Jean Daniélou's Master Key


“Without a doubt the master-key to Christian theology, which distinguishes it utterly from all rational theodicy,” the French Jesuit Jean Daniélou (1905-74) wrote, “is contained in the statement that the Trinity of Persons constitutes the structure of Being, and that love is therefore as primary as existence.”

Without a doubt the master-key to Christian theology, which distinguishes it utterly from all rational theodicy,” the French Jesuit Jean Daniélou (1905-74) wrote in God and the Ways of Knowing, “is contained in the statement that the Trinity of Persons constitutes the structure of Being, and that love is therefore as primary as existence.”

This “master-key” was the object of study and love for Daniélou, whose scholarly and popular writings contemplated the depths of Trinitarian love and its salvific work in human history.

Although not as well-known today as his fellow Jesuit Henri de Lubac and thier theological colleague Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Daniélou occupies a key place in twentieth century Catholic theology, respected for his dialogue with other world religions, his writings on the Church Fathers and Scripture, and his insights into the nature of divine revelation and Tradition. Trained in philology — the study of classical languages — and theology, Daniélou was a professor at the Institut Catholique in Paris and a vital member of the controversial “New Theology” movement. His first works were scholarly studies of the theologies of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, and the Jewish thinker Philo. His History of Early Christian Doctrine before the Council of Nicaea is considered a classic in patristic scholarship.

Daniélou’s work with de Lubac included collaboration on Sources Chrétiennes, a collection of patristic texts translated into French, which were first published in the 1940s and have since reached four hundred in number. The series sought to recover the riches of the patristic tradition, especially in the areas of Biblical interpretation and spirituality. The first volume published was Daniélou’s translation of St. Gregory of Nyssa's spiritual classic, The Life of Moses.

Recognized for his balanced and insightful examinations of world religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and for his penetrating analysis of modern culture, Danielou was called to be a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council. There he was consulted on Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, a work that Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, also worked on. In 1969 Daniélou was made a cardinal by Pope Pius VI.

For all of his scholarly brilliance, Daniélou was equally impressive in his ability to convey complex and subtle theological truths to a wide readership through a number of popular works. These included books on liturgy, patristics, prayer, creation, revelation, Scripture and tradition, and the theology of history. In God And The Ways of Knowing he examines the relationship between pagan beliefs, philosophy, and Christian theology. The Advent of Salvation is a comparative study of non-Christian religions and Christianity, similar to his Holy Pagans of the Old Testament. The Scriptural roots of the liturgy and sacraments, especially as developed by the Church Fathers, are masterfully explored in The Bible and The Liturgy, while the inner life of prayer and its cosmic consequences are taken up in Prayer: The Mission of the Church.

Cardinal Avery Dulles has written that “Daniélou was a Jesuit of broad culture, keenly sensitive to the contemporary cultural and philosophical trends…. Fundamental to Daniélou’s theology is the idea that God is essentially personal; he is sovereign subjectivity.” Always focused on the master-key of Trinitarian love, Daniélou often wrote about two essential facets of that divine life: the progressive revelation, or self-giving, of God within salvation history, and the continuity of that redemptive history. In The Advent of Salvation he writes, “The mystery of history is summed up in God’s design of giving His spiritual creatures a share in the life of the Trinity.” (The Advent of Salvation, p. 33) God, who is love, continually reaches out to man, an activity that culminates in the mystery of the Incarnation, a mystery continued on in the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. The Christian faith is not a system, a philosophy, or one religion among many, but a unique and supernatural encounter with the living God-man:

“The mystery of the Holy Trinity, known to us through the Word made flesh, and the mystery of the deification of man in him — that is the whole of our religion, summed up in one person, the person of Jesus Christ, God made man, in whom is everything we need to know.” (The Lord of History, 118)

Because of his study of the Church Fathers, Daniélou largely avoided the neo-Thomistic language so commonly used in his time, instead embracing a more relational, personal, and dynamic vocabulary. More than an assent to intellectual propositions, faith is a covenantal act in which man gives himself to the God who first gives himself to man. “[Man] is thrown, as a creature of flesh and blood, into the abyss of Trinitarian life, to which all life and all eternity will have no other object than to accustom him…. Thus man goes on from glory to glory, and the whole history of salvation may be considered as a gradual unveiling of the ineffable Trinity.” (God and the Ways of Knowing, 140, 142) This emphasis on the personal, relational nature of the Christian Faith was also championed by de Lubac, von Balthasar, Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, and Yves Congar and had an obvious influence on the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Keenly aware of the damage done by Gnosticism in the early Church, Daniélou stressed the continuity of salvation history over against dualistic, fragmented concepts of human history, including Marxism, pantheism, and pseudo-Christian philosophies. “What characterizes Christianity is a certain wholeness; in it there is the fullness of truth,” he wrote, “In the order of continuity it marks a more advanced stage of evolution, the highest point of that evolution. I believe this idea to be absolutely essential if we are to understand how Christianity completes other religions and other civilizations, and to see as a result that everlasting newness, which Saint Augustine and so many others have proclaimed. Christianity is and always will be ‘the newest thing out.’” (The Advent of Salvation, p. 19) Scripture is not simply a book filled with truth-claims, but is a continuous story of Truth: the Old Testament is filled with the work of divine education preparing for the “fullness of time”, the Incarnation, and the Gospels, which, in turn, resulted in the mission of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in the New Testament and carried on in the Church.

None of this, of course, was new with Daniélou and the “New Theology” movement. He and his colleagues simply sought to rediscover and appreciate these truths as they had been taught centuries earlier. But Daniélou articulated these truths with a striking clarity and beauty, always drawing upon the language of Scripture and the Church Fathers. In all that he did, this great French theologian and cardinal sought to use the master-key in exploring the dynamic, intimate love of the Triune God for man.


Carl Olson. "Jean Daniélou's Master Key." (February, 2002).

This article reprinted with permission from


Carl E. Olson is director of catechesis and evangelization at Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Church in Springfield, Oregon. His articles have appeared in This Rock, Envoy, The Catholic Faith, and New Covenant.

Copyright © 2002

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