or browse databases: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #

[p. 55]


A study of Matthias Joseph Scheeben’s teaching on supernatural divine faith might for two reasons possess certain value. The first reason is the perennial interest, human as well as theological, attaching to the problem itself. The mystery of what St. Thomas calls the “primus motus mentis in Deum” has been the object of so much speculation, with results ultimately so inconclusive, that one is willing to seek light on wherever it might be found. Hence the second reason: one might legitimately expect some light from Scheeben. By common admission he was a thinker who combined in himself the two qualities necessary for theological greatness, - a vast, first-hand knowledge of tradition, and a profound power of personal thought. And both of these qualities show themselves in his treatment of the subject of faith. Hence an exposition and criticism of his ideas might well reveal useful points of doctrine and still more useful points of view.

Moreover a study of Scheeben in these days possesses a certain actuality by reason of the new prominence into which he has lately been brought. In Germany, in fact his theology has become the object of a sort of cult, not only in that section of the learned world in which a “geniale Theologie” is winning increasing favor and attention, but also, as I had occasion personally to observe, among many of the clergy engaged in the immediate care of souls.

To the problem of faith Scheeben devotes formal attention in several places. The first is in his “Erstlingswerk” in the field of dogma, the Natur und

[p. 56]

Gnade, published in 1861. In using this book, one must of course remember that it is the work of a twenty-six year-old man, a bare two years off the scholar’s bench. For this reason however it has a peculiar value, since it shows both the direction of Scheeben’s thought, and the ideas on faith that he had seized from the beginning. Hence I shall use it constantly as an introduction to his later works. The second, and of all the most ambitious discussion of faith appears in the first volume of the Doqmatik, published in 1873. It had been prepared for by several articles in “Der Katholik”, and notably, as will be said in its proper place, by his work on the periodical “Das Vatikanische Concil vom Jahre 1869”. Scheeben’s theory as developed in the Dogmatik called forth a rather lengthy, and in spots rather sharp criticism from Kleutgen(1). Scheeben apparently meditated a reply, when he should have leisure(2); but it was as well that he never wrote it. Even apart from the fact that in sheer controversy he would have been no match for the redoubtable Kleutgen, their differences, as Gutberlet well pointed out at the time were not of the type that would have yielded to argument; they were differences in temperament, attitude, theological mentality, - differences rather intangible, but wholly real, and absolutely unarguable(3). However, in preparing his article “Glaube” for the second edition of the Kirchen-lexicon(4) Scheeben had Kleutgen’s critique expressly in mind. He concludes the first section of it (which alone is newly done, the rest(5) being merely a reprint, with a few verbal changes and omissions, of the corresponding sections of the Dogmatik) with these words: “In the somewhat

[p. 57]

modified form here given it, my theory holds even against the extensive attack made on it by Kleutgen”(6). Repeated reading of the thing fails to reveal to me any “modifications” other than a certain tempering of expression(7), and the blurring, not the relinquishing of two points to which attention will be called in their proper places. The point I wish to make here is that the pages of the Dogmatik must be considered to contain Scheeben’s substantially definitive thought on faith. To complete them I shall bring in, as needed, his development of the notion of revelation, and of supernatural acts in general.

The scope and build of the present study is easily defined. Obviously there will be an exposition of Scheeben’s teaching. But this exposition, and the parallel criticism, will be governed by a particular purpose, to whose adoption Scheeben himself invites. He himself characterizes his theory as “an attempt at an easier solution of the difficulties to be found in the question of faith, and at a more adequate concept of the lofty nature of faith”(8). Hence my purpose will be rather to seek and present the points of view, the suppositions, the principles that underlie his “easier solution” and his “more adequate concept”, and in the light of their validity to criticise his attempt. Since, as we shall see, his solution is anything but easy, this method of procedure commends itself as simpler and ultimately more profitable than a minute dissection of the solution itself. Moreover it has the advantage of being fairer to Scheeben; in this fashion, as against Kleutgen’s unrelievedly destructive method, one can the better

[p. 58]

recognize the definite values Scheeben was pursuing, and his measure of success in establishing them, as well as the reasons for his failures.

