Wednesday 24 December 2014

From Primitive to Degenerate?

                                                   St John, Evangelist by Zampieri
21 Just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son give life to whomever he wishes. 22 Nor does the Father judge anyone, but he has given all judgment to his Son, 23 so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. 24 Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life. 25 Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself. 27 And he gave him power to exercise judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation.
30 “I cannot do anything on my own; I judge as I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.
(John 5:21-30)

Whenever I hear the expressions 'Primitive Church' or 'Primitive Christian' I always have a vision of Wilma and Fred Flintstone occupying a pew or at any rate something involving cave dwellers wielding clubs while dressed in animal skins. Which, it appears, is something of a misapprehension on my part. 'Primitive' in this context means 'early' or 'first.' The Primitive Church is simply the Christian community as it existed in it beginnings, fresh from the events surrounding Jesus in Galilee and Judaea, guided by the Apostles. It is considered by many to be the gold standard against which contemporary Christianity should be judged usually to its considerable disadvantage. There are two particular currents of thought which make use of this critical tool largely for the purposes of disparaging Catholicism.

The ecclesial Christian communities of the Reformation (Protestants for short) since the emergence of their various tendencies have united in the criticism that the Catholic Church distorted, obscured, deviated from, and added alien elements to, the original faith of the Primitive Christians. By thus corrupting the religion they at some point, usually arbitrarily selected by the critics, became definitively degenerate or actually apostate. The Protestant aim from the beginning and in each subsequent schism, split or formation of a brand new sect has always been to return to the faith and practice of the Primitive Church. Quite how they reconcile this with their dogmatic assertion that Scripture Alone is the sure basis of Christianity I've never quite understood because if there is one thing about which we can be certain regarding the first Christians it is that they did not possess the New Testament and therefore could neither use it in their liturgies nor seek within its pages for the doctrines of their faith.

The currently more influential critique emerges from the secularists, the atheists and the liberal theologians. It amounts to this: Jesus was misunderstood by His contemporaries, friend and foe alike. These misunderstandings were incorporated into the Bible and the Christian Church (which subsists in the Catholic Church) has busied itself ever since in emphasising the misunderstandings and downplaying the authentic fragments which we possess. Only now after some two thousand years is it possible for us to see what Jesus really meant far more clearly than those who knew Him could and much, much, much more clearly than the Church can. Whilst the Primitive understanding was flawed it is much nearer the truth than the current orthodox understanding of it. Therefore we should look to its practice and its texts so that we can discern His authentic sayings (those we agree with) from the interpolated ones (those we disagree with.) Only then can we find the true Jesus who was a wise teacher like the Buddha (only not so sexy) and not the complex third of an obscure trinitarian deity.

In his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman dealt with some of these issues far better than I could ever aspire to do. Briefly, he pointed out that if a thing lives then it must change. That something has changed is not in itself a criticism of it. The only important question is whether the change is a development or a corruption. The Christian faith as received by the Church in the Apostolic age is like the seed of a tree, containing within itself the potential for growth and development. We must then judge of each element of the faith as contained in its creeds, its liturgies and its doctrines in the light of the original seed from which they came. If we can trace these as an unfolding of the original blueprint then we should welcome them and rejoice in them. If they are alien imports uncongenial to the original seed then they should be rejected for they are corruptions. However, the radical incompatibility between the received faith and a hostile import necessarily creates a destructive sequence of events so that either the original or the import ends by being expelled. Since the Catholic Church has never expelled its original notions but on the contrary has held fast to them then it is more than likely that its developed doctrines are inherently consistent with its founding ones. The possibility exists that alien elements congenial to the original seed can be grafted on. This has happened with, for example, elements of Greek philosophy. These changes, again, should be welcomed and not rejected since they serve to help our understanding of what we have received but do not in any way change the content of what we have received. To return to the faith of the Primitive Church in the sense of returning to the fervour, purity and commitment of the early Christians is a laudable aim but if it is in the sense of forgetting all that we have learned since through constant prayerful meditation upon the deposit of faith received once for all in the first century then it is itself a corruption, an abandonment of gains not a shedding of losses.

                                            Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 

The criticisms boil down to the assertion that the Church has taken an essentially simple message and made it unnecessarily complex in order to ensure that an especially dedicated caste, the priesthood, is required to interpret it in return for receiving unique powers and privileges. In the light of this it is worth considering the short text from St John which heads this page. Within the body of this text it is possible to notice implicit and explicit references to many things which subsequently turn up in the Creeds and doctrines of the Catholic Church some hundreds of years later. This is significant because the Gospel was written no more than about fifty years or so after the events which it records which means that its contents form part of the beliefs of the Primitive Church. Moreover tradition points to its author as being the Apostle John and there is no reason to suppose that the tradition is comprehensively wrong, that is, if St John did not write it in full himself then it is likely that it is the product of a Johannine community which he had established, led and taught. The Gospel itself suggests that it is the product of the 'beloved disciple' of Jesus a disciple who was also the adopted son of Mary (John 19:26-27) So we have before us a Primitive text which the Primitive Church accepted as being the product of an Apostle who knew Jesus well and who's understanding of Jesus would have been deepened by his closeness to the Mother of the Lord. I lack the ability or the space to develop all the themes present in this fragment but it is possible to consider some.

