On the temptation and fallacy of “on-going revelation”

Revolution always has the connotation of things coming back to the same place, like a revolver. Hence, once the cycle is understood, nothing is really new. Revelation, however, indicates what is new.

St. Thomas Aquinas (us.fotolia.com/ jorisvo)

“A new edition of the symbol (Creed) becomes necessary in order to set aside the errors that may arise. Consequently, to publish a new edition of the symbol belongs to that authority to which it is empowered to decide matters of faith definitely so that all may hold them with unshakable faith. Now this belongs to the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff….” — St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 1, 10

“Lord God…do not let false doctrines darken our minds, but grant that your light may shine within us and we may always live in the brightness of your truth.” — Prayer at the end of the Office of Readings, Saturday, 13th Week of Ordinary Time

I.

If we attempted to describe what, in general, Christian revelation was about to someone who never heard of it, what would we say? Everyone knows that, through the centuries, many controversies have arisen over the content, structure, and meaning of this revelation. In what, if any, organization is it embodied? What are its limits? Indeed, these controversies about the meaning of this particular revelation were occasions for an authoritative resolution of the issues at hand. They gradually became creeds, statements that established, as accurately as possible, what was meant by a controverted doctrine or practice. Any legitimate organization, including one said to be founded on divine revelation, should be able to protect and to explain itself as to what it is in its own terms.

Some ideas and practices are simply incompatible with revelation as handed down. These errant teachings also need to be defined and identified. Some understandings needed to be clarified, to be made precise or to be rejected. Out of this experience of disagreement, more systematic and unified explanations arose to show how everything fit together. After the decision was made about what the doctrine or practice meant, those who still did not accept the resolution usually went their own way. Thus, we still have about a few Nestorians, Monophysites, Manicheans, Sabellians, and, among others, hundreds of different kinds of Protestants.

In more recent times, those who reject one or other aspect of what was handed down or of what was reasonable did not leave the Church. Nor were they excommunicated. They often remained within the Church to work to change it to their position. The old notion of “excommunication”, though still on the books, became for all intents and purposes obsolete.

The first obvious thing that is claimed for this revelation is that it is consistent with its past. That is, it does not change any essential teaching handed on to it from the beginning. It was intended to be something valid and known in all places and times basically in its original form. The content of revelation was said to be of divine origin. It was to be preserved as it was given. It already was based on the highest authority. If content of this revelation were changed into its opposite, that mere fact alone would be enough to prove the revelation itself had no real claim to any abiding truth or to any rational assent on the part of the one who understood what a contradiction meant. It would not, in other words, be a credible institution since it contradicted itself. Thus, if what was held or done in one era or place were forbidden and rejected in another time or place, something was wrong not only with the issue at hand but also with the structure of the institution designed to preserve its integrity.

Essential things differed from non-essential ones. Non-essential things could and did vary—languages, art forms, music, ritual signs, or architecture. This teaching claimed that it not only did not contradict reason but that it was itself obliged to give adequate reasons for what it held to be true. It maintained, as essential to what it was, that the Trinity or Incarnation were mysteries. At the same time, arguments were presented for their plausibility. This plausibility arises out of the very nature of human communication itself. In fundamental things, human beings are to deal with each other primarily not by power or authority alone but by explaining why they do what they do, and why they think what they think.

This approach, however, did not mean the reasons given to account for mysteries were complete in every way. It takes a divine mind fully to grasp a divine mystery. But it also takes a divine mind to reveal to other finite minds what it wanted them to know about itself. Thus, valid points of reason could be cited for what was presented as true from revelation. If no valid reasons could be provided for the plausibility of divine revelation, in all likelihood something was wrong with the statement at issue. Basically, Thomas Aquinas’ position was followed: grace built on nature; it did not contradict it. If it did, it could not be revelation. In effect, revelation, as it were, made reason more, not less, reasonable. This principle became fundamental in understanding revelation. Those who upheld the fact of revelation were not free to refuse to give any reasons for what was revealed.

