Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Book Recommendation: Faith Comes From What is Heard - An Introduction to Fundamental Theology, by Dr Lawrence Feingold

Manuals written for the instruction of seminarians have a bad name in some quarters, especially when they are rooted in the theology and philosophy of St Thomas. Scholastic manualism is a pejorative term, indicating an unthinking and rigid approach to St Thomas that relies on rote learning and discourages individual thought. This negative view prevailed after Vatican II, and from the mid-sixties, the manuals and their approach to teaching disappeared from our seminaries.

However, as Dr Lawrence Feingold pointed out to me recently when I talked to him about his textbook on fundamental theology, Faith Comes From What Is Heard: An Introduction to Fundamental Theology , the problem was not so much in the manuals themselves, but in the way they were used. They were not intended as stand-alone texts, but as complementary texts to the fundamental sources, for example, Scripture and the Summa, and always in the context of their own time. This means that manuals always had a limited shelf-life; they assumed some things could be taken for granted in their own time, but might not be so widely known later, and concern themselves to address issues and errors of the time in which they were written. In general, therefore, the contemporary reader will likely misunderstand a manual of the past, given the unlikelihood of his being fully aware of the context in which they were written.

This being the case, the answer, says Dr. Feingold, is not to reject the manual as a teaching tool, but rather, to write a manual appropriate to today, which is he has sought to do in this book. As with the manualists of the past, he relies heavily on St Thomas, but also incorporates the thought of more recent thinkers, and some original thoughts of his own. He draws heavily on St John Henry Newman, Pope St John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. He then presents his work in the light of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum. This means that, in common with these more modern thinkers, he directs us strongly towards the Patristic tradition as well. This in turn influences, critically I would say, his approach to the interpretation of Scripture.

For those who don’t know (and I didn’t!) fundamental theology is the study of theology itself. It defines the principles that govern the science of God and divine things. Just as the rules of harmony and counterpoint set out the path by which the musical composer can work freely to his calling, so fundamental theology defines what we study and how. Such a book could easily be a dry read, whatever other merits it might have, but this is not the case at all with this one. Dr. Feingold wrote it with the educated layman in mind as much as the seminarian who would read it as a textbook. His is an engaging and accessible style, and as with all good introductory texts, he assumes little knowledge but reasonable intelligence. This works very well for someone like me, a curious layman who benefits from having all premises defined and explained at the outset of each train of thought. Then I have a chance, at least, of being able to go where he seeks to lead me. As he introduces very familiar words, such as faith and revelation, he explains clearly their precise meanings in context, which - sometimes, and to my shame - are not always as familiar.

The book is set out in six sections, the titles of which indicate how fundamental this text is: Part 1 Revelation and Faith; Part 2 Theology: Faith Seeking Understanding; Part 3 Transmission of Revelation through Tradition and Magisterium; Part 4 The Inspiration and Truth of Scripture: Bible Hermeneutics; Part 5 Historicity of the Gospels; Part 6 Biblical Typology.

The bulk of the book is devoted to Scripture and its interpretation. His approach is one that re-affirms the approach of the Church Fathers. He casts a critical eye over the historical-critical method of textual analysis that has steadily dominated Scriptural interpretation more and more in the last 150 years. While recognizing some good - its contributions to our understanding of the historical context, for example - he clearly points out the grave errors that an over-reliance on this method has introduced and why they have occurred. To illustrate with one example, he gives us the arguments as to why the traditional view of the order in which the Gospels are written, Matthew, Mark, Luke and finally John (the order in which they appear in the Bible) is more likely correct than the very recent analysis that claims that Mark was written first. His approach is not a simple blinkered assertion of tradition; rather, he takes the contrary arguments seriously and responds with an open mind in the faithful search for truth.

Once he has re-ordered, so to speak, our approach to the historical truth of Scripture to one that corresponds to tradition, he then introduces us to Biblical typology, a method of interpretation that has almost fallen out of use in recent years. Biblical typology is the interpretation of Scripture that sees the interconnection of the texts read symbolically. A tradition that owes much to Origen in 3rd-century AD Alexandria puts the historical figure of Jesus, described in the Gospels, at the center of history, connecting us to him in the present, the past and the future. The events of the Old Testament foreshadow those in the New through what is termed allegorical typology. The events in the New Testament are connected to us, in the present, through a moral interpretation that informs our daily lives, and they direct us to our final end by speaking to us of our heavenly end, which is termed anagogical.

He describes also how this typology connects the text of the Bible to the words and actions of the liturgy. The Bible is a liturgical document, containing the template for our worship and written to be proclaimed in the context of it, and therefore is best understood when heard in that same context. The canon of Biblical books was established by the early Church in consideration of those books that were read most commonly in the context of Christian worship.

In the final subsection of this book, which is four pages long, entitled Importance of Typology for Preaching and Contemplation, he explains why this approach is so important. The ability to connect the perceptible to the imperceptible by sign and symbol is what allows us to grasp the Faith, and to believe deeply in an imperceptible God. This can be taken too far. One of the problems with Origen and his approach was the tendency to see a symbol in every historical fact, to a degree that can appear contrived and superstitious. However, if ignored altogether, we lose our faith, and it is likely no coincidence that both the numbers of the faithful and our facility for reading texts and the world around us symbolically have declined dramatically.

As someone who is concerned with sacred art, this resonated with me strongly, and made me want to insert a final chapter on the essential role in art in reinforcing typology and deepening faith. This goes further than a simple portrayal of a narrative; the great power of art is that it can connect two different narratives together in a single moment, even more powerfully, in many ways, than a text can. For example, in one painting we can connect the Baptism in the Jordan with its types in the Old Testament, such as the crossing of the Red Sea and of the Jordan by the Israelites, by putting visual connections in the same painting. When such a painting is placed in a baptistry, it connects all three narratives to our own baptism. I talk about this particular typology in an earlier article on art and liturgy, here.

In this icon of the Epiphany, we see the personifications of the Red Sea and the Jordan being “driven back” (cf. Psalm 113) and Christ trampling down the gates of hades and the serpents. As the hymn for Easter in the Byzantine Rite says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!”
Faith Comes From What Is Heard- An Introduction to Fundamental Theology, by Dr Lawrence Feingold is available from Amazon.com.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: