- The Prophetic Church: History and Doctrinal Development in John Henry Newman and Yves Congar by Andrew Meszaros
Andrew Meszaros has given us a highly informative study of the relationship between the thought of John Henry Newman and Yves Congar on the crucial issue of doctrinal development. He rightly recognizes that reconciling the stable content of divine revelation with the socio-historical contexts from which doctrine emerges qualifies as one of the thorniest and most pressing theological issues today. The book's purpose is to show that doctrinal development, and so [End Page 483] Christian doctrine itself, is "both thoroughly historical and thoroughly divine" (12).
Meszaros is well aware that most theologians take careful account of the role of history in the formulation of Christian teachings, but that not all are similarly careful with protecting the normative and representational role of doctrine. Meszaros states, for example, that "[Lieven] Boeve from a postmodern hermeneutical point of view, [John] O'Malley from a historical point of view, and [Terrence] Tilley from a pragmatic/philosophical point of view relativize doctrine to the point that it becomes difficult to identify the basis for any doctrinal normativity" (7).
What Meszaros admires in Newman and Congar is that they were fully alive to historicity—and so to the historical conditioning of Christian doctrine—but without betraying doctrine's materially continuous and ostensive mediation of divine revelation. Neither of these thinkers falls prey to the idea that doctrinal formulations are "so historical, so contextually and linguistically dependent" that they lose (invoking all the necessary qualifications) their representational force (ibid.).
Of course, it is the issue of material continuity over time—despite the challenging winds of history, culture, and language—that originally gave rise to extended reflection about the development of Christian doctrine. The first theologian to examine this issue ex professo was St. Vincent of Lérins, who already in the early fifth century recognized that the Church had to account theologically for the use of nonbiblical terms such as homoousios and Theotokos. Did these linguistic innovations maintain the identity of biblical meaning? Did they "guard the deposit" as St. Paul insistently writes to Timothy (1 Tim 6:20)? If theological change does occur over time, as is clearly the case, then how does one distinguish a legitimate development (profectus) from a pernicious corruption (permutatio)? And which theological warrants allow one to make that decision? All of these questions were discussed by Vincent in his Commonitorium, written not long after the Council of Ephesus concluded in 431.
These ideas gained new force, of course, in the work of Newman. With crisp and accessible prose, Meszaros guides us through the reception of Newman by French thinkers—and Newman's influence was considerable in France—and by Congar specifically. By the time Congar was writing, Newman had been cleared of any association with Modernist authors, such as George Tyrrell, who had appropriated Newman for their own purposes. He had also been rescued from the anti-intellectual cast that Henri Brémond, Newman's translator, had given to the Victorian by accenting his interest in imagination, intuition, and feeling (35). These interests caused Thomists such as Ambroise Gardeil to be wary of Newman. Meszaros points out that the effort to rescue Newman from Modernist interpretations had been led by Erich Przywara (37). Another significant influence on Congar's thought, Louis Bouyer's biography of Newman, [End Page 484] had asserted, "whereas Newman sought permanence amidst change, the French Modernists sought a principle of change within tradition" (38).
I was surprised to learn that Congar never wrote an article solely on Newman, but, as Meszaros points out, he incorporated the Victorian's thought into much of his work—on the material sufficiency of Scripture, on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, and, of course, on the role of the laity and the sensus fidelium (51). With Newman's help, Congar recognized that modernity had posed two weighty challenges to Catholic theology...