Suppose we indulge our fondest hopes. Let us imagine that Pope Benedict XVI turns out to be quite unlike what many expected, and that he embraces a spirit of theological openness and generosity. No longer would a respected and respectful editor of a Jesuit journal be removed for the sin of advocating fairness; no more would a leading theological ethicist be removed from a tenured position or a systematic theologian be quelled by the same threat.

In this new atmosphere, local pastors would no longer be summoned to account in Rome on the basis of parishioners’ calls to the bishop (as priest friends of mine have been). Scholars (like me) would not be disinvited to conferences on Aquinas because they criticized John Paul’s theology of the body, or be asked to sign a statement that they would not do anything to “embarrass the church” when lecturing at a university, or, on the basis of other anonymous calls, be warned by the vicar-general of an archbishop who is now a cardinal against being “soft on the bodily Resurrection” of Christ when teaching New Testament to adult Catholics. The “big chill” within contemporary Catholicism includes all those mechanisms, overt and covert, by which the Vatican has deliberately sought to suppress theological intelligence and imagination in the name of doctrinal and moral “Truth.”

Now suppose all these measures stopped because Benedict XVI turned out to be someone who actually moderated his predecessor’s repressive instincts. Would the church then be in a state beatific? Would a healthy balance between magisterial authority and theological inquiry be struck then?

I am not sanguine. For one thing, the chill has become systemic. The episcopacy shaped by John Paul II will continue to perpetuate its fearful distrust of theologians. Defenders of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) argue that its investigations and sanctions of theologians are about “truth in advertising”—Catholic theologians in Catholic colleges should teach the way the Vatican says they should teach. Such a claim does little more than reduce theological truth to catechesis.

Is there a better way to think about the relationship between theologians and the church’s hierarchy? I think so. If we focus our hope for the church on the personality or policy proclivities of this or the last or the next pope, we simply perpetuate the Vatican’s tendency to identify the church with the magisterium and the magisterium with the pope. That, in turn, contributes to the ill-conceived conviction that all theological wisdom must spring from a single source. This fixation is problematic even—perhaps especially—if we grant that John Paul II and Benedict XVI are genuine and even important theologians. This fixation on the papacy results in the steady theological impoverishment of the church as a whole, precisely at a time when the task of articulating the church’s faith is urgent and daunting. The effort by the Vatican and its allies to control theological debate reflects little trust in the capacity of theologians to criticize one another—something they have never been reluctant to do—and even less trust in the best-educated laity in Catholic history that is hungry for intellectual engagement with the faith that is not condensed and condescending. Defenders of the CDF’s actions like to say that theology is an ecclesial, not merely an academic, vocation. I agree. It is precisely because theology is done by and for the church that it requires the highest gifts of theological intelligence and imagination. Some of the best theological talent available to the church today is found outside the clergy. If these lay theologians teach in Catholic colleges or seminaries, they are placed under strict control; if they teach in Protestant or secular schools, they are largely ignored. Many in the hierarchy seem indifferent to the academic theological community, while others seem hostile to the climate of intellectual freedom that theology needs.


Conditions Chronic & Acute

As the long history of heresy and schism shows, maintaining a healthy tension between authority and theological inquiry has never been easy. Those who value tradition and good order find it convenient to regard impulses toward exploration and liberty as a dangerous enthusiasm. And those who treasure freedom and creativity dismiss the concern for tradition as legalism and authoritarianism. It is extraordinarily difficult to honor equally both impulses, both sets of values.

At the Second Vatican Council, the spirit of theological openness and imagination was welcomed into the highest deliberations of the church. Bishops sat as students of theologians who had somehow survived an earlier ice age characterized by Rome’s war against modernism. In the council’s statements on ecumenism, on collegiality, on the role of the laity, and on religious liberty, the spirit of open inquiry seemed to be institutionalized. Alas, the forty years since the council have seen a steady retreat from intellectual freedom. The present situation is especially worrisome since theological values that should be mutual and held in balance are thought by many to be opposed to one another. Advocates of freedom and the spirit of theological inquiry can so exaggerate these values as to obscure the value of loyalty to tradition. Defenders of tradition and papal authority sometimes speak and act in ways suggesting that intellectual freedom is a luxury too dangerous for the church to afford. It is, indeed, increasingly difficult to assert a middle position in which theological inquiry and intellectual freedom are understood as essential to a genuine loyalty, and loyalty is understood as requiring intellectual integrity—that is, freedom.

