Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Revealed not Discovered: Christianity as a Religion of History

"I don't care."

Such a response is common from evangelicals when presented with the history of Christian doctrine.

"Contraception has always been considered immoral, even by Protestants until the 20th century."
"I don't care. I think people were wrong. I don't see it in the Bible."

This means that it's possible that all Christians from the beginning were wrong on an issue of central importance (such as theology of marriage) until Christians were enlightened to the truth in the 20th century and finally discovered the true meaning of Scripture.

Sadly, this mentality has several serious problems:

First, it shows pride, sometimes even a hero mentality.

But an even deeper problem is that it tends toward turning Christianity into a discovered religion rather than a revealed religion.
Some religions are claimed to be discovered by man.  People might meditate and discover truth about the universe.  This knowledge is then pooled together in some way.  New information is accepted, and the possibility of someone having been wrong is open.
Other religions are claimed to be revealed. Christianity is one such religion.  A person meditating on a mountain did not figure out that God is a Trinity and then tell the rest of us.  God, by his own initiative, revealed this truth about himself to us.  The person of Jesus is the pinnacle and fullness of God's revelation to man.  He is the eternal Word of God. (John 1.1)
When one dismisses Christian history entirely and is willing to believe a completely new doctrine that actually runs against the tradition, one begins to lean heavily on one's own ability, or at least one's own generation's ability, to discover new theological truth that was until then unknown. It must mean that God is still revealing, changing his mind, or that the Holy Spirit is so inactive in protecting God's supposedy definitive revelation in Jesus Christ that we need it revealed again.

Now, if history doesn't matter, what isn't up for grabs? In other words, if one is able to dismiss 20 centuries of teaching on one matter of theology, is there any piece of historic Christianity that one is not willing to dismiss? The Trinity? The dual nature of Jesus? Christ's atonement on the cross? Why? Who decides what makes the cut and what doesn't?

As a result, the word Christian starts to lose meaning. If truly everything is up for grabs, how do we define what Christianity even is? It becomes whatever a person who claims the title Christian wants to make it.

We are finite beings created by God.
We learn about God from God.
The work of theology is to better understand the revelation that God has given us, not to reinvent Christianity. When one claims that one has discovered the true meaning of Scripture on a particular issue that until then had not only been hidden but had been interpreted in the opposite way, it becomes difficult to justify such a view in light of God's history of revelation, which culminated and is completed in Jesus Christ.

History matters.

16 comments:

  1. wonderful post! I am always so frustrated when I am unable to put into words how Christ revealed Himself to us and that we are in no position to "discover" something new. I like your point about how if we allow ourselves the latitude "discover" some sort of truth, the Holy Spirit is inactive in protecting God's supposedly definitive revelation.

    My main concern these days is when people try to use the excuse that "human beings" wrote the Bible and/or translated the Bible, and "human beings" made up all the "rules" in the Catholic Church. I have a hard time articulating my understanding the Jesus Himself began the Church on Earth. And that this Church is the Catholic church.

    I know within my heart that I do not lack conviction of these truths...but I lack the ability to articulate them to those without conviction. Of course, it's up to the Holy Spirit to open their hearts, but sometimes I wonder if I do more damage than good...

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  2. I wonder if some people just intuitively understand this for whatever reason. Since high school, when I first started seriously thinking about these things, the fact that history needed to be on the side of wherever I would land was a given for me. I just couldn't buy the idea that immediately following the era of the apostles the whole church fell into major heresy and remained in it for 16 centuries until the Reformers came along and saved the day. And phew, once we recovered the truth, we're not going to lose it again for some reason! (Interestingly, few protestants actually believe what the original Reformers believed, e.g. infant baptism, perpetual virginity of Mary, etc)
    One of my friends and I call it a "Mormom Argument", because Mormons make the same argument, except their savior came in the 19th century.
    I just can't buy it.
    But interestingy, not all of my protestant friends have the same intuition about the importance of history

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  3. Hey Brantly, I saw this on facebook. I think its really cool that you're writing this blog, I read lots of religious blogs and its nice to have one written by someone I actually know.

    That being said, it's not a real blog until you have random people taking pot shots at you, so I'd be happy to fill that niche. In the spirit of friendly debate, here goes:

    I agree completely that modern interpretations of the bible are unfounded. I have seen first hand people using "It is God's will, he told me" as an excuse for ridiculous things from getting pregnant and dropping out of school to extortion and a hostile business takeover.

    However, the Catholic church isn't immune from the "Mormon complex". They've invented new doctrines and interpretations also, it just happened farther in the past.

    The gospels were written 100 years after christ, and show an evolution of theology from Mark to John. But it doesn't end there. There are dozens of later additions to the bible we use today that are absent in the earliest versions we have. The most famous are the resurection ending of mark, the aldulterous woman from John 8:1-11, and the Johannine comma of 1 John 5:7 that talks about the trinity. Scholars believe these were inserted by scribes in the middle ages to make the bible more consistent.

