Is Roman Catholic Theology Biblical Theology?

Matthew Levering, a Catholic theologian at Dayton University, examines Christian eschatology in the Catholic tradition but first asks if that theology is biblical (Jesus and the Demise of Death: Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian, Baylor, 2012). What we also are treated to in this clear and versatile academic book is direct engagement with Tom Wright’s approach to eschatology, especially in his The Resurrection of the Son of God and Surprised by Hope.

In a sentence, the problem can be put this way: Catholic theology is too Platonic to be biblical or Jewish. This is what Levering will put to the test, but first he wants to know if major doctrines are biblical. Is Scripture, to use the words of the Pope, the “soul of theology” or not?

Questions today: Is Catholic eschatology too Platonic? (How so?) And does the pushback against Platonism in Christian eschatology lead too often to an eschatology that is too horizontal and not vertical enough? Or, is the recent trend in scholars like N.T. Wright not Platonic enough?

Is the descent into hell biblical? It is clearly important to the Creed and in Catholic theology. Is the resurrection of Jesus the result of faith or did Jesus’ body come back to life in history? How biblically justifiable is this, but this entails a question for many about how historical it is?

The ascent into heaven — again, the Catechism is clear but what does Scripture say? Levering looks as well into the “doctrine of merit,” which in Catholic theology is clearly taught but which derives from the saving graces of the Spirit in the life of the Christian, but how biblical is it? Then he looks at the “soul” — and here he enters into a thicket of issues: how biblical is the Catholic conviction about the body-soul relation? We are talking here about the “spiritual soul.” The Catechism draws on Aristotle, the 14th Century Council of Vienna, the 16th Century 5th Lateran Council … that the soul is immortal. But is it taught in the Bible? And this leads to the Catholic emphasis on the beatific vision, which is shaped through and through by the immortality of the soul — and Levering knows that in part this theory comes out of Plato. “If one finds Plato here at the pinnacle of the Church’s eschatology, it can easily come to seem that Plato is the driving force behind the whole of the Church’s eschatology” (7).

Thus, “The Church too can seem less an eschatological community and more a community shaped by Platonic care of the soul through interactions with the souls of the saints” (7).

N.T. Wright is otherwise: Levering will examine whether Wright’s theses about eschatology are too horizontal and not vertical enough. Wright’s got company in his pushback against Platonism: Levering mentions Oscar Cullmann, Martin Heidegger, Tertullian, Moltmann, Hans Urs von Balthasar, as well as Barth, Rahner and Bulgakov. Ratzinger, however, at one time pushed back against Platonism but found it compelling eventually; Levering finds company for Benedict XVI in Jaroslav Pelikan, Martin Hengel, Richard Bauckham and Ben Witherington III.

But he will especially find help in Thomas Aquinas.

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  • Mark Farmer

    Fascinating. There seems to be a growing awareness of, and engagement with, the philosophical assumptions that underlie all theology, including Evangelical “biblical” theology. To the extent we are unaware of them, we are living an unexamined theological life.

    Levering’s remark about Plato seeming to be the driving force of the Church’s eschatology is very similar to Brian McLaren’s noting the dominance of the Greco-Roman narrative in Evangelical theology.

    The phrase, “What does the Scripture say?” could be taken as an assertion of univocality in the Bible about the ascent into heaven and other doctrines. Which, of course, is not the case, not to mention the interpretation of that “ascent” in light of what we now know of the cosmos.

    So a dichotomy, “Is it platonic or is it biblical?” lacks too much nuance to be very useful.

  • From what I understand, something of the Greek philosophical element is what carried the church away from its Jewish moorings, and in part is what necessitated the new perspective.

    There does seem to be something of a Platonic element arguably in the book of Hebrews, copies, shadows of the real to come or already present in Christ. And I know C.S. Lewis would say that what is to come is simply more real than the reality in which we live now, something to that effect.

    Isn’t is the case that Roman Catholic theology presupposes the idea that Greek philosophy is something of the general revelation of God to the extent that it provides some significant underpinning to their theology. The Eastern Orthodox to some extent, or in some way criticize their Roman brethren in this regard, from what I’ve picked up.

