“Ressourcement,” “Aggiornamento,” and Vatican II in Ecumenical Perspective

(S)ome interpreters of Vatican II took renewal to be merely a matter of the Church’s adaptation or accommodation to the standards of the modern world … they took aggiornamento as an “isolated motive for renewal” … simply adapting to the culture of modernity.

Ressourcement, Aggiornamento: Perhaps no two words were used more frequently by the Second Vatican Council to define the question regarding the nature and extent of the Church’s aim of renewal. What does each of these words mean and how do they stand in relation to each other? Ressourcement involves a “return to the authoritative sources” of Christian faith, for the purpose of rediscovering their truth and meaning in order to meet the critical challenges of our time. If ressourcement is about revitalization, renewal, then the oft-mentioned, but often misunderstood concept, aggiornamento is essentially a question of a new and wider contextualization, with the aim of finding new ways to rethink and reformulate the fundamental affirmations of the Christian faith in order to more effectively communicate the Gospel.

Ecumenical Context

Catholic theologians can learn something from Dutch Reformed theologian and master of dogmatic and ecumenical theology, G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996), about how properly to interpret the relationship between ressourcement and aggiornamento. He wrote two books on Vatican II: The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism (ET: 1965) and Retrospective of the Council (1968). Berkouwer, then holder of the Chair in Dogmatics at the Free University of Amsterdam, was a personal guest of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, now the Pontifical Council, at the Second Vatican Council. Regarding the meaning of aggiornamento, Berkouwer rightly senses, “the questions involving ‘aggiornamento,’ renewal, are the ones that confront us big as life. As expected, after the call for accommodation was sounded, the question arose with increasing urgency of what the ideals of this ‘renewal’ could possibly mean concretely.” What, then, as Berkouwer understood it, are the goals of aggiornamento?

Unfortunately, some interpreters of Vatican II took renewal to be merely a matter of the Church’s adaptation or accommodation to the standards of the modern world—in short, “catching up” with the times. In other words, as Swiss biblical theologian, Oscar Cullman, rightly noted, they took aggiornamento as an “isolated motive for renewal.” When taken as such, aggiornamento means, on the accommodationist interpretation, simply adapting to the culture of modernity. The impulse for this misinterpretation indirectly derives, says Berkouwer, from Pope John XXIII’s understanding that the council’s “deepest intent did not lie in a sharp ‘anti’ but in a clear ‘pro’”—“God loves the world and calls the church to serve the world.” Of course, John XXIII did not share the accommodationist interpretation of his words that the primary stance of the Church to the world was not “apriori-antithetical.”

Rather, John XXIII states the primary aim of the council: “the greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” The world, he adds, expected from this council “a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine.” Pope Paul VI addressed this interpretation as well in his speech of November 18, 1965: “This word (Italian: aggiornamento; Latin: accomodatio), which described (John XXIII’s) goal, certainly did not have the meaning for him which some try to give it, as if it allowed for the “relativization,” according to the spirit of the world, of everything in the Church—dogmas, laws, structures, traditions. His sense of the doctrinal and structural stability of the Church was so vital and strong that it was the basis and foundation of his thought and work.”

Indeed, Paul VI warns against two opposing dangers in understanding aggiornamento: “Those who neglect or want to thwart them (the “new”), by invoking fidelity to the past, are unfaithful to the mission of the Church today and to her responsibility for tomorrow. Those who go beyond them in order to follow their personal inspiration build on sand a Church without roots. One and the other diminish the Church’s unity and credibility.” Aggiornamento, then, argues Berkouwer, for John XXIII did not mean “an undifferentiated appropriation of ‘the modern spirit.’” Still, he adds, “John XXIII’s understanding of “aggiornamento” is hardly self-evident. It concerns primarily issues that touch the church’s continuity and unchangeableness as she makes her way through the world. These are not issues in which the spirituality of renewal engage us, but ones that touch the entire life of the church.” But what, then, is the starting point for renewal?

What Is the Starting Point for Renewal?

