A reader writes:
I converted to the Catholic faith in 2000. I accepted the fact that revelation, from the Church’s viewpoint, includes both Scripture and Sacred Tradition. At that time, however, I understood that Tradition came from the Apostles.
It does. But it often comes in seed form and is most assuredly not fleshed out by the apostles. They gave no though whatsoever to matters ranging from the doctrine of the Trinity to the problem of embryonic stem cell research. But as the Church marches out into history, she is forced to and draws on the tradition to help navigate such waters.
Right now I struggle in the fact that many of the dogmas have little basis in the Scriptures (or going far beyond anything written in Scripture) and many have very little support in the Patristic Fathers.
Scripture is not the *basis* of the Church’s teaching, but the witness to it. Here is chapter five of my Mary, Mother of the Son (which you really should read in full–particularly parts I and II):
On the one hand, we have this portrait of a conservative early Church whose Tradition comes from the apostles. On the other hand, the modern Catholic Church appears to Evangelicals (as it long appeared to me) to add novel doctrines to the faith in broad daylight while claiming that they had been there all along. So the exasperated Evangelical naturally cries out, “If these Marian doctrines come from the apostles as you claim, then where the blazes is the Immaculate Conception of Mary in Scripture and why did it not become dogma until 1854?! How come the Assumption isn’t a dogma till 1950 if it’s always been part of apostolic teaching?”
Barking Up the Wrong Tree: False Ideas of Sacred Tradition and the “Hidden Church”
These are, of course, very reasonable questions. And when the Church replies, at the Council of Trent, that Catholic “truth and teaching are contained in written books and in the unwritten traditions the apostles received from Christ himself or that were handed on, as it were from hand to hand, from the apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and so have come down to us” (Council of Trent, Decree on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, Denzinger 783 (1501)).this doesn’t seem at first like a very good answer. To Evangelicals, it looks as though the Church is basically saying, “Okay, so the Immaculate Conception isn’t in Scripture. It’s in, uh . . . Tradition! Yeah! That’s the ticket! Tradition! St. Peter and the apostles used to talk about the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary in exactly the same language Catholics do today. But the apostles kept it hushed up among themselves and left it out of the Bible till people were ready to hear it. So these doctrines always have been in Tradition because . . . uh . . . they were passed on at the Double-Secret Tradition-Passing-On Ceremony that all Catholic bishops have to go through in the dungeons beneath the Vatican! Then, when the time was ripe the Church told the rest of the faithful about them.”
In other words, there is a broad assumption among Evangelicals that what Catholics mean by sacred Tradition is a body of revelation that’s secret, separate from, and parallel to Scripture, transmitted from bishop to bishop (“Psst! Mary is Immaculate, Ever-Virgin and Assumed into Heaven, pass it on!”), and then “leaked” into official teaching over the centuries. That is one reason why, not to put too fine a point on it, the Catholic appeal to Tradition smells like a rat to the “Bible-only” nose. Confronted with the baffling discovery of an early Church that looks pretty Catholic and a modern Catholic Church riddled with what appear to be teachings completely disconnected from Scripture, some Evangelicals seize on this misconception of sacred Tradition as the solution to their confusion. To explain the survival of “true Christianity” through the long ages when the Catholic Church was the only game in town, they will often posit a theory of the “hidden, true Church of Bible Christians” that allegedly rejected this false “sacred Tradition” and was, as a result, driven underground by a mass apostasy of proto-Catholics occurring shortly after the apostolic era. Supposedly, this hidden church of underground believers preserved the true biblical gospel through the long night of pre-Reformation error in which the “apostate” proto-Catholics evolved into full-blown Catholics and dominated the written record of Christianity with all those documents filled with sacred Tradition. Meanwhile, according to this theory, the true Bible Christians hid out in the hills or the catacombs as the Catholic Church made war on them. It is, so the theory goes, the documents of the fallen-away apostates we’re reading when we read the works of writers like Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Hippolytus, Athanasius, Augustine and all the other Fathers who make the early Church look so Catholic. Not until the Reformation was it safe for true Bible Christians to come out of hiding. (For a fairly typical exposition of the “hidden church” theory, see J.M. Carroll, The Trail of Blood (Lexington, Ky.: Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, 1974)).
The irony of the “hidden church” theory is that it requires the very idea it tries to refute, namely the absurd belief in a revelation secret, separate from, and parallel to Scripture. For, despite all her faults and failings, we at least know what the supposedly apostate Catholic Church was doing for fifteen centuries before the alleged hidden Christians allegedly emerged from the shadows and declared themselves to be Protestants. In addition to dealing with the inevitable sins of her fallen human members, the Catholic Church was busy defending the integrity of Sacred Scripture from heretics like Marcion; settling questions like “Is God a Trinity?”; withstanding the onslaughts of Islamic jihads and Viking longboats; laying the foundations for the rule of law amidst the chaos of the Dark Ages; converting nation after nation to Christ; integrating Scripture into all her worship and prayer; renewing art, science and philosophy; inspiring saints such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi; building hospitals and universities; and evangelizing the New World. In short, the Catholic Church was working tirelessly to do the things commanded by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, if any church lived a secret, separate, and parallel existence, it’s the supposed “hidden church” which, for fifteen centuries, was so hidden that it did nothing, said nothing, accomplished nothing, and was so invisible that we do not even find a record of opposition to it by the supposedly apostate Catholic Church which allegedly usurped its place the moment the apostle John died. Some advocates of the “hidden church” theory will claim that various early heresies opposed by the Church were actually these hidden Bible Christians. The problem with this claim is that every heretical sect from a.d. 100 to a.d. 1500 teaches things a modern Protestant would not be especially eager to touch with a barge pole, such as the rejection of the Old Testament, the doctrine that the God of Israel is evil, and rejection of the Incarnation.