  • Philip Donald

    Is this not too simplistic a questioning? On reading the Pope’s book, “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life” I was struck by how thoroughly important resurrection is (even though emphasis is placed incorrectly in different areas at different times, resurrection has never been forgotten). The problem with Catholic Eschatology is the problem with Western Christianity’s Eschatology. The doctrine is not ‘bad’, but the emphasis in teaching has not been laid in the correct places. There are certainly differences between Wright and Ratzinger, but to blow them into significant disagreements would be to miss the point of both. I’m not sure if this scholar is not simply trying to create a PhD for another student or a book that might sell.

  • scotmcknight

    I want to jump in here to defend Levering, who is far from being simplistic. Here are facts: Many scholars, especially since Harnack, have claimed the Jewishness of the Christian message was hijacked by Platonic thought. In his own way, Tom Wright sees too much Platonism in too much Christian eschatology. Catholics (and Orthodox) are routinely criticized for having too much Platonism or Aristotelianism in their theologies. The Pope/Ratzinger acknowledges this indirectly in asking if theology is biblical enough. Levering is using this theme to enter into the discussion of NT eschatology. No, it’s not simplistic: it’s actually profound — What is at the core of Catholic eschatology?

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    You gave a thristy man a few drops who desparately needs more to quench his thirst (I love this!). Can you please unpack Levering more on his interaction with Wright and how Aquinas comes to the rescue? I’m sure this is an upcoming post so I wait expectantly. Thanks!

  • Rob

    I’m not sure if I would call this overly simplistic or overly complicated. It seems many in the academic world tend to make things more complicated than they ought to be sometimes. I believe the matter is much more simple than is being posed. For the answer, we need to look at Acts 17:11. “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” So, looking at, say, the doctrine of the resurrection. The Bible indicated that this was a historical and bodily resurrection. There is no passage of Scripture that would make one think otherwise. So then you examine your creed. Is that what the creed says? Then it’s Biblical and there’s no need to involve any thought of whether or not it is Platonian. If not, if it says something otherwise than what the Scriptures say, then you look at that creed and say to it, “From whence comest thou?” 😉 Only then does one start looking at possible sources where it might have originated such as Plato. But let’s not over-complicate this matter.

  • DRT

    I require help here.

    I don’t see any disagreement between: RC resurrection and ascension, and Prot resurrection and ascension. All are bodily, right?

  • scotmcknight

    CGC, hang on… more posts coming.

  • Don’t know where Levering is headed, but it may be that the blog post missed it: the nouvelle théologie of de Lubac, et al. (itself a critique of the prominence of Greek philosophy in Catholic theology), is clearly “biblical theology,” and is, in reality, not that new (stretching back through the medievals to the fathers).

  • Scott Gay

    I think you can approach this topic from vision, belief, and knowledge. There is huge lack of clarity in each area of intentionality(not intentions) which underpin some of the differences of view. On the knowledge aspect even prestigious cognitive neuroscientists like Walter Freeman consider Roman Catholic theology transparent in remodeling our understandings. It is more translucent in respect to vision, as footnote (7) above indicates. In “Symbolism and Belief”. Bevan’s series of lectures, 1936, one notices the belief area of Roman Catholicism to be more opaque.
    Aquinas was less neo-platonic than subsequent middle ages theologians. They all took facets of Plato seriously. For every pushback against Platonism there are others- philosophically, Bretano should be mentioned as influencing Husserl, and Roderick Chisholm has a long list of influential colleagues. It should also be mentioned that most libertarians see the decline of scholasticism as harmful to the enlightenment era.
    Those who convert to Roman Catholicism, or many mainline Protestant, or Evangelical, or liberal Christians don’t realize the diversity within. Acquinas faced innumerable tensions in becoming a Dominican. I do believe the toleration question, which is truly at the heart of any eschatological questioning, can be seen from the Roman Catholic perspective in its peace prayer initiative taken up by the Community of Sant’Egidio.

