“Always be ready to give an answer, though with gentleness and respect, to anyone who asks you for the reason for your hope.” (1Pt 3:15)

Fundamental Theology is, within the scope of theology, the most mobilizing area of questions about its identity, object, and method. Its roots lie in the times of the New Testament. It is not without reason that 1Pt 3:15 is considered its Magna Carta. The proclamation of the Christian faith is born along with the need and challenge to defend and justify it to those who demand an account. Already in nascent Christianity, this challenge presented itself in two aspects: on one hand, in the religious debate with Jews around the interpretation of Jesus’ role and identity, and on the other hand, in the religious and political controversy with the Hellenes, as Christians were accused of being “enemies of the human race,” atheists, and impious because they did not adhere to the religion of the polis.

Throughout the history of Christianity, we find echoes of what we now call Fundamental Theology in the attempts undertaken to rationally defend the faith in various contexts. From Antiquity and Patristics, several names stand out in the defense of the faith against the threats of paganism and heretical tendencies: Letter to Diognetus, Athenagoras, Origen, St. Irenaeus, Justin, Tertullian, Eusebius of Caesarea, and others. St. Augustine, for example, defended the Christian faith in a context where pagans predicted the ruin of the Roman Empire due to the abandonment of the gods following Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. The pagans felt legitimized in their accusation when the fall of the Empire was consummated. With his work De civitate Dei, St. Augustine deconstructs the argument of the pagans, speaking of the city of which God is the founder and king, the city that lives as a pilgrim in this world through faith. This city temporarily overlaps with the earthly city, but Christians, who participate in both cities, act in the earthly city out of devotion to God.

In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas, with his work Summa contra gentiles, elaborated a defense of the faith confronted at that time with Judaism, the Moorish invasion, and especially the pantheistic interpretation of Aristotle. Despite St. Thomas’s efforts, the medieval religious climate created a cultural environment of security and tranquility for Christians, which, in turn, dispensed with the exercise of the task of a proper fundamental theology. It would be unthinkable not to believe… the religious imagination filled all areas of life.

The effort to elaborate the reasonableness of faith in different contexts as a constant of Fundamental Theology, even before it received such nomenclature, discourages a univocal conceptualization. It evokes many connotations: apologetics, fundamental science of faith, prolegomena to dogmatics, philosophical theology, philosophy of religion, foundations of theology, and others. This situation makes Fundamental Theology the object of intense debate among theologians about its epistemology. Despite the dynamic movement that characterizes it, both in terminological terms and regarding its task, it is consensual to affirm that it, over time, has assumed the simultaneous task of rational justification of the Christian faith and elucidation of the foundations and method of theology as a science. In addition to the function of justification, Fundamental Theology includes the study of the Word of God and its reception by human beings. It significantly values the protagonism of the questioner of faith, so that the canon of its themes and even its method evolve according to the historical regime of the human spirit. Therefore, more than in other disciplines, it is in the nature of Fundamental Theology, as a frontier area, to walk with open windows to the sciences elaborated and renewed by the demands of the human spirit.

Although its task dates back to the apology of ancient Christianity and Apologetics, its designation as Fundamental Theology only imposed itself in the 19th century. Indeed, it inherited from medieval Apologetics its three classic treatises:

  • demonstratio religiosa, or the treatise on religion, in which the compatibility between religion and reason was analyzed and the questions raised by atheism to faith;
  • demonstratio christiana, or the treatise on revelation, where the Christian religion was rationally founded as a revealed religion, distinguishing it from other religions;
  • demonstratio catholica, or the treatise on the Church, where one’s own Confession was analyzed as the proper religion and as ecclesiastically institutionalized religion, establishing boundaries with other Christian confessions.

Apologetic science was constituted in the 17th century, in the context of confessional controversies, as a methodical search for the justification of the Christian faith. It marked Catholic theology in modern times, due to the Reformation, rationalism with the Enlightenment, and atheism, especially in the northern cultures of the planet. The various projects of scientific apologetics share the will to situate themselves within faith and, at the same time, to construct a demonstration of faith as an objective science with the maximum evidence. Apologetics was configured as the science of the rational credibility of divine revelation. But its limits as an objective science became evident even before the Second Vatican Council, partly due to the renewal of biblical studies that favored a less extrinsic and a priori conception of revelation. The departure from extrinsicism and apriorism in the conception of revelation begins with Maurice Blondel’s “immanent apologetics.” Gradually, an anthropological foundation of Fundamental Theology develops. This process of anthropocentric shift is consecrated by Vatican II, especially in the Constitution Dei Verbum, which, using a historical and theological method, starts from the concrete event of revelation fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Apologetics accumulated a rather negative charge for appearing fixed in the pure defense of the status quo and thus seeming more like a “saving the truth at all costs” than a love for the truth. At the heart of the crisis of apologetics and the search for a new form, the epistemological status of the reflection on the foundations of faith is delineated. Fundamental Theology thus arises from this critique of traditional apologetics, assuming, therefore, the vocation to “give reasons for our hope” to those who question us or before those who challenge us. It proposes to reinterpret this task and reinvent the method, maintaining the tension that is intrinsic to it: on one hand, it is a theological reflection, that is, from God and His revelation in Jesus Christ, and on the other hand, it develops its discourse starting from fundamental human questions, assuming the forms of language and the instruments of analysis of understanding reality. In this sense, it attributes new meaning to the apologetic task through the continuous exercise of self-criticism of its function, method, and language. The new configuration of Fundamental Theology has broadened its thematic scope, processing a true displacement or broadening of horizons and boundaries, which has transformed it, so to speak, into the refuge of all current themes or the discipline that will address all the foundations of theology and Christianity in interface with all dimensions or aspects of human existence. In Latin America, Fundamental Theology has taken on the challenge of modernity in a significant effort to address all the classical themes of theology from the “option for the poor” as a hermeneutical key to the authentic reception of the Christian message.

Degislando Nóbrega. Unicap. Brazil