The Shortage of Theologians
Theologians study and contemplate Divine Revelation under the watchful eye of the Church. Good theologians emulate Mary, who pondered the words of the Angel Gabriel after the Annunciation (cf. Lk. 2:19). Theology considers the marriage of faith and reason, and God’s Revelation and our understanding. Theological studies unlock the mysteries of doctrinal expressions for application to our particular circumstances. We need more faithful theologians.
The conversation of Jesus with His disciples on the Road to Emmaus after His Resurrection illustrates an essential theological method. Jesus responds to their discouragement and gently chides them for their deficient theology: “He said to them, ‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Lk. 24:25-27)
St. Luke does not record the details of Jesus’ explanation in this passage. He doesn’t identify the inspired insights of the disciples. The account of Jesus on the Road sends us on a theological treasure hunt and motivates us to study the Old Testament in the light of the Cross and Resurrection.
At Pentecost, the Church is born, and the disciples go forth to all nations to proclaim the Good News. The apostles celebrate their first Masses by introducing their sermons: “And Jesus said unto them, etc.” As in all inspired writings, God gives us the freedom to ponder the meaning of His words. The doctrinal foundations of every scribble on a scroll need understanding and explanation with words from the heart of God through the lips of men.
We need theological advisors. The Apostle Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch reading the Prophet Isaiah. The eunuch admits he had no idea what he was reading because he had “no one to guide” him. Like Jesus on the Road to Emmaus, “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.” (Acts 8:26-40) Persuaded by Philip’s explanations, the Ethiopian asks for baptism.
In time, the four evangelists carefully commit the words of apostolic testimony to writing. Christians used their scrolls as the basis of proclamations at Mass and in the public square. As Christianity spread, the Church consolidated the sacred texts to preserve them as “the Bible.”
The Bible did not float down from heaven. It doesn’t read like an IRS tax code demanding slavish compliance that comes to completion when filing a tax return. The interpretation of Revelation is expansive. The conclusion of St. John’s Gospel stimulates ongoing theological study: “There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (Jn. 21:25) Theological insights—like scientific discoveries—have ever-expanding horizons.
Every phrase of Scripture is doctrinal. Theologians—under the guidance of the Church—consider Scriptural assertions and formulate conclusions that have various significance. Was the tree of good and evil in the Garden a literal tree or an inspired metaphor? Did a whale swallow Jonah and spew him forth to convert the hated Ninevites, the mortal enemies of the Jews? Or was the account a (rather amusing) parable for stiff-necked Jews who refused to live by the Covenant? Passages usually provoke continuing conversation and debate. In some cases (such as the Eucharistic Discourse and the Last Supper), an array of Scriptural doctrinal assertions flower into unassailable dogmatic statements by the Church.
The charism of papal infallibility is rarely necessary. Many doctrinal statements in the Bible take centuries before coming to dogmatic fruition under the wise guidance of the Magisterium. After the Fall, God promises, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed.” (Gen. 3:15) The Angel Gabriel greets Mary with “Hail, full of grace.” The Greek for “full of grace” is rarely used in the Bible. It means a kind of permeation of God’s favor in Mary. After centuries of theological reflection and argument on the meaning of these words, the Church declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Mary conceived without the stain of Original Sin).
The dogmatic declaration enriches all of Church teaching and raises even more questions for theologians to ponder. Original sin brings death; without sin, we live forever. The Immaculate Conception and Mary’s perpetual sinlessness foreshadow the dogma of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. Infallible papal pronouncements never undermine or reject constant Church teaching but extend its reach.
Purgatory is the name affixed to the purification of sin after death (cf. Mac.12:39-46, Mt. 5:25-26, Rev. 21:27). The doctrine helps us understand God’s justice and mercy. In response to particularly heinous crimes, the aggrieved often desire total vengeance. Even the death penalty may be insufficient to extinguish the passion for the obliteration of enemies. Some even resent the possibility of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance. God is merciful. But nobody escapes God’s perfect justice. The doctrine of Purgatory rescues the Sacraments from the specter of “cheap grace.”
Error and malice distort theological study. The authentic Magisterium of the Church—rooted in Tradition and Scriptures—guards against heresy. The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD purified Church teaching by solemnly declaring the human and divine natures of Jesus, dogmatically eradicating the heresy of Arius. The Church may take decades to lance the boils of relentless contemporary moral defilement that extend into the heart of the hierarchy. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, we protect ourselves from spiritual infection by pondering the doctrine of St. Paul: “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15)
The elderly—with more free time—have opportunities to become great theologians. With every sermon, some listeners say, “I could have done better.” Perfect. The more theologians, the merrier. The rewards are great. “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?’” (Lk. 24:32)
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