  • Perhaps I’m saying this out of my limited understanding of Catholic doctrine, but doesn’t God lead the Pope and the church to truth? Doesn’t dogma sit along side biblical text? If this is true, I have two additional questions:

    1) Isn’t the question of how biblical this are theology only a partial question? Doesn’t it need to respect and be informed by dogma?

    2) If God leads the church, then isn’t the answer going to be a resounding yes?

  • Doesnt the fact that we consent to approach this in terms of “horizontal” vs “vertical” already reveal that Plato is the driving force behind our approach to eschatology?

    Two dimensions just don’t seem to be enough to me. Are “vertical” and “horizontal” the only options? Is a 45* angle the best direction to go? As soon as an observer’s perspective changes the concepts of horizontal and vertical become meaningless. Vertical is horizontal to a sideways person, right?

    We could say that Reality 3 dimensional, or 4 Dimensional, but even that seems like it misses the point to me.

    This is probably part of his discussion already, but to me, a strenth of NT Wright is that is conscious to help us avoid these categories rather than focusing on wheteher we are horizontal or vertical enough.

    In the end, the only direction that matters is the extra mile.

  • Rob

    Check out N.T. Wright’s “Jesus and the World’s True Light” from the N.T. Wright Podcast on iTunes. It’s the most brilliant handling of eschatology out there, in my opinion.

  • BradK

    “Is the descent into hell biblical? It is clearly important to the Creed and in Catholic theology.”

    But it only became important to the Creed over time, right? This bit wasn’t in the “original” Apostles Creed, was it?

    Samuel @11 raises a good question. If God leads the church and dogma sits alongside the biblical text, then is the answer to the question “is it biblical?” that it really doesn’t matter too awful much?

  • Cal

    The main issue here: which Levering is picking apart, is not that catholics, main-line protestants, anabaptists, evangelicals etc. are not speaking the same language but the content of the words change.

    The problem is like the commenter who mentioned the platonic bent of Hebrews. When we are talking about shadows and types, is the content of such words platonic. So when a catholic looks at the Scripture and sees the word “Bishop”, the word is filled with the content of catholic teaching concerning hierarchy.

    A lot of the confusion is this goes over everyone’s head or misunderstandings root up. Catholics talk about resurrection, but I think they’ve redefined it from the idea of what we find in Scripture (which accommodates the ideas of purgatory, petitioning saints etc.). Yet, Protestants are many times just as bad. I had a friend ask, innocently enough (and she’s a Baptist) how we will see in Heaven if we don’t have eyes. I don’t think she would’ve said she doesn’t believe in resurrection.

  • Ben Steel

    Sounds like Thomas Aquinas will once again come to the rescue of those straying too far one way or the other. Shocking.

  • BradK

    Cal, how did you answer your friend? Sorry, I just had to ask. 🙂

  • Cal

    I wasn’t feeling particularly smart or fresh that day so I just said something to the effect of, “Because we rise from the dead, like Jesus, with bodies”

  • DRT

    Cal, can you are someone else answer my question in #7? I don’t see any difference in RC vs. Prot theology in bodily resurrection and ascension. Is that right?

  • Cal


    It’s tricky to answer that. If we’re talking about Jesus’ bodily resurrection and ascension, generally speaking it would be yes, but not necessarily. Protestantism has those underneath it that would say that Jesus did not bodily raise from the dead but rose “spiritually” or is resurrected because of the faith of the community. Some catholics have moved in that direction as well.

    The reason why it is so hard to tell is again word-content. When you pastors agree to a creed, they may be saying yes to something that others around them define differently. It’s good sometimes for liberty on secondary matters (ex. I would agree of a judgment that leads to eternal punishment, but mean a somewhat Annihilationist meaning rather than ECT).

    However, day to day, you can have someone who is a Christian pastor who doesn’t believe Jesus bodily rose from the dead, but is kept alive by faith in Him, and defines this as resurrection ala. Bultmann. Words like God, Christ, atonement, resurrection, judgment, trinity can mean all sorts of things to lots of people. I’m not being post-modern, but one can’t always assume two people are talking about the same thing when they’re using the same words.