Rev. Louis Bouyer: A Theological Giant | An Interview with Dr. Keith Lemna | Ignatius Insight | November 12, 2010
Rev. Louis Bouyer: A Theological Giant | An Interview with Dr. Keith Lemna | Ignatius Insight | November 12, 2010
One of the first two books published by Ignatius Press in 1979 was Woman In the Church by Rev. Louis Bouyer (1913-2004), a highly respected French theologian (the
other book was Heart of the World by Hans Urs von Balthasar). But while fellow European theologians such as
von Balthasar (1905-88) and Henri
Cardinal de Lubac, S.J. (1896-1991), have become more well-known and widely read since the Second Vatican Council, Bouyer is still largely unknown to the
Dr. Keith Lemna, Visiting Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, has studied the life and thought of Bouyer
for many years, and has written several articles about Bouyer's wide-ranging theological works. He recently spoke with Ignatius Insight about the importance of
the writings of the impressive French priest and scholar.
Ignatius Insight: Who was Fr. Louis Bouyer?
Dr. Lemna: Louis Bouyer was a priest of the Oratory, a convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism,
which he had served as a minister, an eminent liturgiologist and historian of
spirituality, an influential scholar of Newman (whose studies of Newman helped
to pave the way for Newman's eventual beatification), and, perhaps most
importantly of all, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth
Ignatius Insight: What were
some of Fr. Bouyer's significant contributions in the realm of Catholic theology?
Dr. Lemna: Fr.
Bouyer is known most of all as a scholar of liturgy and spirituality, and it is
in these areas that his work has exercised its most overt impact on the course
of Catholic theology as a whole. In the area of liturgy, Bouyer, himself
drawing on the work of Dom Odo Casel, is the figure who is most responsible for
the emphasis that has been placed in recent decades on the theme of the "Paschal
Mystery" as central for understanding the mystery of the faith, and he, as much
or more than anyone, oriented sacramental theologians to a focus on the
liturgical event as the basis for theological reflection on the nature and
meaning of the sacraments.
Bouyer was also one of the great ecumenical theologians of
the twentieth century, who was committed to dialogue with Protestants, Anglicans,
and Eastern Orthodox Christians, although always with a firm commitment to the
Catholic Church as the fullness of Christ's sacramental presence on earth.
Bouyer's book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism is one of the most illuminating studies on the
relationship of Protestantism to Catholicism to have ever been written.
Many converts to Catholicism have noted that this book was
of inestimable value to them on their journey to the Catholic Church. Bouyer
sees aspects of the Protestant Reformation in a positive light, but he notes
that the positive goals of the Reformation can only be truly met if they are
carried out in the communion of the Catholic Church. At the same time, he
fully unmasks the problems with the nominalism adopted by Luther and the Reformers
and the concomitant repudiation of analogical thinking. This leads, he shows,
to a rigid either-or approach to theology and to the hardened positions of
faith alone, Scripture alone, and grace alone.
Moreover, Bouyer was close friends with Sergei Bulgakov and
Vladimir Lossky, the two greatest Russian Orthodox theologians of the twentieth
century. Bulgakov was a "sophiologist" greatly influenced by Vladimir Soloviev
(19th century). Lossky, who rejected Bulgavkov's approach to
theology, was a "neo-Patristic" theologian who sought to root theology in the
concepts developed by the Church Fathers. Bouyer's corpus bears the influence
of both of these men. One might wonder if any Catholic theologian in the
twentieth century was as deeply knowledgeable and sympathetic to the Christian
East as Bouyer, while remaining firmly rooted in the Western tradition. It is
no coincidence that Hans Urs von Balthasar, the eminent Swiss theologian,
dedicated his famous study of the great Eastern Patristic theologian Maximus
the Confessor (Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According
to Maximus the Confessor [Ignatius Press, 2003]) to Bouyer. Bouyer travelled in the
Christian East and held that the modern Western Church should seek to integrate
its life with liturgy in the way that was still, at the time of Bouyer's
travels, commonplace in the East. In liturgical matters, Bouyer was a proponent
of what one might call "high sacrality," and he was greatly disappointed with
the practical implementation of the liturgical reform after the council.
