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Modernism and the Problematic Relation between History and Theology. The Search for a Compromise by Louvain Historians and Theologians (1870–1910)

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image of Church History and Religious Culture

The progress of historical science in the second half of the nineteenth century could not have but consequences on the discipline of church history. Traditionally, (Catholic) church history was conceived as an auxiliary science of theology, charged with demonstrating the truth of faith by means of historical witnesses. Bold pioneers like Ernest Renan and Louis Duchesne transferred (elements of) the methodology of historical science to the study of early Christianity. The resistance of the Magisterium and dogmatic theologians urged Catholic church historians—especially at the time of the modernist crisis—to restrain their pursuit of autonomy from dogmatic and theological directions. A case in point is that of the Louvain historians and positive theologians (Charles De Smedt, Alfred Cauchie, and Joseph Lebon) trying to reconcile the exigencies of critical historiography with the basic principles of dogmatic theology (o.a. the immutability of dogma, the infallibility of the Church, the possibility of divine supernatural intervention in human history and the unity of truth). Components of their via media come to the fore in their methodological approach of the history-of-dogma research, such as the implicit acceptance of a theology of history, the emphasis on the dogmatic authority of the Magisterium as to compensate the lack of dogmatic authority of the historical sources (especially the writings of the Church Fathers) and the elaboration of a new “positive” apologetics, based on the firm confidence in the eventual reconciliation between faith and science.

Affiliations: 1: K.U. Leuven


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