A Concise Dictionary of Theology

A Concise Dictionary of Theology

Crain, T Chris

A Concise Dictionary of Theology. By Gerald O’Collins, S.J., and Edward G. Farrugia, S.J. New York: Paulist, 2000, xi + 304 pp., $19.95 paper.

A concise dictionary should define terms briefly, clearly, and accurately while canvassing the contours of the theological map. It must be written with lean, muscular prose. To be overly comprehensive encumbers the dictionary with extraneous detail. In their revised and expanded, but still slim, edition, Gerald O’Collins and Edward G. Farrugia have achieved the goal of conciseness and clarity. With entries from “Abba” to “Zwinglianism” that include biblical, catechetical, ethical, historical, liturgical, and philosophical terms, the authors-not editors-have combined an adequate range of coverage with a focused intensity on each entry.

The two Jesuit authors are well known and respected among their fellow Catholic scholars. The self-proclaimed aim of their book is to remedy the problem of confusion over theological terms, especially for beginning students. The advent of the “global village” has led to people with diverse views and different use of terms to come into contact with one another. This causes misunderstandings to arise over miscommunication. Most often the misunderstandings come about as the neophyte (or uninformed scholar) reads a text from another tradition without comprehending the meaning of the key terms. Thus, the authors hope that this book will help readers (especially Western, Roman Catholic students) grow in the comprehension and accurate use of theological terms.

The book has many useful features. Where appropriate each entry includes references to the benchmark work of Neuner and Dupuis, The Christian Faith, to Denzinger and Hunerman’s Enchiridion Symbolorum, and to key documents of the Second Vatican Council, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and the Bible. Consequently, those hungry for more depth are not left starving but are guided to the appropriate sources to learn more. Each term includes references to other related terms, and an index of names is included as well. However, those interested in a scholarly bibliography for each entry will be disappointed, as none is given.

The authors note that their “aim is not to smuggle in some system but simply to identify key words and phrases that are used in contemporary theology, sometimes in a variety of ways” (p. viii). Frankly this reader does not fully accept his nod towards objectivity. For example, a polemic against predestination runs throughout the book: “The Pelagian controversy provoked from St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) come extreme assertions about God electing” (p. 210). Also, the authors misunderstood sola scriptura as “the only authoritative rule of faith” when it is more carefully defined as the chief rule of faith (p. 146), and they make the blanket assertion that “Protestants have often overemphasized original sin and its evil effects” (p. 184). Such remarks imply an inherent system. Still, on the whole, the book is suffused with an ecumenical spirit. In fact, the authors make many congenial statements such as “Pope John Paul II joined the German bishops in recognizing that the Augsburg Confession confesses fundamental truths of our common Christian faith” (p. 22).

Another criticism is that at times the authors are uncritical in their appropriation of tradition (some of which may be true, such as St. Thomas the Apostle founding a church in India) while at other times they employ common historical criticism. Also, the book’s strength of brevity has its disadvantages. No individual entries of persons are included; instead, important persons are mentioned only under the terms that relate to them. Those looking for more depth may want to consult the recent Dictionary of Fundamental Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1995) edited by Rene Latourelle and Rino Fisichella or the more dated but still helpful Theological Dictionary, written by Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965).

The strengths of the book are its conciseness but more particularly its inclusion of terms that most dictionaries of theology do not include. Do you know how to define Acoemetae, Bogomils, Malabar Christians, Ruthenian, and Zeon? These terms are taken from texts, events, or issues derived from Eastern Christianity. The dictionary shines here by providing access to terms that can no longer be neglected. The fall of the communist empire, the resultant growing awareness of and dialogue between evangelicals and the Eastern Orthodox, and the actual growth of Eastern Orthodoxy in the United States make the dictionary relevant. For evangelicals who do not know much about Roman Catholic liturgical and theological terms such as forum internum and motu proprio the book is also apropos. Because of these entries on Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, both the learning student and the learned scholar will benefit.

Copyright Evangelical Theological Society Dec 2001

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