A tendency on both sides of the debate to deny the need to make distinctions between what is of lesser and greater importance in the practice of the faith exacerbates the ideological polarization. On the left, making such distinctions is perceived as intolerant, and in the name of freedom, all boundaries are ignored if not denied. On the right, making such distinctions is seen as a way of opening the door to the wholesale betrayal of the faith: everything is of equal importance, and making distinctions risks the loss of everything. This polarization profoundly threatens the integrity of theology within the church. Theology thrives precisely on the making of distinctions, and on the delicate negotiation of fidelity to tradition and openness to new understandings of that tradition.

Theology’s role is not simply to transmit the faith, but also to interrogate the faith in the name of and on the behalf of truth. To be sure, without catechesis, theological imagination descends into an amorphous spirituality. I have written recently in these pages about “the new gnosticism,” and proponents of that ancient but seemingly perennial theological error, such as Matthew Fox, are easy to spot. But without theology, catechesis devolves into sterile repetition of formulas that become less and less intelligible for not being interrogated afresh.

The greatest theologians in the church, from Origen through Aquinas to Rahner, have tried to strike this delicate and dangerous balance. All were profoundly loyal to the tradition and could, in sermon and in lesson, express that faith with utter simplicity, and their lives expressed that faith in genuine discipleship. Yet each was willing, indeed, impelled, to bring the most stringent questioning to the tradition. Do those who now regard Thomism as fundamental for Christian theology not understand how radical and dangerous a thinker St. Thomas Aquinas was? His willingness to address the wisdom of the nations (Greeks and Muslims) and allow the tradition to be challenged by Aristotle required a kind of loyalty to tradition and an intellectual integrity that could never be commanded or controlled from the outside. Aquinas’s renewed synthesis of faith and intellect emerged because his great mind and heart were given the liberty to find a new expression of the good news. Do those demanding the suppression of theological work not see that the best way to imitate Thomas is to engage, with equal fidelity and creativity, the intellectual challenges posed by our own day? Is there no wisdom God wants us to learn from the movements for women’s liberation, for democracy, for freedom of conscience? Is not the challenge presented by evolution at least as great as that posed by Muslim philosophers of the Middle Ages?


The Church & Revelation

Like Aquinas, theologians today ask hard questions in the language of our own age concerning the truth of the gospel, not in order to erode or compromise that truth, but to allow its splendor to become more powerfully manifest. Theologians of this age, as of every age, are obliged to inquire into the ways in which the structures and processes of the church itself best serve the truth of the gospel. In every age, Christians must struggle with deep intrinsic tensions that derive from the church’s peculiar and paradoxical character. On one side, there is what we might call the resurrection principle: the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit that comes from the exalted Lord Jesus and pushes believers toward transformation and growth, toward the exercise of spiritual gifts and of responsible freedom in response to the urgings of the Spirit. “The Lord is the Spirit,” declares Paul, “and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). In Jesus, all previous human understanding of the law and prophets is transcended. And because this spirit of freedom comes from the Lord and not from humans, its exercise must ultimately be responsible to the Lord rather than to humans.

In addition to the resurrection principle the church also embodies what may be called the incarnational principle. Christianity is embodied in the same way that the human Jesus was embodied, which means that, like Jesus himself, the church is always particular, historical, and conditioned by the social realities of each age. In sociological terms, it has always been an intentional community, one that exists because of the commitment of its members. It is, therefore, an inherently unstable community. Those who grasp this fact appreciate that tradition is a delicate business. Tradition seeks not to live in the past, but to remember the past in order to secure the future. As a consequence, tradition must be tended carefully and respectfully.

In light of this tension between the resurrection and incarnational impulses, two distinct understandings of the church and its relation to God’s revelation come into play for the theologian. Both understandings (or metaphors or models) are found in the New Testament, both contain genuine, even indispensable values, and in both the relation of the church to revelation is distinct. In one, there seems to be little place for the theologian. In the other, the role of the theologian is critical. Today, one model has almost totally eclipsed the other, and a renewed appreciation for both as held in a creative tension may help us think anew about the ecclesial vocation of the theologian.

One metaphor for the church in the New Testament is the household. The image has roots in the metaphor of “house” for the people of Israel, but is even more directly connected to the Hellenistic household (oikos) in which early Christians gathered as an assembly (ekklesia). The image leads naturally to thinking of the church in terms of authority—moving from top to bottom, as in the patriarchal household of antiquity—and good order. The image is especially associated with the Pastoral Epistles. Paul tells his delegate Timothy to tend to “how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim 3:15). By no means is the image disconnected from the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul elsewhere speaks of the Corinthian community as “God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9) and as “God’s Temple” since “God dwells among you” (1 Cor 3:16). But the metaphor’s entailments move in the direction of an administration of “God’s mysteries” by those, like Paul and Apollos, who are “servants and household managers” (1 Cor 4:1). And in the Pastoral Letters, when Paul is faced with deviant teaching that threatens the truth of the gospel, the image helps secure a chain of authority that will preserve the deposit of the faith (2 Tim 1:13; 2:2). Already in these letters, we see Paul speaking of the “supervisor” (episkopos = bishop) of the community in terms analogous to the head of the household: the moral and intellectual qualities appropriate in one are appropriate in the other too (1 Tim 3:1–7; Tit 1:7–9).

