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  • The Prophetic Church: History and Doctrinal Development in John Henry Newman and Yves Congar by Andrew Meszaros
  • Reinhard Hütter
The Prophetic Church: History and Doctrinal Development in John Henry Newman and Yves Congar by Andrew Meszaros (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), xiv + 268 pp.

Andrew Meszaros's The Prophetic Church is the most important genuinely theological work of the last ten years in the English-speaking world on the development of doctrine. It is indispensable study on a theological topic in urgent need of deeper theological clarification. This urgency arises because the current theological situation may fairly be characterized, at least in part, by a vehement return among Catholic theologians to modernist tenets, to the point that some, not completely unjustified, are talking about a neo-modernist crisis. For these neo-modernist theologians, committed to an ever more radicalized interpretation of the progressive post-conciliar agenda—to receive all the advances of the Enlightenment without remainder into the Catholic Church—"history" has advanced to the status of an all-encompassing, absolute reality such that "historicity" qualifies all reality. All ideas and institutions must be understood as all the way down temporally situated, and hence historically constituted. The scope of historicity is claimed to be universal—from the historicity of the unfolding of the triune identity of God and the God–world relationship to the laws that determine the unfolding of the universe from the big bang on, to the evolution of the human mind, culture and language, to the concepts of human thinking and, last but not least, to the very concept of truth itself. The one exception, of course, must be the universal principle of historicity itself that has to remain absolutely trans-historical in order to account for the historicity of all reality. This is historicism's insurmountable πρῶτον ψεῦδος, fundamental error. Apply the acid of historicism to the idea of historicity itself and the mirage suddenly disappears. As soon as historicism historicizes itself, it turns into a temporally situated and historically conditioned ideology. Historicism can be universalized (and what would be the point of a non-universal historicism?) only at the price of its own self-destruction. For this very reason (and others), philosophers have long ago abandoned historicism as a philosophically viable position. Yet Catholic theologians committed to the neo-modernist positions of the 1970s are still beholden by the purportedly radical challenges historicity seems to pose to Catholic theology and inebriated by the promises the radical application of historicist principles to the Church's doctrine seems to hold. Applied to the problem of the development of doctrine, Meszaros rightly formulates the historicist attitude among some Catholic theologians thus: "The Church and her teaching could develop in any direction. 'Development' and 'reform' are euphemisms for 'transformation' and even 'revolution'" [End Page 948] (5). The characteristic trait of this all too confident neo-modernism is, according to Meszaros, "a conspicuous hesitation, if not outright refusal to name and identify the enduring truths of Christian revelation, or for that matter, the constitutive elements of the Church" (7). At the bottom of the all too uncritical neo-modernist embrace of historicism lies the denial that revelation conveys an enduring cognitive content that can be expressed propositionally. The radical historicization of revelation and the Church is, of course, nothing but their complete naturalization—exactly the way the secular Enlightenment had already intended it.

In light of these problematic theological currents in contemporary Catholic theology, Meszaros's book is very timely. He makes the persuasive case that two theologians who had a decisive influence on the Second Vatican Council—John Henry Newman (1801–1890), indirectly and Yves Congar, O.P. (1904–1995), directly—are of undiminished theological relevance, because both show in compelling ways how one can be historically conscious as a theologian without committing the historicist fallacy. Meszaros's overall goal is, by way of Newman and Congar, to give "an account of doctrinal development as something both thoroughly historical and thoroughly divine" (12). Yet instead of offering some flat-footed comparison of Newman and Congar on their respective accounts of the development of doctrine, Meszaros pursues a different and much more interesting strategy: he focuses primarily...


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