So if we want to argue that all record of the hidden church was obliterated by sinister Catholics, we’ll have to ignore the mysterious fact that it’s only the hidden church that seems to have been written out of the historical records. All the other groups the Catholic Church opposed (e.g., Gnostics, Arians, Sabellians, Manicheans, Modalists, Paulicians, Bogomils, Albigensians and a host of other movements) show up again and again in the polemical writings of the Church as movements to beware of—and with ample record of what they actually taught. Only the hidden church is completely absent from the historical record. And yet devotees of the “hidden church” theory expect us to think this was the Church whose light so shone that men praised their Father in heaven? This is the city on the hill that cannot be hid? This is the unquenchable fire of the Holy Spirit burning for all the nations to see?
It’s pretty obvious then that the “hidden church” theory is neither biblical, nor very good history, nor common sense. Indeed, it looks like nothing so much as the equally illusory cult of the Sacred Feminine that Jesus supposedly bequeathed to Mary Magdalene. Once again, there’s no There there.
So is there another way to account for the apparent contradiction of an extremely Catholic-looking early Church whose Tradition never changes and a modern Catholic Church that seems to have changed a great deal from the early Church?
What Sacred Tradition Really Is
To answer that, we need to first ask, “Is sacred Tradition really a revelation secret, separate from, and parallel to Scripture?” The answer of the Catholic Church is “No. Indeed, it’s precisely this view of Tradition which the Church has always condemned.” That’s because the notion that salvation lies in some secret knowledge given only to the elite is the essence of Gnosticism, not Christianity. And the Catholic Church has always been Gnosticism’s mortal foe. That is why Irenaeus writes the following in the second century:
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these heretics rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them expressly to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men. . . .(Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 3, 3, 1.)
Irenaeus firmly commits the idea of “secret revelations” to the realm of heresy, and yet does so in the name of Scripture and sacred Tradition handed down from the apostles. So, if sacred Tradition is not a body of secret revelation, separate from and parallel to Scripture, from which the Church can suddenly produce brand-new dogmas like rabbits from a hat, what is it?
It is the living, growing truth of Christ passed down in the Church in both written and unwritten form in the common doctrine, common life, and common worship of the Church. Vatican II sums up the idea of Tradition by saying, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” (Dei Verbum, 8, 1.)
The common doctrine, life and worship of the Church can be seen in Acts 2:42 when the disciples devote themselves, not only to Bible study, but the fullness of the apostolic Tradition, described by Luke as “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship . . . the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The “apostles’ teaching” is given, as Paul says, both by word of mouth and by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). In its unwritten form Tradition is not secret, separate from, and parallel to Scripture, but common, widely known, derived from the apostles (not from paganism) and—mark this—reflected in Scripture.
The “fellowship” and “the breaking of bread and the prayers” spoken of in Scripture means more than chummy glad-handing and church socials. The early Christians “devoted themselves” to the common life (“fellowship”) and to the common Eucharistic, liturgical worship of the Church (“the breaking of bread and the prayers”)—a life and worship that’s essentially public and communal, not private and esoteric. And just as it is for the Catholic Church today, the common teaching, life and worship of the Church in the New Testament is a living thing—a truth which was planted as a mustard seed in first-century Jerusalem and which has not ceased growing—just as our Lord prophesied in Mark 4:30–32. The mustard plant may not look like its seed anymore, but it is, if anything, more mustardy than ever. Just as every branch and flower shooting out of the plant is in the seed, so every dogmatic development that shoots out of the Church was in the seed of apostolic Tradition handed down to us in written (i.e. Scriptural) and unwritten form.
It’s this relationship between written and unwritten apostolic Tradition that lets the Church know, for example, that while Holy Communion is to be celebrated continually, the washing of feet is not, even though both actions were part of the Last Supper and even though in both cases Jesus commanded his disciples to imitate him. On the basis of the scriptural texts, read alone and without Tradition, we’re powerless to make such a distinction. But since the Church has a common apostolic Tradition about how to read Scripture’s accounts of the Last Supper, the Church was able to make this distinction.
In the same way, both Catholics and Protestants know how to contract a valid marriage, not because Scripture gives us any guidelines on how to do this, but because they’re both the inheritors of sacred Tradition, which guides both groups in such matters. Catholics receive this Tradition from the apostles, preserved by the body of Christ in union with the bishops and Pope in succession from the apostles. Protestants receive pieces of this Tradition as part of the Christian heritage they took with them in the break with the Catholic communion. But in both cases, what we’re looking at is Christians living by and developing sacred Tradition, not the letter of Scripture alone.
