Theology as Public Discourse

by David Tracy

David Tracy is Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Distinguished Service Professor of Catholic Studies at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 19, 1975 pp. 280-284. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It is time to attempt a genuinely dialectical and postecumenical Christian systematic theology faithful to both Protestant principle and Catholic substance. Only a sustained collaborative effort of this sort can hope to produce the kind of public and communicative theology needed now.

This is the Third in a Series: New Turns in Religious Thought

Historians of science insist that the most important periods in any discipline are those witnessing to a real conflict of basic paradigms. The central question becomes the very character of the discipline itself: What modes of argumentation, which methods, what warrants, backings, evidence can count for or against a public statement by a physicist, a historian, a philosopher, a theologian? By that perhaps troubling standard, theology is in remarkably good shape.

Admittedly, there seem to be no brave Wordsworthian souls announcing, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!" In fact, the prevailing psychological tone seems better captured in the resignation of the ancient Chinese proverbial curse "May you live in interesting times." For those creative spirits who have opted for autobiography and story as the key to theological language, this present turmoil may prove promising material. Yet many other theologians -- I count myself among them -- believe that even the best stories, or even stories about stories, cannot by themselves effect an adequate theology. What haunts some of us -- what our "story" is about -- remains the question, "What is this discipline called theology?" What makes it a discipline? What allows it to be a form of public discourse? What methods and modes of argumentation and evidence can legitimately be put forward in any discussion that labels itself "theological"?


I confess that for most of the past ten years I have been semiobsessed with that question. The genuine conflict between theological paradigms operative in the debates of the Second Vatican Council during my own formative years of theological study in Rome focused the question for me initially as one within my own Roman Catholic Church community. My work in those same years with Bernard Lonergan -- during that exciting period when he was attempting to work out a method for theology which could be both ecumenical and related to the human sciences -- expanded for me both the contexts of the question and the possibilities of an adequate response. Seven years of teaching in two genuinely pluralist settings -- first at the Catholic University of America and then at the University of Chicago divinity school -- convinced me that however inadequate my own present answers to this question may be, the question itself is well worth asking. Indeed, I still believe that the question of an adequate paradigm for theology as a public form of discourse remains the most important item on the contemporary theological agenda.

Occasionally, usually late at night and far from the counterquestions of students and colleagues, I have actually thought for a moment -- well, if not exactly "Eureka!," then "Surely this must . . ." and then, "This might be -- It!" To return to daylight hours, however, I have reached a few tentative answers to that question for the present and a few "hints and guesses’’ about the ways to answer that question more fully in the future.

Perhaps the vanishing art of the Scholastic distinction may help us formulate the question more precisely. The general question "What is theology as a discipline informing public discourse?" may yield to two linked but distinct questions. The first is that of a "fundamental theology": What model will most adequately explicate the methods, criteria, warrants, backings and modes of argumentation by means of which one may genuinely judge any statement as a theological one? The second question is that of systematic theology proper: What systematic model, informed by the criteria determined for fundamental theological discourse, will allow a specific historical community of faith to articulate its particular vision of reality in a manner that makes it available for the wider community without being wrenched from its own historical experience?

Logically these two questions are really a single question. Yet the distinction may allow for a more methodical study of the full range of issues involved. More exactly, the distinction allows one to examine the major existing models for Christian theology with two sets of questions. The first set the questions of a fundamental theology -- may sort out what explicit or implicit theological criteria are operative in any particular theology. The second set -- the questions of a systematic theology -- may then attempt to determine exactly how the vast and diverse material of past and present Christian experience may be ordered to form a coherent theological whole.

Both of these questions are initially ones for a historical, not a constructive, theology. Harnack remains correct in his famous insistence that although history may not have the last word in theology, it must have the first. In keeping with this historical charge, I argue in a recently completed book, A Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (to be published by Seabury this spring), that there are presently five major operative models for fundamental theology: the orthodox, the liberal, the neo-orthodox, the radical and what may be tentatively labeled the revisionist.


