De Chirico’s Assessment of Berkouwer

Chapter 2 of Leonardo De Chirico’s book Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (which I regard as the single most important Reformed work on Catholicism published since Vatican II) deals with various treatments of Roman Catholicism pre- and post-Vatican II.

The first theologian De Chirico treats is G. C. Berkouwer. Berkouwer wrote three books on Roman Catholicism, two of them before V2 and one after. De Chirico’s overall assessment comes at the end of the section: “Berkouwer’s studies on Roman Catholicism enrich Evangelical theology in terms of providing a model of serious scholarship, fair interpretation of Roman Catholic sources, and passionate concern for the Gospel’s sake” (65). Berkouwer recognizes at least one of the two pillars of Roman Catholicism that De Chirico mentions: the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church as an extension of the incarnation of Christ. For De Chirico, this seems to be the main reason why he describes Berkouwer’s work as a fair interpretation.

At the forefront of Berkouwer’s work, especially in the volume written after V2, is the discussion of continuity and discontinuity. This question became quite acute, given that many people thought of V2 (and many people still think today) as ushering in great changes. De Chirico quotes Berkouwer’s description of the semper eadem (“always the same”) as “no more seen in isolation but correlated in Roman Catholic fashion to the ever changing tempora” (61). It is unchangeability within all the variations of history. I could be wrong, but this sounds quite a bit like what Newman describes more simply as development of doctrine. After all, what promotes this development if not the historical circumstances? As De Chirico himself says elsewhere, the proper interpretation of V2, when seen within a Newmanesque viewpoint, is that the Roman Catholic Church did not change at all at V2: the RCC has always had the additive impulse.

To use a specific example of how the RCC is continuous while developing, the assertion of vestigia ecclesiae (remnants of the church) in bodies outside the RCC still assumes the unica ecclesia (62). This leaves the real ecclesiological problem untouched. After all, vestigial churches are not the same thing as the church. This must qualify our interpretation of the infamous “separated brethren” phrases in the V2 documents. In fact, this admittedly new way of speaking about non-RC folk doesn’t even (supposedly) contradict the dictum of Cyprian: extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church no salvation). Instead, there is a “narrow” and a “broad” view of what constitutes the church. The fact of the matter is this: if one starts with Newman’s development of doctrine standpoint, there will be no contradiction between pre-V2 and post-V2. If one does not hold to the Newman development of doctrine, there will be contradictions. The Nouvelle Theologie fully embraced Newman, and this is why JPII and Benedict can assert continuity within renewal.

To end with an aside, my problem with Newman is that he doesn’t seem to distinguish between two different kinds of development. One kind of development comes from the logical inferences that are based on the texts themselves. This may be called “good and necessary consequence.” The doctrine of the Trinity is surely the prime example of this. The Bible tells us that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and that there is only one God. We have to have some way of describing these facts, and the church logically came up with the Trinity. However, a second and different kind of development happens when the church looks at, say the virgin conception of Jesus (which, by the way, is a more accurate description of what happened than “virgin birth” if you think about it), which is explicit and logically derived, and then, based on a particular view of what sex could and could not do to Mary, proclaims that Mary was a perpetual virgin, despite the substantial biblical case that can be made against the position. There is no biblical evidence that Mary was a perpetual virgin, and it is certainly not logically derivable from the biblical texts. To me, these two cases are vastly different, because one is based on logical inference from the text, and the other is based on logical inferences from tradition that have no basis in the text.