Signs of the Times as a New Locus Theologicus?

Among the “great metaphors”[1] that characterize the texts of the Second Vatican Council, the "signs of the times" from the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes (GS §4) has received special attention. Karl Lehmann saw in it a “central legacy of the Council” that is still a task for today.[2] According to Joseph Ratzinger, the basic concern of GS was to establish “a conversation of the Church with the contemporary world”[3] or, as it concretizes, “a conversation of the Christian with the unbeliever about the question of who and what a human person is.”[4]

According to Ratzinger, the new answer of the Church is to be seen in the fact that it no longer determines its own position solely from the “Christological” guidelines of the past, but beyond that emphasizes “the pneumatological and ‘kairological’ aspect,” in which, beyond the moment of “continuity and identity,” the question of the present interpretation and future orientation of the Church also comes into focus. This interpretation is rather vague from a theological perspective. After all, does it mean a variant of the “accommodation principle,”[5] which urges the Church to adapt its pastoral methods to the circumstances of time and place? Or does it mean that the people of God more deeply grasp the “revealed truth” through their interpretive listening to the different “languages of our time” (GS §44)? If the latter is the case, then theology has to reflect upon the value and place of such a dogmatic principle.

Gaudium et Spes: A Second Constitution on Revelation?

(1) In recent theology, the latter question is often answered in the affirmative. Here one strives for a theology of the signs of the times, which explicitly understands GS not as a “merely” pastoral, text, but one which provides a supplementary hermeneutic to understand the council's understanding of revelation. Such a view rests on these premises:

(a) According to Christoph Böttigheimer, the signs of the times may be regarded as “testimony of the hidden presence and effect of God in history.”[6] One could characterize this persuasion as the charitological premise of a strong sign-of-the-times theory. It assumes that with the Second Vatican Council divine (grace) activity was no longer confined to the space of the Church as explicit confessional community, because of God's will to save every human being. Therefore, God's attention to humanity must take place in a way that cannot be exhausted in the binding to historical and confessional factors. “This Christologically concretized and pneumatologically dynamized salvific reality of God in every possible presence and time,” writes Roman Siebenrock, “I consider the ‘basic dogma’ or the basic matrix of the Council.”[7] Following this principle, however, means that every historical event is in principle qualifiable as evidence of God's presence and activity in the world, as “signs of the times.”[8]

(b) Because such signs are an expression of God's attention to the here and now, they are not merely connections to engage empathetic pastoral work, but, as Böttigheimer formulates, a genuine “source of divine self-communication.”[9] With the classical topological terminology introduced by Melchor Cano (1509–1560), signs of the times are qualified by this theological approach as “real places of revelation.”[10] Thus, there is a major consequence for the understanding of revelation entailed in the charitological premise. Most theologians describe the paradigm shift about the concept of revelation at Vatican II as the transition from an information-based model to a communication-based model of revelation. Since the communication between God and humanity does not end with the end of the apostolic age, but continues until the day of Judgement, revelation seems to lose its character as a definable historical event.[11] In the pneumatically mediated activity of the risen Lord, God's self-communication continues and transforms itself into new historical situations.

The signs of the times (as possible instantiations of this work of the Spirit) can be declared “places” where the Church learns to understand more deeply what has already been revealed in Christ. Revelation becomes an ongoing process in which the Church must appropriate and decipher through the world its own tradition.[12] Consequently, summarizes Theobald with reference to Rahner, one must recognize that the biggest stumbling block for a theology of the signs of the times is the established “classical concept of revelation and tradition of the Roman School,” which declares that revelation ended with the death of the last apostle.[13]  Although in Dei verbum the Council took up this traditional thesis (DV §4) and emphasized the historicity of the reflection on revelation (DV §8; §12, §23), it did not explicitly address the influence of progressing historical processes. Therefore, some commentators suggested that GS has to be seen as a complementary document on revelation. For example, Christian Bauer, a pastoral theologian from Innsbruck, writes:

The Council not only adopted two Constitutions on the Church, but also two Constitutions on Revelation. One explicit constitution on revelation, Dei verbum, and one implicit constitution on revelation: Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The latter states that “for revelation, not only dogma but also pastoral ministry is of constitutive (and not merely applicative) importance.”[14]