Each of these models has clear, sometimes explicit, more often implicit, criteria for what counts as a Christian theological statement. The "orthodox" theologian, for example, is content to find sufficient warrants and backings for his or her theological statements in the "beliefs" of a particular church tradition. The "liberal" is more often impelled to employ appeals to our common human experience as evidence for or against particular beliefs. The "neo-orthodox" is more concerned to appeal to an attitudinal stance of radical "faith" as evidence capable of challenging both the liberals’ "experience" and the tradition’s "beliefs." The methods that each model uses to produce evidence are also genuinely different. The orthodox manualists of either Roman Catholic or Protestant Scholasticism were nothing if not clear about their mostly deductive methods for theological argument. Most of the neo-orthodox and some of the radicals worked out and employed, however implicitly, a dialectical method whose subtlety was often lost on the reader amid the resounding proclamations of their triumphant theological conclusions.

Close attention to such questions allows the careful reader to find and explicate the often merely implicit but nonetheless determinative methods and criteria of any particular theology. By abstracting for the moment from theological conclusions and even from the systematic principles ordering those conclusions, an interpreter may locate just what model for "fundamental theology" is operative in any given position. What counts as evidence here? What backings are produced if the warrants are challenged? What method of inquiry (scholastic, dialectical, analytical, empirical, etc.) is trusted as producing evidence? How large a role, if any, will the theologian accord his or her own "beliefs" -- or own personal "faith" -- as evidence for the reader? Such questions could and should be multiplied. But perhaps the central point is clear: there are not merely different theologies abroad but different concepts of what even counts as a theological statement. From that point of view, the conclusions of any theology are theologically less important than the kinds of evidence and the modes and method of argument advanced for those conclusions.

For that reason, methodological reflection -- or, as I prefer to call it, fundamental theological reflection -- is not an academic pastime. Rather, it is pure necessity for adjudicating the warring claims of the theologies fighting for one’s attention. Anyone who presents a "theology" presumably asks the rest of us to register our agreement. And yet, many present "theologies of . . ." seem to operate on the basis of "Love me or leave me." Some of us would appreciate another option. The emancipatory and public character of critical reason promises to provide just that: public discourse; genuine communication; authentic conversation. The fundamental theologian’s principal responsibility is to try to articulate the norms and procedures, the methods and the rules of evidence which would allow for that conversation.


If one makes such demands upon others, a just request is that one explicate one’s own model for fundamental theology. At that moment, historical reflection yields to constructive formulation. At that same moment, alas, matters become more tentative. And yet, something can be said. Admittedly, it takes me over 300 pages in the book mentioned above to try to spell out with some degree of adequacy just what criteria, what mode of argumentation, what evidence, what methods seem most appropriate for rendering theological discourse an explicitly public discipline.

To state the matter all too cryptically, I have come to believe that anyone making a theological statement that claims to be more than the private-language of a person or a group (i.e., any theological statement) must be willing to have that statement judged by two sets of criteria. The first set of criteria seems obvious: a Christian theological statement must be appropriate to the central motifs of the Christian tradition. What those central motifs are can and should be argued on purely historical and hermeneutical grounds. If a Roman Catholic manualist theologian informs us that the papal office is central to the New Testament, we want to know what exegetical and historical evidence can count for and against this claim. If no such evidence is forthcoming, then one may fairly conclude that the real backing for the warrant must be found elsewhere than in a public realm of discourse -- for example, in the personal belief of the theologian. If a radical theologian informs us that only Christians know and celebrate the death of God, we want to know how this interpretation of Christianity is the correct interpretation of its symbol system. Or is the real backing for that warrant the personal creative vision of the individual religious thinker? Although all can agree that the theologian is to be held responsible for showing how his or her theological statements are appropriate interpretations of the Christian tradition, not all seem able to agree that these conclusions must be defended on public -- here historical and hermeneutical -- grounds. Until that agreement occurs, theology will not serve its public function of authentic communication.


