Who God Is: Sacred Tradition & The Incarnation


I. Sacred Tradition and the Development of Doctrine

The Fathers at the First Vatican Council I, in giving formal definition to papal infallibility, gave it a quite conservative, even narrow cast to its understanding of the teaching authority of the Church.  Of the infallibility of the pope’s teaching authority, the Fathers wrote

For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.  (Pastor Aeternus, Chapter IV, 6

In doing so, the Council laid great stress on the fact that this infallibility (which extends to the bishops as a whole) was such that it had to be consistent with the teaching of the Apostles. This is confirmed by the Council’s dogmatic constitutions on Revelation:

5. Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason.
6. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth. The appearance of this kind of specious contradiction is chiefly due to the fact that either the dogmas of faith are not understood and explained in accordance with the mind of the Church, or unsound views are mistaken for the conclusions of reason.
7. Therefore we define that every assertion contrary to the truth of enlightened faith is totally false…

…14. Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.
May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding.  (Chapter IV, on Faith, 5-7, 14)

“If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.”  (Session 3, Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Canon 4 on Faith and Reason)

Though it is often supposed to have done otherwise, the Second Vatican Council largely confirmed this view of Revelation.  Thus it wrote of the Church’s authority that

“this teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”  (Dei Verbum, Chapter II, 10)

…this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded…

The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in view of their office and the importance of the matter, by fitting means diligently strive to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents;(46) but a new public revelation they do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith. (Lumen Gentium, On the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, 25)

Thus I would argue that the two most recent Ecumenical Councils of the Church take the position that its teaching cannot develop in a manner inconsistent with what had been received by the Apostles before their death.  In this, they followed one of the marks of genuine development of doctrine laid down by Cardinal Newman, that of non-contradiction.  There can be change in terms of expanding on what was latent and implicit in the original deposit of faith, but such changes cannot be said to be drawn from what is implicit in that deposit of faith, if they are in fact logically contradictory to that original revelation to the Apostles. Thus when we talk of the Church’s Sacred Tradition–Sacred Scripture and oral tradition taken together to form the deposit of faith, which is unchanging–we cannot say that it might potentially develop in a random manner; it is limited by what was revealed to the Apostles by Christ, and previous developments consistent with it.


II. The Law of Non-Contradiction & the Incarnation

But why is this the case?  Can’t God reveal whatever he wants to us?  Isn’t he all powerful?  Then how can he be bound by previous revelations he has made (or by subsequent clarifications and elucidations of this revelation, by men? One reason why Church teaching has to develop in a non-contradictory way is because it relates in a very direct way to the Incarnation. It has to do with who God is, and what kind of “person” we can know him to be, from Scripture and Sacred Tradition in two ways.

First, God is absolute, and unchanging (“Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday and forever”; “I am that I am…tell I am has sent me unto you”; “though mother and father should abandon you, I will never abandon you says the Lord,” etc.).  Second, He does not contradict himself (“in him there is no darkness at all”; “I did not say to the sons of Jacob, ‘seek me in chaos'”; “the light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”; “even if we are faithless, He is faithful, because he cannot deny himself,” etc.).

How does this relate to the Incarnation?  God could not truly become man if he had somehow to violate his human nature (i.e., his natural reason–demanding of mankind that it believe contradictory things). This was the charge of pagan philosophers against early Christians–their emphasis on faith, miracles, violated the natural order of the universe, required that God “punch a hole” through it just to please these Christians.  In another context, this was also a charge of Jews, that Christians arbitrarily broke the Commandments.  (The problem of contradiction with regards to the development of doctrine is a not a new one, obviously.)

Moreover, if man could not truly become God, then he could never fulfill the demands that God makes of him, could never fulfill divine law (because divine law is absolute, immutable, as God is immutable, and so his law does not admit of exceptions).  But in Christ, from Justin Martyr onward, philosophically minded apologists claimed that God had revealed that these two natures–divine and human–could be reconciled, and that this was above our natural reason but not destructive of it.  The scholastics in the middle ages  had a saying that encapsulates this compatibility between the divine and human nature:  finitum capax infiniti, “the finite is capable of the infinite.”