Christians and non-Christians, Bauer argues, are united by the Council into a “searching pastoral community” whose “ecclesial members are awaiting the full knowledge of revelation.”[15] Thus, even if theologians mostly do not identify the signs of the times as locus theologicus proprius in Cano's sense, their reading of GS as complementary constitution on revelation leads to such a conclusion. Some of them identify signs as locus theologicus alienus, a source of theological cognition to be found outside of Scripture and Tradition. Such loci are not new, since Cano had already named “human history” as one of them. However, the Dominican did not mean that historical events as such bear a certain “authority,” but rather that secular history elucidates the explanation of Scripture and Tradition.[16] To include historical events and trends today as part of revelation, as GS does, was not on his horizon. Thus, the observation is correct “that for M. Cano and the theological tradition following him, the world is not to be counted among the epistemological principles or sources of theology. . . . The foundation of this revelation in the world . . . is not considered.”[17]

Proposals for a Theological Concretization

Consequently, one must define the loci alieni and among them the “history” or the “world” differently than Cano does, if they are to have any bearing on our understanding of revelation. In recent years, a number of such approaches have been presented by Catholic theologians.[18]

(1) In his "Principles of Dogmatic Theology" and in consequential publications, the Tubingen theologian Peter Hünermann has developed a modified concept of loci theologici. Hünermann explicitly subsumes the signs of the times with the Council under the “modern loci alieni.” He extends the latter to six fields that are relevant for the deepening of theological knowledge: philosophies, sciences, culture, society, other religions, history (as “place and form in which and through which human experience of life takes place”).[19] Hünermann remains somewhat committed to the overall structure of Cano by not assigning the signs of the time to all these areas as an overarching hermeneutic and by explicitly connecting them only with the field of “history.” Nevertheless, he specifies the criteria for qualifying historical events as theologically relevant signs: the assessment “in the light of the gospel” must be able to identify in them (even if fragmentary) indications of the realization of the kingdom of God. In these signs the historical presuppositions of revelation as well as of ethical norms and values become visible. The “moral phenomena,” often linked to experiences of hardship and misery, must be relevant for many people, due to their epochal and exemplary character.[20]

Recognizing them, however, necessitates a discernment from which “a universal, reasonable consensus must emerge.”[21] The specifically theological moment of interpretation, however, consists in understanding these signs as “effects of the Spirit in society and in history”[22] and defining what they demand from the Church. This is especially true when they “uncover social, wide-ranging complexes of guilt and crime that contradict the nature of the Church and the basic features of human togetherness.”[23] Hünermann explicitly includes here the Church's confrontation with its own guilt.[24] She takes up the message of the signs in her practice and interprets them as “the effective sign of God's historical action.”[25] Nevertheless, theology is also called to “subject the way in which the fides quae has been presented up to now, i.e., the way in which the objecta materialia fidei have been characterized, to a critical revision and to eliminate hitherto unrecognized ‘conjecturae.’”[26]

(2) The Salzburg theologian Hans-Joachim Sander presented different theoretical principles for a theological explication of the signs of the times.[27] Similar to Hünermann, however, he first identifies them as “occurrences, events and facts which allow to see large-scale developments of truly human but also unhuman behavior. They express the vocation of humans to become truly human . . . as well as the danger of failing to do so.”[28] Following a concept of the French post-structuralist Michel Foucault, he assigns the signs to the field of “heterotopias.” These “other-places” can change the perception of human habitats, because they offer a completely new perspective. They disclose a view “which one would prefer to avoid,” and shatter established certainties to gain a new and more holistic view of reality.[29] Moreover, this category is about real places and situations that do not correspond to established norms and thus disturb the viewer. They create an experience of differentiation which entices the viewer to question established norms and act differently.

According to Sander, there are many “concrete” examples of this—he names places such as Auschwitz and Guantanamo, places of scandal and hope in the Church, but also quite inconspicuous life situations, in which the dignity of a human person is at stake. Sander's heterotopia model points even more strongly than Hünermann's explication of the loci alieni beyond the concept of the signs of the times, as Vatican II understood them, insofar as not only “megatrends” are taken into account, but also inconspicuous individual situations and places.[30] By assigning hetero-topology to the traditional categories of theological epistemology, Sander is not entirely clear. In one instance he says that the signs of the times are loci theologici alieni,[31] but in another that they are neither a locus theologicus proprius nor alienus in the traditional understanding, but “a kind of locus theologicus alternativus,” which extends to the inner and exterior life of the Christian.[32] In a third place the Salzburg theologian speaks of a locus theologicus precarius.[33] This shows that a “pastoral constitution of theology”[34] loosely linked to GS, which aims to protest violations of human dignity and calls to universal solidary practice, cannot be expressed in the traditional categories of theological epistemology.

