My last little bit of comment on JPII’s Fides et Ratio comes to a point that I noticed shortly after becoming Catholic, and that is the difference—generally speaking—between the way that theology is done in Reformed Protestant circles and the way that it’s done by Catholics.
The chief purpose of theology is to provide an understanding of Revelation and the content of faith. [§93, Emphasis in original]
For Catholics, theology’s purpose is to explain the Faith that God has revealed. But that is not how it is for conservative Reformed Protestants, generally speaking. For them, theology’s task is less the explanation of what is to be believed and more the presentation of it: as though it is the theologian’s task to determine what Christians should believe.
It took me a while to wrap my head around this difference, and it came to me most profoundly while I was attempting to understand the portion of the Summa Theologica related to transubstantiation. I just couldn’t get it. I still don’t get it. But I realized that what God requires of me is not that I understand the Faith comprehensively; rather, He asks me to believe the Truth. The Catholic Faith is not proposed by the Church as something that can be demonstrated by reason from start to finish. This would be rationalist. Rather, the Church says that what She teaches is not contrary to reason: it’s not irrational to be Christian. This is the whole point behind the Summa Contra Gentiles: not to show that Catholic Faith may be demonstrated, but to show that it is reasonable (or else not contrary to reason where it cannot be demonstrated). Once I recognized this difference of Catholic theology, my anxieties evaporated about things I don’t understand but that I must believe.
Protestant theology isn’t like this, as I’ve pointed out. Another significant difference is that there is an important sense in which I think it may truly be said that it Protestant theology truly is rationalist. Why? Because Protestants elevate the individual conscience to the seat of final authority when it comes to the discernment of the truth in the Bible.
Right off the top when we say this we have to stop and address an objection, because Reformed Protestants at least (and no doubt others) will claim (based upon an appeal to the Westminster Standards) that they don’t believe that at all. They say that they consider the final authority to be the Holy Spirit. That’s fine, but when the rubber hits the road there is flatly no way that they can or will tell me or you how we can distinguish what “the Holy Spirit says” from what Joe Theologian says about some passage or other of the Bible. It can’t be done. Consequently the claim reduces to mere subjectivism no matter what they say, and the end result is that for the Protestant it is conscience that rules the day.
This being the case, what is the likeliest case about what Joe Protestant believes? The likeliest case is that he will believe the Bible teaches what he attains by way of reasoning about the matter. If a particular interpretation seems crazy or wrong or irrational to him, he will reject it. In other words: reason decides the day for him. But this is nothing other than the rationalism I just asserted with regard to Protestant theologizing.
The Catholic Faith is not like this. It is not irrational, but neither is it subject to the limits of reason. We seek to understand what we believe, but we do not subject what we believe to the bounds of what we are able to understand.
Update: I just stumbled across this comment from a few days ago by a Protestant over at Called to Communion. He has correctly identified the sort of thing that I’ve talked about in this post, concerning the differences between Catholic and Protestant approaches to doing theology. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel in terms of discerning what truth is revealed by God; rather, the Church proclaims that truth, and we seek to understand it. He has hit the nail on the head.
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