What came to be known as historicism held that what was true in one time was not true in another time. In other words, nothing could be consistent over time and place. There are no universal truths. The Socratic, as well as the revelational, idea of an abiding truth over time and place was rejected. Revelation, for its part, did present itself as basically unchangeable. What the Father taught the Son; He taught others. In this light, the history of mankind is but a drama of accepting or rejecting this persistence of truth over time and place.

Revelation could make this claim of consistency because its own internal structure affirmed that what it had to teach found its origin not in human experience or human reason alone but in the logos or reason of God. What was implied, and this is what is meant by the word “revelation”, was that this divine logos as revealed was intended to correct and make flourish the reason that mankind shared with all reasonable and spiritual beings, including God. Finite beings were, in other words, to understand the truth of things. They were to know why what they did or did not do made sense. Faith was an intellectual virtue; it wanted to know what to hold because it was true based on the testimony of someone who did know. Human beings were not asked to be irrational, especially when they were asked to believe.

II.

Essentially, revelation asked (rather than forced) us to understand and believe that the world was created by an intelligent Being who did not have to create a world to entertain or complete itself. What was in fact created did reveal a certain order that could be investigated. Truth meant finding this order. God was personal in His inner Trinitarian life; He was already everything He could be, hence unchangeable. In the order of finality, the cosmos came after God had decided to create man as a finite, intelligent being in time. Man was not created primarily that his species become something glorious down the ages in time. Rather, he was created, with “dominion” over the earth, so that each member of the species, in the course of his relatively brief life, in whatever time or place, could choose to save his soul. That is, each created person chose, by how he believed and lived, to accept or reject the divine invitation given to him to live the inner life of the Godhead. It was contrary to the nature of God that anyone invited to participate in His inner life be forced to do so. Hence, it was always possible for individual members of this race of finite beings to reject the purpose of his coming to be. Redemption meant God’s effort to save this purpose even after it was rejected, once or many times, by individual human persons.

What is called divine revelation was given to men some time after the initial creation during which early time it became clear what men, by themselves, would probably become, which did not seem particularly promising. Revelation was given “in the fullness of time” in order that men might achieve the final transcendent end for which each was initially created. This revelation, in context, was not given to replace or contradict the reason with which each person was initially endowed. It was given as an aid, both to reason and to living properly. In effect, revelation was addressed to our intelligence. Men were expected to use their brains and to use them properly. This is why, as Benedict XVI said so clearly in the Regensburg Lecture, the encounter of revelation with Greek philosophy was so important. Because of this encounter, it became clear that, in divine revelation, what was being proposed to us in fact provided what we needed to know to explain to ourselves what our ultimate existence is about in the light of our own reflection on ourselves.

This understanding is why the two fundamental doctrines of revelation—the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Second Person as true God and true man—complete what we were striving to know about ourselves in this universe. Namely, that we did exist in it as finite beings who, at every turn, sensed that we were part of a plan in which we were involved by how we lived and thought. The Incarnation, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ completed our sense of immortality. It was not just the soul but the whole being, what we are at our most complete, that is intended for everlasting life. And this everlasting life occurs within the Trinity into which we are invited. Our lives, in this sense, seem therefore more like gifts than necessities. The enigma of our death, which need not have happened, is the portal through which each of us must travel, and after this the judgment. The immediate scope of revelation was not the inner destiny of this world but the destiny of each person who was created to pass through it through the intelligible choices that completed his own being.

III.

The title of these reflections concerns what is now called an “on-going”—not “revolution”—but “revelation”. Revolution always has the connotation of things coming back to the same place, like a revolver. Hence, once the cycle is understood, nothing is really new. Revelation, however, indicates what is new. We did not figure out its content by ourselves; revelation is new; it breaks the bonds of what we expect. Though the Old Testament was an “on-going” incremental revelation, God did make a final, once-and-for-all revelation that was to be kept intact down the ages. It was to be maintained and followed as such in each subsequent time or place in which it was preached. It is what ultimately explained what they are to be. It was a coherent, unified revelation in which all of its basic elements needed to be retained in their given definition and uniqueness.