To start with life, we see at verse 26  ...just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself. Which is echoed in a later passage I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. (John 10:17-18) One of the standard secular/liberal arguments is that Jesus nowhere claimed to be God yet it is hard to understand these statements as meaning anything else. Every creature (a technical term, if God is Creator then each of His creations is a creature) every creature I say has life on loan as it were. Our life begins when God wills it to begin and if He should cease to will that we live then in that instant we shall be annihilated. Not so with Jesus, He has possession of life 'in himself.' How can this be? Well the very start of John's Gospel account tells us In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1) So, what you might call the commentary by St John agrees with the dialogue of our Lord which he reports. Jesus claims a divine prerogative, full possession of His own life, a prerogative which He will illustrate through His resurrection.

The matter is somewhat complicated by the fact that our Lord uses life and death in two fashions in this passage, literally and metaphorically. When He says whoever hears my word....has passed from death to life (verse 24) He clearly means that those who are spiritually dead, or dead towards the Father, will become spiritually alive. But when He says  all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out (verses 28-29) He clearly means that at His word those who have died in the flesh will come alive again in the flesh. Which means that He is saying that the prerogative He possesses over His own life is extended over every other life also which is another way of Him stating His divinity. It is no less a claim to divinity, by the way, to state that He can give spiritual life to the spiritual dead. The statement in verse 21 so also does the Son give life to whomever he wishes can be taken in both senses. And if we consider this from the Song of Hannah The LORD puts to death and gives life, casts down to Sheol and brings up again (1 Samuel 2:6) there can be no shadow of  doubt that Jesus is making a parallel statement making the point that the attributes of God as understood by the Jews are His own attributes.

Another point of attack by liberal critics is the doctrine of the Incarnation which they suggest is so alien to Jewish thought that Jesus could not have held it. It is, they suppose a later import torturously derived from Greek philosophy by over subtle theologians trying to reconcile the difficulties in their texts. That the doctrine is indeed developed using the Greek philosophical tools is true but that it must therefore be a late addition to the story of the itinerant wise teacher Jesus is simply an hypotheses. If we return to our central passage we see a threefold iteration of Son-
25.... the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God also he gave to his Son
27.... because he is the Son of Man.
  St John is always very careful to ensure that the ideas which he records are sequenced and this is an example of that. The central hinge is the simple use of Son on its own, it links the two dimensions of its meaning on either side. When our Lord talks about the Son of God and the Son of Man He is not talking about two persons but one, Himself. He unites these two facets and He also possess the power to be heard by the dead (v25) to command life (v26) and to judge the living and those whom He has raised from death (v27.) A human who is Son of God and Son of Man and possessed of the plenitude of divine power cannot readily be explained by anything other than the doctrine of Incarnation.

Protestant critics have maintained almost from the outset of their movement(s) that the Scriptures contain a clear doctrine of salvation by Faith Alone and that Catholicism has preached a works based model of salvation to increase the dependence of the faithful on the priesthood. Although the last part seems like a non sequitur to me what about the first? In our Johannine text we do have this-
24...whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life 
Which would seem straightforward until we come to this-
29... those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation
If our Lord had meant to say 'those who have had faith to the resurrection of life' then no doubt that is what He would have said. Clearly if both statements are true neither of them can be simply true, that is, they require to be considered in relation to each other. A synthesis of the two would suggest that some kind of union exists between faith and works both parts of which have to be operational in order for the attainment of salvation. It would also suggest, I think, that we need to be fairly cautious in defining just what faith is. If God is the origin of all good then all good deeds carried out by humans proceed under His inspiration. Yet we know of plenty of non-Christians who consistently perform good, they must be responding to Him in their hearts without necessarily having heard of Him with their ears. Traditional Protestantism has viewed such good deeds as being an abomination before God-
WORKS done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.
XXXIX Articles: Of Works Before Justification
Leaving all other considerations to one side it does seem to me that those who have developed such a doctrine are in no strong position to accuse Catholicism of over elaborating a simple faith.

I could go on but you will be glad to hear I won't. The proposition we have been considering, that doctrinal development necessarily represents a degeneration from primitive truth is I think false. The Bible often expresses in terse language and summary form very complex ideas. To unpack these ideas and seek to understand them ever more fully is a proper work for Christians. Of its nature it must be the work of centuries, each idea unfolded reveals new horizons, the insights of one generation of Christians lays the foundation for the prayerful study of future generations. Does this process of doctrinal development mean that the faith of 21st Century Catholics is a different faith than that held by their 1st Century predecessors? No it does not. Our objects of faith are precisely the same as theirs. What they held implicitly we can hold explicitly and, it may be, those who follow us in the faith will see clearly something we now see only dimly. A further point to be made is that while it is the obligation of the Church to unfold revelation as fully as possible it is not necessarily the obligation of each believer. Simple people can hold a simple faith simply. The bare acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Saviour and a subsequent life lived trying to be clothed with Christ is a perfectly Christian faith. What is not acceptable is that people with intelligence and insight should bury their talent in a field, not using it for fear of a Master who reaps what he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter (cf Matthew 25:24.) Intelligence is given us to be used, theology is not reason in search of faith it is faith in search of understanding. If we fear to understand what we believe then, perhaps, it may be because we do not really believe.

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