This household model of the church is positive and powerful and it does some things very well. It is good at preserving tradition and passing it on. But this model is not good at facilitating the contributions of those who are not the head of the household. Nor does it welcome the possibility that the church may have something to learn from those outside the household. Small wonder that this image proved so attractive to an early Christianity that was trying to secure its place in the world. It maintained the boundaries of the “household of faith” against the rival claims of Jew and Gentile, and, as early as the second century, against the confusions perpetrated by heretics.

In Catholicism, the image of the household has been merged with a strongly juridical reading of Matthew 16:18–19, which reports Jesus designating Peter as the rock “on which I will build (as a house = oikodomeso) my church (ekklesia),” and gives Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and loose. Ecclesial development has tended toward the establishment of the bishop of Rome as the supreme “head of the household of the faith.” Just as Caesar was the paterfamilias of a worldwide household, the oikoumene, so the pope is the paterfamilias of the ecumenical church. The line of authority—and of teaching—moves downward from pope to bishops to priests to laity.

Even in the best of circumstances (assuming the integrity and intelligence of the hierarchy), what this arrangement relies on is catechesis: the handing on of the tradition as it has already been formed. Yet catechesis does not encompass all of theology. When the pope is understood not only as final arbiter of fidelity to the deposit of faith but also its only source of theological reinterpretation, there is surely at least an impoverishment of the church’s theological life. For the premise that revelation is closed or that it is limited to certain church offices is simply wrong. To think so would be to adhere to a dead rather than a living God. If Jesus truly shares the life of God as “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45), then we must consider that God, through Jesus Christ, can continue to reach us in new ways. It follows that revelation is open and ongoing in the world, specifically in human experience. If God acts in human stories, both within and outside the structures of the church, then the church’s relationship to revelation is not simply that of protector and purveyor. The church must also find a way to become an effective interpreter of God’s self-disclosure in the world. This is not a plea for the privileging of every private human experience. Not every human story reveals God. It is a plea to consider the theological implications of the millions of stories of believers (such as women and homosexuals) whom the church has persisted in regarding as “objects” to be “explained” rather than subjects, that is, persons through whose struggles the Holy Spirit speaks a word to the church.

Paul’s letters offer another image of the church that is no less authoritative than that of the household, but is more directly responsive to the resurrection and incarnational character of Christian existence. This is the metaphor of the “body of Christ,” which Paul uses for the church in Rom 12:4–5, Col 1:18, and Eph 1:23, 2:16, 4:16, 5:23–28, but which he develops most fully in 1 Cor 12:4–31. It should be noted that Paul does not oppose this image to that of the household. We find both images side by side in 1 Cor 6:15–18, and they even merge in Eph 2:16–22. He plainly regards the metaphors as compatible and complementary. Yet they are not identical; each presents a distinct set of values. The household image, I have suggested, communicates the values of authority and order and the passing on of tradition in a way that the image of the body does not. So the question arises: What values does the image of the body of Christ communicate that the metaphor of the household cannot?

Most obviously, the body metaphor understands the church as a living organism immediately and intimately joined to the risen Lord Jesus as its source of life, and as intimately and immediately directed by the Holy Spirit in its activities (1 Cor 12:4–6). Paul emphasizes the diversity in unity that should characterize the body. No member can replace or do the work of another, and the work of each member should be for the well-being and growth of the body as a whole. Nor can any member of the body dismiss another as useless; all are needed. Paul even provides a list that includes apostles, but also prophets and teachers. Their gifts are not identical, nor are their roles. He lists the gifts of healing and governance and speaking in tongues and interpretation; these also are not all possessed by one member, but are distributed according to the will of the Holy Spirit (12:28–30).

Paul, moreover, sees some of these gifts as having a specific role with regard to the continuing revelation of God’s word. The Corinthians are attracted to the spectacular gift of speaking in tongues, but Paul insists on the greater importance of a “revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching” (12:6). The revelatory function is not restricted to the apostle, but is dispersed throughout the assembly. Paul places particular emphasis on the gift of prophecy, a form of public discourse that, in contrast to speaking in tongues, makes use of the mind (14:14–19). Prophecy both builds the church within (14:4) and convinces outsiders that God is truly present in the faith community (14:20–25).

