Tuesday, 22 March 2011

"Are you not as a hypocrite, listening to them when you will, and deaf when you will not?"

In our last post, we looked at the importance of doctrine and dogma, not as lifeless, academic concepts, but as ways of coming to know the Truth Himself, Our Lord Jesus. Given that different churches teach different things about Him and His Church, surely we have to ask ourselves which church has the truest doctrines, and therefore the truest picture of Christ.

This is precisely how The Development of Christian Doctrine begins. Bl. John Henry Newman, writing as an Anglican, recounts the inner-monologue he engaged in when receiving Communion from the altar. He affirms his belief in the Real Presence, and then asks himself, "Who told you about that Gift?" He answers that he "learned if from the Fathers." Newman, always eager to give ten examples when two or three will do, gives us a comprehensive selection of quotes from the Church Fathers, testifying to the ancient Church's belief in Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist. "I cast my lot with them. I believe as they," he concludes.

Yet now his conscience begins to berate him, and is worth quoting at length: "And do not the same ancient Fathers bear witness to another doctrine, which you disown? Are you not as a hypocrite, listening to them when you will, and deaf when you will not? How are you casting your lot with the Saints, when you go but half-way with them? For of whether of the two do they speak the more frequently, of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, or of the Pope's supremacy? You accept the lesser evidence, you reject the greater."
This set Newman to wondering which church, Anglican or Catholic, had the correct doctrine about the papacy, and the correct doctrines in general. A simple appeal to the ancient Church's belief wasn't enough to settle to matter, because hardly any matters were settled in the Church of the first three centuries, in terms of having a defined doctrine; Newman admits that the ancient sources are "scanty" for both Real Presence and Papacy. How was he to account for the variations in belief and practice within the first Christian centuries, and so to find the church of his own day which was the descendant of the one founded by Christ on the Apostles? 
His hypothesis is that "time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas", even, or especially, the divine idea of Christianity, which was transmitted once and for all by inspired teachers but "could not be received all at once by its recipients." Any idea which has power enough to possess and move the hearts and minds of human beings requires "longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation." To expect an idea to spring up fully formed is unreasonable.

By way of analogy, Newman compares great ideas to a many-sided object, which may be "walked around, and viewed in contrary lights." At first sight, 'smooth' and 'pointed' seem like contradictory ideas, but both can be applied to a table-top, which is flat, and has four or more corners. What seems like evidence of an idea's not making sense could actually be proof of its "substantiveness and integrity," and will appear so once you've found the 'joint' where the two aspects are connected.

Likewise, Newman says, ideas embody the opposite principle of the old saying that 'streams are clearest nearer the source'. Not so with a great idea - it will become clearer, "and purer, and stronger" once it's had time to build up momentum. Silt and dirt sink to the bottom, and life begins to team in its waters once its course is "deep, and broad, and full." In fact, the river, like the idea, must constantly change in order to remain the same. They both must change course to flow around and over obstacles in their path, and even sweep away or cut through them if necessary. If either stick to a straight course, going only in one direction, eventually they meet an obstacle that cannot be overpowered, and become stagnant pools.

With these analogies in mind, what do we find if we look at the 'source' of the Christian 'river', the Bible? We see that it doesn't explain itself: What should be included in the Bible? Is it all of Revelation, or only a part? The Bible is silent on these crucial aspects, and more besides. Given that we can expect developments in the idea that is Christianity, we can expect those areas on which the Bible doesn't pronounce definite teaching to be left to development, and for the Bible itself to have been subject to development, though now fixed.

Further, 'development' as a component of the Divine scheme can be found in the Bible itself. Newman draws attention to prophecy, wherein the idea of the Saviour gradually grows in the mind of Israel, from the one-line protoevangelium of Genesis ("and he will crush [the serpent's] head"), to the "Wonder Counsellor, Prince of Peace" of Isaiah, to his full revelation in the person of Jesus. Likewise, there are ritual, ethical and political developments e.g. God's chosen people go from a family, to a tribe, to a race of people, to a nation.

Clearly, God has no problem working by means of developments; He knows that an all-at-once revelation of Himself would be too much for us, as Newman, and countless saints, have recognised. Yet Newman saw that there was something missing from his description of the process of Revelation. He states boldly, "He who gave Revelation virtually has not given it, unless He has also secured it from perversion and corruption." In other words, if God did not give us some guarantee that the fullest truth about Him would be preserved during this process which all great ideas go through, and therefore be knowable down through the centuries, then He might as well not have bothered! We've seen in the last post the spiritual importance of knowing the Truth, so why would God allow the idea of that Truth, the idea of authentic Christianity, to be lead astray, or die out?

Here is the rational expectation, given what has already been stated, (the "antecedent probability" as Newman calls it), of there being an authority in Christianity which cannot make mistakes about essential aspects of the idea but can always judge correctly between true changes i.e. developments, and false changes i.e. corruptions. Put another way, it's logical to expect an infallible authority in Christianity. Newman acknowledges that Protestants also believe this - for them, it is the Bible. Again, Newman's response to this idea is worth quoting in full:

"We are told that God has spoken. Where? In a book? We have tried it and it disappoints; it disappoints us, that most holy and blessed gift, not from fault of its own, but because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given. The Ethiopian's reply, when St. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, is the voice of nature: "How can I, unless some man shall guide me?" The Church undertakes that office; she does what none else can do."

The idea of a living infallible authority, exercised by other human beings, was no more popular in Newman's day than it is in ours, and the objections to it which he deals with sound awfully familiar. For example, 'Doesn't this do away with the need for faith?' might be one. Well, no. Even an absolutely guaranteed truth can be "doubted, argued against, perverted, rejected", just as the Truth Himself was. The process by which the human mind can come to accept such difficult truths/ideas is the subject of another of Newman's famous books, The Grammar of Assent.
What have we learned from Bl. John Henry so far? First, that knowing the truth is essential to having a relationship with the Truth, Jesus Christ, and so is crucial for our spiritual lives. Therefore, following the church which has the fullness of the truth in its doctrines is important. Next, that developments in the 'great idea' which is God's Revelation of Himself through Christianity are to be expected, and can in fact be found. Finally, that one of those developments must be an infallible authority, able to react to changes in the course of the idea, and to promote good developments, and rule out false ones. So far, however, all this is theory, along the lines of 'it is reasonable to expect/conclude that...' In our next post, we'll look at the facts of the case, and see if all these expectations, these 'antecedent probabilities', have actually been fulfilled.

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