Hence in the first chapter I shall consider Scheeben’s concept of the relations between faith and the beatific vision. Apart from serving as an excellent introduction to his ideas on the supernaturality of faith, this consideration will put us in possession of certain of the general directives of his thought, and by so doing indicate and explain the origin of one of his dominating ideas, namely that faith is a participation in the knowledge of God. Moreover since this first chapter will be based chiefly on the Natur und Gnade, it will furnish an acquaintance with the particular characteristics of Scheeben’s early thought(9). In the second chapter I shall consider his doctrine on the distinction between natural and supernatural faith, after a brief sketch of his theory on supernatural acts in general. From this chapter two details of his theological method will stand out, namely his conciliatory aims and his love of “concreteness”; they will be of value in estimating his doctrine on faith. Moreover in connection with the specifying object of faith, the fundamental notion of his theory of faith, — namely the organic unity of the affective and intellectual elements in the act of faith, — will begin to appear. The third chapter will further develop this fundamental notion, dealing with its origins and its validity, and completing the criticism, begun in the second chapter, of Scheeben’s fidelity to it, and his success in handling it as the key to the solution of the problem of faith. Then, since this third chapter has dealt almost

[p. 59]

exclusively with the voluntary aspect of faith, which is of capital importance in Scheeben’s theory, the fourth chapter will take up the act of faith as an assent, and its relations to its intellectual motive. This chapter will also present in detail Scheeben’s analysis of faith. Finally, by way of completing Scheeben’s doctrine both on the supernaturality and the analysis of faith, the last chapter will deal with the functions of the light of faith.

A word in conclusion about one general character of Scheeben’s theology. It has been rightly said that he makes great demands on the theological knowledge of his reader(10), — and, I should add myself, on his sympathy. The fact is that he used his extensive acquaintance with all schools of theology, and his own independence of any of them for one great purpose, namely to resolve their difference in some sort of a higher unity. He does not concern himself so much with details of argument pro and contra; rather, he aims (as we shall see in the second chapter) at detaching the ground principles of each school, submerging their differences, emphasizing their elements of truth, and thus bringing them into harmony. This conciliatory aim is in itself part of a larger purpose, — Scheeben’s supreme striving was always to avoid all the minimizing and dialecticism that polemic so frequently leads and to(11), and to present in as full a synthesis as possible the many-splendored thing which is Catholic truth(12). Thus, he thought, the truth itself would not merely win acceptance, but wake enthusiasm. Certainly a noble aim, worthy of a theologian, — but an aim whose pursuit entails the definite risk of

[p. 60]

generating rather more heat than light. And here Scheeben reveals his greatest weakness. He had indeed the mind to see the vision of truth, the heart to kindle at it, but he had not the word to fix it for others. “Doch kann nicht geläugnet werden”, said one of his most faithful admirers, “dass Klarheit, and Prägnanz in der Formulierung seines Ideenreichtums die schwächste Seite des Verfassers ist. Auch ist die wissenschaftliche Entwicklung seiner Gedanken schwerlich zum Abschlusse gekommen”(13). Uninspired formulae, unachieved conclusions, — these meet Scheeben’s reader so frequently as to test his sympathy in no small degree. One might indeed object, with von Hugel, to “a violent clarification of the rich obscurities of life”, and admit, with Grabmann(14), that “clarity can at times be synonymous with superficiality”, but one cannot thus gloss over Scheeben’s outstanding defect, his obscurity. Whether the defect be of the merely rhetorical order (“der Mangel an schöpferischer Leuchtkraft des Wortes”, as Weiger would have it(15), or whether it originates in a certain lack of mental gifts of the philosophic order (as I rather think myself), at any rate it renders the task of Scheeben’s exegete and critic particularly difficult.