What then does this “on-going revelation”, as an alternative to a stable revelation, mean? What does it have to do with the classical understanding of a revelation designated to be kept as it was initially presented? The classical understanding of revelation was a once given, though ever new, thing. It consisted in the Old Testament plus the life and death of Christ, together with the accounts of the deeds and teachings of the Apostles. It ended with the death of the last apostle. Its content could not change. It could only be more fully understood over time. It could also be less understood and accepted in later times. Indeed, it could be and was often rejected. Augustine thought that, at the end of time, few actual believers would be left.

Yet, this given revelation was guaranteed to be present among men until the end of time with the same essential teachings and practices, needed for our salvation, whether accepted or not. An “on-going” revelation, by contrast, would look something like the Muslim voluntarist notion that Allah could change his mind as he went along. He could reject or alter his own first revelation, and any subsequent ones. He was not limited by the principle of contradiction. Such a limitation would prevent Allah from calling evil good or good evil. Thus, contradictory standards could become legitimate. The Muslim approach, however, assumed a god of some sort who could engineer the changes.

In lieu of a god to inaugurate or justify the changes that rejected elements of the original revelation, what explanation for approving contradictory things remained plausible in the modern world? Could the original “unchangeable” revelation be so interpreted by other background philosophies that its prohibitions or approvals could change in different times and places? Could we ourselves, unhindered by any divine restrictions, determine which positions we wanted to follow and which ones we did not want to follow? Would this not be the practical definition of freedom now everywhere accepted; that is, the freedom to form our own destiny, our own definition of truth?

A first necessary step in making this transformation would be to cast doubt on whether we actually knew what the original revelation maintained. After all, it was made known to us by men who claim to have heard what they wrote down or passed on. We have no direct verbal or written documentation from Christ as to the accuracy of what they recalled. The apostles themselves are not always clear on every point. We only have what they thought was the best interpretation according to their times. Hearing the same “thou shalt’s” and “thou shalt not’s” in different times and places might well justify a total change and yet be consistent with what God ‘would have” wanted in this new time and place. It is not so much that there were no “absolutes” as that these same absolutes are interpreted differently. We cannot say that revelation was ever intended to remain literally the same. We can also choose which elements of the original stable revelation no longer apply.

Much of modern philosophy and science, implicitly or explicitly, is based on what appears at first sight to be a wholesale rejection of Christianity. Indeed, it is a rejection of God’s very existence. God is conceived as an impediment to human freedom. The purpose of humanity is to take charge of itself and the world. It is not to be seen as fulfilling some obscure divine plan that was designed to be carried out by God Himself. Modern philosophy and drama are said to be adventures in what it is to live without God, a theme already found in the Old Testament.

Yet, on examination, modern thought is not a rejection of Christianity. Already in his 1920’s book, The Idea of Progress, J. B. Bury and others following him saw modern thought as an attempt to achieve Christianity’s transcendent ends in this world, not the next. It sought to do so by means other than those of repentance, sacrifice, faith, suffering, truth, and abiding love, notions that were at the heart of the original revelation. Death, suffering, evil, and guilt could be overcome by technology and the rejection of classical and Christian thought which were seen as impediments to this humanitarian progress.

IV.

In this light, the central question became: What happens to the eschatological doctrines of Christianity when they become inner-worldly goals? First of all, the death of the individual, though stretched out as long as possible, becomes insignificant. What matters is to prevent the death of the species. This is what modern ecology is about. The individual person dies with no further consequences. Whatever his life, good or bad, makes no difference once dead. There is no judgment. It makes little difference what he did, good or bad, insofar as these terms mean anything. His life is sacrificed to something down the ages. He himself receives nothing from it, no happiness, and no eternal life.