Similarly, both Catholics and Evangelicals reject polygamy, despite the fact that (as Martin Luther (Martin Luther, Letter to Chancellor Bruck, January 27, 1524. Cited by Hartmann Grisar, S.J., in Luther, Vol. V, (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1916). (Available online at http://www.archive.org/stream/grisarsluther05grisuoft/grisarsluther05grisuoft_djvu.txt as of June 3, 2013)). “I, for my part, admit I can raise no objection if a man wishes to take several wives since Holy Scripture does not forbid this.”and John Milton (John Milton, “The Christian Doctrine” in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merrit Y. Hughes (New York: The Odyssey Press, 1957)) both point out) the bare text of Scripture—read apart from sacred Tradition—appears to give us little reason to condemn polygamy and much encouragement in thinking it a good thing. Why do Evangelicals ignore Luther’s and Milton’s very logical arguments? Because, to the Evangelicals’ great credit, in this case they’ve kept a Catholic approach to Scripture and do not rely on the Bible alone. They’ve kept an understanding of marriage derived from sacred Tradition which the Catholic Church preserved and which percolated down to Evangelicals through older Protestant traditions.
Marriage isn’t the only area where Evangelicals benefit from their Catholic heritage. Despite a great deal of fuzziness in Scripture about the precise nature of pre-born human life, both Catholic and common Evangelical teaching unequivocally opposes abortion. Why? Because here again both Catholics and Evangelicals derive their teaching from apostolic Tradition, both written and unwritten. And, of course, Catholics and Evangelicals know what books belong in the New Testament not because the Bible tells them so, but because sacred Tradition does. In short, the reality isn’t that Catholics rely on sacred Tradition and Evangelicals don’t. The reality is that Catholics rely on sacred Tradition and know they do, while Evangelicals rely on sacred Tradition and usually don’t know they do. (Rather than rewrite the full argument for the reality of sacred Tradition and the dependence of both Catholics and Protestants on it for the fullness of Christ’s revelation, permit me to point readers with doubts and questions about sacred Tradition to my book By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2013)).
On the Cutting Edge of Doctrinal Development
Just as a healthy newborn boy grows to become a man, not a tree or a buffalo, so apostolic Tradition is capable of real growth, but not mutation. That’s why the Catholic Church staunchly insists she can admit no new public revelation and just as staunchly insists her Tradition develops. This way of talking about Tradition isn’t bafflegab intended to justify compromises with paganism or the invention of unbiblical beliefs. Rather, as G. K. Chesterton says:
The critics of Catholic theology seem to suppose that it is not so much an evolution as an evasion; that it is at best an adaptation. They fancy that its very success is the success of surrender. But that is not the natural meaning of the word Development. When we talk of a child being well-developed, we mean that he has grown bigger and stronger with his own strength; not that he is padded with borrowed pillows or walks on stilts to make him look taller. When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not less. (G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox (Garden City: Image Books, 1956), 27–28)
The New Testament and post-apostolic periods in Church history offer a picture of the Dog of sacred Tradition flatly refusing any compromise with the Cat of Paganism—becoming “more doggy and not less.” In that history we see an early Church one can only describe as “arch-conservative,” clinging like a barnacle to what the apostles said and taught. That’s why Polycarp, Ignatius and many others were martyred. That’s why Irenaeus writes books like Adversus Haereses, repudiating all fashionable pagan upgrades on the faith of the apostles. For them, as for the present-day Catholic Church, Tradition is indeed complete. There will be no new improved versions à la Joseph Smith, no further revelations from some angel telling us that, on second thought, there is more than one God. For the Church has received all she needs in the written and unwritten Tradition that was complete with the death of the last apostle. The bishops’ only job, as 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus attest, is to guard that Tradition by preserving the message, whether written or unwritten, without addition or deletion. It is the very model of conservatism.
But it is a living conservatism—a living faith of the dead rather than a dead faith of the living. The fully formed “mustard plant” of the kingdom doesn’t reach full maturity in the middle of the first century, the seventh, the sixteenth, or even today, at the beginning of the twenty-first. That will not happen until the mustard plant is ready for harvest on the Last Day. Till then, new situations will always arise to demand that the Church make explicit some aspect of the Tradition that had hitherto been only implicit: encoded in the DNA of the mustard seed but not yet fully expressed in the branches and blossoms of the plant. How does the Church do this? By appealing, not to the Bible alone, but to the Bible in union with the apostolic Tradition of the Spirit-led body of Christ, governed by apostles and their successors who were given authority, in Paul’s words, to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3).
So it is that in our own day, for example, the Church condemns the evils of cloning human beings even though the bare text of Scripture has no words on the matter. But nobody in his five wits claims the present Church “invented” opposition to cloning from thin air. We all understand that the Church, by the very nature of her Tradition, has opposed such sinful manipulation of human beings for two thousand years. It merely took the folly of the modern push for cloning to cause the Church to apply Tradition to this concrete situation—and declare what she has always believed, even if she had never before had to say it about cloning.