(3) Inspired by Sander, another Salzburg theologian, Martin Dürnberger, connects the signs of time with the semiotic model of Charles S. Peirce and recognizes in them “diffuse events that challenge the observer to elicit from them practical-normative value which constitute the meaning of one's faith.”[35] Only by confronting situations named by the signs and the decision they initiated does it become apparent what one's own faith actually means. Thus, the world becomes the “interpretant of the Christ-relationship of the Church.”[36] By doing so, historicity and revelation theology get linked. In relation to the changing signs of the times, it becomes clear that “the Church [can] actually understand in a new way whom she represents; for example, only in the conflicts with the philosophy of the Enlightenment does it become clear that the confession of Christ means an option for human rights and religious freedom—that Christ is not adequately represented by those who opt for something different.”[37]

Dürnberger's approach, however, has to be questioned as to whether the signs of the times correspond to the function of “interpretants” Pierce had in mind, insofar as they initially appear as historical phenomena independently of religious realities (such as “God” or “God's kingdom”). Therefore, they cannot be interpreted exclusively in religious terms and are only retro-fitted into already existing theological interpretations. Moreover, this approach offers no answer whether the findings of this semiotic interpretation can be properly universalized.

(4) All theologies that concede to the signs of the times a revelatory quality, have in common that they associate them with immediate impulses for ecclesial action. Thus, Sander writes: “Whoever names these signs is compelled to show solidarity with the people who struggle for the recognition of their dignity in these historical situations.”[38] At the same time, the interpreter is called to examine the ecclesial reality: where does the Church stand in the way of the Gospel and prohibits people from their vocation of becoming truly human?[39] Sensitivity for the needs of the present, must result in the readiness to draw consequences from the signs of the times for ecclesial reform.[40]

Sander summarizes this challenge thus: “Either the Church serves the God's truth among humans, which is designated by the universal call to becoming human, or she is not fit for following Christ.”[41] Not infrequently such demands are coupled with the accusation that the Church has refused to take up this challenge: “The crisis of the Church,” according to the Osnabrück theologian Margit Eckholt, “and the massive loss of reputation and credibility in recent years have their origin in an underdevelopment of the 'signs of the times . . . .’”[42]

Towards an Appropriate Consideration of the Signs of the Times in the Doctrine of Dogmatic Principles

The statement about the theological importance of GS, as the recent debate has shown, is for many interpreters not only the foundational principle of conciliar hermeneutics, but also a litmus test for the understanding of theology in general.[43] Therefore, those involved in the discourse can hardly avoid a statement taking a stance.

(1) It has often been emphasized in the past that the use of the expression “sign of the times” by the Council and its theological recipients finds no convincing theological support in the only direct biblical evidence, namely the word of Jesus from Matt 16:1–4.[44] The Christological and eschatological message of the verses have almost no echo in the signs-of-times theology developed after Vatican II. Therefore, many have argued to broaden the context of the biblical speech of “historical signs.” Jürgen Moltmann, for example, distinguishes two major lines, both rooted in the Old Testament.[45] The first “messianic” line identifies signs of God in history that point ahead to his presence and the dawning of salvation. It has its origins in the Deuteronomistic theology of history. In contrast to that, apocalypticism looks for signs of the imminent end in the historical present, which serve as special divine indicators for true believers which at the same time are also a warning to prepare for the horrors of the end times. While in New Testament kairós theology both lines touch, the Second Vatican Council ties most closely to the messianic tradition.[46] For Christian theology, the search for signs of the times is then inevitably connected with the question whether and how, in view of the coming of Jesus Christ, one can still speak of a “messianic” interpretation of history.

In his Christology, Helmut Hoping, with reference to Moltmann and Wohlmuth, has reminded us of the insight—important especially for Christian-Jewish dialogue—that “messianic expectation” must remain a determining feature of Christianity, because of the “difference between finality and completion of redemption.”[47] After all, the kingship of God has irrevocably dawned through the coming of Jesus, but it will not take hold of all reality before the end of time. An analogous tension opens between the definitive character of revelation in the coming of Christ and the future unveiling of his mystery in the parousia: the time between these poles is the time of the Church, whose theological reflection is defined by historical revelation and qualified as provisional by the still outstanding manifestation of Christ.

