Scheeben and Theological Method August 30, 2018 13:43

We continue our series on Matthias Scheeben's Mariology by guest contributor Andrew Kuiper. This is the third of four posts.

Scheeben’s time at Rome’s Collegium Germanicum during the 1850s gave him a unique theological preparation. Not only did he move in the same circles as Kleutgen, Perrone, and Franzelin—later to be prominent players in the Leonine revival of Thomism—but he was also close with figures like Passaglia and Schrader, who were interested in reviving positive theology (a mode of dogmatics attentive to specifically Scriptural images and historical development). His association with these great minds cultivated his hunger for scientific precision and his synthetic imagination, both of which are evident in his Mariology.

In his survey of previous Marian literature, Scheeben has little praise for works that merely edify without communicating intellectual depth. For Scheeben, images drawn from and allusions made to Scripture and tradition ought not to be decorative rhetoric meant to elicit the correct devotional passions; no, they are the very stuff of theology. He did not treat symbols as things to be dispensed with after the so-called real propositional content had been extracted and systematized. For these symbols are an inexhaustible source for new insights; and in the context of these symbols that propositional content can actually live.

His unique theological approach is excellently exemplified in his chapter on the Virginal Conception. Scheeben places the conception of Christ by the Holy Spirit within the frame of the prologue of the Gospel of John. There, the adoption and rebirth of believers into divine sonship is described as taking place not by means of blood, nor from the human will, nor by the will of the flesh (Jn 1:13). Scheeben notes that the bypassing of these natural means applies even more preeminently to the virginal conception of Christ (Scheeben interprets ‘of blood’ to mean more generally the natural physical means of insemination). This correspondence forms an organic connection between Mary as the Mother of God and Mary as the Mother of all believers and Mary as the prototype of the Church’s own virginal motherhood, by which, “as the instrument of the Holy Ghost, [the Church] cooperates in the regeneration of men as children of God” (71).

Scheeben here uses allusions, symbols, and images, as real exegetical derivations that can function as theological reasons. In this way he is reminiscent of St. Anselm whose rational speculations are simultaneously rigorous and aesthetically pleasing. Not unsurprisingly, then, Scheeben cites in this same section Anselm’s treatment of the four possible modes of human origin from Cur Deus Homo (2.8). Put briefly, these four modes are: a) without human involvement, like Adam; b) woman from man alone, like Eve; c) woman and man together according to nature; and d) man from woman alone. The virginal conception of Christ therefore “completes the series of all conceivable modes, and, as the most perfect, bears in itself what is most perfect in each” (69). Scheeben wishes his arguments to be worthy of the praise given to Anselm by his interlocutor within the dialogue. They are both reasonable and beautiful.

Recently, scholars have called the circles that Scheeben worked in a “Roman School” that deserves just as much attention as any other period currently attended to in the history of theology. Some, like C. Michael Shea have even argued for the significance of this theological school for John Henry Newman.[1] Shea calls this period in Rome—combining figures at the Collegio Romano with the Collegio Germanicum and even the Propoganda Fidei—as an “eclectic Scholasticsm” that was as comfortable citing Adam Mohler and the fathers as they were making use of Suarez and Petavius.

Perhaps the variegated sources of Scheeben’s theological development should inspire us to continue moving beyond the (perceived) opposition between Scholasticism and humanism or (more recently) the polemics between the scholastics and the nouvelle theologie and their successors—all of which, while rooted in real differences and legitimate concerns, do now, as fixed points in a flattened narrative, tend to constrain what might be a more productive eclecticism. Scheeben shows us a way forward in which the faith is undistorted even as the theologian draws on multiple sources and methods of proceeding. As Dr. Ulrich Lehner has recently said in a talk at the University of Notre Dame, it is spiritual virtue to receive as generously as possible the work of the Church in every age and a vice to write off entire ages as bankrupt. Like Scheeben himself, we would do well to glean the good seed from every field.

—Andrew Kuiper

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[1] C. Michael Shea, Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).