To see this process at work, let us look at Acts 15 and the way that the very first development of sacred Tradition in the history of the Church took place. The genesis of this development was a controversy rife with theological, personal, and practical aspects: Did Gentile converts to the Christian faith need to be circumcised?
The Church, of course, began as a Jewish sect. Her members were Jews, her Lord was a Jew, and the only Scriptures she had when the argument over circumcision arose were Old Testament Scriptures. Not surprisingly then, Jewish Christians were thrown into a tailspin by the question of how Gentiles ought to be admitted to fellowship when confronted with a growing flood of such converts. It was particularly difficult because a significant portion of Gentile believers were none too eager to go under the knife. With the benefit of hindsight, we may think the issue was easy to resolve. But it wasn’t. After all, Jesus had insisted that the Law—which required circumcision of all males who belonged to the covenant people—would not pass away and that following him required sacrifice and suffering. That was the problem confronting the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. How do we discern the will of God here?
Let us, for a moment, join the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and imagine ourselves to be delegates from the mythical, Bible-only, hidden church of first century Evangelicals. How do we, as Bible-only Christians, respond to this problem?
Easy. We do a topical Bible study on circumcision! And when we do, what do we find? Well, we find that God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision “as an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:7). It is the sign enjoined not only on descendants of Abraham, but upon “those who are not your offspring” (Gen. 17:12)—that is, on all men who want to join the covenant people by conversion (Ex. 12:48). So the Patriarchs are all circumcised. Moses is circumcised and the covenant of circumcision is renewed and reinforced in the Mosaic Law (Lev. 12:3). All the prophets are circumcised. And for good measure, as we look up from the Bible we are studying, we note that the apostles gathered around us are all circumcised and recall that even the Lord Jesus himself was circumcised (a fact a future companion of Paul’s will eventually note, years from now, in Luke 2:21). And as the apostles around us are fond of recalling, Jesus used to say:
Till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:18–19).
Meanwhile we also find Jesus silent about the idea that Gentiles are exempt from the immemorial requirement that men who want to join the covenant people undergo circumcision. Thus, on the basis of Scripture alone, the solution to the problem is obvious. Therefore, in Acts 15, the Church meets in council and, in light of all this plain scriptural teaching, declares . . .
. . . that circumcision for Gentile Christians is against the will of the God who does not change.
How do we Bible-only Evangelical delegates to the council respond? We could hold the first century Church to the same standard of Evangelical Bible-onlyism that we use when the modern Church says the same things about an unchanging gospel while proclaiming the dogmas of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption. We could cry out in exasperation (as the Circumcision Party, in fact, did): “If this doctrine is the teaching of the God who does not change, then where the blazes is the circumcision exemption for Gentiles in Scripture and why did it not become a teaching of the Church until a.d. 48!? You are corrupting the word of God with the traditions of men to make the gospel more appealing to pagans!”
Or we could look at things a bit differently. We could decide to hold Marian doctrinal developments to the standards of the Council of Jerusalem. We can then propose that what happened at Jerusalem is the model for every single development of doctrine throughout Catholic history right down to the dogmatic definition of the Assumption of Mary in 1950.
Acts 15 in Slow-Motion Instant Replay
How does the interplay between the written and unwritten aspects of the gospel yield such apparently surprising results at the Council of Jerusalem? First of all, the men who met in Jerusalem didn’t have a Bible—complete with New Testament—that could permit a topical study complete with Greek lexicons, learned commentaries, and all the tools of later biblical scholarship. Fortunately for us, the apostles had something far better than that. They had all had years of immersion into the common life, worship, and prayer of the Church, the very body of Christ to whom the Holy Spirit had been confided to explain all things (cf. John 16:13). Most of them had spent precious years actually living with Jesus, both before and after the Resurrection. They had actually heard his lips command them to preach the gospel to the whole world (cf. Matt. 28:19). And they had obeyed that command and personally witnessed astonishing results among the Gentiles. Peter had been visited by the Holy Spirit, who explained that Jesus willed the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church—“What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (Acts 10:15)—and Peter had personally witnessed Cornelius and other Gentiles being granted the Holy Spirit without circumcision (cf. Acts 10:44–47). Paul and Barnabas had experienced the same thing among the Gentiles (cf. Acts 15:12), as had Philip among the Samaritans (cf. Acts 8:4).
These lived experiences crystallize as the apostles and elders gather, forming a kind of “apostolic lens” through which the Scriptural account of circumcision is read. That is why, when the Council meets, they do not do a topical Bible study on circumcision and derive their opinion on the matter from Scripture as the sole source of revelation. The first thing they do is start arguing with each other, illustrating the old Jewish proverb, “Two Jews, three opinions.” When the arguing winds down, Peter stands up and appeals not to Scripture but to the apostolic Tradition of the Church and to his own Christ-delegated apostolic authority (cf. Luke 10:16). He says:
Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will (Acts 15:7–11).
