Thursday, August 03, 2006

Catholic teaching and Philosophy

Josh is a new LCMS seminarian with recently-completed grad degree on mathematics. He's had a blog for years, and enjoys poking a little fun and his fellow Christians who don't happen to be Lutherans. Some might confuse his style as mean-spirited, but I'm pretty confident that it's usually just light-hearted jabbing.

Josh has read some Catholic theology (e.g. Ratzinger's Spirit of the Liturgy), but he still has some, erroneous ideas about the Catholic distinctives. For example (do a Find for what follows):
    I think the conversation with the Roman Catholics is kind of useless since they keep avoiding bringing divine judgment into the language of morality. It's all just natural philosophy (and which natural philosophy is the right one is sufficiently obvious that they don't feel obligated to defend it). I want to know how God thinks about it.
Josh seems convinced that Catholic theology is all too often based (solely?) upon philosophical reasoning. On the one hand, I can somewhat understand that: there certainly have been theologians and theological schools whose language (and in some cases, even substance) tended to be very philosophical.

On the other hand, Catholic doctrine is completely theological, and the employment of philosophical terminology and concepts serve only to explain or elaborate the theological doctrine (usually because it's under attack). Now, it might take some study to see how a particular Catholic teaching is more than mere human philosophical discourse, but such a study will be fruitful.

Josh's particular favorite kicking boy on this is the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Josh thinks it's an unbiblical, Aristotelian attempt to explain the Real Presence. To some degree, that's true (minus the "unbiblical" part). But as I've noted in conversations with Josh, there's little difference between the employment Greek philosophy to "explain" the Real Presence and the employment of Greek philosophy to "explain" the Trinity. Some object here, that in the latter case (that of Trinitarian doctrine) philosophy is only employed to explain what God is, while in the case of transubstantiation, philosophy is employed to explain how the Real Presence occurs. According to this line of thinking, a doctrine which employs philosophy to explain how is illicit, while a doctrine which employs philosophy to explain that is licit.

I don't accept that. It seems to me that every doctrine in some what is both a that and a how doctrine, even though it might be more clearly one or the other in some cases. For instance, it could rightly be argued that transubstantiation is necessary to explain in as full and complete manner as possible the truth that Jesus is really, truly present in the Eucharist. And it could also be rightly argued that Nicaea's trinitarian doctrine explains how we can speak of God as three an one simultaneously.

While the following is essentially a bald assertion, it's worth making it: Catholic doctrine is fundamentally and essentially biblical (and hence theological), and those who argue otherwise will see the error of their ways if they are able to postively engage Catholic teaching without an a priori hermeneutic of suspicion.

Parenthetically, this whole misunderstanding is a macrocosm of the stereotypical view held by many (Catholic and others alike) of St. Thomas Aquinas: he is seen as a philosopher who employs Aristotle to create useless and meaningless distinctions about the faith. In fact, Thomas was first and foremost a biblical theologian, who spent a significant chunk of his lectures and writings in commenting on Sacred Scripture. In other words, the same misapprehension is made regarding Catholic doctrine as a whole as is made regarding the Common Doctor.

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