Understanding the Four Aspects of Dogma According to Bernard Lonergan in The Way to Nicea

Painting of The Council of Nicea and photo of Fr. Bernard Lonergan, SJ.


As a professor of theology, and as academic dean of a seminary, I feel it’s important to lay a solid foundation for the student who is beginning his study of theology. In my introductory seminar in fundamental theology, taught for the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome at the Pontifical North American College, the readings that I choose for the seminarians reflect what can be described as the “Genetic Method.” This was the way that I learned when I was a student in the “first cycle,” the basic theology tract, many years ago as a seminarian myself at the Gregorian University.

This genetic method, as I have understood it, begins first and foremost with the deposit of Divine Revelation, expressed first in Sacred Scripture and then in Sacred Tradition. Then the subject is studied through the Magisterium of the Church; then and only then should positive theology come into play. So, my readings generally have the students, in first semester, going through the Catechism, Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Decrees of the Councils of the Church, and a few select theologians who help the seminarians synthesize the massive amount of material that they are trying to learn (in the Italian language, no less. It helps that the readings are in English in my class!)

One set of readings has certainly helped the seminarians whom I teach to come to a greater understanding of how sacred scripture and dogma work. And it comes from an unlikely source, at least for some of the seminarians, a theologian who is not as widely read in some theological circles today—Bernard Lonergan, SJ.

Lonergan, at first glance, can appear to be an impenetrable thinker. With his massive tome, Insight (1957), in which examples are given from mathematics, and with his emphasis on a shift from classicism to historical consciousness, Lonergan is not a thinker who appeals at first to many of the seminarians whom I have had the pleasure of teaching. However, I have found his introductory section from his work, The Way to Nicea: the Dialectical Development of Trinitarian Theology (1976), to be a particularly useful tool for the seminarian to understand what dogma is and how it is to be understood in light of the need of the student of theology to be both historically conscious, and to be faithful to the unchanging nature of the truth taught by the Church.

Lonergan on the Development of Doctrine: The Way to Nicea

Lonergan served as a professor of dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University for many years. As such, he would publish a dispense for his students, a small guide written in Latin, which would give his students an outline of his course material. This would have been helpful to the large number of students, from the many countries in the world, now in Rome, learning in Latin, while sitting in a large aula. For the baccalaureate courses in theology at the Gregorian, the professor would lecture and the students would take notes, all culminating in a ten-minute oral exam in which the professor could ask the student a question on any of the material covered in the class. The Way to Nicea (1976) is a translation of this dispense. What the reader discovers in the text is the application of Lonergan’s theological method to the Trinitarian questions raised at the Council of Nicea (325 AD).

The Preface of The Way to Nicea

Lonergan divided his class on the Trinity into two sections: the first was a dogmatic part, of which The Way to Nicea is the translation; the second was a systematic part. After an introductory preface, Lonergan goes to explain the difference between the aim, the proper object and method of dogmatic theology, as opposed to positive theology. He states: “Dogmatic development, viewed in its totality, has four main aspects: an objective, a subjective, an evaluative, and a hermeneutical aspect.”1

The Objective Aspect of Dogma

The objective aspect is derived from a comparison between the gospels and apostolic writings, which are truth and which seek to “penetrate the sensibility, fire the imagination, engage the affections, touch the heart, open the eyes, attract and impel the will of the reader,”2 and conciliar statements, which are designed to be clear, and objects, “bypassing the senses.”3 Therefore, in terms of the objective aspect, the theologian must learn to transition between two very different forms of literature, as scripture is designed for the whole person, and conciliar documents are meant solely for the intellect. He or she must also learn, objectively, that scripture addresses all truth and the conciliar documents address only a single truth.

The Subjective Aspect of Dogma

Subjectively, in reading scripture, and in reading conciliar documents, the individual must have an interior change in himself or herself. Lonergan makes a distinction between differentiated and undifferentiated consciousness. The undifferentiated consciousness involves the whole person in his entirety; the differentiated consciousness operates on a single level. Describing the differentiated consciousness, Lonergan writes:

…the scientist, or the speculative thinker, tends towards a goal that is not that of the whole man, but only of his intellect. The will is therefore restricted to willing the good of the intellect, which is the truth; imagination throws up only those images that induce understanding or suggest a judgment; feelings and emotions, finally, are as if anaesthetized, so firmly are they kept in control.4

For Lonergan, scripture corresponds to the undifferentiated consciousness and magisterial; conciliar documents correspond to the differentiated consciousness. The theologian must learn to make a “transition from undifferentiated common sense…to the intellectual pattern of experience.”5

The Evaluative Aspect of Dogma

Lonergan also describes the evaluative aspect of dogmatic development. This evaluative aspect occurs not only in a manner purely objective, but one that is subjective. It is necessary for the theologian to subordinate his or her powers to the intellect in order to achieve that “clarity and precision that is proper to the intellectual life.”6 Lonergan states:

…those who have made some progress in the intellectual life, therefore, and can move with ease into the intellectual pattern of experience, find nothing more clear and precise than the meaning of a geometrical theorem or a dogmatic definition. On the other hand, when intellect acts as just one among many diverse powers—and this applies to most people most of the time—then less attention is focused on the proper end of the intellect. In ordinary everyday living, there is much that is taken for granted as being sufficiently clear; what is thus taken for granted may be described and stated in detail, from many different angles, but it is so tied to the clarity of a definition or a theorem.7

Lonergan warns his readers not to glorify the undifferentiated consciousness of early cultures like the Hebrews. As culture progresses, becoming more and more highly diversified and specialized, so too must religion. It is the function of dogmas to render differentiated consciousness as religious. The religious aspects of one’s life must develop intellectually and, with a differentiated consciousness, the “whole tenor and direction of life” will change.8 Lonergan states: “And so if one argues that there is nothing religious about intellect, one is not serving the cause of true religion, but rather that of secularism.”9

The Hermeneutical Aspect of Dogma

The fourth aspect of dogma is hermeneutical. Citing the Thomistic axiom, “…whatever is received, is received in the mode of the receiver,” Lonergan states that the human mind “imposes unity on the contents,” assuring a natural selection which leads to an initial structuring which in turn, “anticipates future judgments.”10 If one is working from a false or erroneous epistemology, cognitional theory, or metaphysics, the apprehension of the data received will be faulty.