(2) This gives us a key to understanding the signs of the times vis-a-vis revelation. In fact, in the theology of the twentieth century, through the recognition of the historical character of the divine self-communication and its historical development in the faith of the Church, the concept of revelation has undergone a dynamization. God turns to humanity on its long journey through time, in a definitive and unsurpassable way in the human history of the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth. In the power of the Spirit, God's people are enabled to gradually penetrate the meaning of experienced history as salvation history and as a process of progressive communication with God. Here the tension already mentioned by Ratzinger in relation to GS §4 between Christologically fixed historical presupposition and pneumatologically enabled future dynamics becomes visible. The Church proves to be a living subject with a collective biography of faith, which is open to ever deeper understanding, but cannot abandon the path of her own irrevocable self-determination in the past.[48] Just as every subject carries itself into the future by integrating new experiences and learning, so also the subject Church has the potential to bring her experiences and challenges to a richer unfolding and a form of expression not yet realized before. But like any living organism, the Church can and must absorb the new only insofar as it is beneficial to her. Therefore, the Church cannot help but look at the world from the point of view of what she already is through Christ, what she is to become, and to integrate or reject what she encounters accordingly.

(3) In doing so, the Church unquestionably remains referred to factors outside itself. The Old Testament knows that YHWH realizes the plans for his people also through persons and powers outside Israel. Biblical theology can speak of the punishment of Israel by foreign peoples, but equally of an inspiration of the Persian King Cyrus, whose political activity leads to the fulfillment of divine promises.[49] The New Testament offers similar examples. Luke, for example, explicitly connects the birth of Jesus with the mentioning of the Roman Emperor Augustus (Luke 2:1), whose political theology thus becomes a foil of contrast against which the evangelist's Christological interpretation of time unfolds.[50] A (historical) theological processing of striking tendencies and events of the present has taken place—reflected or unreflected—in all epochs of Christianity, and also the development of Catholic dogmatics (especially in ecclesiology and anthropology) has been influenced by events, which can be regarded as signs of the times in the sense of GS—from the break-up of the medieval Corpus Christianum and the religious wars to the discovery of the New World, absolutism, the Enlightenment and secularization, and the crises and modernization thrusts of the twentieth century.

However, the theological evaluation of such events did not always correspond to their long-lasting effects or their assessment in later times. It would be worth investigating more closely why these factors did not find explicit attention in the dogmatic doctrine of principles and remained without location in the chapter de locis theologicis (as also in Catholic theories on the development of dogma).[51]

(4) Many contemporary authors tend to include the signs of the times in a theological doctrine of loci as loci alieni without a clear consensus about their determination. Here it is worthwhile to look more closely at the classification of loci by Cano. Within scholasticism[52] one distinguished between proper and foreign, non-proper loci. The loci proprii were differentiated again into primary and secondary ones. The primary ones include, on the one hand, the sources of revelation, (traditionally distinguished from one another) Scripture and tradition (in the sense of traditio obiectiva, as the epitome of the contents of revelation conveyed by God beyond Scripture in the apostolic period). They are the “constitutive” places where (alone) the contents of revelation are found. In addition, the loci proprii primarii include all the authoritative witnesses of revelation: the faith community of the Church as a whole (in which the sensus fidelium is alive) and the ecclesiastical magisterium, within which the pope and the Ecumenical Councils have a prominent role (especially as the “extraordinary” magisterium).

Among the actual loci in a secondary sense are those theological explanatory instances that lack the “official” testimonial mandate (subdivided by Cano into Church Fathers and scholastic theologians). In addition to the loci proprii thus subdivided, Cano includes the loci alieni. They neither constitute the revelation in a material respect nor do they testify to what is revealed as such, but they contribute, as it were, from the outside, namely on the basis of reasonable knowledge, something to the better understanding of revelation. Cano names three loci here: arguments of natural reason, the authority of philosophers, and the authority of human history (although, as mentioned, it would be more accurate to speak of "historiography"). The Dominican thus distinguishes the weight of philosophical arguments as such from the authority of certain schools of philosophy (e.g., Aristotelianism), those being of primary importance for theology. It is noticeable that a corresponding distinction is not made in the field of history, so that there is no mention of “historical arguments of experience” in analogy to “philosophical arguments of reason.”