Berkouwer poses the following question regarding the concrete meaning of aggiornamento: “What is the nature and the scope of renewal?” He replies, in particular, regarding the extent of renewal, that it is limited by the continuity—unity, integrity, and identity—of revelation: “The difficulty lies especially in the fact that no one wants to concede or deny continuity, so that renewal must necessarily occur within continuity; it can involve no break with the past. Seen this way, they are in essence the same questions about transition that arose in the reformation; was the movement really a reformation, or was it a rupture, a revolution, an abrupt new beginning?” In order to do justice to the enduring and unsurpassable truth of the fundamental affirmations of revelation, the faith’s continuity and unchangeable truth, “aggiornamento should be a consequence, not a starting point,” of renewal. That is, the first step in renewal is to couple aggiornamento to ressourcement, to the authoritative sources of Christian faith, in order to deepen, by revitalizing our understanding of the faith for the purpose of providing, not only a coherent critique of the culture of modernity, but also a theology that will truly address the critical questions of our time.

Berkouwer’s interpretation of Vatican II reflects a view that Pope Benedict XVI was later to refer to as the hermeneutics of continuity and renewal. Summarizing his position regarding the notion that Vatican II represents a “rupture” in the continuity of Church tradition, the then Cardinal Ratzinger argues in The Ratzinger Report:

This schematism of a before and after in the history of the church, wholly unjustified by the documents of Vatican II, which do nothing but reaffirm the continuity of Catholicism, must be decidedly opposed. There is no “pre-” or “post-” conciliar church: there is but one, unique church that walks the path toward the Lord, ever deepening and ever better understanding the treasure of faith that he himself has entrusted to her. There are no leaps in this history, there are no fractures, and there is no break in continuity. In no wise did the council intend to introduce a temporal dichotomy in the church.

Ratzinger has continued to emphasize “Not rupture but continuity” in his interpretation of the council—a diachronic continuity of the council’s teaching with the whole Catholic tradition. Vatican II, says Ratzinger, “is one part of the unbroken, the unique tradition of the church and of her faith.

Significantly, for Ratzinger, a hermeneutics of continuity does not deny change; indeed, change is necessary in order to ensure continuity of identity. Exactly how that happens cannot be treated here. But we can say that any proper account will presuppose the distinction between truth and its formulations, form and content, and context and content. For now, suffice it to say, as Ian Ker correctly notes, “there are changes that preserve identity and there are changes that change identity, that is to say, there are changes that are developments and there are changes that are corruptions.”

Therefore, on the one hand, identity and sameness of meaning are essential dimensions of the ontology of meaning undergirding the two-fold project of aggiornamento and ressourcement. As John XXIII put it in a much discussed statement, “the deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), is another.” On the other hand, as Berkouwer legitimately emphasizes, John XXIII’s concern with “keeping the same meaning and the same judgment” should “not lead to a rigid and immobile ‘semper eadem.’” For an immobile theory of doctrine would not only disallow true development in our understanding of the truths of faith, but also it would weaken, rather than strengthen, the credibility of those truths. It is this interpretation of renewal, one that couples the concept of aggiornamento to ressourcement, that is, to retrieval, which shapes Berkouwer’s understanding of the concept of “open Catholicism,” in short, of “the opening of the church’s doors to the world.”

Drawing on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s understanding of this concept, Berkouwer writes that it means that “the newly opened Catholicism, opened not to compromise the richness of the church, not to watering down in vagueness and relativism the mystery of the church, but to the possibility that the full treasure of the church may become fruitful for all others in a world-wide vision. Simply put, it is the perspective of Pentecost come alive again—‘to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 1:8). What this means concretely is that there is an evangelical motive driving the goals of renewal. Still, Berkouwer understands that there remains the question “of the meaning of continuity, of the true significance of Catholicism’s ‘semper eadem,’ the big bone of contention both during and after the council.” In this connection, we can understand that the main thesis of a hermeneutics of continuity, as I understand it, is that a “single and unitary revelation,” in the words of Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols, can be “homogeneously expressed,” that is, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia) while expressed in a plurality of ways. This thesis brings us to the issues of meaning and truth in the hermeneutic of re-interpreting the affirmations of faith. How, then, can the same thing be said in a different way?

