Fr. Peter Phan’s theology under scrutiny

Fr. Peter Phan’s theology under scrutiny September 14, 2007

John Allen, Jr. informs us that Fr. Peter Phan of Georgetown University, a celebrated theologian in many circles, is having his theology investigated by both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the U.S. bishops. I ran into Dr. Phan at CTSA a couple years ago, and I am familiar with some of his work on inter-religious dialogue. He’s a genuinely sincere and nice man, but I have never really understood what all the fuss was about among those who really admire his works.

The CDF, it seems, has taken special notice of theologians working in the delicate field of inter-religious dialogue. A number of years ago, the CDF investigated the work of Jacques Depuis, who has dedicated much of his effort to understanding the relationship between Christianity and other religions. And let us not forget Roger Haight, whose book Jesus Symbol of God contained fundamental problems in terms of the distinctiveness of Christ’s Incarnation and the salvific efficacy of other religions. Similar concerns were raised in the early eighties with regard to Edward Schillebeeckx’s two tomes on Christology, Jesus and Christ, though Schillebeeckx was never censured.

Henry has some thoughtful posts on inter-religious dialogue, and I highly recommend reading them. Christopher Blosser has assembled some solid background reading on the CDF’s interest in the trends of inter-religious dialogue and theology including its investigations of Depuis and Haight.

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  • The field of inter-religious dialogue and comparative theology is a very dangerous one. One must tread very carefully; one can understand the reasons why people go one way or another, but one must also be honest with themselves if they go directions which, in the end, take them out of the Christian tradition.

    I think Depuis, who was defended by O’Collins, clearly was within the tradition, even though it is possible some things he said were not as clear as they could be (this, however, is true with many theologians, great and small alike). When I met him soon before his death, we discussed the field and agreed on many of the problems within it; we acknowledged our appreciation of many people in it while noticing they do indeed depart from the Christian tradition.

    Haight might claim his view is in accord with inter-religious thought, but that really is an insult to inter-religious work. His text rightfully deserved the condemnation it got. His is more along the lines of an Arian, Semi-Adoptionist Christology, written with too many equivocations to shake a stick at. When I went through his major work, I just kept writing all kinds of nasty comments within.

    Dr Phan – I like his work, and he is indeed a very nice man, but I have seen elements of what he wrote to be questionable in a way beyond Depuis. I would recommend his work to people interested in the field, but I would also suggest to read it with a critical eye; as my pieces on inter-religious dialogue point out, it should be done with the aim of preserving the Christian faith in and through that dialogue. I think Dr Phan is trying, and I think he would (in the end) accept the Church’s decision, but I think he wants to work out how (and sometimes that is understandable, as well).

  • That’s a real shame. I really enjoyed the textbook he edited: The Gift of the Church. I hope things work out for him.

  • Policraticus


    I studied Depuis’ Christianity and the Religions in a graduate seminar, and I found it to be an insightful if uneven read. I do not think Depuis ever ventured out of the doctrine of the unique mediatorship of Christ, but his Christology, it seemed to me, was problematic in two respects: 1. It seemed a bit Nestorian, for he tended to vascillate between the Logos as independent of the homo assumptus and “Jesus” as particular to time and culture; 2. He seemed to tear Christology and pneumatology apart, suggesting that the Holy Spirit’s mission in the world extends beyond that of Jesus’.

  • Politicraticus

    Well, there are ways one can express the mission of the Spirit where it still draws one back to Christ while still being “abroad” as you find in the Acts. Balthasar talks about the “seed of the Word” and “seed of the Spirit.” Of course the two work and reveal together, and yet in distinct ways.

    As for his Christology, I think there is room for what he says, even St Cyril of Alexandria goes about describing the work of the Logos in Jesus in similar terms (I wish I knew offhand where it was in his On the Unity of Christ). You will also find similar terms in St Athanasius… which is why I think he is very Alexandrian (which, however, not Nestorian, has dangers of the Logos-Sarx makeup and its tendency to see the humanity almost as a body suit for the Logos).

  • Policraticus

    So you read him as a bit Alexandrian and I read him as an Antiochene…interesting divergence!