A History of Theology

Written by Yves Congar

(Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1968)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


I had originally intended this review for the Fall edition – due out in about a month. But due to the great volume of content already lined up, I decided to keep this for the website. You may think it peculiar to put a book like this in an “education special feature.” And yet I would have done so without apology for the simple fact that theology has itself always been understood by the Church as the telos, the end, the goal of education. Should it still be viewed as such? We certainly see that it isn’t being so considered.

But what is theology? How we define it will have a great number of implications for our understanding of education. How we define poetry determines how we go about learning to write not only it but anything at all. Aristotle had to define man before he could talk about his politics. Man was made to be happy, therefore politics would have to be oriented to bringing that about.

It would be easy enough to expose the various presuppositions that well-known theologians have brought into their work. Their products weren’t accidental.

If I had to sum-up the history of theology as it was presented to me during my formation, it would be: “The Church of the Apostles was a perfect place of love, peace and equality, with women ministering exactly as the men did; the Scriptures were central; the mass did not, as such, exist. Then something changed and the Bible was ignored until about 1962, when we finally learned the true faith from German Protestant Scripture scholars.”


Congar and Chenu – two great historians.

If you believe in the Catholic Church as the Body of Christ—if you do—you will find something altogether unpalatable in such a view. You might not know exactly what’s wrong with it, but the idea that the Church can loose and then regain the Faith (from outsiders nonetheless!) just does not sit right. There was a good ten years when Catholics as a whole believed that doctrine cannot fundamentally change. That was from roughly 2000-2010, give or take. Now, things have suddenly returned to the turmoil of the 70s and 80s. Once again people are talking about the whether the Church has always taught that marriage was indissoluble, whether homosexuals should marry, and all that, just like we did in the mad age before St. John Paul and Pope Benedict.

Whenever you hear about someone challenging a teaching of the Church they say something like “the Church did not always do that.” That’s an effective tactic because not too many Catholics know Church history well enough to offer a formidable reply.

This history can help alleviate the all-too common and obnoxious claim that the Vatican II Council Fathers suddenly rediscovered Scripture, for one. Congar was no hard-core conservative, but he knew and loved the Faith – all of its aspects and eras. The history of the study of theology he presents here is pretty fair and quite unbiased. It’s no good to think that St. Thomas is and has always been presented by the papacy as the cure-all for every theological question. The papacy simply does not do that. You may believe he provides the answer to all theological problems, but that would be your opinion, not the Church’s official and immutable teaching. You would therefore have to argue for why the Church should teach it not for why it does teach it. Congar likes every era of church History, and he is uniquely able to see both the good and bad aspects of all of them. Unlike the text books I was presented with during my studies, he does not believe the truth was discovered in 1962. But again, neither does Congar make it easy to refute Thomas’s centuries of importance.

As a student of theology, judging from the books and the professors I had, you would have thought that nothing good happened from the 13th to the mid-20th Century. Congar presents quite another impression.

Now, the book is a little dated, as the English edition dates back to 1968, but I think that, rather than being a liability, this helps us to see how things looked before the “Spirit of Vatican II” textbooks took over, the ones to which I was subject in the mid-90s. After all, Congar was one of the great theologians of this age, and those who compiled the textbooks to which I was subject were not. Writing out of his greatness he is able to see the virtues and vices that were a part of every movement. Not many have actually read all the sources they presume to pass judgement on. Congar clearly has.

You will never know where theology is supposed to go unless you chart where it has already gone. This book would serve that purpose well. It is audacious to chart the direction is should go without having traced the course it has followed thus far. Why do so many presume to do this? It’s lazy and irresponsible.

The final approximately 50 pages don’t exactly follow the program suggested by the title: they do not contribute to a history of theology, but rather constitute an argument about its future. It’s a nice contrast to Lonergan’s Method in Theology, and well-worth reading for anyone with strong opinions on the matter.

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