To deny that God could give us the grace to fulfill his own commands (that we can adhere to absolute moral norms) is to deny that God could truly become Incarnate, something that the Council of Trent stipulated:  “no one, how much soever justified, ought to think himself exempt from the observance of the commandments…for God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou are able, and to pray for what thou art not able to do, and aids thee that thou mayest be able” (Sixth Session, Ch. XI, On keeping the Commandments).

Thus, if Christ’s commands are only general rules to which exceptions can always be carved out, then they are indistinguishable from merely human laws, which of course admit of exceptions, because we are not by nature absolute, immutable, as God is.  Or else Christ was not God–and we no longer deserve the name of Christians.


III.  God’s Fidelity and Ours

The implication of this idea–that God changes his own commands, that he changes the promises he makes to mankind in different generations, is to make God totally opaque to our reason.  Now, we cannot grasp Him by reason alone, but through Revelation we are able to grasp his mind by analogy at least.  Or so the Church has traditionally taught.  And this is why saying He has altered his covenant with us is so devastating.

This is because, unlike humans, he always keeps his promises.  He is always faithful, even if we are not (“if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself”). But if he doesn’t, then he cannot be God; it would mean he makes promises he does not intend to keep (to Israel, to the Apostles: “the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable” etc.)

As a result, we are left with an arbitrary God who changes his mind, contradicts himself, who does in fact not keep his promises, and is therefore ultimately unknowable–the only guide for him would be his own, completely inscrutable will (as in Islam, “if we cause a verse to be abrogated or forgotten, we will replace it with a better on,” Qur’an 2:106 ).

Moreover, this arbitrariness–the fact that he changes “the deal” whenever and for whatever reasons he likes (it is supremely silly, but I can’t keep from thinking of Darth Vader’s line from Empire Strikes Back: “I’m altering the deal, pray I don’t alter it any further”)–means his revelations to us are indistinguishable from the caprices of men.

This is most especially true when considering the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.  As painful as it may seem to many, it is a sign of his love for us.  (A fine young pastor I know gave a homily recently who pointed that out that God does not command things “from” us but only “for” us, for our good.)  As the catechism points out, “the deepest reason is found in the fidelity of God to his covenant, in that of Christ to his Church.”  (CCC, 1647)  Marriage is the metaphor that the Prophets (Hosea, Malachi) use to describe God’s love for Israel, and that Paul uses to describe God’s love for the Church (Ephesians).  It is not too much to say that marriage, as revealed by Christ (Matt. 5:32), is the incarnation of God’s love and fidelity to us–and therefore cannot be broken.


IV.  A god Who Changes for Us? 

The core of the objection to this idea of an unchanging deposit of faith that cannot contradict itself is, as far as I can tell, an underlying sense that God does change.  This is the “open theism” of modern Protestant thought, as well as that of process theology.  Something like seems to haunt those theologians, such as Cardinal Kasper, who are influenced by the ideas of by the philosophy of Hegel.  Whatever it sources, what is more important than any academic philosophy is the widespread intuition that they build upon: that God cannot be relevant to us–cannot really be human like us–cannot really love us as we need–if he does not change to meet our experience as it changes.  Or at least, change his demands upon us.  Those commands about adultery were fine for the ancient world, but our modern world is different, and so God must speak in a different tongue, as it were, one we are familiar with.  Hence the tendency to downplay his immutable nature: if he is absolute, then it stands to reason, especially if his goal is to make us “like Him,” that he would make absolute demands of us. Hence, the need for exceptions to His commands that the Church has taught were to obeyed without exception (“he who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery”).

This is likely the underlying motive for the critique that criticizes “stasis,” in favor of “dynamism,” with regard to the development of doctrine: to be real to us, God must change like us, conform to our changing experiences. That is one reason why those who defend contradictions in Church teaching–the “hermeneutic of rupture,” in Benedict XVI’s terms–simply don’t care about it very much, and why accusations of inconsistency don’t persuade them.

