Gerald O’COLLINS. Rethinking Fundamental Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. pp. 365. $65.00 hardcover ISBN 9780199605569, $35.00 pbk (June 2013) ISBN 9780199673988. Reviewed by Robert WRIGHT, Oblate School of Theology, 285 Oblate Drive, San Antonio, TX 78216
In his book appearing in paperback this summer, O’Collins describes fundamental theology as “a faithful and reasonable account of basic Christian beliefs” (vii) and seeks to re-launch this subject in view of what he sees as its widespread demise in theological curricula. He clarifies immediately that the fundamental theology he espouses is not “bent on producing knockdown arguments for basic truth claims,” a common approach in much of pre-Vatican II apologetics, but rather on showing that “these claims are not incoherent, and they can point to reasons in their support” (vi), in other words, that they are reasonable without being demonstrable.
The first chapter deals with the origins, distinctive character, and basic themes of fundamental theology. The next eleven chapters, each one fairly brief, take on the traditional topics one by one: belief in a personal God; the potential openness of humans to faith in the divine self-revelation; general (creation-mediated) and special (historically mediated) divine revelation; Jesus Christ as the summit and fullness of revelation; revelation in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ; faith and its reasonableness; the living Tradition of the Church; biblical inspiration; biblical truth, canonicity, and interpretation; the founding of the Church and her basic structures; the relation of world religions to Christ and the Spirit. The final chapter draws upon these themes to discuss three styles of theology and propose basic guidelines for theologizing.
O’Collins advocates that fundamental theology remain as a distinct discipline embracing all of the above topics, even though he recognizes that current theological curricula tend to break up many of these topics into more specialized courses such as Introduction to Theology and Revelation and Faith. He could have added other dogmatic/systematic courses such as Christology, Christian Anthropology, God, and the Church that incorporate one or more of the themes he lists for fundamental theology and treat them in a faithful and reasonable manner. This reviewer suspects that the theological discipline will continue to follow the method of such specialized courses, rather than reintroduce one or several courses dealing only with the reasonableness of all the basic Christian beliefs.
That having been said, if systematic courses deal with their doctrinal topics in terms of how their understanding and formulation develop over time in response to human experience and the quest for human understanding – as Vatican II specified in Optatam totius 16 – then they will have to incorporate the discussions offered by O’Collins in this book. He himself perceives an “overlap” between fundamental theology and systematic theology when, as with Pannenberg, systematic theology recognizes that “an unfolding of the content of Christian teaching inevitably involve[s] the question of its truth and true significance” in “showing that Christian faith and its basic beliefs are publicly reasonable and credible” (12). The study of Revelation and Faith, for example, could benefit greatly from introducing its reflection with O’Collins’ third chapter on “The Human Condition,” where he artfully lays out the distinguishable yet inseparable unity among experience, thought, and tradition as the bases of Christian life. Both the Revelation and Faith course and the one on Ecumenism could also find an excellent ecumenical treatment of Tradition and its relation to Scripture in the chapter on “Tradition and the Traditions.” Courses on Christology (and on the gospels) could benefit from his treatment of the historicity of the gospels and of miracles in his chapter on “Jesus the Fullness of Revelation.”
In summary, while this book may not persuade its readers to reintroduce a specific course or courses on fundamental theology as argued by O’Collins, it will definitely prove invaluable in enriching those courses in systematic/dogmatic theology that parcel out among themselves the basic theological themes discussed so well in this volume.