Noviter, non nova

Berkouwer’s thinking about Roman Catholicism in the late 1950s was decisively influenced by the Catholic theological thought of the nouvelle théologie of Henri Bouillard, Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, as well as the writings of Eduard Schillebeeckx and Karl Rahner. This is the case, especially, regarding the hermeneutic of reinterpreting the unchanging affirmations of faith, and the issues of meaning and truth and theological epistemology raised by this hermeneutic. “The new theology had its origin in a new confrontation with the problem of change. This confrontation, unlike the modernist movement, occurred within the context of a conscious acceptance of the entire dogma of the Church.” One of the representatives of the nouvelle théologie, Henri Bouillard, expresses the problem this way: “If the mind evolves, then the representation of the truth must evolve.” He follows this statement up with a now well-known adage: “If theology is not related to contemporary life, it is false theology.” In sum, adds Bouillard, “The history of theology reveals the permanence of divine truth on the one hand and the contingency of concepts and systems in which we endeavor to represent that truth on the other.” Alternatively put, Bouillard’s problem expresses the question of identity and change, and Berkouwer explains it this way: “Change in the unchangeability is not a paradox or a contradiction, but a meaningful thing that has always been understood and accepted in the Church in principle—even if it was often only intuitively—although one can say that reflection on the problem came clearly to light first of all in the 19th century.” Some background is needed to grasp the full import of Berkouwer’s remarks.

New Modernism?

Now, the question that Berkouwer raises is whether the theologians of the nouvelle théologie were really just a new modernism having “similarities with the older modernism in its subjectivistic approach to the truth of dogma.” Briefly, pared down for my purpose here, one may summarize Pope Pius X’s objection to modernism in this way: modernism denies that the affirmations of faith have a determinable content of truth. How so?

Congar answers this question in his description of modernism: “The conception of the relation between dogmatic pronouncements and religious realities (is taken to be) a relation of symbol to reality, not as an expression proper (however inadequate) to reality.” In other words, adds Congar, “The dogmatic formulas which come to light in the course of centuries are only a useful expression of that which we are led to think conforms to the spirit of Christ. Between them and the primitive, revealed fact, the relation is not that of a formula to an objective and intellectually definite datum, but that of a formula born of the needs of a given time, and adapted to them, and to a spirit that is the Christian spirit which dwells in each believer and animates the entire Church.” Hence, there is a disjunction between faith and a determinable content of truth, the latter being always derived only as a product of theological reflection upon this faith.

Berkouwer argues against applying this characterization of modernism to the nouvelle théologie. Still, he adds, “They do touch each other in a number of questions and problems that both throw on the table for discussion, problems that according to the new theology cannot be avoided simply because of their association with modernism.” As Aidan Nichols says succinctly, “though modernism had been a false answer it had set a real question.” What is the real question it raised? Congar replies: Modernism raised the problem of “the variations in the representations and the intellectual construction of the affirmations of faith.” How, then, did the nouvelle théologie address this problem?

Congar responds: The nouvels théologiens “solved the problem by distinguishing between an invariant of affirmations, and the variable usage of technical notions to translate essential truth in historic contexts differing culturally and philosophically.” Adds Congar: “For them, first of all, the invariant was a set of affirmations that have a real content of truth. And secondly, in the differing notional translations which the theologians had given, there existed an analogy of relations, or a functional equivalence, between the notions used to express that truth. In this way they escaped the accusation of ruinous anti-intellectualism, and dogmatic relativism justly brought against the Modernists.” It was then the question regarding the relationship between unchangeable truth, and the human expression of that truth, in the variety of historically conditioned forms of thoughts, inclusive of different philosophical concepts that have played a role in explicating the content of revelation. Succinctly put, the real question is, according to Catholic theologian Thomas G. Guarino, how to explain “the material identity of Christian truth over the course of time.”

In fact, Berkouwer himself is persuaded that “Modernism has definitely seen a very real problem—despite its untenable solutions—that has not been seen by anti-modernistic reaction in upholding the ‘semper eadem,’ namely the absolutizing of continuity in a way that had no appreciation for the historical nature of human expression. In more recent times, this compelling problem naturally resurfaced and the distinction between form and content returned.”  Thus, the distinction between abiding truth and its historically conditioned formulation resurfaced with the nouvels théologiens, and with that came the problem regarding the relation between history and truth, context, and content.

