A Gentile Development? A Second Response to John Martens

The inclusion of the Gentiles in the early Church ought not be considered a model for “developing” Catholic teachings on sexual morality.

Here, after some delay resulting from the vicissitudes of life and death this vale of tears and the unforeseen quotidian professional and personal demands of each new day, I offer a second response (my first can be read here) to John Martens’ erudite and thoughtful piece on marriage and development, dealing in particular with the inclusion of Gentiles in the earliest Church as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

The story of how the Church came to include Gentiles in the Church has occasioned much mischief in many Christian bodies, progressives seeing therein a model and warrant for approbation of practices long regarded as sinful by Scripture and the broader Christian tradition, and for the radical inclusion in their bodies’ rites and orders of ministry of people who engage in those practices. I am of course speaking of the approval of homosexual activity and of the inclusion of noncelibate gays and lesbians in marriage and ministry. (I saw this up close and personal when I was a member and then a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA.) Martens of course doesn’t do that, and these questions are not directly on the table—yet—in the Catholic Church. As Martens is a good Catholic with teaching appointments both at a Catholic university and seminary who must therefore hold the mandatum, I am sure that he accepts the Church’s express teaching on human sexuality as delineated in the universal and binding Catechism of the Catholic Church 2357-2359.

Therefore, while engaging Martens’ fruitful discussion of Acts, I will also present issues involved in its interpretation more broadly. To do that, we must rehearse some fundamentals of how Catholics are to approach Sacred Scripture, as delineated in Dei Verbum 12 and the Catechism 109-119.

From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture presents the story of salvation history, which can be seen as a drama of four acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Glory. Redemption is a sequence of three scenes: Israel, Jesus, and the Church. Israel’s long story begins with Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites and then the Jews, and for Christians the story continues in Jesus the Jew, the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and also the savior of the world. This Jewish Jesus, also the universal savior, founds a Church ultimately comprising Jews and Gentiles to continue Israel’s work of redemption in the world while the Church awaits its consummation in glory.

Scripture, then, is to be read as a story of radical continuity continuing in the present: the events of the Old Testament foreshadow the events of the New, which in turn fulfill the Old, and the story continues in the Church’s history, especially through its liturgy, even today, when Christ our Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7) who was crucified at Passover makes himself present as our sacrifice in each and every Mass. Dei Verbum and the Catechism teach not only that Scripture is to be read as this continuous story continuing in the present, but also that it is to be read in light of the Church’s Tradition and in harmony with the Church’s faith, with an interpretive stance seeking the classic fourfold sense of Scripture: the letter is primary, to be investigated with all potential human tools of analysis at one’s disposal, and it gives rise to the spiritual senses of allegory (which generally concerns the relationship of the Old Testament and the New Testament), tropology (the moral sense), and anagogy (which concerns the believer’s progress towards salvation).

Thanks to historical criticism, however, the belief that Scripture presents a coherent story has all but collapsed, and thanks to the corrosive effects of Enlightenment thinking, modern Christians have lost allegory and anagogy and are left with nothing but the letter (usually seen as a disparate and contradictory collection of textual artifacts left behind by long-dead religious communities) and tropology. Modern thinking and scholarship reduces Christian life to morality run amok, to “What Would Jesus Do?” Even when we aim at spiritual, ecclesial interpretation, as a friend tweeted recently, morals are easier to teach so we tend to reduce the harder-to-teach things to morals.

And so when most modern Christians approach the Bible, they mainly seek models and examples for Christian life today. Thus things like the inclusion of Gentiles in the Church or Jesus’ radical fellowship with sinners often become models for the approbation of sin and the inclusion of sinners sans penitence.

But interpreting the Bible as a Catholic means realizing where we stand within the story. We are in the time of the Church, looking forward to glory, and looking back through the ages to Acts, and through Acts (and indeed all the New Testament and the Tradition within which it rose) to the Old Testament. Otherwise Scripture becomes the incoherent mosaic of which St. Irenaeus spoke, lacking a pattern. Versified Scripture becomes a jigsaw puzzle, and we arrange some of the pieces at will, discarding the rest. We’ve lost the plot and substituted easy bourgeois moralism.

