Review: Assessing Ressourcement Today

mural, theology, church fathers, jesus

Gabriel Flynn, and Paul D. Murray, eds. Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, xx + 583. £71


Gabriel Flynn, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Mater Dei Institute in Ireland, and Paul D. Murray, Professor of Systematic Theology at Durham University and Director of the Centre of Catholic Studies, have given the academy a fine resource with this handsome and dense volume. The aim of the work is “to articulate the history of the ressourcement movement, its antecedents and leading exponents, and to assess the relevance of their prodigious theological output for the contemporary churches and modern society” [16]. To achieve this aim, Flynn and Murray divided the thirty-one essays into four sections and in what follows, the introduction and one essay from each section will be reviewed.

With broad but helpful brushstrokes the introduction to this massive volume paints the basic contours of the ressourcement movement (often referred to as nouvelle théologie). Gabriel Flynn writes that it permeated French theology from 1930-1960, and initiated a renewal that significantly impacted Vatican II. The three main areas of renewal were biblical, liturgical, and patristic, and these were seen in unity as part of the living tradition of the Church. Within the diversity of the movement there were two central concerns: to engage with the contemporary world and to ensure the continuity of theology.

In the first section, Ressourcement Movement: History and Context, we find Hans Boersma’s essay “Analogy of Truth: The Sacramental Epistemology of Nouvelle Théologie”. He argues that analogia veritatis––the analogy of truth––is the factor that underlies the various arguments of the nouvelle theologians. The analogy of truth stems from the Catholic notion of analogia entis––the analogy of being. Boersma writes, “Just as one could say that creaturely being participated in God’s being [analogia entis], so also creaturely truth participated in God’s truth; at the same time, both divine being and divine truth infinitely transcended human being and human truth” [161]. Interestingly, Analogia veritatis caused offence to the theological epistemologies that sat on either side of it. The equivocal view of truth perceived analogia veritatis as saying too much, spelling out the mystery in a way that violated it. The univocal view of truth saw it as sliding into relativism and going too far down the apophatic path. Tracing the philosophical background of analogia veritatis, Boersma briefly explicates the thoughts of Maurice Blondel, Pierre Rousselot, and Joseph Maréchal. He winds up the argument by looking at specific ressourcement theologians and the various ways in which they formulated analogia veritatis. Boersma concludes, “the way to resolve the enigma of nouvelle théologie is not to place it on the historical trajectory of Modernism to post-conciliar pluralism. Rather, by grounding itself in the traditional doctrine of analogy, nouvelle théologie presented a sacramental epistemology that offered to the modern world a theological recovery of mystery” [171].

The next section examines the central figures of the ressourcement movement. Here James Hanvey expatiates on the importance of Henri Bouillard in the essay entitled, “Henri Bouillard: The Freedom of Faith.” He argues that Bouillard’s “work is important not only for its considerable scholarly achievements, but for the method that he forged through a rigorous engagement with the tradition, especially Thomas, and with contemporary religious and secular thinkers” [263]. Bouillard’s aim was twofold. He desired to say something to the unbeliever from within her context, and to reconstruct a new Christian humanism that did not deny grace. To fulfil this aim Bouillard constructed a theological anthropology that preserved human freedom while at the same time highlighted the historical nature of our human existence. Inevitably this forced him to engage with both neo-scholasticism and the theology of Karl Barth. According to Bouillard, the former is problematic because of its inability to recognise the effects of history on the human subject, and the latter is faulty because it ultimately negates human freedom. Bouillard, influenced by Blondel, maintained that through natural reason we are freely able to realise that we cannot provide for ourselves the conditions of our fulfilment; we need God. In other words, “the internal logic of human action is, fundamentally, identical with the internal logic of Christianity” [274]. Hanvey concludes the article by placing Bouillard in context with Vatican II, and he argues that we need to understand ressourcement thinkers like Bouillard in order to appropriate what is expressed in the Council.

Brian E. Daley’s essay, “Knowing God in History and in the Church: Dei Verbum and ‘Nouvelle Théologie’” is the final essay of the third section, Ressourcement as a Threefold Programme of Renewal. In this essay Daley explores the distinct ressourcement features of the Second Vatican’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. He demonstrates that contextually Dei Verbum was a revolutionary statement about theology, particularly “about what it means to ‘know’ God, what is involved in human speech about God, and how that speech is rooted in God’s free initiatives in speaking to us” [334]. It is also about the Church, her certainty and ability to know God and pass this down. Furthermore, with its emphasis on history, liturgy, and existential epistemology it marks the end of the manualist tradition (an ahistorical and propositional approach). Daley avers that the ressourcement approach to reading the Fathers is the methodology that appears in Dei Verbum. That is, the Fathers were read according to their time, place, and language, linking them to the present by the tradition of the faith and the reception of the Church rather than forcing them into a prefabricated system. In conclusion, Daley highlights four distinct ressourcement features of Dei Verbum: (1) Revelation is a verbal noun rather than a body of information; (2) rather than a two-source theory, both scripture and tradition are part of a larger ongoing process within the living Church; (3) the truth of scripture is given within a historical context, and thus to understand scripture language, genre, and cultural context must be taken into consideration; (4) “scripture, like the Eucharist, is at heart sacramental; it invites us to share God’s life, as the written, ‘fleshly’ part of a much wider tradition of teaching and interpretation realized continually at the heart of the church, which is itself Christ’s Body” [351].

In the final section, Ressourcement and ‘the Church in the Modern World’, Lewis Ayres, Patricia Kelly, and Thomas Humphries inquire into Pope Benedict XVI’s involvement with the ressourcement movement. The answer to the question posed in the title of this article, “Benedict XVI: A Ressourcement Theologian?” is ‘yes’, he is a ressourcement theologian. Ayres et al do a wonderful job broadly tracing Ratzinger’s thought in relation to the general direction of the ressourcement movement. The list of commonalities is as follows: (1) concern for the unity and continuity of the Church, (2) Augustinian spoiling of the Egyptians, (3) unity of nature and grace, (4) the continuity and importance of history, and (5) recognition that revelation is God’s action in history and not simply the delivery of a deposit of faith. Benedict’s theology bears the marks of the ressourcement movement, but he is a second-generation ressourcement theologian who is faced with new concerns. The article concludes with a practical challenge: “Theology is a matter of performance as well as of speculative power, and the multi-faceted legacy of ressourcement figures such as de Lubac and Benedict will require much further assessment and attention if we are to see how to take this legacy into the new century” [439].

Filled with well-crafted essays by established scholars, this impressive volume achieves what it sets out to accomplish. There is a broad sense of continuity between the essays, truly a testament to the skills of Murray and Flynn. My only wish, and perhaps this could be the second volume, is that it would have been divided topically into areas such as, eschatology, tradition, theological anthropology, scriptural interpretation, and ecclesiology.


  • Dr. Andrew TJ Kaethler is Assistant Professor at Catholic Pacific College where he teaches theology and philosophy (or anything remotely related). He completed his PhD in 2015 at University of St Andrews.

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