Bouyer's knowledge of the Anglican tradition was no less
formidable than his knowledge of Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. More
than any single influence, Bouyer was marked by his study of the theology and
biography of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman. Indeed, if there is such a
thing as a "Newman School" in systematic theology, Bouyer would surely be its
pre-eminent advocate. As early as the 1970s, Bouyer was calling for the sorts
of provisions for Anglican converts that Pope Benedict XVI has given us with Anglicanorum
Coetibus. Bouyer was steeped in Anglophone
thought and culture. He read deeply in the tradition of English Christian
Platonist theology, and he was personal friends with both J.R.R. Tolkien and
T.S. Eliot. His use of the early modern English tradition of theology in his
works on systematic theology is unique and worthy of further exploration and
It is important to note, in this regard, that Bouyer
composed and published a nine-volume treatise on systematic theology, one of
the most powerful syntheses (though he refused to label it or even to think of
it as such) of Catholic doctrine to have appeared in the twentieth century.
Unfortunately, it has been too little noticed by Catholic theologians. It is
immensely stimulating for theological reflection. Bouyer writes very much in
the style of Newman, that is, in a flowing, even poetic manner, basing himself,
like Newman, in historical theology but, at least in Bouyer's case, without
neglecting the importance of metaphysics. On the other
hand, Bouyer's approach to the theological discipline in these volumes is very
much influenced by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, in that he seeks most
of all only to bring to display, in the context of modern thought, the
surpassing love of God revealed in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.
Ignatius Insight: What were some of his key works?
Dr. Lemna: In terms
of books that have had a direct influence on Catholic theology, his book
published in 1943 on the Paschal Mystery, Le Mystre Pascal, has
been greatly influential. In this book, Bouyer argues that the liturgical
unfolding of what he would call (on the suggestion of a colleague) the "Paschal
Mystery" in Holy Week is the central key for understanding the faith. All of
the events of the last days of Holy Week must be seen together, Bouyer argues,
in order to grasp the Mystery of Christ as a unity. Dom Hugh Gilbert, Abbot of
Pluscarden Abbey in Scottland and no mean scholar in his own right, has
described this book as "epoch-making" in its influence and importance.
Similarly important is his book on the Eucharist, Eucharistie, one of three seminal studies of Christian liturgy
done in the twentieth century (along with Josef A. Jungmann's The
Mass of the Roman Rite, and Dom Gregory
Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy).
In this book, Bouyer explores the theology and historical development of the
Church's Eucharistic prayer. He argues for the importance of developing a
theology of the Eucharist based
on attention to the act of the liturgy, rather than a theology about the Eucharist that takes its starting point in
abstract metaphysical concepts that are then applied to the reality of the
Eucharist. He shows the roots of the Christian Eucharist in Jewish Temple and
synagogue practices, going beyond Casel's thesis that the Church had borrowed
its liturgical forms from the Greco-Roman mystery cults.
Bouyer also wrote several books on spirituality that were
uniquely integrative of spirituality and dogmatic theology. Two such books are
his The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Church Fathers and his Introduction to Spirituality. Bouyer always argued for the need for the modern
Christian West to rediscover the connection between theology and holiness, and
he was particularly insistent to recover the Church's tradition of monastic
theology. His book The Meaning of the Monastic Life is perhaps the most important of all in this regard.
Davide Zordan, a scholar of Bouyer based in Italy, has argued that Bouyer
stands out among twentieth century ressourcement theologians in bringing to light the Church's
tradition of monastic theology.
Bouyer was also steeped in biblical theology, having been
trained first in the methods of historical-critical scholarship and then under
the tutelage of Oscar Cullmann. His capacities as a biblical scholar were on
display in a translation and commentary on the Gospel of John that he did early
in his career that was highly regarded.
I would also like to point to his nine volumes on systematic
theology, which I have already mentioned, particularly his book Cosmos: The
World and the Glory of God. This book is an
immensely wide-ranging, systematic synthesis, drawing on a rich array of
sources, ancient and modern. It demonstrates a profound, traditional
understanding of the relationship of the world to the triune God. It has
implications for the relationship of theology to science and opens paths for
connecting continental Catholic theology to Anglophone thought.
Ignatius Insight: What
influence did his work have on the Second Vatican Council?
Dr. Lemna: It is difficult
to assess the precise influence that Bouyer's work had on the council. By the
time that the council had convened, many of Bouyer's ideas had become common
currency among some of the theologians who were present at the council, even if
they were not influenced by Bouyer. Bouyer was a theological expert relied upon by the Church in the period surrounding the council, and he was greatly
trusted by Paul VI, who appointed him to the
first International Theological Commission after the council and who had wanted
to name him a cardinal. Bouyer refused the offer, arguing that it would cause
too much trouble for the Holy See. He had been engaged in fierce polemics with
the later generation of liturgists in France, and his reputation had suffered
as a result. In our own day, especially with the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI,
Bouyer's reputation should be restored, as his liturgical vision coheres with
that of the Holy Father.