Consequently, the locus alienus needs further qualification in order to meet the needs of the signs of times in the modern understanding. After all, it seems questionable that this solution is really convincing. For if one takes seriously the thesis that God (or his Spirit) stands causally behind the (beginning) realizations of his kingdom outside his Church or that he uses historical signs to address Christians, the classification of “alien” loci looks weak. Unlike Cano's philosophical or historical argument, the signs of the times, as evidenced by their connection with a universalized understanding of the divine work of salvation, are today not located “outside” the divine self-communication. After all, modern interpreters see the signs of the times not as confirmation of an already existing historical revelation, but (at least to a certain extent) as its expansion or development. Yet, they fail to name any testifying authorities besides those enumerated by Cano (Church, magisterium, theologians), and see them instead as concrete occasions for the unfolding and actualization of revelation. Then, however, the signs do not fit into the category of primary and secondary loci testificantes either.

Finally, if we consider the fact that some theologians go so far as to identify the signs of the times as criteria for the aggiornamento preaching of the Gospel, which avoids the “reproduction of doctrinal propositions,”[53] they seem to be assigned the role of a constitutive locus. This would be tantamount to accepting a revelatio continua, an ongoing revelation, which progressive moral reasoning becomes the hermeneutic key (ratio proxima) for the interpretation of Scripture and tradition. This would not merely supplement theological doctrine, but change it radically. The most extreme form of such a concept would be the model of a gradual self-dissolution of the institution Church into the state, which can be found in the Protestantism of the nineteenth century. Such a Church would, as Richard Rothe wrote, preserve her moral heritage and prevent “world Christianity” from slipping into a “sectarian” ghetto.[54] A number of contemporary Catholic theologians operate with a similar idea of self-secularization oriented to the signs of the times, insofar as they raise the demand for consistent “inculturation” of the Church into the democratic state and make it the Church's superior mission to bring about a humanization of society.

(5) One does not have to go that far to be able to adequately appreciate the conciliar doctrine of the signs of the times and the dynamization of the understanding of revelation. Perhaps, after what has been said before, it makes sense to dispense altogether with the category of loci alieni in Cano's sense and instead include the wide range of those factors that Hünermann enumerates in his new version of the term among the contexts of understanding for all ecclesial instances of witness in their historical reflection on revelation. If tradition today is to be thought primarily as traditio activa in the sense of successive interpretation of Scripture in the Church, through which revelation is recognized the first place, then an appropriate consideration of all factors that contribute to this understanding is called for. This also includes the signs of time in the sense of GS §4. A possible working of God in such signs is thus not excluded a priori, in contrast to the assignment to the loci alieni.

On the other hand, this view avoids the questionable divinization of all possible time phenomena and a relativization of Scripture interpreted in the tradition of the Church as the only constitutive source of revelation. Whether one really wants to assume the working of God's Spirit behind certain historical developments or whether one evaluates them solely as an expression of human rationality and morality (or tendencies opposing them) is ultimately a subordinate problem from a hermeneutical perspective. However, it is more difficult to resolve than the question which phenomena in which respect deserve recognition as signs of the times with theological relevance.[55] In any case, God's activity in the world is always to be understood from and related to his clearly identifiable attention in the visible mission of the Son and the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit linked to it.

Therefore, the Council's statement remains central that the signs of the times are to be “interpreted in the light of the Gospel.”[56] It is not convincing to understand “gospel” here merely in the sense of a theological minimum of “pure” judgements about the faith, which are opposed to “mixed” dogmatic judgements that are context-dependent and revisable.[57] Rather, according to Catholic conviction, “the Gospel” is not accessible to us other than in the entire living interpretation by the Church. Therefore, one should agree with Helmut Hoping's clarifying paraphrase of GS §4: “The signs of the times must be interpreted in the light of the faith that has been handed down. The reality of life is not in itself a source of theological knowledge.”[58] Nevertheless, the reality of life explains why the faith that has been handed down has to be made plausible and contextualized anew.

The interpreted signs of the times can help to shape the progressive reflection on what has been revealed, insofar as they illuminate it and put it into perspective, question it, and offer comparisons with other forms of human self-understanding. Whether certain contents of ecclesiastical doctrine must be qualified as changeable in accordance with the times or as only adequately understandable in the perspective of the present never results solely from the attribution of formal authority to the signs of the times but is left to the theological assessment of revelation with proper consideration of all relevant theological principles.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Our special thanks go out to Professor Ulrich Lehner for translating this important essay.