Since death and judgment do not matter, neither do any distinctions between what is done and what is not to be done. With no permanent standard, good and evil can be interchangeable. Things that were good in one generation are bad in another. The notion of the resurrection of this body of this person, hence the complete person’s restoration, is considered fanciful. But what about the notion of universal truths and standards? Original revelation presumed that the truth and validity of the same teaching would hold over time. Hence we could speak of nations and cultures abiding with the same principles. The divine plan worked itself out. It did not deny in one generation what it affirmed in another.

We can “contextualize” revelation. How? Well, we really do not know what was originally held. We have, to repeat, no exact record or recording to test the accuracy of what is said in Scripture. We only have sayings attributed to this or that author. Thus, we must read the “unchangeable” things in revelation as subject to change. If one generation needed increase in population, another might need a decrease in population. If one generation needed marriage between men and women for growth; another era might need a “marriage” between male and male that prevents growth. Consequently, we could maintain that what we were doing in changing our “perspective” was to repeat what the original revelation did. Only now we apply it analogously in different times and places as we see the changing needs. So, in this explanation, revelation is not “permanent” but “on-going”. God did not intend to bind one generation to the whims of another generation.

In conclusion, the situation seems to be this: we cannot join the modern world if we are bound to a permanent, unchangeable revelation. Things like abortion, contraception, various types of sexual acts and relationships exist on a wide scale. Christianity will supposedly become obsolete if it does not figure out a way to change its “absolutes”. “On-going” revelation, with roots perhaps in Hegel, if not Heraclitus, provides for many a way in which we can deal with “unchangeable” things. It allows us to see how Christ “would have acted” in other situations, in our time. The idea that exactly the same teachings would be guaranteed in all generations thus was not valid.

“On-going” revelation makes what is the same different and what is different the same. So much for the principle of contradiction. A way has been finally found, so it is thought, to bypass the way of abiding principles that has blocked what is called modern progress. In this light, the prayer from the Office, cited in the beginning, that the Lord does not “let false doctrines darken our minds”, suddenly seems to be one that we need to repeat more frequently. And it is, as always, best to let what Aquinas said speak for itself.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 155 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

14 Comments

  1. Here is one big difference btw JP2/Ratzinger and Francis/Kasper/Schonborn:

    JP2/R: Faith and Reason;

    F/K/S: Faith and rationalizing.

    Two very different Churches.

    • It is a stretch isn’t it to say Faith and rationalizing instead of just rationalizing.

      I don’t know what K and S believe, but it’s probably some kind of ecumenical, syncretic, socialist concoction that has little likeness to the Catholic Faith.

  2. When was it, a day or two ago? An acquaintance (one like myself who lives too much in one’s head)asked me why I remain Catholic with this going on, and that; with this confusion and (a near weekly) dust-up on that?

    He may have expected, as a rejoinder, some IPhone postings of pilgrimages hither and yon, a recounting of my doubling-down on saying the rosary, or how I tracked the best West Coast iconographer to replace the household’s image of the Sacred Heart; maybe he anticipated tales of combative lunches with the parish priest.

    None. What tongue tumbled so quick I even startled myself, I said “Fr. James V. Schall”.

    [For the moment, though, I do ignore the “S.J.”!]

    Yes, these past fifteen years since I entered the Church – Fr. Schall.

    You see, coming from somewhere else, disgruntled and put upon, I had chucked it all. Utterly, truly tossed the whole lot. So, for a time (not calendar days; more like a stage or holding pattern)I settled down to where (I thought) one’s mind could be re-calibrated and the passions tame. I had become an Aristotelian.

    I knew what that meant, being an Aristotelian, for the world – our age as it has become – refuses to give that man any quarter, to settled upon or down with him, to begin there, perched on an Athenian portico. Well, I will, I said: domicile with him, start there; listen to why he said both ‘yes’ & ‘no’ to his Master, Plato; see where it takes me.

    I did. In its way it had its own ‘going-on’!

    Now when disgruntled and discouraged by all the (Hegelian) synthesis-breeding fluttering from Our Age (or, Vatican City), I pull down the books and stacks of printed essays and settle down – to recalibrate and dispassion – with a bit of Schall.