That last sentence is the key passage. That we are saved by the grace of Jesus and not by keeping the ceremonial laws of Moses is the central teaching of the Council of Jerusalem. It is an epoch-making revelation since it will ultimately distinguish the Church from rabbinic Judaism. Notice, however, that there’s been no mention of Scripture at the council yet. Neither is there any appeal to any pagan source. Rather, Peter’s only appeal is to apostolic authority and the Spirit’s guidance of the Church.
After Peter speaks, Paul and Barnabas stand up and describe the Spirit-led events which have marked their own missions: They speak of miracles, signs and wonders among the uncircumcised Gentiles. Like Peter, they also appeal, not to Scripture, but to the faith given to the apostles by Jesus and to their own Christ-delegated apostolic authority. It is only after this 87 Of Mustard Seeds and Mustard Plants
foundation has been laid that the apostles finally get around to looking at Scripture, when James quotes the prophet Amos:
After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brethren, listen to me. Symeon [Peter] has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written,
‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will set it up,
that the rest of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who has made these things known from
of old’” (Acts 15:13–18).
Yet note this: neither James nor the Council derive from Amos the idea that Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised. Peter has already settled that question before James cracks open the book of Amos, as James himself notes (cf. Acts 15:14). Rather, in light of the fullness of Christ’s revelation through the lens of apostolic Tradition, James is able to see in the prophet Amos a witness to this ingathering of Gentiles and to the council’s decision. Where have we seen this before?
We’ve seen it in the very process the Evangelists used to write the gospels. Just as Matthew didn’t derive Jesus’ virgin birth from Isaiah, so the Council at Jerusalem didn’t derive the circumcision exemption from Amos. Rather, they’re realizing the true scope and meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ from their own apostolic experiences of Scripture and Tradition within the magisterial framework of the Church. James, Matthew, and everyone else at the council places the Church on the judge’s seat and Scripture in the witness box, saying of the council’s authoritative judgments that, “The words of the prophets agree” with them (Acts 15:15; emphasis added).
Thus, through the lens of apostolic Tradition, an Old Testament that seemed to say one thing about circumcision to the early Church is suddenly revealed to say something vastly different. Just as a whole bunch of colored dots on a page can be suddenly revealed, through the right perspective, to be a print of the Last Supper, so the bricks of Old Testament Scripture, which at first seemed to be building the Church into a synagogue of circumcision, are stacked by the trowel of the Church’s magisterial authority and mortared with apostolic Tradition and turn out to make a cathedral of grace instead. The Council of Jerusalem, just like the Catholic Church, places Scripture in the context of the Church’s Tradition and magisterial authority. The Council of Jerusalem, just like the Catholic Church, speaks with apostolic authority and declares, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” (Acts 15:29; emphasis added). And so, the Council of Jerusalem, just like the Catholic Church today, took a step under the guidance of the Spirit which, to Bible-only eyes, appears to flatly contradict Scripture—yet which, seen through the lens of sacred Tradition, upholds it (cf. Rom. 3:31). The council in union with Peter is guided by the Spirit to teach the truth that “we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” and not by works of the Law, such as circumcision (Acts 15:11).
Two Scary Words
Every Church council in union with Peter has basically followed this biblical pattern ever since. Protected by the same Spirit who protected the Church in Acts 15, the Church has, at critical moments in its history, been guided by that Spirit to elaborate infallibly and clarify the implications of the revelation she has received. As result, she has periodically (albeit rarely) defined various dogmas of the faith which guide the flock in understanding the boundaries and depths of the apostolic teaching.
At the mention of those two scary words “infallibly” and “dogma,” another set of questions arises. Ask the average person what “infallible” means and he will tell you it means “arrogant.” Ask the average person what a “dogma” is and he will tell you it means “unthinking prejudice” or “close-minded opinion.” So when we speak of the Church “infallibly promulgating dogmas” most modern folk think “That’s when the Church says: ‘Shut up,’ and tells the faithful, ‘If we want your opinion we’ll give it to you.’” This is not, however, what “infallibility” or “dogma” actually mean. To get the hang of what they do mean, let’s shift gears from theology to science.
Science and theology have this in common: they’re constrained to deal with facts, not fancy. But facts, of course, are tricky things. As any murder mystery fan knows, facts can point in all sorts of confusing directions and leave you puzzling for a very long time. It’s the same with science and theology.
For a long time, there was open debate about the shape of the earth. Some thought it might be round since they noticed the way coastlines sank below the horizon when you sail away from them. By the third century b.c., the Greek astronomer and mathematician Eratosthenes had already estimated the earth’s size by comparing shadows cast at two locations at noon and concluded that the earth must be a giant ball. But, of course, many other people trusted the obvious evidence of the senses: after all, in Kansas, at sea, or on the Russian steppe any idiot could see the world was flat. Just look at it!
Various schools of thought contended for years. Sometimes compromises were proposed, such as the Pizza Theory (“The world is round, yet flat!”). But eventually, a consensus in the educated community arose that Eratosthenes was right: The world was spherical. And so, among the educated it became, if you will, a “scientific dogma” that the earth was a sphere, centuries before it was possible to go into space and verify the dogma by direct observation. Science stopped debating the question of the earth’s shape and those who continued to assert a flat earth were no longer taken seriously by anyone who knew what he was talking about.