I suppose some adopt this idea (that there are exceptions for God’s commandments) for good or bad reasons (out of a misplaced sense of sophistication perhaps, that to believe in absolutes is somehow naïve, or unsophisticated, etc.).  But there is one motivation for this which should be taken deeply seriously, because its causes are perennial:  suffering.  Our suffering, in the final analysis, whatever good God may bring out of it while we are in this life, contradicts our nature, and His plan for us.  He did not create us to suffer, to sin and to die.  And yet we do.  How can this be so?

This is a mystery we cannot solve, until God reveals in the final judgments, as trite as it is to state this truth.  But even if one accepts this, there is still the problem of how to bear such a reality.  For those who suffer, it all seems so arbitrary, purposeless; this can breed in the one who suffers a desire for an equally powerful, equally arbitrary response to this suffering, to compensate for it.  Our nature has been violated by this arbitrary, nonsensical suffering—why should not God, who has allowed it, violate his own laws (of reason, of nature) in order to relieve it? Why not, if the world is causing us to suffer, punch a whole through the world, break through it to us, His children, and bring an end to our pain?

To the one who suffers, this seems fair:  it balances out the undeserved suffering. Thus, it is okay if God makes a promise to his people in one generation, and then, many centuries later, or only a few decades later, breaks the same promise.  It is therefore bearable that he lets us suffer arbitrarily, just as long as he arbitrarily relieves us and satisfies our desire for restitution. In this we reason like Caliban in Robert Browning’s poem, “Caliban Upon Setebos,” who fancied he was like God, “making and marring clay at will.” This, as I take it, is why the idea that God’s laws have exceptions in difficult circumstances–as in communion for the divorced and remarried–is so powerful.  It is plausible, because God has promised to satisfy our desires (“take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”).  After all, if he cannot (or will not) relieve us in our distress, what good is this promise? How can we delight in him if he will not grant us this desire now, when we are in such agony?


V.  The Commandments of Mercy

But this is not true.  It is not true, for it is not who God is; he is not arbitrary, even if mankind is.  He does not make himself known to us only or supremely by acts of his infinite power, regardless of their rationality.  (“For God was not in the fire, or the earthquake, but in the still small voice.”) He is also the unchanging Logos (“in the beginning was the Word”) which must, as it seems to us in our suffering, make him cruel, distant.  This is the cry of every man and woman who has lived; this is the cry of Job.  But the fact is that those who suffer, for understandable reasons, close in on themselves; we make this suffering the measure of the whole world, something God points out to Job in his final speech to him.  In the Book of Job, God merely re-states his infinite knowledge and power as reasons to obey him; but in Jesus Christ, he revealed something more, that God does understand us, is with us in our worst suffering, but is himself not limited by it.  And because he suffers with us, we can, to a degree, understand God.  And he can thus raise us up to his immutable love (“this day you shall be with me in paradise”).

It is not true that God contradicts himself, because that is not who He is.  It is not true, because that is not what He does.  He has not promised us he will satisfy the desires of our hearts by breaking the laws of nature, of human reason, that He himself has laid down for us.  He has not promised us a happy marriage, or a satisfying sex life, or wealth, or fame, or anything else that is of this world.  He has promised us that He will give us the grace to fulfill His commands, the grace to bear with our suffering, and that He will never change nor abandon us.  And He has not promised to save us by violating the nature he created for us, but rather, by raising up our nature to be like His own:  through our perseverance in seeking to obey His commands–yes, without exception–he remakes us into His image, which our sin covered over.  (“If ye love me, keep my commandments.”) This, and not seeking exemptions from His laws of love, is His mercy to us:  that He does not change, does not “alter the deal,” that He might remake us so as to be with Him for all eternity, in perfect and unchanging happiness.



Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on October 22, 2017.

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