  3. Truth and contradiction to truth are polar opposites. Aquinas identified the intellect’s ability to distinguish opposites as indicative of freedom of choice, free will inherent only in man. The opposites that distinguish man from all animal species is apprehension of opposites good and evil. It defines humanness. Fr Schall skillfully details the facets of opposites to truth. He bases it on the essence of a thing. What it is. For example I can’t say a married man who has relations with other than his wife is not committing adultery. It’s a contradiction. The reason is the act of adultery is embedded in the definition of adultery. Presently Hierarchy from its pinnacle propose morally acceptable practice can differ from doctrine. Adultery once considered such can be morally acceptable love. The theology proffered is not a change of doctrine rather of mercy that supersedes Rules and fulfills the spirit of the law. Based on love. The basis of rules. Revelation said given to the Church thru the Holy Spirit. Proponents claim no contradiction. Essentially the definition of Revelation held by the Church assumes a stark difference. What in accord with previous logic is contradiction is surpassed by a higher order of truth [Islamic in kind]. An entirely new Revelation from what preceded. The immensity of that claim is of a new Revelation essentially breaking with the past. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. A new Revelation requires a new Messiah. One who delivers from. In Christ deliverance was from the former subservience to the Law to life in the Holy Spirit. We are called by certain Hierarchy from its Pinnacle on down to believe in our new Messiah. Or are we called by the Father to remain faithful to His Son? That is our essential choice.

    • We need to cling to and believe in what has already been given to us in our Catholic Faith.

      Father Peter, you summarized your thoughts so well!

      Last week I was visiting some friends in Barcelona and had the opportunity to attend Mass there.During the homily the priest told us to “kindly adjust” to “the new church that is being revealed”. I was stunned to hear that. But today I read some good news here: http://orthochristian.com/105380.html

      At my parish we have perpetual Adoration and I find that this is the key.Adoration, besides daily Mass, is what will help us to go through this darkness in the world. Our Lord is the Light of the world, in Him and with Him we can and will stand all.

      • Thanks Sophia. Read the article which confirms my view that the conversion of Russia has occurred. Indeed good news. In the US we’re struggling with a Pres with great ideas yet lacking in temperament. He has correctly sought better relation with Russia and has been sidelined by vicious opposition, political maneuvering and unlawful interference. The Progressive Left here is determined to return us to atheistic secularism. We need to commend ourselves to Christ as you do Sophia. Unfortunately Spain has taken to the Pontiff’s remake of the Church. I thank Christ for His love for us and guidance during this trial. And for spiritual strength from friends who share conviction and faith.

        • Father Peter, I have been following Mr. Trump and have kept him and his family in prayers. I don’t know if it’s appropriate or not to comment, but before he came to the G20 meeting, most of the news in Europe about him were rather negative. Some people said they were afraid of him. But when he came to Poland, then to France, things changed a lot. For example, I read and heard on local news that Mr. Trump is refreshingly honest and upright, yes, this is the impression he left here. Even la Merkel in Germany and the economic minister of Switzerland, Schneider Amann said they were quite impressed with his daughter, Ivanka Trump, a very intelligent and capable young woman. So, the problem seems to be in the USA indeed. Another thing that delighted French Catholics, is that Mrs. Trump, Melania, and Mrs. Macron were adoring the Holy Crown of Thorns at Notre Dame de Paris, when their husbands were at the G20 meeting.

          Father Peter, I give you my email just in case you would like to contact me:
          sophia-marie.dangier@gmx.net

