Theology

The Meaning of Catholic Theology

Theology, at least biblically speaking, isn’t about a set of beliefs or propositions. Theologically, the Bible is about encounter – the encounter and experience of God in the world. The notion of theology as a set of propositional beliefs, while having antecedents in the biblical past and Christian historical development, is really a post-reformation creation by Protestants and Catholics as they defined their theologies in contradistinction to each other: think of the myriad of confessions and statements of faith, as well as the Council of Trent, with formalized and put boundaries on what Christians believed. However, this was never the essence of either Luther or Catholicism.

Biblically speaking, the Old Testament—the Hebrew Bible—is the story of encounters with God through the myriad of characters who populate the text and story. Adam and Eve encounter God in the Garden of Eden. The patriarchs encounter God in their life journey and progression; two of the most notable of these stories are Abraham’s dining with God (later edited and interpreted to be angels) and Jacob’s wrestling with God (also later edited and interpreted to be angels). The encounter with God continues, perhaps most famously with Moses and the Burning Bush and at Sinai. Later, direct encounters with God occur in the Temple.

The New Testament continues this notion of encountering God with the enfleshment of God in the person of Jesus of Christ. Christ incarnate, God among us, Emmanuel, is the direct encounter with the living God on earth. Even Paul’s conversion is one of encounter, he is adamant in his letters that he encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. No where do we find theology as a set of propositions to believe—in fact, another element of later Protestant propositional theology is influenced by Enlightenment theories of science with its logical systematic theories of determinism.[i]

Catholic theology is deeply sacramental. Sacrament, from Sacra, sacred, and sacramentum, binding, was defined by Augustine as “an outward sign of inward grace.” The meaning of Catholic theology follows the biblical concept of encounter through the institutions of the sacraments. You encounter God, Christ, through the Eucharist; through marriage; through confession; through the mass itself, etc. While there were defined beliefs that became associated with Catholic theology, the emphasis is not on correct belief as such but direct encounter through the sacraments. Catholic sacramental theology is drawn from biblical typology and archetypes. Moreover, one encounters Christ in the world through members of His body.

The encounter with God, per Catholicism, begins with creation (as it is in Genesis) and climaxes in baptism (archetypally foreshadowed by God separating the waters in Genesis 1 and Noah’s Flood bringing about rebirth, recreation, in Genesis 6-9). The encounter with God is also through the Priesthood, since the High Priest is Christ Himself and the Priesthood is Christ Himself (archetypally foreshadowed by Melchizedek and the Judean priesthood after the Exodus). The culmination of the encounter with God is then found in the Eucharist, per Christ’s institution of that sacrament in John 6, itself foreshadowed from the manna from heaven in Exodus. Anti-Catholic theology is rooted in misunderstanding rather than “not being biblical.” Catholic sacramental theology is directly drawn from the theology of encounter in the Bible; whether one accepts the validity of the continuity is a different matter entirely. But as Augustine wrote in The City of God:

Thus He is both the Priest who offers and the Sacrifice offered.  And He designed that there should be a daily sign of this in the sacrifice of the Church, which, being His body, learns to offer herself through Him.  Of this true Sacrifice the ancient sacrifices of the saints were the various and numerous signs; and it was thus variously figured, just as one thing is signified by a variety of words, that there may be less weariness when we speak of it much.  To this supreme and true sacrifice all false sacrifices have given place.

Yet we can see that the meaning of Catholic theology is encounter, primarily through the sacraments. But you can also encounter God through creation itself (this is called sacramentality). Encounter is the essence of Catholic theology. The Bible is important insofar that it contains the record of encountering God and serves as the foundational basis for sacramental encounter. We might go as far as saying that the Catholic primacy of encounter is with God in external things that impact your interior life. Thus we discover the materiality to Catholic theology. God is there in all the things of the world.

[i] See Theodore Bozeman’s Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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