If one accepts the need for this first set of criteria (appropriateness to the Christian tradition), then a second set seems to follow. To be blunt, I see no way to avoid the strictly historical and hermeneutical conclusion that Christianity has understood, does and should understand itself as a meaning-system with a universalist claim. However one understands that claim (and the kind of exclusivist Christology dominant in the neo-orthodox period is neither the sole nor the proper way to understand it), one must, qua theologian, find some means of coming to terms with universalism.

My own way of attempting to "come to terms" with this claim is to insist that any Christian theological statement must show its adequacy to our common human experience. Slippery territory here, to be sure. For one must spell out exactly what one means by "common human experience" and exactly how other human beings might be able to understand in order to accept or reject any purported evidence from that quarter. In this case, only frankly metaphysical evidence will provide the experiential warrants and backings needed for Christian God-language. The radically experiential "turn to the subject" character of most modern revisionary metaphysical systems encourages me in the belief that such evidence is available.

The genuinely "disclosive" character of much recent linguistic and phenomenological study of religious language as a limit-language disclosing certain authentic limit-experiences encourages me in the further belief that more "personal" experiential evidence is also available. Indeed, by analyzing the positive and negative functions of the languages of religious story, symbol and myth, the fundamental theologian may develop a more "existential" range of experiential evidence complementary to the necessarily conceptual evidence of metaphysics. In the manner of Paul Ricoeur’s attempt to show the relative adequacy of the Adamic myth of evil over the Orphic myth or of Reinhold Niebuhr’s still masterful if methodologically muted attempt to show the relative adequacy of the Judeo-Christian understanding of historical passage, the contemporary revisionist theologian can find public ways to articulate the relative experiential adequacy of particular symbol systems.

This has been, I know, all too general and brief an exposition of just what the discipline called "fundamental theology" might mean. At the risk of even greater brevity but in the hope of a clear capsule view, I set forth my own model: fundamental theology is that discipline which consists in philosophical reflection upon the meanings present in our common human experience and in the Christian fact. When one begins to unpack that statement, the following conclusions seem to follow. First, there are two "sources" for theological evidence (the Christian fact and common human experience). Second, the method for the investigation of each source must be one open to public scrutiny: in the first case, through historical and hermeneutical inquiry; in the second through philosophical (principally phenomenological-linguistic and metaphysical) inquiry. Third, an adequate method of correlation must be developed to allow for a critical comparison of the significant similarities, differences or identities of the "meanings" uncovered in the investigation of each "source." Fourth, the first three logical questions for anyone engaged in such fundamental theological reflection seem to be the following: (a) Is the religious interpretation of our existence meaningful and true?; (b) is the theistic understanding of religion meaningful and true?; (c) is the christological understanding of religious theism meaningful and true?

Suppose a contemporary fundamental theologian could provide reasonably adequate and appropriate evidence for public scrutiny of his or her responses to those three questions. Would theology’s full task as a public discipline now be secure? Yes, in the sense that there could now be some basic agreement upon just what criteria, what methods of inquiry, what modes of argumentation, what evidence would count for that public community of inquirers called theologians. No, in the sense that fundamental theology, of and by itself, does not include a complete Christian systematics or a full delineation of Christian praxis.


To return to the personal note encouraged by the editors, my own present theological dilemma is this: I am relatively encouraged (although not, I hope, sanguine) about the relative merit of the model for fundamental theology which I have tried to articulate in the past few years. I am relatively discouraged (although not despairing) about exactly how to take the next two steps: the development of a model for a Christian systematic theology that will be in continuity with, but also a genuine development upon, the earlier model for a revisionist fundamental theology; and the development of a model for a public Christian praxis (or practical theology) which will be in continuity with, but also a genuine development upon, both "fundamental" and "systematic" concerns.

At the moment I have only "hints and guesses" as to where to go for answers to these last two questions; frankly, I’ve gone back to the drawing board. It seems time to recall Harnack’s dictum again and to return to historical theology before attempting more constructive tasks. What I most want to study may be listed as follows: First, exactly what is the ordering principle -- the system -- in the classical Christian systematic theologies? My favorite texts here (obviously enough, I suspect) are Aquinas Summa Theologiae and Calvin’s Institutes. Second, how and why does that systematic principle change when later theologians (especially Rahner in relationship to Aquinas, and Schleiermacher and Troeltsch in relationship to Calvin) attempt a new systematic construct for a particular religious tradition?

