What Kind of Theology is Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for a Living God?

If you study theology, you have probably already know that a committee of the US Bishops Committee on Doctrine recently raised a series of red flags about Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s most recent book Quest for the Living God: Mapping frontiers in the Theology of God. The committee suggested that the book should not be in used in Catholic schools and universities because it conflicts with church doctrine:

The Committee has concluded that this book contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium. Because this book by a prominent Catholic theologian is written not for specialists in theology but for ‘a broad audience’, the Committee on Doctrine felt obliged, as part of its pastoral ministry, to not these misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors.

The bishops’ first critique is a methodological one. The bishops write that theology must begin from faith and proceed within the heart of the Church:

Theologians must therefore, first lay hold of the content of God’s revelation, the auditus fidei, as proclaimed in Scripture and taught within the Church, through an act of personal faith. Only then are they properly equipped to inquire into the content of that faith, the intellectus fidei, seeking a greater understanding and clearer expression of it.

In the footnotes, the Committee cites Thomas Aquinas: in saying that “just as other sciences accept as a given the first principles of their particular science, Christian theology ‘does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith'” (ST I, q. 1, a. 8).

The Committee then accuses Sr. Johnson of beginning not with faith but with a critique of the orthodox doctrine of God, particularly regarding God’s immutability, incorporeality, impassibility, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.

I don’t want to comment on Sr. Johnson’s book or the Committee’s critique in any specificity. The ladies at WIT, bloggers at dotCommonweal, and the moral theologians at Catholicmoraltheology.com have done a much better job than I could in evaluating the merits of the criticisms. I, however, want to challenge the singular definition of theology the Committee provides us as “seeking a greater understanding and clearer expression” of the first principles of faith. Understanding and clarifying is one understanding of theology, which Peter Aureoli, student and commenter on Aquinas, calls “declarative theology.” In declarative theology, one starts

with some proposition about which it has been determined what has too be believed and held by faith, and then reasons for believing it are brought forth, and then doubts concerning it are dissolved, and terms expressing it [are] been explained. . .(Commentary on book I of the Sentences, Proem, section 1, q.1)

It is declarative theology according to Aureoli which can properly be considered a theological habit. But it is not the only way to do theology. He provides other ways:

The fist takes place when you draw your conclusions from one proposition that is believed and another that is necessary. A second is based on two believed premises. A third is based on one believed premise and another probable one. A fourth type of conclusion is based on two probable premises. A fifth way, depending on two necessary premises, is equivalent to the first procedure [where you arrive at a known metaphysical conclusion such as is God one? or is God infinite?], where you end up with a known conclusion, not just one that has to be believed.

In other words, theology can lead to metaphysical conclusions when it addresses demonstrative knowledge of truths that are based on necessary propositions that are naturally known, as we see in Book VI of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. This does not fit the Committee’s definition of theology as clarifying and understanding the principles of faith, but metaphysics is nevertheless a way to study theology.

Theology can also include simple conclusions of faith, “where you employ one premise held by faith and another necessary premise” such as when you conclude that Christ has two wills based on the fat that every intellectual nature has a will and Christ has two natures. The conclusions of this deductive theology are conclusions of faith, not “the habit of theology” according to Aureoli. Nevertheless, deduction from faith is a part of the study of theology, and indeed, a major part of Aquinas’ own theology.

Significant for Johnson’s book, theology can also lead to conclusions of opinion “if you ask what has to be believed in regard to some doubtful proposition in the are of faith”:

In these cases you do not acquire any habit that is different from opinion. And these make up the opinions of the doctors of theology in many of their questions.

Theological opinion is gained when we reflect on things like what Jesus was like as a kid, how the gifts of the Spirit contribute to sanctification, and what the nature of purgatory is like. Theological opinion is important, and indeed, can be very good, very persuasive, and very true. But the habit that such theological reflection leads to is nevertheless still opinion.

