Monday, November 22, 2021

Is Theology Immutable? On Modernism, Innovation and Development

Theology, one might say, working from blog to blog in the 21st century, is either in a state of constant flux (new thoughts, changing ideas for changing times, let's keep up folks or the church is doomed, doomed I tell you to be extinct by 2063 or even 2047) or desperation (true theology is truth, the truth cannot change, and all the churches in the world, even the Roman Catholic Church under Francis, trying desperately for 'relevance' are doomed, doomed I tell you, unless they get back to core and very ancient beliefs ... for which the eminent guide is "my" blog). 

On the sidebar of this blog I link to other blogsites, one of which belongs to a Catholic philosopher, Edward Feser. Edward's latest blogpost is a review of a book by someone I have never heard of, Peter Geach. [H/T Bowman Walton in a comment o last week's post]. 

"Catholic philosopher Peter Geach’s book Providence and Evil is interesting not only for what it says about the topics referred to in the title, but also for its many insights and arguments concerning other matters that Geach treats along the way.  Among these passing remarks is a brief but trenchant critique of those who propose a “denatured” brand of Christianity in the name of “man’s evolution and progress” (p. 85).  Theirs is the view that Christian tradition is “mutable,” so that “with the progress of knowledge a doctrine hitherto continuously taught in one sense now needs to be construed in another sense” (pp. 86-87).  Geach doesn’t use the label “modernism,” but that is what he is talking about.  "

The post then unfolds in an interesting way as a discussion of truth, its sources in revelation and reason, and the danger of Christianity becoming a modernist version of itself to its detriment and effective death. 

So far so good (as far as the argument goes) but what then interested me is the discussion which develops in the comments below the post. In this discussion one point made is that whatever we think of modernism we should take care that we do not have an argument against modernism (e.g. as an unwelcome development of theology or, more simply, an innovation) which is also an argument against any development in theology (with the particular frisson in a Catholic context of the presence of developments in theology which are not well explained by either revelation or reason such as the Assumption of Mary). In such discussion there is some consideration of the difference between "innovation" and "development" (and that recalls for me somewhere in Rowan Williams' book of recent posting here the Eastern Orthodox position of immense suspicion of "development").

What is a theologian to do?

Here are a few quickish thoughts, in no particular order of priority:

1. Is "revelation" a set of ironclad rules, regulations and propositions (albeit found within narratives as well as sayings and statements in Scripture) so that, indeed, once understood, there can be no change?

2. Is "revelation" a revealing of who God is (Father, Son and Holy Spirit; with the Son incarnated in the life of the world as Jesus of Nazareth) so that, indeed, there might be development in understanding of revelation (e.g. from Mark's Gospel to John's Gospel, from John's Gospel to Paul's Gospel) as well as an ironclad  bulwark against error such as Modernism (because it denies revelation and is no development of it)?

3. And if we answer (2) affirmatively, do we then have other possibilities for development (even, it might be argued, innovation) in our understanding, providing we always work from the revelation starting point? For instance, a new understanding of women in church leadership is possible through a new appraisal of the meaning for human life of the Incarnation (of God inhabiting human life for the sake of the abundant life of all). There is no "development" of the basic revelation of the Incarnation but there is a development of the meaning of the Incarnation for women as well as for men.


Unknown said...

"When you point at the moon, a dog barks at your hand."

Another quickish thought. Many who argue about reason and revelation seem to find our *history-embedded* Jesus intractable.

For example, they are happy to interpret the scriptures as a web of words from heaven, but are intensely suspicious of readings that acknowledge that composing and publishing these documents were human actions in history on earth.


Father Ron said...

And then, of course, there is the thought that the Angel Gabriel just might have visited the Prophet Mohammed - with a message different from that of his visit to Mary of Nazareth. Also, there is the linguistic problem of whose interpretation of the scriptures is the correct one? And, if Christianity could agree to the possibility of the Holy Spirit still working on the task of revelation in and to the world of our day; which 'prophet' will we believe?