Of course, Berkouwer is right that the distinction itself cannot “be used as a magician’s wand to clear up every burning question.” The problem was that the presupposition of the hermeneutics of continuity no longer seemed self-evident, given that truth’s expressions are historically conditioned, and that these expressions are in some sense never absolute, wholly adequate, and irreplaceable. Thus, the “problem of truth was placed on a slippery slope,” as Edward Schillebeeckx was to refer to historicity, because no attempt was made “to show how truth, in this historicity, is more than a historical expression that changes in each period.” Berkouwer elaborates: “That harmony had always been presumed, virtually self-evidently, to be an implication of the mystery of the truth “eodem sensu eademque sententia.” Now, however, attention is captivated primarily by the historical-factual process that does not transcend the times, but is entangled with them in all sorts of ways. It cannot be denied that one encounters the undeniable fact of the situated setting of the various pronouncements made by the Church in any given era. How  then, exactly, is a single and unitary revelation homogeneously expressed, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment, given the undeniable fact “of time-conditioning, one can even say: of historicity.” Says Berkouwer, “All the problems of more recent interpretation of dogma are connected very closely to this search for continuity.  … Thus, the question of the nature of continuity has to be faced.”

Truth and Its Formulations

Now, the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, was also invoked by John XXIII in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, and this has been viewed by many as a clear indication that he wished the considerations begun by the nouvels théologiens to be given continued study. The pope made this distinction between truth and its formulations in a famous statement at the beginning of Vatican II, which I quoted above: “The deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), is another.” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I, Dei Filius (Denzinger, 3020), and this passage is itself from the Commonitorium primum 23 of the fifth-century monk, Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445): “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.” So, we can say with justification that John XXIII framed the question regarding the nature of doctrinal continuity in light of the Lérinian thesis, received by Vatican I, that doctrine must progress according to the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia).

Eodem sensu eademque sententia

What, then, did John mean with affirming idem sensuseodem sensu eademque sententia? First of all, he clearly meant to call for a suitable reformulation of Catholic teaching in light of the authoritative sources of faith, Sacred Scripture, and the living tradition of the Church. Second, reformulation was possible because the propositional truths of faith are distinct from their linguistic expression in different conceptual and theological frameworks. In short, there could be different expressions of the same truth, which is to say, of the same proposition.

John XXIII, like Berkouwer, intuitively understood that proposi­tions—contents of thought that are true or false, expressible in various languages, but more than mere words, expressing possible, and if true, actual states of affairs—do not vary as the language in which they are expressed varies. He speaks of immutable or unalterable truths, suggesting that truths of faith are more than their linguistic ex­pression. What, then, is the import of this dis­tinction for understanding the continuity and material identity of dogma over time?

Third, and most important, the differing linguistic expressions of the propositional truths of faith must keep the same meaning and the same judgment—“eodem sensu eademque sententia.” This italicized phrase means to say that the truth of a proposition is closely connected with its meaning—if one grasps what a proposition means, one is in a position to grasp what it is asserting to be true about reality. Put differently, a linguistic and conceptual formulation, expressing a truth of faith, cannot express or commu­nicate that truth without an appropriate context. Of course, it isn’t the context that determines the truth of that proposition that is judged to be the case about objective reality; rather, reality itself determines the truth or falsity of a proposition. Indeed, as Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan correctly states, “Reality is known through true judgment.”

Put differently, a dogma’s meaning is unchangeable because that meaning is true. The truths of faith are, if true, always and everywhere true; the different way of expressing these truths may vary in our attempts to more clearly and accurately communicate revealed truths, but these various linguistic expressions do not affect the truth of the propositions. The distinction between the propositional truths of faith, and their expressions, is of utmost importance because it provides us with “the criterion for distinguishing between form and content, representation and affirmation.” This third point needs some explanation.

There are necessary affirmations of the Catholic faith that are taught by the Church to be true. Still, there are, Aidan Nichols argues in a clear allusion to John XXIII’s statement, “different ways of presenting those affirmations,” meaning thereby “different contexts and conceptualities in which to understand and communicate them.” “But,” asks Nichols, “in that case how can a single and unitary revelation be homogenously expressed in a plurality of ways?” As Berkouwer also asks in this connection, “Where is the line beyond which the unchangeability of dogma is lost in relativism?

Nichols’ question is the pressing question raised by the theologians of the nouvelle théologie. The question Berkouwer asks is really the same as Nichols’ question: We need to discern a bright line distinguishing the nouvelle théologie from the modernist movement, which had sacrificed unchangeable truth to relativism. As Nichols explains, “for Catholicism, theology must be in the last resort homogeneous, not heterogeneous, with revelation. It must be a refraction of revelation, which presents a part, at least, of revelation’s own content in a new medium of thought.” In particular, he adds, “Dogmas are …  solemn proclamations of the content of revelation in some particular respect … Were Catholic theology not homogeneous with revelation, then Catholic dogma would be impossible.”