This seems to be what Sr. Johnson is doing in Quest. She is beginning with principles that are only probable, namely, with the experience of the living God. She is not beginning with the first principles of theology, the articles of the faith, because she is not doing deductive or declarative theology. Her contribution is still a theological contribution, just not in the narrow way the Committee has defined theology.

Now, to the Committee’s credit, they are trying to watch out for the faith of “little ones” who might think that the conclusions in Sr. Johnson’s book are doctrinal, but that same goal could have been achieved by distinguishing the different ways in which people do theology. Aquinas clearly is awesome, but he did mainly declarative and deductive theology (as well as some metaphysics thrown in for good measure). Augustine, one the other hand, did a lot of theological opining. How much worse off would the Church be if we didn’t have Augustine’s Confessions? Or Abelard’s Letter to Heloise? Or Von Balthasar’s theological aesthetic? Johnson’s Quest, I would say, should be considered an analogous work as these great theological opinions. As such, it is good to point out that people need not accept her conclusions, but that does not mean they need not read what she has to say.


7 comments so far

  1. nohiddenmagenta on


  2. EssEm on

    If the bishops’ central contention is true, that she reduces religious language to metaphor, then that is serious indeed.

    And I think it, shall we say, naively benevolent, to class Johnson with Augustine or von Baltasar. Feminist theology eventually leads to the evisceration of Catholicism.

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks for your thoughts, EssEm. I don’t think Sr. Johnson reduces religious language to metaphor although she does point out how all religious language falls short of capturing the truth of God. In this way, she is within the tradition which acknowledges that our terms for God are not uniequivocal. Aquinas’ own doctrine of God takes what is called the apophatic route to describing God for this very reason:

      We cannot know what God is, but only what He is not. So to study Him, we study what He has not — such as composition and motion.

      Aquinas himself points out the necessity of metaphorical language in the first question of the Summa:

      I answer that, It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things. For God provides for everything according to the capacity of its nature. Now it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense (q. 1, a. 9).

      However, you are very right in noting that not ALL language for God can be reduced to metaphor, as again, Aquinas himself confirms:

      Ambrose says (De Fide ii), “Some names there are which express evidently the property of the divinity, and some which express the clear truth of the divine majesty, but others there are which are applied to God metaphorically by way of similitude.” Therefore not all names are applied to God in a metaphorical sense, but there are some which are said of Him in their literal sense (I, q. 13, art. 3)

      And as for naively lumping Sr. Johnson in with Augustine and von Balthasar, my intention was not to put them all on the same plain, but rather to point out how important theological opinion is for the richness of our theological tradition. Augustine published a series of retractions at the end of his life. Whose to say he wouldn’t retract more if he were alive today? Many good Catholics are still very much on the fence when it comes to von Balthasar, especially on points like Jesus’ passion extending into Holy Saturday and the possibility of universal salvation. But that’s what is great about opinion–we don’t have to believe it, only wonder about it, dispute about it, and pray about it.

  3. Jana Bennett on

    Ok, I’m chuckling over thinking about what Augustine might retract.

    But I’m also writing to say: beautifully written discussion of distinctions in theology.

  4. everydaythomist on

    Thanks Jana! I chuckle to think of what my man Aquinas would retract (although I shudder to think he was ever wrong on anything!)

  5. John D on

    Johnson, according to the bishops, engaged in “a critique of the orthodox doctrine of God, particularly regarding God’s immutability, incorporeality, impassibility, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.”


    The denial of this doctrine does not qualify as theological opinion, regardless of what the author’s intention might have been. To critique them locates you beyond the pale of orthodoxy. Any Thomist worth his salt should know that!

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks John.
      However, “to critique” is not “to deny.” I think of critique as exploration, questioning, possibly revision, but not denial, nor do I think Johnson explicitly denied God’s immutability, incorporeality, impassibility, omnipotence, omniscience, or omnipresence.

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