For some time now, I have been thinking about the phrase 'dogmatic theology.' In particular I have been reflecting on the difference between dogmatic theology and systematic theology. Is there a difference? Should there be a difference?
A basic rule of linguistics is that there are not two words with the exact same definition. By this alone we should know that 'dogmatics' and 'systematics' cannot mean the same thing.
But we can also know that these two names denote different things by the way they 'behave' in discourse. If I say something about "Christological dogma," one should naturally think about the Nicaean response to the Arian crisis, the "Chalcedonian definition," and the "God-Man" of St Anselm's satisfaction theory. If, however, I say something about the "Christological system," instinctively my hearers know that I am speaking of quite another thing. It could very well mean the taximony of Christological beliefs, their interrelation, and speculative reflection on the person of Christ (as, for example, Roger Haight's failed experiment in Jesus as the "symbol of God" or Gustavo Guiterrez's successful experiment in Jesus as the one who is on the side of the marginalised and oppressed).
What is even more interesting, I think, is that some theological faculties describe themselves differently. Let's take Dunwoodie Seminary--a place I hold in very high esteem--in Yonkers, New York. The professors of theology are given the title of "professor of dogmatic theology." Some of them have received doctorates precisely in dogmatic theology from the Gregorianum. Others, holding to the same title, have doctorates from the Catholic University of America which has a department in "Historical and Systematic Theology."
Should there be a difference? As a lecturer in theology at my alma mater told me recently, every theologian has his method--and he said this in a less-than-endearing way.
Rather than saying that there are different methods between dogmatics and systematics (which is nonetheless true), I think it is better to say that each has its own paedagogy. The word 'dogma' should suffice to tell us this.
'Dogma,' as you know, is a narrower range of Catholic belief than is 'doctrine.' In contemporary theological discourse, dogma pertains strictly to the primary object of infallibility which requires the "assent of faith," a specific modality of belief that is owed the person of God; 'authoritative doctrine' pertains to the secondary object of infallibility which requires "firm retention and adherence." As far as 'dogma' goes, the definition proposed by Fr Philip Neri Chrismann OFM has proven to be enduring: "a dogma of the faith is nothing other than a divinely revealed doctrine and truth which is proposed by the public judgment of the Church as something to be believed with divine faith, in such wise that the contrary is condemned by the Church as heretical doctrine" (Regula fidei catholicae, quoted in W. Kasper, Dogma unter dem Wort Gottes [Mainz, 1965], 36). Those who are familiar with the dogmatic constitution on the Catholic Faith Dei Filius will immediately recognise Fr Chrismann's definition.
Dogma, then, has to do with something that is (1) divinely revealed, (2) proposed by the magisterium, and (3) to be believed with "divine faith."
What is distinctive about dogma is that the belief is disclosed by Divine Revelation. In other words, certain beliefs are knowable only because God has disclosed them. An example of this would be the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union of Christ, or the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary. None of these can be known by pure reason as, can be, for example, the existence of a Creator or the natural moral law.
Let's put this aside and take a look at how sacramental theology has been done since the closing of the Second Vatican Council. According to Trent, a sacrament was "instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord" (DS 1601). Now when one takes, for example, the Sacrament of Penance, just how or when Christ instituted it asks a question that does not give full justice to the event of Divine Revelation (see D. Coffey, The Sacrament of Reconciliation [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001], 32ff). There is no question that Christ established Penance as a means of absolving post-baptismal grave sins. But it must be understood within the context of Christ as the "primoridal sacrament." In other words, the economy of the Incarnate Word, especially the life of Christ, achieved a certain 'plurification' in the sacramental system of the Church. Christ, obviously, instituted baptism and Eucharist, but less obviously but no less truly instituted penance, confirmation, and the other sacraments in virtue of certain patterns in his life. As K. Rahner said,
The sacramentality of the Church's basic activity is implied by the very essence of the Church as the irreversible presence of God's salvific offer in Christ. The sacramentality is interpreted by the Church in the seven sacraments, just as the Church developed its own essence in its constitution.
