“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!