But if we read from within the Church and look back along the story to what Acts relates about the inclusion of Gentiles, we see that the inclusion of Gentiles isn’t some more-or-less minor or major story functioning as a model from which we can extrapolate. Some read Acts 10-15 as if the point of Gentile inclusion is really the more general point of boundary-breaking: just as the Spirit told the early Church to break the Jewish-Gentile boundary and accept Gentiles, so too the Spirit is telling us today to break the hetero-homo boundary and accept active gays and lesbians in their relationships, including same-sex marriage, and in ministry.

Well, we too think we have the Holy Spirit, and it seems to speak to us differently. The problem with that sort of generalizing is that the inclusion of the Gentiles is a particular moment in salvation history, foreseen in the Old Testament, and seen by the earliest Church in the New, unlike any radical revision of sexual and marital morality. True, the Church has to discern it, but it’s not an overthrowing of Scripture (as Martens suggests in his point 6—“the rejection of some biblical teachings”). Rather it is a fuller realizing of what Scripture and Jewish tradition taught in Amos 9:11-12 and Leviticus 17. It’s a decision made on the basis of an awareness of salvation history rooted in an allegorical reading of the relationship of the Church to Israel.

The Old Testament both hints at and proclaims the coming inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom of God (as well as statements that the Gentiles belong to God already and stand under his providence, as adumbrated in Amos 9:7). True, many of those passages are eschatological, but (as I mentioned in my prior article) a very good case can be made that the earliest Christians lived their faith in the conviction that the eschaton had already broken in with Jesus and would come to completion sometime in the indefinite, and not necessarily near, future. This is precisely the stance most scholars recognize Luke-Acts operates with, as in Luke Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of [or within] you” (Luke 17:20-21). It has been said that you don’t write a history of the Church like the Acts of the Apostles if you expect the world to end very soon. And so we find in Acts 2 Peter reciting a prophecy from Joel concerning the last days, but Peter’s point is that the last days have begun, not that they will end soon. The age of the Church, however long it endures, is the eschatological age, growing, expanding, until the final consummation.

The age of the Church is also the age of the Gentiles. While Peter’s meeting with Cornelius is decisive in showing Peter and then the early Church that Gentiles may enter the Church, the passage from Joel Peter cites envisions universal, and thus Gentile, salvation: “in the last days…I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh”—not just Jews—“and it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:17, 21).

And so at the conclusion of the council, the Church discerns that Gentiles didn’t have to keep the full Mosaic law to be Christians, but they most certainly had to follow the ancient rules for pagans sojourning in ancient Israel as found in Leviticus 17 if they were to sojourn as part of the People of God in the Church. They had to repent of certain things: idolatry, sexual immorality, the meat of strangled animals, and from blood. All four stipulations are fundamental and general, not particularly Mosaic or Jewish, as it happens, because they concern the fundamental truth of the nature and identity of the personal God and the human person.

The inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church is particularly momentous in salvation history, and it was not unforeseen, as Martens notes: “What was happening amongst the Christians was something new in the life of the church, in the life of the people of God, but it had also been prophesied: there would come a time when the Gentiles would be welcomed in to God’s people.”

Acts 15 isn’t so much a model, then, as it is a moment in our Christian story relating how and under what conditions Gentiles may be Christians. It explains for us today why we can eat pork but not indulge in immorality (which are real questions contemporary Christians endeavoring to understand and live their faith ask). Anything more than that goes beyond what is written, which in another context St. Paul advised another group of libertine proto-gnostics in Corinth not to do (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:6).