I am convinced that dogmatic theology has developed in a fashion not wholly unlike the seven sacraments. If the sacraments represents an endurance of Christ's Incarnation (as, indeed, the Incarnation is the very "principle" of sacramentality), then dogma represents an endurance of Divine Revelation. I would go so far as to say this: If Christ is the primordial sacrament, the Divine Revelation is the primordial dogma.
The next step, then, has to do with the believer's response to Divine Revelation as 'crystallized' in the Church's dogmatic definitions. This is precisely what is meant by "divine faith" or, to put it juridically, by "the assent of faith." Thus dogmatic theology requires a modus operandi that demands the habitus of the theological virtue of faith than perhaps even systematic theology does, as the latter may deal with speculative questions that do not require the assent of faith (such as, for example, whether St John the Precursor was cleansed of sin in the womb of Elizabeth in virtue of Mary's greeting or whether the Mother of God was the first to know that Christ was risen from the dead).
Even more than that, it is perhaps worth considering--not without some degree of perplexity--that the various treatises of theology are presented almost in isolation from other treatises. For example, there is the commonly-heard complaint (especially by Rahner) that the treatises de Deo Uno and de Deo Trino are too often in total separation that a transition from the One Creator God to the Triune God is next-to-impossible to achieve, at least in the way that manual theology was taught. The Eastern Christians, however, do not make such a separation. (In fact, true to the form of St Gregory of Nyssa, the unity and oneness of God is inferred from the three hypostaseis).
To take another example, consider the treatise de Ecclesia. We know, of course, that there is no Church without the Eucharist; yet too infrequently do we hear a lecture on the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church. Moreover, there is a definite Trinitarian structure to the liturgy: how does this liturgical Trinitarianism bear on the Eucharist and, subsequently on the Church? Take treatise, and there is a guarantee that each and any one of them can be brought to bear upon every other treatise. De Quattuor novissimus and de Sacramentis; de Deo Trino and de Natura et gratia (Pope John Paul II has done precisely this in his theology of the body); and de Incarnatione Verbi and de Mysterium Paschale; any one of these treatises can be brought to bear upon another.
This, I would propose, is what distinguishes dogmatic theology from systematics: it bears in mind the totality of Divine Revelation as the horizion against which to read the Church's dogmatic definitions. In other words, dogmatic theology stands closer to the "primordial dogma" of Divine Revelation and considers the articles of faith before its systematization in the different treatises. As such, it requires a different exercise of faith in its study. Systematic theology, then, is posterior to dogmatic theology, because it classifies the various dogmata of the Church into various treatises. The intermediary state between Divine Revelation and theological treatises, I would suggest, is precisely "dogmatic theology."
Since dogmatics is to be studied in front of the horizon of Divine Revelation, it might be useful to take M. Lohrer's proposal that the function of dogma is to mediate the kerygma. That having been said, it is probably a good habit, when looking at the lens of dogma, to discern what aspect of the Gospel it is intended to highlight. Thus dogma bears greater promise of providing not only certitude but clear perception of Divine Revelation.
But here I must interject with a complaint. The study of theology, especially Catholic theology, ought to presuppose a basic knowledge of the Church's magisterial teachings. How often have we taken a course in Triadology (1) without a course in the Gospel of John as a prerequisite and (2) without any grounding in the letter of Pope Dionysius I to Dionysius of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Settlement, and the Eleventh Council of Toledo? This same pattern can be repeated across several fields of theology. I remember taking a course in Christology in which my professor, aware of the advancements of Biblical studies (and probably R. E. Brown's New Testament Christology), said that the lectures would not begin with an examination of the Gospels and Pauline/Johannine literature as that would be "anachronistic." Cardinal Schonborn's recent book, God Sent His Son, is a perfect example of how it is not anachronistic. Fr G. O'Collin's Christology likewise does a good job presenting the dogmatic picture of Christ, making use of both Scripture and the Church's teaching authority.
To translate what I've just said into practical terms: Denzinger-Schonmetzer.
Dogmatic theology and systematic theology, although there is a tendency to use the two terms interchangeably, should not be confused. They are differentiated not so much in their methods as in their paedagogy and, if we are to take B. Lonergan's very useful suggestion, then systematics is posterior to dogmatics.
To close, I pulled out an old paper and uploaded it for your viewing pleasure, if you are so inclined to investigate this question from the point-of-view of Bernard Lonergan.