Thus, the brief answer here to Nichols’ question regarding how a single and unitary revelation can be homogeneously expressed in various ways must be that the bright line between unchangeable truth, and its formulations, is the distinction between the propositional truths of faith, and their linguistic expressions. That is, only if we distinguish between propositions and sentences, between a determinable content of truth and context, and focus on the truth-content, or propositional character, of divine revelation, will we avoid sacrificing unchangeable truth to relativism. How should this distinction be understood?

Essential to a Catholic theology of revelation is the claim that faith does deal with propositional truths because, as Germain Grisez rightly notes, “Propositions are part of the way God reveals himself.” What, then, are propositions? “Propositions are contents of thought, which are true or false, and can be expressed in language, usually in complete sentences.” We find in our uses of language a variety of ways of communicating, in addition to expressing propositions in making assertions: asking questions, making requests, giving commands, expressing emotions, exclamations, and much else. Biblical revelation reflects the variety of speech forms of language users.

Still, God reveals himself in biblical revelation, in part, by asserting propositions through the human authors. This point is made in the teaching of Dei Verbum §11: “Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors, or sacred writers, must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error, that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”Paul Helm is, therefore, right that “since Scripture is taken to be a revelation, with a unique cognitive value, assertions have primacy because its other speech forms—exclamations, questions, etc.—logically depend for their own force and intelligibility on a bedrock of assertions. The exclamation ‘How good is the Lord!’ implies the truth of the assertion ‘The Lord is good.’ Those who uphold the propositional character of divine revelation … have nothing more or less in mind than the central importance of assertions, especially God’s assertions about himself, in Scripture.” Thus, only assertions express propositions, express beliefs, about what is (or is not) the case, what ought (or not) to be done, which means that only they are the logical entities, the contents of thought, that are either true or false.

Of course, human beings speak in sentences to communicate propositions, but sentences are not the same thing as propositions. “Propositions are not linguistic entities,” or merely words, as Grisez correctly states. That is, the same proposition, or same meaning, is the message with the possibility of having many and varied expressions in different sentences of the same language, or in different languages. “For example, someone can express the truth that snow is white in many languages, and even in various ways in the same language. The proposition is a particular truth one can know about snow; it picks out and corresponds to the state of affairs of snow being white. No matter how many ways the proposition is expressed, it remains, in itself, what is meant by all the linguistic expression. Thus, a proposition is not part of a language; it is a non-linguistic entity. And one proposition can have many and varying expressions in language.”

Furthermore, a proposition is true if what it says corresponds to the way objective reality is; otherwise, it is false. In other words, regarding the status of meaning, the way things are is what makes “meanings” true or false. Lonergan clearly explains the relationship between meaning and truth: “Meaning of its nature is related to a meant, and what is meant may or may not correspond to what, in fact, is so. If it corresponds, the meaning is true. If it does not correspond, the meaning is false. … To deny correspondence is to deny a relation between meaning and meant. To deny the correspondence view of truth is to deny that, when the meaning is true, the meant is what is so. Either denial is destructive of the dogmas. … If one denies that when the meaning is true, then the meant is what is so, one rejects propositional truth. If the rejection is universal, then it is the self-destructive proposition that there are no true propositions. If the rejection is limited to the dogmas, then it is just a roundabout way of saying that all the dogmas are false.”

Lonergan’s defense of propositional truth, and its bearing on the relationship between meaning and truth, bring us back to the subordinate clause in the pope’s statement: suitable restatements of the truths of faith must keep the same meaning and the same judgment—eodem sensu eademque sententia. The meanings of those propositions are true if (and only if) what they assert is in fact the case, being the way things are; otherwise, they are false.

In short, regarding the status of meaning, the way things are, objective reality, is what makes “meanings” true or false. This understanding of the pope’s statement on the distinction between truth and its formulations is, then, fundamental for the type of theological pluralism that Guarino has called “commensurable pluralism,” a type that is consistent with the hermeneutics of continuity because “no authentic development of doctrine ever can contradict what the Church believed and taught in earlier times and other places.”