The Truth of the Revealed Word of God

In order to correctly understand dogma, one must start from the point of view that it comes forth from the revealed word of God, as set forth in the Church’s tradition. The word of God is true, and without this as the primary basis of comprehension, one will have an incorrect interpretation. Lonergan warns: “…it is not enough to attend to the word of God as true, if one has a false conception of the relationship between truth and reality. Reality is known through true judgment; explicit knowledge of this fact, however, is a difficult attainment and is proportionately rare.”11

One’s consciousness needs to be differentiated, and each differentiated consciousness is bound by different, unique horizons, but truth is truth. The truth expressed in different horizons is merely a “different expression of the same truth.”12 Lonergan states that there is no radical discontinuity between dogma and scripture, and that, ultimately, the one thing necessary is to hold to the truth that is the word of God.

The Interlocking Relationship between the Four Aspects of Dogma

Each aspect of dogma relates one to the other, according to Lonergan. In dogmatic development, the objective aspect, presuming intellectual conversion on the part of the interlocutors, can “prescind from all the other components or features of interpersonal communication.”13 The evaluative aspect arises out of the objective and subjective aspects, coming from the reality that one not only act, but also reflect and judge. Finally, the hermeneutical aspect of dogma is related to the evaluative aspect in the sense that one must know the horizon out of which the dogma is arising, and this includes knowledge of the historical circumstances.

An understanding of Lonergan’s concept of the development of dogma is essential for the formation of a student of theology who is faithful to the teaching of the Church, attentive to the Sacred Deposit of the faith, and who is also attentive to the “signs of the times.” These four aspects of dogma involve the entirety of the person. The student of theology must be a historically conscious, intellectually differentiated individual, to use terms that are coined by Lonergan. The student of theology must have insight, understanding, and judgment, taking into account the objective, subjective, evaluative, and hermeneutical aspects of dogma. However, this does not, and cannot, mean that objective truths’ reality, like natural law, can be mitigated or even tossed aside in an attempt to be relevant both theologically and pastorally. Above all else, the interpreter of dogma must be a person of faith, faith in the truth that is the divinely revealed word of God, as given to the Church through tradition.

To understand what we mean by theology, the student of theology needs to go to the very root of the word “theology:” theos—meaning God; and logos—meaning word or reason; so, at the essence, it is the study of God’s word. However, we need to recall that, by the phrase “God’s word,” we mean much more than just Sacred Scripture. No, we mean God’s Word Incarnate, made flesh, Our Lord, Our God, Our Savior, Jesus. Theology, then, is studying and learning, praying to, and then teaching about, someone whom we love, and someone who loves us. Understanding dogma is very much a prayerful and pastoral activity.

Hopefully, an approach from the method employed by Lonergan, in his Way to Nicea, can prove fruitful to future generations of theologians.

  1. Bernard Lonergan, The Way to Nicea: The Dialectical Development of Trinitarian Theology, translated by Conn.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 3.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 5.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 6.
  9. Ibid., 6-7.
  10. Ibid., 7.
  11. Ibid., 8-9.
  12. Ibid., 10.
  13. Ibid., 11.
Rev. John P. Cush, STD About Rev. John P. Cush, STD

Fr. John P. Cush, the Editor-in-Chief of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, is a professor of Dogmatic Theology at Saint Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in the Archdiocese of New York. He is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy. He is the author of The How-to-Book of Catholic Theology (OSV, 2020), Theology as Prayer (IPF, 2022) and is a contributor to Intellect, Affect, and God (Marquette University Press, 2021).


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    I always appreciated Lonergan, but never completely understood his thought. I applaud your effort to assist Theology Students to seek insight into their study that will I believe help them become effective teachers of the future.

  2. Avatar Deacon Lawrence Toth says:

    In working my way through this article, I was perplexed by what appears to be typographical errors in the paragraph near the beginning with the heading, “The Objective Aspect of Dogma.” Could you please check that paragraph and issue a corrected version?

  3. I cannot agree more with Father Kush’s encouragement for seminarians today to study Father Lonergan’s work, The Way to Nicea, and to pay attention to its underlying philosophy. If we really want to speak to our age, we need to use the best tools available and to my mind they are Lonergan’s cognitive psychology, epistemology and metaphysics. A physicist said to me recently, “The only Catholic philosopher scientists can engage today is Bernard Lonergan.” The problem as I see it is that there are too few to teach it. Some younger philosophers, some teaching in seminaries, are our hope. They link the faith to the best philosophy – certainly in continuity with Augustine and Aquinas – and to contemporary differentiated and historical consciousness. Keep going, Father Koch!

    • Avatar Tom McGuire says:

      Msgr Liddy, I agree with you. I had the same experience talking to scientists when I was Campus Minister.