So, a question: Does the dogma of a round earth stifle thought and crush the human quest for knowledge and truth? Nope. Instead, it does what all real dogma does: It says, “We’ve examined all the evidence soberly and come to the right conclusion. We’re really done debating this question. Instead of ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth (cf. 2 Tim 3:7), let’s accept the fact that this matter is now settled and move on to talk about something more interesting.” Indeed, the dogma of a spherical earth, like all real dogma, serves as the foundation upon which later explorers, wonderers, and questioners can stand as they conduct their next investigations of reality. Dogma is not the prohibition of thought. It is the conclusion of thought. It’s what you get when you’re done thinking something through.
People today who insist on rejecting the “dogma” of the spherical earth are not bold dissenters challenging the official lie. They are quacks and cranks who live on the fringes of real science and are, at best, a source of amusement. At their worst, they’re a company of tiresome buffoons who complain about “oppression” and offer nutty theories about how the “truth” of the flat earth is being hidden from us by The Conspiracy. They have nothing important to say.
So should we take our analogy even more literally and conclude that Catholic dogma, like a proven scientific idea, is simply the product of human wisdom? No, because theology and science part company as theology climbs on to an even higher plane of knowledge. For the Church enjoys a guarantee from God Incarnate that science does not: namely, that her solemn definitions of the faith will be protected from error by the guidance of the Spirit of Christ who leads us into all truth (cf. John 16:13) and who promises never to forsake the Church (Matt. 28:20). In short, Catholic dogma is infallible.
Now here’s the surprising thing about infallibility: really arrogant people wouldn’t stoop to claim it. For infallibility does not mean that the members of the Church (including the pope) are without sin or smarter than everybody else. On the contrary, it’s a solemn teaching of the Church that everybody in the Church from pope to dogcatcher is a sinner. That’s why the gift of infallibility is necessary. Infallibility is bestowed by God on the Church as a concession to our weakness, not as a reward for being especially clever, strong, or holy. If we want to understand it we have to imagine the Magisterium of the Church, not as a James Bond who defeats every villain and escapes every trap by his own raw brilliance, but as a bumbling character in a farce who is miraculously guided through a dangerous and chaotic construction site, missing every swung beam and every dropped sack of cement along the way. Infallibility is the Church’s confession of stupidity, blindness, and ineptitude—particularly among her leaders, who are tasked with preserving, articulating, and developing the teaching handed down to us. In short, the Church holds with gratitude to the promise which Christ gave her, that he would lead her (often by the nose) into all truth; not that she would figure truth out on her own by using her members’ unsullied brilliance and virtue.
That is why infallibility doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry. Catholics say they’re sorry in every penitential rite of every Mass. The Church is not infallible because Catholics are perfect, but because none of the earthly members of the Church is perfect, so the Holy Spirit has to constantly act to ensure we dumb humans don’t fumble the gospel. God holds the Church’s hand every step of the way and makes sure she doesn’t spill the wine of revelation, because Catholics are such sin-plagued and error-prone klutzes that, without the Holy Spirit, we’d have lost track of the gospel half an hour after Pentecost. That’s all infallibility means. And you can see it at work, not just in the circumcision controversy of Acts 15, but in the raging controversy confronted by the Church several hundred years later, when people began wondering again about Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15).
The Discovery of the Trinity
The quest to clearly answer that question forced Christians to hold onto two basic tenets of Christian teaching:
1. That God revealed himself in a progressive revelation that begins with Genesis and was not completed till the death of the last apostle, (Please note that the belief that revelation closed with the death of the last apostle is held by both Catholics and Evangelicals and yet is another point of sacred Tradition that is not explicitly attested by Scripture.)and;
2. Since then, the Church’s understanding of God’s revelation has deepened and developed.
Because of these immovable facts, it’s not inaccurate to say that the truth about Jesus’ identity was not invented but discovered by the Church. For the Church, so far from creating anything, simply followed the clues left by God in his complete revelation given through Scripture and Tradition.
Clue 1: There is but one God. This is the theme drummed into Israel by the tradition and Scripture of both the Law and the prophets. “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord!” (Deut. 6:4) is the very heart and soul of the Old Testament. Alone among all the ancient nations of the earth, Israel is chosen by God to be the one people in covenant with this one God. Alone among the nations of the earth, Israel is held to fidelity to this one God through sin, disaster, enslavement, deportation, conquest and political humiliation. That there is one God is the unshakable revelation given to the Jews.
Clue 2: God will send the Messiah. This too is drummed into Israel’s consciousness over and over again by the prophets. The complete portrait of this Messiah isn’t clear at first: Healer, Bringer of Peace, Conquering Davidic King, Suffering Servant, all these hints and more roil about in the mix—until Jesus unites them all in his person.
Clue 3: The Messiah is God. While Jesus emphasizes the ancient truth that God is one and there are no other gods, he also forgives sins, which (rightly) prompts the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples to ask “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Jesus calls himself the Son of David, but also implies that he is “David’s Lord” (cf. Mark 12:35–37). He applies the name “I AM” to himself—the very name of God revealed to Moses (cf. Ex. 3:14; John 8:58). In short, Jesus claims to be the Messiah and the one God who led Israel through the wilderness, gave the Law, and called the prophets.