Ecumenical Import

The ecumenical import of the distinction between truth and its formulations is also recognized by Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, §4, 6, and 17, and Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut unum sint, §19, 57, and 81. Both these documents speak to the issue of legitimate, inter-confessional diversity in theological expressions of doctrine. John Paul states, quoting the Decree on Ecumenism: “‘It is hardly surprising if sometimes one tradition has come nearer than the other to an apt appreciation of certain aspects of the revealed mystery, or has expressed them in a clearer manner. As a result, these various theological formulations are often to be considered as complementary rather than conflicting’. Communion is made fruitful by the exchange of gifts between the Churches insofar as they complement each other.” Philosophical issues of meaning and truth are at stake in discussing legitimate diversity in complementary theological, rather than contradictory, expressions of doctrine. In sum, we must face here the question of “commensurable pluralism,” as Guarino calls it, meaning, thereby, that different theological systems cannot hold positions that are fundamentally contradictory. In other words variety in theological expression must not be understood as equivalent to opposition; rather, such variety, Guarino explains, “must be commensurable with the fundamental creedal and doctrinal affirmations of faith. These affirmations are patient of reconceptualization, but always adhering to the ‘eodem sensu eademque sentential.’”

Is Berkouwer’s Response Adequate?

I want now to conclude with some brief remarks on Berkouwer’s response to the question raised by the hermeneutics of continuity. Although I commend Berkouwer for his grasp of the problem facing the hermeneutics of dogma, his development of a solution to it is not always clear. What is Berkouwer’s answer to the question he raises regarding the nature of continuity, between that which is unalterable (unchangeable) and alterable? In short, what is the criterion for distinguishing between form and content, context and content, linguistic formulation and propositional truth?

Propositions—contents of thought that are true or false, expressible in various languages, but more than mere words, expressing possible, and if true, actual states of affairs—do not vary as the language in which they are expressed varies (propositions are not linguistic entities). I argued above, that Berkouwer intuitively understands this distinction—he speaks of unalterable truths, suggesting that truths of faith are more than their linguistic expression—and, hence, he does not attribute the relativity characteristic of language to propositional truths of faith. Still, unlike the nouvels théologiens, Berkouwer doesn’t develop the import of this distinction for the hermeneutics of dogma.

He underscores the epistemological significance of the inadequacy of expressions or formulations of the truth, but it remains unclear how he can prevent himself from sliding into the position that inadequacy of expressions entails inexpressibility of truth. Yes, dogmatic formulations do not exhaustively encapsulate the revealed truth. Yet, is every truth of faith open to development, and, if so, in what sense? Is every proposition open to denial? Can a Christian be an unqualified fallibilist?

The brief answer to these questions here is “Yes,” “No,” and “No.” Yes, doctrinal truth is unchanging, decisive, irreversible, indeed, in some sense final, but our understanding of such truth is “always capable of further conceptual precision and wider contextualization,” as Guarino notes. No, a Christian cannot be an unqualified fallibilist because the truth of the proposition—say, that Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word of God—is not open to denial and, hence, to fallibilistic reversibility. Quoting Guarino again, “For the historic and orthodox Christian faith, this assertion is universally and enduringly true, mediating an actual state of affairs.” No again, although a Christian cannot be an unqualified fallibilist, he may endorse a qualified fallibilism. To quote Guarino one last time: “A qualified fallibilism is always endorsable if one means by this that every statement requires further thought and elucidation, that every assertion is open to reconceptualization and reformulation, and that no statement comprehensively exhausts truth, much less divine truth.”

Furthermore, Berkouwer is correct that a linguistic formulation expressing a truth of faith cannot express/communicate that truth without an appropriate context. But does he properly distinguish the two senses in which a truth of faith can be expressed, namely: first, that the same truth can be expressed in different sentences but have the same meaning (e.g., Philippians 2:6—“equality with God”—and the homoousion of Nicene Dogma); and second, that different contexts are required to assist in the interpretation of the same sentence(s) (e.g., the sentences of Nicea, Chalcedon, Trent, and Vatican I).

