there are men, and then we have no truth at all, because the only acceptable teaching is that teaching 'with authority behind it,' and we know of whom that was said.

If a person has, or has had, some office with authority in the Church, even if he be a priest, bishop, or even pope, he has to understand the nature and purpose of that authority. Authority is given to serve truth, not to invent it. If this is not so, then the hierarchy have the power to change heaven!

'By their fruits you shall know them,' said the Master. Theologians need to be GPs as well as specialists, in the sense that they should not so specialise in one discipline of theology that they divorce it from the others.

As with a grape vine with its branches, so with theology. The vine holds the branches together, making one plant, and if a branch falls off and dies, then it cannot bear fruit. So with the 'branches' of theology: they must all be one with the truth God has revealed, and the Commandments upon which He insists. Then we have unity. (See the Last Supper chapters in St John).

Much of today's so-called theology and Scripture study has given us a vague, unknowable, and so, unlovable Jesus Christ, and in this way, destroys the existence, wonder and glory of Christianity.

Fr John W. O'Neill STB is the parish priest of St John Vianney, Doonside, in the Diocese of Parramatta, NSW.

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