Clue 4: The Messiah and God the Father are “one” yet are different persons, as is the Holy Spirit. Jesus is, by his own account, somehow distinct from the one he calls “my Father” (John 8:38), who is “greater than I” (John 14:28). But at the same time, Jesus insists “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Moreover, Jesus teaches there is yet another—a counselor, comforter and Spirit of Truth—who proceeds from the Father and the Son (John 14:16–17; 15:26; Gal. 4:6). And Jesus commands that his disciples baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19).
These clues outline the basic problem set by the Christian revelation. The faith of the Church is identical to Israel’s in one respect: There is but one God. But the Church also sees further revelation, summed up in Simon Peter’s declaration: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). And all this is further complicated by the fact that Jesus and his apostles teach that the Spirit (or Holy Spirit or Spirit of Jesus or Spirit of Truth or Advocate as he is variously called in the New Testament) is also a personal being who convinces the world of sin, gives graces, enlightens, and guides the Church into all truth.
How then does the Church piece together these mysterious revelations? Very slowly, and with a conscious reliance on the Spirit of Truth to, in fact, do what Christ promised and guide the Church into all truth (cf. John 16:13).
Various attempts to reconcile the clues are proposed by various early theologians. Some have certain insights into the Truth (for example, it’s a second century Christian, Tertullian, who coins the term “Trinity”). Yet early Christians also struggle with their inability to understand the gospel—nearly always a result of the fact that these early Christian thinkers try to make certain clues “fit” by suppressing or ignoring other clues. For instance, some guarded the truth that God is one by denying that the three Persons are distinct. They said God was the Father before the Incarnation, the Son during the Incarnation, and the Spirit since the Ascension—entirely ignoring the fact that Jesus prayed to the Father; that the Father spoke to Jesus; that Jesus asked for the Holy Spirit to be sent and the Father sent the Holy Spirit; and that the Church prays and baptizes in the name of all three. Others emphasized the distinctness of the persons and wound up advocating the polytheistic worship of three Gods. Still others, like Marcion, floated a theory that the Old Testament God is bad while Jesus is the good God of the New Testament, here to rescue us from the bad one.
All these theories (and many others) were weighed and sifted in the Church for nearly three hundred years, while the Church continually issued definitions of what she did not believe till finally a theory appeared which seemed (like the devil imitating Christ) to explain all the biblical data and yet which struck at the very heart of the Church’s Faith: Arianism.
Arius was a fourth century theologian who hit upon the novel notion that Jesus was not God, but a supernatural created being. He was, said Arius, vastly superior to us (as an archangel is) but he was still created and not of one being with the Father. Arius argued that various Scriptures—such as “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)—referred to the oneness of Jesus’ will with the Father’s, not the oneness of his being. And since Jesus was a creature, according to Arius, worshipping him as God was, in fact, a sin. But since Jesus is so vastly superior to all other creatures, we could speak of him as a “god” compared to us, but not identify him with the “Big G” God who is Creator of all. This “simple” theory, while appearing to be a faithful rendering of Scripture, completely denies the ancient faith that Jesus is literally “God with us.” If Arius was right, then Jesus’ death, like the death of any other creature, could neither save from sin nor bestow on us what the apostles had promised: a participation in the divine nature (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4). For even Jesus cannot give what he does not have, and if he does not have divine life, he cannot give it to us.
How did the Church respond? She did what the apostles did and assembled the bishops in council, first at Nicaea and, later, at Constantinople. At these councils the Church reasserted the traditional teaching that God was indeed one (as Arius had insisted), as well as the traditional teaching that Jesus’ oneness with the Father and the Spirit is a oneness of three Persons who are one God. The councils reaffirmed not only that the Word was with God (as Arius taught) but that the Word was God (as John 1:1 taught). In so doing, the Church took a historic step away from her earlier policy of saying what should not be believed about the Godhead, and affirmed what must be believed. The Church chose a series of careful descriptions (“God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten, not made, consubstantial or “one in being” with the Father”) summarizing what she asserted about Jesus against all the various attempts to suppress portions of the biblical data in favor of false “simplicity.”
So nothing was invented by the Church with respect to the Trinity. The Church did not suddenly decide to make Jesus the “Son of God” at Nicaea. She merely clarified with extraordinary precision what was meant by that centuries-old confession that Jesus is the Son of God. The Church sought to prevent a “simplifying” invention by Arius and to remain true to all the biblical data, not just those pieces of it Arius liked. Paradoxically, in fighting that invention, the Church discovered a far deeper understanding of what she had always believed and formulated it in the Nicene Creed.
Three Things to Note
First, Dan Brown is once again shown to be full of hooey. For his claim that “until [Nicaea], Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet” is now shown to be completely worthless. The truth is, not only was Nicaea simply restating what the Church had always taught about Jesus in opposition to a fresh assault by Arius, but Arius himself, as much as his orthodox opponents, would have laughed to scorn Dan Brown’s suggestion that Jesus was just a mortal prophet. For Arius, Jesus was not some guy from Nazareth with a girlfriend and a New Age longing for the Sacred Feminine. He was an immensely powerful supernatural being second only to God himself. Compared to Brown, Arius is practically a Catholic.