Finally, Berkouwer rejects a dialectical notion of truth, and its contemporary alignment with a radical version of the via negativa. Yet, how does he justify a realist notion of truth about which he has an intuitive conviction? According to a dialectical view, the search for knowledge involves a diversity of interpretations such that no assertion taken in itself may lay claim to absolute divine truth, simpliciter; rather we are referred to one interpretation after another. For the dialectician, determinate truth is always concealed behind linguistic formulations. We are “caught in a hall of mirrors of interpretation.” As the late Catholic theologian, Edward Oakes, puts it, we find here a “constant fireworks display of dialectics (that) obscure the sheer positivity of revelation.” Dialectical theology, then, is, adds Oakes, “compelled to take back any positive assertion which had just been made with its opposite, lest God get caught in the human net of words.” Thus, this dialectical argument would never allow us to say that divine truth is expressible—inadequacy of expression seems to mean inexpressibility of mystery, endlessly deferring to other interpretations, such that we never have a statement that is simply true—even in Sacred Scripture. Hence, there could be no such thing as revealed (determinate) truth, expressing itself in and through sentences. This dialectical notion of truth results in the breakdown of realism, rendering the datum of faith, revealed in the biblical narrative, unsure of its truth status.

Notwithstanding Berkouwer’s inadequate response, there is still much that Catholic theologians can learn from him about properly framing the question of the hermeneutics of continuity.     


Eduardo Echeverria About Eduardo Echeverria

Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his STL from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He is the author of many publications, most recently Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma (2018), and Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (2019).


  1. There are faithful Catholics, and I would include myself in that number, who are skeptics on the whole matter of the hermeneutic of continuity. We look to the witness of the saints and the experience of the spiritual life. Jesus urged conversion, and there are numerous examples within the Gospels of people making wholesale changes in their lives for the sake of his call.

    Sacraments like Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination, and Matrimony confer new grace on a believer, and are indeed a break from the past, if celebrated authentically and with spiritual depth.

    My suggestion is that Vatican II presented a hermeneutic of reform far beyond what its timid beginnings (1959-62) suggested, especially as articulated by the curia. And why not? The Church exists as a sacrament, a sign of Christ’s presence and responsive to that presence. Why shouldn’t we be prepared to break from the peripheral practices of the past, and respond with new vigor to the call of Christ?

    We can be equally dissatisfied with what the world offers–there is no future in a purely human endeavor. But careful discernment about what elements are not essential, then we can be prepared to discard what does not work, what does not nourish, what fails to communicate the Gospel. In some cases, the hermeneutic of continuity offers us chains and obstacles. These we can be rid of.

  2. Dr. Echeverria, you weave your way through a sticky wicket of issues here, citing a diverse array of authors, from Nouvelle theologians to analytic (Protestant) philosophers like Paul Helm. Much of this is ingenious, as your writing often is. I agree that the crux of the issue may be the relationship you outline between the propositional truth of The Faith and the diverse linguistic articulations of it.

    One problem I see, however, is that such a distinction, let alone a ready understanding of it, is so foreign to most of what goes by the name of Catholic theology (particularly biblical theology) these days, that we have the conditions lining up since the 1960s for almost a “perfect storm” of theological confusion and chaos, which is particularly borne out “on the ground” in confusions of popular Catholic opinion these days. I would include in this confusion those who envision the achievement of a new Pentecost (pace von Balthasar) by severing the Church’s umbilical cord and “growing up” by casting “hermeneutic of continuity” to the wind.

    Thanks for your careful analysis. Berkhouwer would be pleased.

  3. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Thought provoking. When one considers the diversity of people in any community of believers, one is stuck with the importance of finding diverse ways of stating propositions. Francis, Bishop of Rome, has opened new doors to explore ways of sharing the truth of salvation. Joy is one of the most important characteristics of a missionary disciple who may not be able to accurately state a truth, but can lead one to the truth because of authentic living the Word.

  4. Avatar Joe Martin says:

    Excellent analysis! And yet, what has been passed down from the Council via the Nouvelles is primarily an attitude of suspicion of propositions, and a preference for non-commital and “pastoral” approaches to almost every question. The state of Catholic theology as a result is dim. As ‘proof,’ I ask simply this: other than Kreeft’s “Catholic Christianity,” what accessible summaries of modern Catholic theology are currently out there? Off hand, I can think of none. As for biblically based and faith-affirming systematic theologies by modern Catholic authors, I’d love suggestions.

    • Avatar Eduardo Echeverria says:

      Thank you for your comment. Regarding “biblically based and faith-affirming systematic theologies,” in particular “accessible summaries of modern Catholic theology,” I can think of many, but suffice it here to mention two of the many writings of Aidan Nichols, OP: The Shape of Catholic Theology (1991), Ephiphany: A Theological Introduction to Catholicism (1995). Let’s not forget the many fine works of Joseph Ratzinger, for example, Introduction to Christianity (1968), Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (1978), Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (2005).


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