Is our struggle for faith being obscured by over-active human scholarship? (Scripture ask us: "where are your wise men (philosopers?) now?") like Pontius Pilaste, we may ask "What is Truth?" e.g; How much 'truth' is there in the O.T. understanding of Creation?

All of these are questions being asked by people in the pews. What answers do we give them?

Father Ron said...

Yet another question for us all might be "Did Jesus actually learn anything that he had not known before his Incarnation as a human being?" In other words, was there any development of theology through the human experience of the Son of God? The mere phrase: 'Faith of our fathers (and mothers)' must be more, surely, than just a fixed set of propositions with no development to go along with the Spirit-filled work of an on-going creation.

When God said "I am doing a new thing" was that limited to a particular place and time? If our Triune God really is Creator of ALL things, then there must be a clue somewhere in the fact that change is a constant element in the spiritual evolution of humanity as a species. "ALL shall be changed, in the twinkling of an eye". Even so, come, Lord Jesus! (ADVENT).

All I can be certain of is that Jesus has taken care of our sins and that he will return to rescue those who look for His coming. Alleluia!

Unknown said...

Hi Father Ron.

Three quickish filters for the curious.

(1) As you so often note yourself (along with the 39A), saving faith does not depend on having every question answered.

(2) In fact, there are few dogmas and these tend to be less known and cherished than whole complexes of denominational lore. Most of the latter could fall off a cliff without the Christian faith itself being affected. Hence a dogmatic disciple can afford to be lighthearted about much that terrifies a dour denominationalist.

(3) Some questions are unanswerable because the transformation that the Father wills cannot be described to untransformed consciousness.


Unknown said...


Peter, Nicholas Lash got it right when he opined that the Body's pilgrimage through time tests it in everchanging ways, so that the focus of our engagement with what God has revealed is not the same in different ages or civilisations. We-- all of us in the Body-- are the second Christians. So-- novelty and adaptation, yes; development, innovation, change, progress, etc, no.

If that is true, then we would expect that the Lord would provide as much or more for the unity of the Body than its propositional continuity. And that is what he in fact did.


Anonymous said...

Dear Peter
For once I can name drop - I was having a coffee with my supervisor at Leeds back in the 70s - we joined Peter Geach on one of the deep and overpadded sofas in the senior common room. Professor Geach was a man who weighed his words carefully - he told an anecdote at the rate of one word every 5 or 6 seconds. It made the anecdote very long. There is a good story attached to this but too long to tell here, and more literary than theological.
Peter Geach was married to the even more famous philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe (one of Wittgenstein's executors). They had lots of children. She was once arrested for protesting outside an abortion clinic (according to Wiki). Elizabeth Anscombe was the sister of our vicar in Huddersfield, Tom Anscombe, who had been principal of a theological college himself.

Peter Carrell said...

I like that Lashian Postscript, Bowman, but what is the difference between "novelty" and "innovation"?

Peter Carrell said...

What a wonderful anecdote (set of notes re the Geach/Anscombe family), Rhys!!

Unknown said...

Thank you, Rhys.

Peter's readers may be intrigued to know that Elizabeth Anscombe prompted the present interest in *virtue ethics* more than 60 years ago with her incisive essay "Modern Moral Philosophy."


Unknown said...

Peter, it was a novelty when popes took on the direct secular rule of central Italy, but it was an innovation when they began to regard themselves as infallible. When the ancien regime vanished from Europe, the Papal States were bound to follow. But infallibility bounds on into the future like a wet, shaggy dog through the window to meat on the table of a dinner party.

Were the Papal States a proper response to their age in Italian politics? Maybe, maybe not. But they were one reasonable way through a moment that demanded some response, some novelty. And then passed.

Infallibility was not a response to any historical situation. It arose from a purely theoretical desire to rationalize and authorize tradition in the second millennium. And now Rome is stuck with it.