Some of those reasons can be found by noting the shift to what I have called "fundamental theological" concerns in modern systematics. Yet I also see, if only through a glass darkly, that not all the reasons for the changes can be so summarily pinpointed. More work in the line of H. Richard Niebuhr’s still suggestive notion of a "confessional" theology that authentically re-presents a particular community’s vision of reality without rendering that vision merely private strikes me as the kind of direction to pursue. That seems to be the case if one really wants to think out a model for systematics that would develop and not merely forget the criteria articulated in fundamental theology.

More work should also be done in fleshing out the still remarkable proposal of Paul Tillich that a contemporary Christian systematics must be faithful to both the Protestant principle and the Catholic substance. Unless we all wish to rest in the easy embrace of a perhaps too lazy ecumenical spirit, it seems time to attempt a genuinely dialectical and postecumenical Christian systematic theology faithful to both Protestant principle and Catholic substance. Rahner’s work, for example, could be studied from this viewpoint as a rich resource ready for the mining of much of the best of the "Catholic substance." Correlatively, if one could sort out the significant similarities and differences involved in various "dialectical methods" and "dialectical visions" of the great neo-orthodox theologians, then the "Protestant principle" might be accorded both more precision and greater utility. Once that kind of necessarily collaborative enterprise was initiated, then the urgent need for Christian theologians to understand the significant similarities and differences between Christianity and the other world religions could finally move to the center of Christian theological attention. Happily, some theologians have already started in that direction. (The most notable examples here are the important works of Thomas J. J. Altizer and John Cobb on Buddhism.) For most of us (I include here my own mea culpa), the serious study of Eastern religions is still only somewhere on the periphery of the horizon.

Until I can clear my own head on what an adequate model for a Christian systematics might be, I must rest content with hearing even more distant drumbeats on what an adequate, public Christian praxis might look like. One suggestion in that area, however, may be worth passing on. If I am at all correct on the need for and possibility of public criteria for fundamental theology, then it follows that Christian praxis-theologies should also make use of public criteria. As a specific example, I wish contemporary theologians of praxis would read more Jürgen Habermas and less Ernst Bloch. The latter thinker, for all his remarkable powers of retrieving the disclosive power of eschatological symbols, seems to lack the central insight which Habermas so clearly possesses: that authentic praxis cannot rest content with evocative symbols but needs the emancipatory power of critical reason. The fundamental need in praxis is to find a way to provide authentic conversation and nonmanipulative (i.e., really public) communication. To be sure, symbols, myths and stories have a communicative-as-disclosive power and will always be needed. But until either Ernst Bloch or his Christian theological admirers develop a public set of criteria based upon the communicative power of nonmanipulative and emancipatory reason, the possibilities of an adequate public Christian theology of praxis remain, I fear, remote.

A final and more personal note: The seeming ambitiousness, not to say arrogance, of the program for theology outlined in this article may disquiet many. And yet it seemed worth stating. For I trust that sympathetic readers will see that two central beliefs inform this entire approach. The first is the belief that the very subject matter of theology demands such ambitiousness. The second is the belief that the present state of theology demands a full commitment to the most fundamental of all contemporary methodological rules: the need for authentic and systematic collaboration. I do not mourn the end of the age of the theological giants. I do mourn the temptation abroad to attempt ad hoc theologies when only a sustained collaborative effort can hope to produce the kind of public and communicative Christian theology needed. My own "mad and secret dream" may be to produce some eschatological day a Christian systematic theology in an age, when that genre seems to have all the prestige and desirability of epic poetry. Yet may one not take heart from the hope that, if serious collaboration continues, someone will someday write that Christian systematic which really will inform public discourse and help to transform public praxis? Until the owl of Minerva comes -- where? to whom? when? who knows? -- let the conversation continue. They also serve who only stand and collaborate.