    Then you have the Vatican conferences that radically changed the way the Catholic church works today. I'm not saying these were bad, but the idea that catholic doctrine hasn't changed since Peter is an illusion.

    The reality is that every religion has to adapt to its modern audience or it will become totally irrelevant and go extinct.

    Keep up the blog, its good.
    Evan

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  4. Hey Evan! Long time no debate. lol Sorry this is sort of long.

    The Catholic Church does not invent new doctrines, but it does indeed further work out and understand the theology that it already has.

    This is a distinction that I didn't really delve into in my post.
    This is what the Catechism says (66):
    "The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries."

    The picture the Catholic Church has for the development of doctrine is a 'growth', like a plant perhaps. The whole plant is always there in the seed, but we better understand its depths as time goes on and it grows.
    What I'm writing against are new doctrines which come out of no where and actually run counter to the tradition before them. A good example of this, which I mentioned in the blog, is contraception. The Church has always taught that contraception is wrong. (This is based on its belief that marriage/sex has two intrinsic purposes: unity and procreation. I could explain this further another time.) Anyways, all Christians, even Protestants, believed this until the 20th century. Then, suddenly, starting with the Anglican church (of course!) in the 1930s, Protestants decided that the tradition was actually completely wrong, that marriage/sex did not have procreation as an intrinsic purpose, and that contraception was acceptable. This is not a growth out of previous theology or a better understanding, this is a complete reversal. This, to me, is what is problematic.

    Regarding Scripture, you are obviously well-read. I'm not necessarily convinced that Mark was even written first, let alone is most "primitive" in its theology. I'm hesitant to say that any part of Scripture is superior to any other part of Scripture, as though there is a so-called "canon within a canon". The easy answer is it's all the Word of God that God chose to give to us in the form he chose to give us.

    Regarding the additions to Scripture that you brought up. You're absolutely right. Things have clearly been added at different times in different places. That's wrong. Those things aren't Scripture, and most bibles will note that fact. That's why biblical scholarship can be helpful.

    Lastly, I think you're referring the Second Vatican Council that took place 1962-1965. That council only changed things that could always be changed in the Church. This requires an understanding of the distinction between Doctrine and Discipline. Doctrine is what the Church teaches. Discipline is how the Church chooses to function at a particular time. Doctrine that has been taught definitely (otherwise known as Dogma) cannot be changed and was not changed at Vatican II. Discipline, on the other hand, has been constantly changing throughout history, and was changed at Vatican II. Examples would include allowing more use of the vernacular in doing Mass. The Catholic Church has never believed that it was Divine Law that the Mass must be done in Latin (and only in the West). The Church just thought it was a good thing to do. Now the the Church has decided that it would like to open that up. The Mass had been done in other languages before, but now it's done like that in more places.
    And that brings us to your last point, about the Church having to adapt to the modern world. That's exacty what the Catholic Church did at Vatican II, and it was their goal. But the kind of changes they made were matters of discipline, not substantive changes in dogma.

    Great to hear from you!

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  5. John Henry Cardinal Newman, an Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. 'Nuff said.

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  6. Great post here! I love your distinction between revelation and discovery.

    One of the biggest things I realized when entering the Catholic Church was the amount of pride I had as a Protestant. As if I alone could ever completely understand the Scriptures, and as if my interpretation was the only one that mattered. I shudder at the thought!

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  7. gosh, you guys are so arrogant! I can't believe you think the Catholic church has all the right answers. What about the Crusades? Galileo? Mary? hello! The Catholic church claims that Mary was always a virgin but the Bible *clearly* states that Jesus had "brothers and sisters." What about James the BROTHER of Jesus? That is clearly counter to Scripture! and the fact that any one could be considered to be infallible except Jesus is just ludicrous. the pope is clearly the antichrist.


    why don't you guys just read the Bible. the Bible is the only thing that is infallible and true.

    we are saved by FAITH ALONE for "it is by GRACE that you have been saved through FAITH not of WORKS."

    I'll be praying for you guys.

    your sincere, almost Catholic friend,

    Ruth :-)

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  8. =) thanks ruth, we needed a flamer

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  9. "However, the Catholic church isn't immune from the "Mormon complex". They've invented new doctrines and interpretations also, it just happened farther in the past."

    First off, no one claims that the Church's theology doesn't evolve. Even SSPX will grant that. But as far as "inventing" doctrine, you are simply wrong. The Church could no more invent doctrine than the apostles could "invent" the bible or Paul could "invent" the epistles.

    The Church has always understood her Dogmas as unchanging, while her explanations and understandings are continually illuminated.

    It seems like the force of your argument would not be the fact that Catholics have been given a further understanding of the Truths of the Church, but rather, whether they have the authority to proclaim that what they believe is correct. Anyone can make a claim, the question is whether their claim is correct. That really should be the crux of your argument, which could be discussed later.