Second, it must be noted that what Nicaea was doing, in the final analysis, was not making up new revelation, but unpacking the full implication of old revelation: namely, Peter’s declaration “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Nicaea was engaged in one monumental exploration of the universe of wonder enfolded into those ten words. The lesson of Nicaea is that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is compressed into Peter’s words as the mustard plant is compressed into the seed and it’s the task of the Church to unpack that meaning.
That’s why Christian theology has to be complicated. Theology is the study of supernatural life just as biology is the study of natural life. We make no more sense demanding that theology—the Queen of the Sciences—make itself simple for our benefit than we would in demanding that biology simplify itself by declaring that cells are filled with a featureless jelly and not all those chromosomes, ribosomes, mitochondria, and the rest. It is, says Proverbs 25:2, the “glory of kings” to search out matters belonging to God. As Christians, we should accept nothing less.
All this brings us to our third point: according to the Church, every one of the Catholic Church’s doctrinal developments—all the way down to the Assumption of Mary—proceeds in exactly the same fashion as the development of doctrine at the Council of Nicaea. Each Marian teaching—like each Christological teaching—is rooted in written and unwritten apostolic Tradition—not paganism—and draws all its life from there. Likewise, each Marian teaching is reflected in the text of Scripture either implicitly or explicitly, but the connection of the text to the doctrine cannot always be seen clearly apart from the Tradition as it’s discerned by the body of Christ.
Realizing this, I realized I had to break an old habit that, despite my newfound awareness of sacred Tradition, had continued up till then to affect the way I thought about Catholic Marian teaching. It was the habit of looking for a biblical basis for this and that Catholic teaching. For the simple fact was that the authors of the New Testament did not base their faith on the Bible. They based it on apostolic Tradition, both written and unwritten, which is incarnate in the Church. For them, this Tradition is a unified whole, like a weave. And it maintains its integrity even as it grows from mustard seed to mustard plant. Because of that, the question that always faced the Church was not “Is this Bible-based?” but “Is this apostolic?”
Second, and more subtly, everything we have looked at so far—from Evangelical jitters about Mary, to the attempted debunking of the Virgin Birth, to Luke’s account of the Nativity, to John’s vision of the woman as the mother of the One who rules the nations with a rod of iron—demonstrates in various ways something Catholic theology is constantly saying and Evangelicals constantly fail to hear: namely, that the whole point about Mary is that the point is not about Mary.
My reader continues:
Most of the dogmas really didn’t start a full development until 400 a.d. or later. The doctrines on Mary really didn’t get a solid foundation until 800 a.d. and have been developing throughout Church history.
Not so. Every one of the Marian dogmas (there are only four) is reflected in Scripture. Indeed, the actual reason you don’t hear about the Marian beliefs of the Church is that they are not controversial in the early Church. They are simply a part of life and become enshrined in liturgy without much ruckus because everybody takes them for granted. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the oldest writing is the first time somebody thought of something.
I have read once (and I am in the process of rereading) Newman’s essay on the development of doctrine … which is the nearest book I have found dealing with the doctrines that developed long after the Apostles.
Okay but bear in mind that when you see a doctrine start to develop in Christian thought, that no more means it is originating at that time than it is to say that the Church’s teaching about in embryonic stem cell research or gay marriage “originated” in our lifetime. Very obviously they are applications of ancient teaching regarding the fifth commandment and the sacrament of marriage, brought to bear on questions the apostles never had to face. They are *developments*, not inventions or mutations. Same with Marian teachings.
I have also read Ott’s book on Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. It was there that I saw many of the doctrines didn’t start until much later and are still developing.
Again, a development is not an invention or a mutation. The apostles were not omniscient, but inspired. The mustard seed has all the DNA of the plant, but it is not the full grown plant.
I have also read Benedict’s book on Principles of Catholic Theology. It didn’t really touch on the part that I am struggling with. I read Hidden Manna on the Real Presence. But the quotes it gives really don’t start until long after the Apostles and Patristic Fathers. I have read the books of Vatican II and they really don’t go into detail on the development of doctrine.
Can you recommend a book that deals with Catholic Dogma/Sacred Tradition that lays a foundation for understanding doctrine development over time and how that is seen as revelation?
I guess I still have a lot of Evangelical in me. I assume that the writings over time are probably understood as being led by the Holy Spirit. But it seems so much has developed from so little. I am attempting to understand how expanding truth is a key part of Sacred Tradition. I’m afraid I had seen it more static and given and transmitted … rather than developing.
Any book, web sites, pdfs, etc. would be helpful. Again the local Catholic leaders have said that the promise to Peter that the Church won’t err keeps the “whole” Church, especially the laity, from accepting false doctrine. Yet, much of what they say disagrees with the CCC, the encyclicals and books from Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The Church has remarkably few dogmas to show for 2000 years of theologizing. That is because she is disinclined to formulate dogmas and compel assent unless she absolutely has to. So the diversity you see is the norm and twas ever thus.
Hope this helps!