Monday, December 10, 2007

Continuity and Change within our Church

One of the natural tensions of leading a contemporary Church with a historical "deposit of faith" is finding new ways to have that faith speak persuasively and powerfully to modern people. Often this means sorting through our doctrines to determine the essence or idea of what is being expressed and then finding new language to express this essence, always remaining faithful to the original doctrine. Inevitably, these reformulations are met with resistance and fear that we're compromising our faith or watering it down, when in fact we strengthen it by making it speak more directly to modern people.

What is continuous and what is changeable? This is the central question of theology for all eras of our Church. Nineteenth century theologian and scholar John Henry Newman (now "venerable", with the cause for his canonization still on-going) wrote a wonderful essay entitled "The Development of Doctrine", in which he compared the history of doctrine in our Church to the life of a stream:

"It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or sect, which, on the contrary, is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and, for a time, savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom, more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities or its scope. At first, no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent: it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time, it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out is one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter its bearing; parties rise and fall against it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations and old principles appear in new forms; it changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."

(John Henry Newman, “Essay on the Development of Doctrine”, Notre Dame Press, 1989, p.40)

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