[p. 61]



  1. Beilaqen zur Theologie and Philosophie der Vorzeit, 3 Heft, II, Zur Lehre vom Glauben. Munster 1875.
  2. Dogmatik, Ed. II, Vorrede p. vi: “Eine ausreichende Erwiderung unsererseit wurde eine ebenso umfangreiche Schrift erfordern, wozu wir vor Vollendung der Dogmatik die Zeit nicht finden”.
  3. “Die beide Richtungen, welche, wie in gegenwärtiger Frage, so überhaupt Kleutgen and Scheeben vertreten, sind die zwei wesentlichsten Momente einer wissenschaftlichen Entwicklung. Auf der einen Seite die conser-vative, verstandesmässige, solide Ruhe, auf der andern die originelle, fortschrittliche, hochauffliegende and tiefeindringende Hast”.

    Gutberlet, Lit. Rundschau n. 4 (1877) Sp. 109. He also points out that their two concepts of faith are rather complementary: “Gegen eine allzu rationalistische, verknöchernde Auffassung des Glaubens, wie sie in der Ansicht Kleutgen’s geltend gemacht werden kann, dient die ideale, lebensfrische Bestimmung Scheebens”. Ibid.

  4. Kirchenlexicon, ed. 2, Vol. V, col. 616 ff.
  5. Ibid. col. 634 ff.
  6. Ibid. col. 634.
  7. The same judgment is passed by K. Eschweiler, Die Zwei Wege der neueren Theologie, Anmerk. 8 zum III. Kapitel, pp. 305-6: “Die etwas ‘modifizierte Fassung’ beschränkt sich darauf, die in der Dogmatik zugespitzt scharfe Betonung der Autoritativen and Willensmässigen gegenüber dem Erkenntnischarakter des Glaubens im Ausdruck ein wenig abzuschliefen”. So also Straub, De analysi fidei, p. 229: “Eandem fere opinionem videtur retinere Scheeben alibi (Kirchenlexicon ed. 2, Vol. V, col. 632 sqq.)
  8. Dogmatik Bd. II, Vorrede p. vii.
  9. The question of Scheeben’s “development” must naturally be considered. He himself admits, for instance, (cf. Katholik 1863 I, p. 661) a certain development of the Mysterien over the Natur und Gnade , at least by a more satisfactory expression of several points challenged by A. Schmid (Tub. Theol. Quartalschrift 1862, pp. 3 ff). However in the matter of faith we shall see that his development consisted merely in the completion, not in the alteration of his early opinions. I might also remark here that I expressly avoid discussion of “Roman influences” on Scheeben’s thought, since that province of investigation has been preempted by a number of “Germaniker”, notably Drs. Eröss and Schauf.
  10. .By Fr. von Morgott, Lit. Rundschau, n. 6 (1888), Sp. 173. Cf also F. Hülskamp, Lit. Handweiser, n. 461 (1888) Sp.470.
  11. Scheeben was convinced that the best polemic was an exposition of differences; he hoped always, as he said, “durch die blosse Aufklärung von Missverständnissen in manchen Punkten wenigstens uns mit unsern Gegnern verständigen zu können”. Katholik 1863 I, p. 642, apropos of the Froh-schammer controversy.
  12. “Sein begeistertes Bestreben war stets hauptsachlich darauf gerichtet, durch eine umfassende and tiefe Behandlung der Glaubensgeheimnisse die Herrlichkeit des Christenthums immermehr zu enthülllen and Geist and Herz dafür zu gewinnen”. Katholik 1888 II, p. 129 (anonymous review of the Doqmatik). Other reviewers and critics phrase Scheeben’s purpose in similar terms.
  13. I. Jeiler O.F.M, Lit. Handweiser n. 16 (1877) Sp. 86, Cp. Gutberlet, Lit. Rundschau n. 1 (1876) Sp. 12, who suggests that Scheeben may improve with age, as did St. Thomas, — a hope however in which he was disappointed.
  14. Einleitung to his edition of the Natur und Gnade p. 19. One must however disagree with tthe same author’s optimistic judgment: “Auch die Schwierigkeit er Scheebenschen Darstellung beeinträchtigt den Wert seiner Dogmatik keineswegs”.
  15. Nachwort to his edition of the Mysterien, p. 835.