[1] Hans Waldenfels, Zeichen der Zeit, in: Mariano Delgado – Michael Sievernich (Hg.), Die großen Metaphern des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils. Ihre Bedeutung für heute, Freiburg 2013, 101–119.

[2] Karl Lehmann, Neue Zeichen der Zeit. Unterscheidungskriterien zur Diagnose der Situation der Kirche in der Gesellschaft und zum kirchlichen Handeln heute (Der Vorsitzende der deutschen Bischofskonferenz 26), Bonn 2005, 45.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Kommentar zum ersten Kapitel des ersten Teils von GS, in: LThK2, Ergänzungsband 3, Freiburg 1968, 313–354, hier 313.

[4] Ibid., 315.

[5] Hans Waldenfels, Welt als Erkenntnisprinzip der Theologie?, in: ZKTh 96 (1974) 247–262, here: 247.

[6] Christoph Böttigheimer, Thematische Hinführung, in: ders. – Florian Bruckmann (Hg.), Glaubensverantwortung im Horizont der “Zeichen der Zeit” (QD 248), Freiburg 2012, 11–26, hier 13.

[7] Roman A. Siebenrock, “Zeichen der Zeit. Zur Operationalisierung des christlichen Bekenntnisses vom universalen Heilswillen Gottes, in: ZKTh 136 (2014) 46–63, hier 48.

[8] The Jesuit Christoph Theobald even goes so far as to charge the Council with a “conversion”: “The classical relationship of dogma and practical application is at least tendentially abandoned in favor of a new one: the ‘pastoral dimension’ of the dogma itself, initiated by John XXIII. Therefore, our proclamation must presuppose that the “thing” (res) it is concerned with, is already effective in the potential hearer.” Christoph Theobald, Zur Theologie der Zeichen der Zeit. Bedeutung und Kriterien heute, in: Peter Hünermann (Hg.), Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil und die Zeichen der Zeit heute, Freiburg 2006, 71–84, hier 71.

[9] Böttigheimer, Thematische Hinführung (s. n. 6), 13.

[10] Christoph J. Amor, Die Zeichen der Zeit als (offenbarungs-)theologischer Erkenntnisort? Eine kleine Problemskizze, in: ZKTh 136 (2014) 32–45, hier 37.

[11] For a traditional view see Joseph Schumacher, Der apostolische Abschluß der Offenbarung Gottes (FThSt 114), Freiburg 1979. A few new approaches are mentioned in Michael Seewald, Dogma im Wandel. Wie Glaubenslehren sich entwickeln, Freiburg 2018, 230–269.

[12] See the citations of liberation theologian Paul G. Süss in Böttigheimer, Thematische Hinführung, 17.

[13] Theobald, Zur Theologie der Zeichen der Zeit (s. Anm. 8), 75.

[14] Christian Bauer, Zeichen der Präsenz Gottes? Gaudium et Spes als zweite Offenbarungskonstitution des Zweiten Vatikanums, in: ZkTh 136 (2014) 64–79, hier 64; cf. Idem., Zeichen Gottes im 21. Jahrhundert? Spurensuche einer teilnehmenden Beobachtung der Gegenwart, in: PThI 34 (2014) 51–68, hier 64. cf. also Theobald, Zur Theologie der Zeichen der Zeit (s. Anm. 8), 75.

[15] Bauer, Zeichen der Präsenz Gottes (s. Anm. 16), 75.

[16] Melchor Cano, De locis theologicis, lib. XI: De historiae humanae auctoritate, in: Opera theologica, Vol. II, Roma 1900, 171–272.

[17] Waldenfels, Welt als theologische Erkenntnisquelle (s. Anm. 5), 249.

[18] Here, I deal just with a few, although there are many more. E.g., Kuno Füssel, Die Zeichen der Zeit als locus theologicus. Ein Beitrag zur theologischen Erkenntnislehre, in: FZPhTh 30 (1983) 259–274.

[19] Peter Hünermann, Dogmatische Prinzipienlehre. Glaube – Überlieferung ­– Theologie als Sprach – und Wahrheitsgeschehen, Münster 2003, 225.

[20] Peter Hünermann, Zur theologischen Arbeit am Beginn des dritten Millenniums, in: Ders. (Hg.), Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil und die Zeichen der Zeit heute, Freiburg 2006, 569–593, hier 586.