Unknown said...

Why, Peter, do churches succumb to totalitarian overreach, either the *infallibility* sort or the *progressive* one? Why build Babel when God offers grace?

There is an unholy hatred of churchly antagonists that escalates claims to make their windy words trolling, coercive or punitive. But that does not account for say the ordinary, well-meaning synod member who cheerfully votes for reactions or revolutions that have a following in her parish.

I suspect that churchfolk reach for false transcendence at moments when they have not recognised God's gift of an enlightened immanence. "You are servants no longer, but friends, for a servant does not know what his master is about." God's friends differ from his estranged subjects simply in being able to imagine the daily life in front of them, including their common life, in light of all that the Resurrection reveals.

This revelation is not the end of every reasonable disagreement. But it begins to show us how to live together in the New Jerusalem. From what you say, Rowan Williams's book sounds (I have not yet read it) like a sustained meditation on this theme.

But grace is not far away that we should sail to Byzantium for it. Karl Barth did not finish the ecclesiological part of the Church Dogmatics, but in what we have he reprises a characteristically Reformed sense that God's forgiveness and our gratitude open a space for life that is more as it ought to be.

That's all there is. It is enough.


Father Ron said...

Thanks, Bowman. In the End, it all comes down to God's revealed will; that all who believe in God's power and will to grace them for their redemption, have already been redeemed. We are told in Scripture that Christ will return; not to deal with sin, but to rescue those who are looking for his coming. "Even so, come, Lord Jesus!"

Anonymous said...

The pleasure was mine, Father Ron.

To all the foregoing, it seems right to add a few thoughts.

(1) The Bible opens in one garden, compasses the dispersion of the human family to myriad places and tongues, chronicles their contending wills and cruelties, then shows them gathered around "One like to a man" (Daniel vii 13), on pilgrimage to the miracle of Pentecost, and together in one city at the end. This week's OP and so my comments emphasize change and difference, but they suppose the unity of the creation. Theology that searches for a glimpse of that unity has a valid intent.

(2) Jesus Christ himself was the revelation. In the creeds, we have propositions for propositional purposes, and early tradition spoke of them as inspired. But neither they nor the canon they illumine are untethered from what Israel's God did in his Son.

(3) The Bible was recited and notated *for* us, but it was mostly not written directly *to* us. Nicholas Lash's notion of a single revelation seen in new ways in new times leaves readers here, there, and everywhere with the work of comparing their collective minds with that of the Jews who knew the Lord. Some of the text works as an oracular monologue with an unmistakable point-- has any age misunderstood the Golden Rule?-- but when readers dig further into it, most of the text requires a dialogue in which its strange life-world touches the several different ones to which God has especially called their own skins and bones. When we read the Bible honestly, we are having a two-way conversation (eg Job, many psalms) that the Father willed for those of our time, place, and language to have. While there are often strong family resemblances among the readings of most disciples in most situations, Israel's God has not given any of them a leap into the absolute that escapes that call. Readers impatient with the Bible's strangeness are rejecting the Father's decision to put them in the place that made it seem strange. That seems ungrateful.

(4) Paradoxically, the Bible tells to know God by doing his will, but then gives us mostly clues to what that is. In some long-debated sense, the Pentateuch has law for the Land in it, but since even rabbis have since needed the Mishnah, the Talmud, and a river of commentaries and responsa to apply it in the diaspora, we should not be surprised that Christians have not found much guidance there. Zeal for red letters has changed lives in wonderful ways, but no civil society of this aeon has adopted them. Evangelicals who are also critical scholars (Kevin J Vanhoozer [aka KJV], N T Wright) have suggested thinking of doing God's will when and where we are as improvising the chapters of the Bible's story between St Paul's mission and the descent of the New Jerusalem.


Unknown said...

Jordan Peterson, + Robert Barron, Jonathan Pageau, and John Vervaeke discuss inquiry, beauty, the spiritual sense, and Truth--