Certainly, if Dom Hugh Gilbert is right about the singular
importance of Bouyer's book on the Paschal Mystery, then we might go so far as
to say that Bouyer's work was a decisive influence on the council, if only
indirectly so. Also, it is difficult to measure just how influential Bouyer's
writings and teachings on liturgy and spirituality were in the period leading
up to the council.
At any rate, there is no doubt that Bouyer's general
approach to Scripture, theology, spirituality, the Church, and liturgy were
canonized by the texts of the council. It would perhaps be better to say,
rather than speaking in terms of influence, that Bouyer's work enables us to
interpret the council through the lens of a "hermeneutic of continuity."
Bouyer's work is very much in line with the theologies of both John Paul II and
Benedict XVI. He provides further support for their joint effort to inspire the
Church to read the council in terms of the meaning of the actual texts of the
council rather than according to some "Spirit" that is presumed to have little
connection to the texts.
Ignatius Insight: What are
some aspects of Fr. Bouyer's work that are deserving of more study and
Dr. Lemna: Because
there has been scant attention paid to Bouyer's work in secondary literature, I
would say that every aspect of his work deserves more study and consideration.
Bouyer is the least studied of the eminent Catholic theologians of the
Zordan published an 800 page book on Bouyer's theology in
France a couple of years ago, and hopefully that will break the ice. But
Bouyer's work is immense in its scope and implications, and there should be
conferences and scholarly societies dedicated to promulgating his theology.
I think that the biggest obstacle to furthering his thought
is that Bouyer wrote in a very polemical style at times, in a way that was
off-putting to both "traditionalist" and "progressivist" camps in theology. But
the old battles that fueled those polemics are largely a thing of the past by
now, and most of the participants in those battles are dead. Bouyer could be
equally sharp toward neo-Thomists, Rahnerians, and toward theologians influenced
to a great extent by liberal Protestantism. Zordan notes an "anti-Augustinian
attitude" in his writing at times. He definitely had, like Newman (as Ian Kerr,
the pre-eminent Newman scholar in our day, has shown), a preference for the
manner of theology practiced in the Christian East and for the Western monastic
theology embodied in the works of a figure such as William of Saint Thierry (12th
century). At the same time, as his Dictionary of Theology demonstrates, he saw the central importance of Saint
Thomas for Catholic theology. Despite his penchant for polemics, his overall
vision of the unity of Catholic doctrine, of the connection between theology
and Christian life, and his unrivalled sense of the central importance of
sacred liturgy for theology and for the existence of the Church stands out over
and beyond all of the heated disputes. Cardinal Lustiger had said that Bouyer
was perceived as "untimely" and "unwelcome" to the "very generations" to whom
he was "providentially sent." But perhaps in our time we can begin to see more
clearly precisely how lucid and comprehensive—and, one might even say, "forward-looking"—was
Bouyer's vision of Catholic theology.
Perhaps the most fruitful terrain for future study of his
thought at this point would be in comparing his work with Newman, say, or with
that of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Balthasar, near the end of his life, placed his
own thought in the "school" of Bouyer and the biblical scholars Heinz Schrmann
and Heinrich Schlier. He distinguished this "school," all of whose adherents
were rooted in biblical theology, from Henri de Lubac's ressourcement theology, with which Balthasar has generally been
associated. The coherence between Bouyer's thinking and Newman's is worthy of
its own special study. Moreover, only Pope Benedict XVI rivals Bouyer in being
both a theologian and a scholar of liturgy. There is much that needs to be said
regarding the uniquely liturgical theologies of both of these great men of the
In sum, I would reiterate that Bouyer was one of the major
figures in twentieth century Catholic theology. His work needs only to be first
acknowledged in its depth and scope in order to be made the object of future
Related Ignatius Press and Ignatius Insight Links:
The Word, Church and Sacrament
in Protestantism and Catholicism | Fr. Louis Bouyer
Newman: Prayers, Verses, Devotions | Introduction by Fr. Louis Bouyer
"Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick: Louis Bouyer on the Reformation" | Mark Brumley
Keith Lemna holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from The Catholic University of America. He has
published several articles on Bouyer in international journals of theology. He
currently holds the position of Visiting Assistant Professor of Systematic
Theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, in Saint Meinrad, Indiana.
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