[21] Hünermann, Dogmatische Prinzipienlehre (s. Anm. 21), 249.

[22] Ibid., 223.

[23] Ibid., 250.

[24] Ibid., 250f.

[25] Hünermann, Zur theologischen Arbeit am Beginn des dritten Millenniums (s. Anm. 22), 588.

[26] Ibid., 589.

[27] Hans-Joachim Sander, Theologischer Kommentar zur Pastoralkonstitution über die Kirche in der Welt von heute Gaudium et spes, in: Peter Hünermann – Bernd J. Hilberath (Hg.), Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil, Bd. 4, Freiburg/Br. 2005, 581–886, hier 849.

[28] Ibid., 716; cf. 727f.

[29] Hans-Joachim Sander, Eine Topologie Gottes in den Zeichen der Zeit, in: Christoph Böttigheimer (Hg.), Zweites Vatikanisches Konzil. Proqrammatik – Rezeption – Vision (QD 261), Freiburg 2014, 157–179, hier 177.

[30] Hans-Joachim Sander, Die Zeichen der Zeit und der Stadtbewohner Gott. Zur urbanen Topologie des christlichen Glaubens, in: PThI 34 (2014) 37–50, hier 43.

[31] Ibid., 44.

[33] Sander, Eine Topologie Gottes (s. Anm. 31), 175.

[34] Hans-Joachim Sander, Die Zeichen der Zeit erkennen und Gott benennen. Der semiotische Charakter von Theologie, in: ThQ 182 (2002) 28–40, hier 35.

[35] Martin Dürnberger, Die theologische In/Signifikanz der Welt. Die “Zeichen der Zeit” und ihre Bedeutung, in: Franz Gmainer-Pranzl (Hg.), Partnerin der Menschen – Zeugin der Hoffnung (STSud 41), Innsbruck-Wien 2010, 35–56, here: 45f.

[36] Ibid., 43.

[37] Ibid., 47.

[38] Sander, Theologischer Kommentar (s. Anm. 29), 868.

[39] Ibid., 869.

[40] The papers of the German Synodal Path invoke several times such an understanding of the signs of times, see e.g. Forum I (“Macht und Gewaltenteilung”) of 3 December 2020, “Grundtext” (URL:
Online-Konferenz-210104-2-Synodalforum-I-Grundtext-1.pdf [abgerufen am 04.03.2020]).

[41] Hans-Joachim Sander, Nicht ausweichen. Die prekäre Lage der Kirche, Würzburg 2002, 112.

[42] Margit Eckholt, “Option für die Armen” und “Bekehrung durch die Anderen.” Eine Relecture der Hermeneutik der “Zeichen der Zeit” in lateinamerikanischer Perspektive, in: Christoph Böttigheimer – Florian Bruckmann (Hg.), Glaubensverantwortung im Horizont der “Zeichen der Zeit” (QD 248), Freiburg 2012, 137–165, hier 139.

[43] Grouping theologians into hostile camps, Sander identifies all those theologians who are critical of the signs of the times hermeneutic as adherers of traditionalism or followers of a rationalist concept of freedom developed in late German idealism. Idem., Die Zeichen der Zeit und der Stadtbewohner Gott [s. n. 31], 43.

[44] Joachim Gnilka assumes moreover that verses 2–3 are a secondary interpolation analogously to Lk 12:54–56, which only mentions the kairós, but not the semeîa tôn kairôn. Joachim Gnilka, Das Matthäusevangelium. Zweiter Teil, Freiburg 1988, 40. See also Heribert Schützeichel, Die Zeichen der Zeit erkennen. Fundamentaltheologische Überlegungen, in: TThZ 91 (1982) 304–313, here: 304–306.

[45] Jürgen Moltmann, Kirche in der Kraft des Geistes. Ein Beitrag zur messianischen Ekklesiologie, München 1975, 53–64.

[46] Cf. Theobald, Zur Theologie der Zeichen der Zeit (s. n. 8), 81, who speaks of “messianische[n] Ereignisse[n]” and Hünermann, Dogmatische Prinzipienlehre (s. n. 21), 249, of a “messianischen Praxis der Gemeinschaft der Glaubenden.” See also Bauer, Zeichen der Präsenz Gottes? (s. n. 16), 74.

[47] Helmut Hoping, Jesus aus Galiläa. Messias und Gottes Sohn, Freiburg 2019, 354.