          Union of prayers, Sophia

  4. Isn’t the problem with progressive thinking the rejection of the idea of original sin? To me the real test at Eden was whether Adam and Eve loved God or only loved His gifts. The serpent was promising Adam and Eve a godhood of autonomy. In the Old Testament the punishment is often in the form of the offense. The bad fruit of original sin was concupiscence. This would suggest that an unholy lust for the things that are God’s is at the root of original sin.
    *
    There is mention of the eyes of Adam and Eve in the Fall of Man passage. The eye is talked about in Matthew 6:22-23:
    *
    “The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be”. (NABRE)
    *
    The darkening of the will and intellect took place when their eyes were opened. This is when they they underwent the spiritual death of mortal sin that God warned them about. Their eyes were no longer illuminated by God’s graces.
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    The problem with autonomy is that it creates a propensity towards disunion. The essential nature of the Trinitarian Godhead is one of union. A union so deep and intimate that the Three Persons of the Trinitarian Godhead are One in Substance. The whole point of Eve being made from a rib of Adam was so that she would be consubstantial with Adam. I don’t know if I have any proof texts from the Bible, but I can’t help but wondering if the unfallen Adam and Eve were also soulmates and had a union that went beyond the conjugal union of marital relations. The autonomy the serpent promised would disrupt this union. Original sin alienated Adam and Eve from God, from each other, and included self alienation. Adam and Eve did a lot of finger pointing after the fall, a sure sign of disunion.
    *
    In original sin we were spiritually disfigured, and this spiritual disfigurement was passed on to every human ever since, with the exception of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Consider it to be a spiritual version of a genetic birth defect. Concupiscence is a log that we all have in our eyes. Christ told us that He wanted the Church to be one. This way the Church would be in the image and likeness of the Oneness of the Trinitarian Godhead.
    *
    Many of the modern behaviors of the current day are what you would expect from a race of fallen beings with the propensity for disunion. We Catholics believe that the universe was created ex niliho. If through sin we reject God’s image and likeness the only other image and likeness that we have to go on is one of nihilism. Contradiction is the bad fruit of disunion. We are told that when we are reading the printed word on paper that we need a good source of lighting. The supernatural Word of God is such that the unaided light of human reason is not sufficient to illuminate the divine Logos so as to gain a sure reading. This requires the illumination of divine revelation. We also need to correct for the distorted spiritual vision of the bad eye of original sin.
    *
    God often chooses the humble, the simple, and the lowly to impart His wisdom and revelation to because they are the ones least likely to corrupt this revelation. Moses was a humble man. Christ is the very definition of humility. The downfall of the heretics is that they lack the humility to subject themselves to the authority of the Church, and to the authority of divine public revelation.
    *
    I can see in the Old Testament where the coming of Christ and His New Covenant are foretold. I can see no such advanced notice by God in the New Testament predicting any subsequent wholesale modification of Christ’s New Covenant. I do see many warnings about the forces of anti-Christ and false prophets. A lie is a contradiction of the truth. Satan, the father of lies, is an expert in this form of contradiction.

  5. The accuracy of the Scriptures touches on the area of textual criticism. It is my understanding that the Bible has a manuscript record as good as, if not better than, other records of antiquity.

  6. Extremely helpful. “On-going revelation” lets the Latter-Day Saints change doctrines in about-faces in obedience to a prophet. Glad to see that concept juxtaposed with the Catholic teaching on Development of Doctrine and the responsibilities of the Pope..

  7. Just because we may or may not be able to test the accuracy of something in Scripture does not automatically make it subject to change. It could be what was originally held even though we may not be able to test it. At least, in Scripture, we have the earliest writings of Christianity. If we are not going to take them seriously, why do we bother calling ourselves Christians.
    Vatican II’s Dei Verbum 21 says: “Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.”
    This makes total sense to me. I like to read Scripture for myself even though I may not have a perfect understanding of everything that is written. We grow in understanding if we have applied the revelation to our personal lives. At least I know that I am working with the basics of Christianity instead of “on-going revelation” that someone else may dream up, which may not be any more testable than Scripture.
    I tested Scripture and it transformed my life. I can’t say that for anything else written after that. My interpretation of Scripture couldn’t have been that bad if this happened.
    I appreciate the availability of Scripture that we have nowadays. It wasn’t always this way in the past. We can go back to the source documents of Christianity for ourselves and see what happens. The cat is now out of the bag.

    • Scripture and Tradition are both authoritative, but Scripture has pride of place as the inspired words of God. Tradition is true, but not inspired. A significant different. Louis Bouyer tackles this well in TPAFOP.

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