The inclusion of Gentiles therefore isn’t really an instance of development of doctrine (though I’d welcome arguments on this point in addition to Martens’ suggestions) as it is the realization of the dramatic moment in salvation history when God fulfills something seen all along, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church founded by Jesus, the universal savior. Indeed, the original promise to Abraham involved all the families of the earth being blessed in him (Genesis 12:3), and Jesus is the ultimate descendant of Abraham, into whom Christians are incorporated by their incorporation into Christ in baptism.

What, then, of development of doctrine? Here a brief salvation-historical primer is in order.

According to Christian understanding, in the Old Testament story not everything is given right away. Revelation itself is progressive. Many Jews may have held to the rabbinic principle that “there is no before or after in the Torah,” but Christians read differently, realizing that Abraham preceded Moses who preceded the prophets. In the Old Testament revelation is ongoing, which explains certain uncomfortable things not found in the New Testament. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

[God] selected one particular people and spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was—that there was only one of Him and that He cared about right conduct. Those people were the Jews, and the Old Testament gives an account of the hammering process.

When Jesus comes, however, he himself is the final Word of God to the Jews and all humanity, decisive, final, ultimate revelation in himself, the one who not only in word and deed but by his very incarnation provides the deposit of faith to his disciples, and through them the Church.

Development of doctrine happens in the sense that the Church comes to understand the deposit of faith passed on in sacred Tradition ever more deeply in a Marian mode of contemplation and (one hopes) with ever more fidelity. As the Second Vatican Council taught in Dei Verbum 8:

The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

Doctrine as such doesn’t develop in and of itself, as if God were evolving in eternity, but our understanding of doctrine might and must in history. As the man who served as the greatest inspiration for the modern conception of the development of doctrine, Cardinal Newman, explained:

[F]rom the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas; and that the highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation. This may be called the Theory of Development of Doctrine[.]

This is the same Newman who despised liberalism for rejecting revelation as objective fact and reducing religion to a matter of sentiment and taste in which the individual, not God, was sovereign. Those aching for radical change of the Church’s fundamental teaching cannot claim him as their patron. Therefore, any development in the Church’s doctrine—which is nothing more and nothing less than what nature teaches and what God has revealed about the ultimate truth of God, man, and the world—must stand in continuity with what came before and cannot simply reverse or evade longstanding teaching on fundamental matters of true faith and good morals.

Church history has had its fits, starts, spurts, and even periods of relative stasis, and surely her understanding of the faith delivered once and for all to all the saints (Jude 1:3) has developed in time. But the watchword of the Catholic, salvation-historical view of Scripture, Tradition, and the unavoidable development in understanding of the revealed deposit of faith they bear forth is continuity.

The Church’s understanding of these matters means that talk of radical revolution in the Church, such as Cardinal Suenens’ exuberant ejaculation about Vatican II being 1789 in the Church, or Karl Rahner’s threefold periodization of Church history with our contemporary period beginning with Vatican II, or Joachim of Fiore’s threefold periodization in which the last age will be an age of the Spirit transcending the letter and lacking institutions, is misguided.

From ancient heresies like Montanism to fervid medieval prophets like Joachim to some recent bad ideas, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same, and when it comes to the desire for a new age in the Church, there is nothing new under the sun. Most errors in the modern Church can be traced to the heresy of overrealized eschatology. We’re impatient for the one eschaton God promised and Jesus himself will bring, in the fullness of time, already truly broken in, but not yet fully arrived.

Martens’ subtle presentation made me think of (if I may be forgiven for such a crude image) the making of farmer’s soup, into which many things are tossed and the result is whatever it is. The Church had Scripture, certain experiences, tradition, etc., and at the end Gentile inclusion is how it all came out. The basic subtext seems to be that whatever Francis might decide with regard to the Synod on the Family must be fine because the messy process is superintended by the Spirit, which always is supposed to guarantee a good result. But in Acts the process is more theological and orderly than that, and the Church today, as in Acts, from peasant to Peter, is bound to Scripture and Tradition as both come from the Lord, the one Word of God. 

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).