Paul does not think of the spiritual gifts exercised by the community as being without norm or good order. They must cohere with the confession that Jesus is Lord (12:3) and must build rather than tear down the community (3:16–17; 14:5), and all the gifts should be practiced “decently and in order” (14:40). The value of all spiritual utterances must be discerned. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecy. But test everything” (1 Thess 5:19). The process of discernment, like the gift of prophecy itself, is public and serves to build up the community. It must be carried out by the entire community.

If the metaphor of the household excels at catechesis but lacks a capacity to respond to God’s ongoing revelation, the metaphor of the body of Christ excels at responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit among all the faithful, but lacks a capacity for consistent communication of the tradition. Still, which image is more capacious? Which can include the other within itself?

Here, I think, it is clear that the image of the body of Christ can encompass the positive dimensions of the household image—remember that governance and administration and teaching are among the gifts—whereas the image of the household finds little or no place for the diversity of gifts among all the faithful. Which image is more adequate to the good news of the resurrected Christ? Again, the answer would necessarily be the metaphor of Christ’s body, which lives and is directed by the Holy Spirit sent by the resurrected Lord. Above all, the image of the church as the body of Christ allows for gifts and speech and discernment among all the faithful, rather than simply a few officials, and for an openness to God’s continuing self-disclosure. The church is not simply a place where precedents are handed down, but a place where God’s word for the world can find expression in new ways.


The Role of the Theologian

In our current situation, the image of the church as the body of Christ has been swallowed by the metaphor of the household. Yet the household model has no place for the role of the prophet or of the theologian: all teaching comes from the top down. For a vast number of Catholics, especially younger Catholics, it is axiomatic that the pope is not only chief pastor but also sole theologian. On every matter, the pope is not only the last word (arguably a legitimate and even necessary role) but also the first word (arguably a dreadful displacement of ecclesial functions).

Christianity bears within itself certain intractable tensions. These competing impulses cannot be resolved completely without diminishing the community’s life in one way or another. In fact, I would argue that the church is healthier when the disparate values that push against one another are allowed full play. In every age, Christians must struggle with deep intrinsic tensions that derive from the church’s peculiar and paradoxical character. I am not suggesting that theologians should be regarded as prophets, although some may be. Rather, I suggest that the image of the church as the body of Christ provides a framework for our thinking about the role of the theologian. If God’s self-revelation continues in the world, and if the church is obliged to respond to God’s ongoing self-disclosure, then the church needs all the eyes and ears and hands and minds it can get.

In some fashion, as I have argued extensively in my book Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (Abingdon, 1996), all in the church should practice theology. All Christians are called to discern and bear witness to the ways in which God is at work in their lives, and all are needed to help the community as a whole discern how God’s holy Spirit is moving within their lives. The pope’s authority, in short, ought not to preempt such a process of discernment at every level of the church, but ought to encourage and respond to it.

The delicate task of discerning whether new developments in the lives of God’s people are in continuity or discontinuity with the tradition of the church requires great learning. It is not enough to be a skilled listener of human stories; the theologian must also know the tradition in great depth and breadth if the conversation between the present and the past is to be healthy and productive, if it is to “build the church.”

At the same time, the theologian must be more than a catechist. To demand of the theologian that he or she be nothing more than one who hands down what is already known is to “quench the spirit” and “despise prophecy” (1 Thess 5:19). To require of theologians that they strip themselves of all critical intelligence and imagination so that they present no “danger” is actually to place the church in a position of much greater danger, namely, of not responding to the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

Is the free employment of critical thinking and theological imagination dangerous? Of course, just as all true living is dangerous. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that “falling into the hands of the living God is a fearsome thing” (10:31). Yet within the church as the body of Christ, the dangers of false prophecy are mitigated by the practice of discernment by the community. If theologians are loyal as well as critical (as we should always assume until it is absolutely necessary to conclude otherwise), they also understand that their thought and imagination must be in constructive conversation with the church’s catechists, above all the hierarchy.

The theological impoverishment of the church today is real and if something is not changed, it will undoubtedly get worse. Perhaps it’s too much to hope that the present model of the church as household can open itself to a healthy conversation with the image of the church as the living body of the resurrected Christ, particularly if the present heads of household think that theirs is the only model that is true to revelation. But they are wrong. The alternative (and, I insist, complementary) image of the church is, if anything, truer to the good news as found in Scripture. Those of us who long for a church in which it is possible to be both smart and holy, both loyal and critical, live in hope that something of this vision may gain recognition. Still, suppose the big chill continues, through the papacy of Benedict XVI (despite our fondest hopes) and the papacies to follow. What can theologians do? They can continue to speak prophecy and to practice discernment among God’s people. What is at stake is the integrity of the church’s witness to the living God.


Related: The Vatican, the Bishops, the Academy and A Cautionary Tale, by Paul C. Saunders

Published in the 2006-01-27 issue: View Contents

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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