Theology and apologetics are fascinating subjects of study. Theology is known as a “queen of sciences,” and, some add, “all the other sciences are her handmaidens.” St. Ignatius of Loyola, who studied for more than ten years in different classrooms, surveying disciplines from literature and art to grammar and mathematics, said that all other studies were wasteful compared to the study of theology.
Ignatius was also a strong proponent of apologetics, which is not dissimilar to theology and depends on the study of theology. Even in his Spiritual Exercises, the study of theology and apologetics is among the chief activities one can take up to benefit the spiritual life. He says:
Praise positive and scholastic theology. For as it is more characteristic of the positive doctors to encourage the affection to greater love and service of God our Lord in all things, so it also is more characteristic of the scholastic doctors to define and explain for our times the things necessary for eternal salvation, and to refute and expose all errors and fallacies.
Theology is the highest science—especially to Christians—because it helps us understand information that we cannot discover by ourselves. Because God reveals himself to mankind, any study of the divine is an attempt to understand God.
There’s an interesting paradox in this. For theology to benefit us, we must realize that God has revealed something to us. Without that, there is no theology. But investigating that revelation is also theology.
The paradox of theology
Confused? Essentially, we do not know the benefit of theology without first doing theology. God has already planted this seed in us, but he continues to reveal himself to mankind through his Son, Jesus Christ. Our study of theology culminates in God, and what Christianity has discovered is that the God of the universe also wants to have a relationship with each one of us. So studying theology is not just a matter of being a hyper-intellectual but about living our daily lives with purpose.
There are several theological disciplines to study, and each comes with its own need for defense. There is moral theology, Trinitarian theology, patristic theology, and more, but the most important is that of dogmatic theology. Of course, dogmas are our principles of faith, the unchangeable doctrines that are pronounced by a pope speaking ex cathedra, or in an ecumenical council, which a Christian is bound by.
Ignatius and several more saints made dogmatic theology their fundamental pursuit. It might be our highest pursuit, but there’s another interesting paradox, a more practical paradox for why we study dogma: not only does it separate orthodoxy from dissent and believer from heretic, it unifies Christians.
Dogma is so interesting when we think of its uses because many people would be led to think that when the Church promulgates a de fide teaching (one that binds us), it is creating further division, putting unity at stake for the sake of “being right.”
But the exact opposite is true: The Church’s teaching is exactly what unifies it. The misunderstanding comes from the belief that dogmas are pronounced for new dogma, which many would think is a departure from the truth that once unified us.
The truth is, no new dogma is ever promulgated. When doctrines receive definitions, they are the same—but often with more clarity—as the teaching revealed to the apostles and the primitive Church. The Holy Spirit literally protects the Church from such corruption, and the Bible is clear about this:
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (John 14:26).
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:15).
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (John 16:13).
In most cases, these dogmas are better understood over time, and therefore their given definitions, whether from ex cathedra or in an ecumenical council, are more complex. Therefore, there becomes a deeper study of the theological ideas surrounding the dogma, and furthermore, there arise more complex apologetic defenses. The truth never changed, because truth never can, which is why St. Albert the Great remarked, “It would be more correct to style this the progress of the believer in the faith than the faith in the believer.”
What we end up with is a greater understanding of the doctrine. Rather than a line in the sand, we have a ring that weds us to the truth. This is what we believe; this is why. This should illuminate the beautiful significance of our Faith: what separates heretics into limitless divisions unites the Church as a bride.
See, heresy produces more deviation, but orthodoxy produces more unity. Within each dogma is the subtlety of this bond of unity. When we say the Creed each Sunday, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” we are saying “I believe in unity” in four separate dogmatic dimensions: one, Christ founded one Church; holy, this church is sanctified according to one standard; catholic, this church is the same across every nation; apostolic, this church teaches one faith, the same as revealed to the apostles, perpetual to each generation.
The goal of apologetics
Knowing this, our top prize in apologetics is also unity. We never submit ourselves to the rigors of studying dogmatic theology unless we want to understand, firstly, what unites us. Likewise, we should never defend the Church with the goal of repelling people but inviting them to communion in our mystical body. We repel ideas, not people.
Pope St. John Paul II explained all of this profoundly when he said, “The unity of all divided humanity is the will of God.” He continued:
Jesus himself, at the hour of his Passion, prayed "that they may all be one" (John 17:21). This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ's mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape. In effect, this unity bestowed by the Holy Spirit does not merely consist in the gathering of people as a collection of individuals. It is a unity constituted by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and hierarchical communion (Ut Unim Sint, 9).
The paradoxes of our faith are wonderful, but the highest purpose of it all is bound up in simple unity.