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.