[48] Thomas Marschler, Zur Bedeutung der Dogmengeschichte innerhalb der Dogmatik, in: Martin Dürnberger u.a. (ed.), Stile der Theologie. Einheit und Vielfalt katholischer Systematik in der Gegenwart (RaFi 60), Regensburg 2017, 145–168, here: 159f.

[49] 2 Chr 36,22f., Esr 1,1–4, and Deutero-Isaiah (bes. Is 44–45). See Andrew M. Gilhooley, The Edict of Cyrus and notions of restoration in Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles (HBM 89), Sheffield 2020; Reinhard G. Katz, Kyros im Deuterojesaja-Buch. Redaktionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zu Entstehung und Theologie von Jes 40–55 (FAT 1), Tübingen 1991.

[50] See Ilona Opelt, Augustustheologie und Augustustypologie, in: JbAC 4 (1961) 44–57; Richard Klein, Das Bild des Augustus in der frühchristlichen Literatur, in: Raban von Haehling (Hg.), Rom und das himmlische Jerusalem. Die frühen Christen zwischen Anpassung und Ablehnung, Darmstadt 2000, 205–236.

[50] Neben der Überzeugung vom Abschluss der Offenbarung dürfte hier die Fiktion einer rein deduktiv-konklusiven Dogmenentfaltung einflussreich gewesen sein.

[51] A merely deductive understanding of the development of dogma might be responsible for this.

[52] Emanuel Doronzo, Theologia Dogmatica, Vol. I, Washington 1966, 405f.

[53] Michael Seewald, Reform. Dieselbe Kirche anders denken, Freiburg 2019, 136.

[54] Trutz Rendtorff, “Weltgeschichtliches Christentum.” Richard Rothe: Theologische Ortsbestimmung für die Moderne, in: ZNThG 7 (2000) 1–19; Christian Albrecht, Zur hermeneutischen Funktion der Theorie von der Auflösung der Kirche in dem Staat bei Richard Rothe, in: Albrecht Grözinger (ed.), Protestantische Kirche und moderne Gesellschaft, Zürich 2003, 155–167.

[55] Cf. Hans Schelkshorn, Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil als kirchlicher Diskurs über die Moderne. Ein philosophischer Beitrag zur Frage nach der Hermeneutik des Konzils, in: Jan-Heiner Tück (Hg.), Erinnerung an die Zukunft. Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil, Freiburg 2012, 54–84, at 67f. The sociologist Michael N. Ebertz even argues that the only undoubtable mega-signs of the present are uncertitude, plurality and ambiguity, see idem, Soziologische Zeitansagen als Zeichen der Zeit – für Theologie und Kirche, in: Christoph Böttigheimer – Florian Bruckmann [ed.], Glaubensverantwortung im Horizont der Zeichen der Zeit” (QD 248), Freiburg 2012, 183–201, at 184.

[56] Waldenfels, Zeichen der Zeit (s. Anm. 1), 109: “Im Sinne von Gaudium et spes 4 ist die Abfolge ‘Zeichen – Evangelium’ nicht umkehrbar: Für den Christen sind die Zeichen der Zeit im Licht des Evangeliums zu deuten, nicht umgekehrt das Evangelium im Sinne heutiger Verstehenshorizonte zu verstehen. Natürlich kann ein Mensch die eigene Zeit zum Deutehorizont erheben und sich von Ansprüchen der Tradition verabschieden. Dann verabschiedet er sich aber von der christlichen Sicht der Dinge und dem Blickwinkel der Konzilsaussage.”

[57] This seems to include the proposal by Seewald, Reform (s. n. 57), 132ff. cf. my criticism in “Zukunftsorientierte Umgestaltung?,” in: HerKorr 12 (2019) 47–50, at: 49f.

[58] Idem., Glaube, Lehre und Zeichen der Zeit. Schafft sich das Lehramt selbst ab? Kurienkardinal Walter Kasper im Disput mit dem Freiburger Dogmatiker Helmut Hoping, in: Die Tagespost Nr. 83 vom 14.7.2016, S. 5.

Featured Image: Gustave Van de Woestyne, Azure, 1928; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Thomas Marschler

Born 1969 in Duesseldorf and ordained to the priesthood in Cologne, Prof. Marschler, holds three doctoral degrees and is professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Augsburg in Bavaria, Germany. He is a specialist in medieval and early modern theology.

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