    "Then you have the Vatican conferences that radically changed the way the Catholic church works today. I'm not saying these were bad, but the idea that catholic doctrine hasn't changed since Peter is an illusion."

    "36. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites."

    "116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services."

    SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM

    Vatican II did not change one single dogmatic belief of the Church.

    "Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. This it intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils."

    Lumen Gentium

    In fact, it didn't change much of what is seen as "Conciliar" changes. The Church's dogmas didn't change at Vatican II.

    All that to say, both of your statements are patently false.

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  10. "The Church could no more invent doctrine than the apostles could 'invent' the bible or Paul could 'invent' the epistles."

    Haha thats almost exactly how I think it happened. :)

    You are right that my argument is about whether the catholic church has the authority to proclaim their beliefs as absolute truth. Naturally, every church claims their interpretation is the one and only way. The burden of proof lies on them, and good luck with that.

    I guess one man's "further work out and understand the theology that it already has" is another man's make it up as you go along to fit your current needs. A good example is papal infallibility. Yes, I know it only applies to certain things under strict circumstances, but you can't tell me with a straight face that this isn't just a power grab by the church.

    I am not fooled by your fancy Latin words and hilarious hats, Catholic church!

    PS Is there a way to copy/paste someone's comment? I couldn't figure it out.

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  11. Mit Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens -- Nietzsche's way of saying something about pearls and swine.

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  12. "Haha thats almost exactly how I think it happened. :)"

    If that is the case, then what is the norm for revelation? If there is no norm for revelation, then you have given up Christianity and might as well just go join the Kiwanis.

    "Yes, I know it only applies to certain things under strict circumstances, but you can't tell me with a straight face that this isn't just a power grab by the church."

    So basically, your argument is that no one, anywhere, ever could legitimately believe papal infallibility, but simply, admit to go along with the Church's power grab. That's both intellectually infantile and historically naïve. Not only is it completely acceptable that someone believe that the Pope is infallible without your accompanying politick, but it was the norm in the west for longer than Protestantism has existed. That means every great western mind believed exactly what you find so absurd.

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  13. "that means every great western mind believed exactly what you find so sbsurd."

    Every great western mind was Catholic? Wow. And I'm the one who is historically naive?

    All I'm saying is that just because the Catholic church is old does not mean it is right. Humanity has come a long way in 2000 years. People living in 2010 shouldn't look to doctrines introduced in the Dark Ages for guidance.

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  14. Brantly,
    Sorry, I got a little distracted and realized I never gave you a proper response.

    I completely agree that modern Protestantism has made up doctrines that have little historical precedent, but I still think the Catholic church is guilty of this too. They are just able to disguise it better, due to their long history.

    I suppose a good example would be Galileo's proof that the Earth is not the center of the universe. The church fought this hard for a century, before finally admitting that he was right. Granted, this wasn't a huge part of christianity, but it was a complete reversal of dogma.

    I realize that the Catechism you quoted would cover this, but I just don't buy that argument. It basically says that the Church is right, and when they're proven wrong, they were actually right the whole time, they just hadn't thought of that yet. If protestantism had been the original church, they could claim the exact same thing.

    I would love to see a post about the contraception policy of the church! I've never understood that at all...

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  15. Hey Evan,

    The Church's stance that the earth is the center of the universe was never a dogma, only a doctrine. Dogmas are solemly and definitively declared teachings of the Church that are infallible. Mere doctrines are not and thus can change. The Galileo incident is a great example of this. Another example of change in a doctrine that wasn't a dogma would be the concept of Limbo, a fringe place of hell for unbaptized babies who die. It was a popular teaching in the Church for a while, but was never a dogma, and has of late been largely discarded. This completely fits within the Catholic model.

    I would say just read more Church history, especially early Christian writings. See how Catholic they are. Something that was very convincing to me was the writings of Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote around the year A.D. 110. He was, of course, a bishop in Antioch. He was eventually arrested and taken to Rome where he was eventually martyred. While in transit between Antioch and Rome he wrote letters to various churches on the way. It's very revealing as to what Christians were thinking at the beginning of the second century.
    Another early Christian writer whose writings have been very important to me has been Irenaeus. His famous work is "Against Heresies", written some time around A.D. 180. He's important because he was supposedly a disciple of Polycarp (a famous early Christian martyr), who was a disciple of the Apostle John.

    In regards to contraception, I think I will write some posts on the subject. Two fairly short and accessible writings that have been very formative for Krista (my wife!) and I's thinking on this have been:
    a) Humanae Vitae, an encyclical promulgated in 1968 by Pope Paul VI reaffirming the Church's long standing teaching against the use of contraception (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae_en.html)

    b) Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, a letter published by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops this last November (http://www.usccb.org/laity/LoveandLife/MarriageFINAL.pdf)

    I'll probably write some posts on this subject, as it has become something that Krista and I have become very passionate about.

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