Click for Welcome and Introduction
Not too long ago, I was going through some old papers. I stumbled across a letter from a Church of Christ preacher, dated not long after I was received into the Catholic Church. The letter was sincere and well intentioned, if nor particularly calm or polite, and the gentleman was listing a number of Catholic doctrines and practices which were not clearly mentioned in the Bible.
“Show me from the Bible,” the preacher demanded, “what part candles play in true Christian worship!” (If fluorescent lights were good enough for the apostles...)
This may be absurd example, but as Catholics we face a constant challenge from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ who object to our belief in the development of doctrine. "For a church to be the New Testament church," writes David J. Riggs, echoing the sentiments of many active anti-Catholic fundamentalists, "it must be identical to the one in the New Testament...Churches today with variations in name, work, worship, etc., are not following the apostles' doctrine and, thus, are not one with the apostles.” 1
Most of the churches of our non-Catholic friends were established according to Mr. Riggs' pattern: believing the Catholic Church to be corrupt since her teachings and practices are not identical to the New Testament Church's, individuals studies the Bible, and adopted as their beliefs only what they believed they found therein.
As Catholics, we don't claim to be identical to the New Testament Church, but believe that the Church's teachings have developed over the years under the Spirit's guidance. As Vatican II explained:
"The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her."2
This is a controversy that's age-old: Should doctrine develop, or should we try to be identical to the biblical Church? Thinking about that question recently, it occurred to me that the answer could likely be found by examining exactly how both individual believers and the Church as a whole come to know what is true—and, if we learn from the way Jesus taught—what better way to do that than by telling a story. So, gather round, folks, for story hour.
This is the story of a guy named "Hambone," and his journey of faith. It's a story not at all dissimilar from those of millions of faithful people everywhere, including many members of the Church of Christ--a noble tale of a good man's continuous quest for truth--his quest to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord.
Young Hambone, like the vast majority of people, believes in God. He doesn't have a very concrete idea of who or what God is, but his gut instincts and his reason tell him that there is a Creator, and that there is "someone up there" watching over him. Though he doesn't know very much about him, either, he respects Jesus as, at the very least, a good and noble man, a man of ethics and peace; he knows as well that a lot of people find themselves feeling closer to God through Jesus. One day, then, he decides that he wants to know more about this ancient Jewish carpenter.
He turns, of course, to the New Testament to find out about him. A little leery at first, since he realizes the New Testament was written by people who believed in Jesus as Savior--he wonders, reasonably enough if people with strongly held convictions can be trusted to accurately give an objective account of the focus of those convictions--in the end, he figures that the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, is by far the closest account of Jesus to his actual lifetime. So, for the first time in his life, Hambone sits down to really, truly study the Bible.
He finds himself very moved by the story of Jesus--by his message of love, peace, and justice. A chill runs down his spine as he reads of the torture and death of the Nazarene; another, when he reads of his triumphant resurrection. So moved is Hambone, that he wants to believe that the story is true, that the account is inspired of God.
What does he do? He prays. He reflects. He consults believers--posing questions to them and, more importantly, to himself.
At certain stages in his reflection, his reasoning brings up objections, reasons why the gospel might not be true. Could the resurrection not have been staged by the apostles? Could Jesus, he asks himself, not have merely been unconscious when removed from the cross? Isn't it possible that the texts of the New Testament have been altered through the ages? These are not, mind you, the cynical scoffings of a hardened skeptic, but honest questions from a sincere man at the very dawn of his life of grace. They are honest questions deserving of an honest answer, and there is no sin in his asking them.
What does he do? He prays. He reflects. He consults believers--posing questions to them and, more importantly, to himself. Hambone finally comes to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and the scriptures as his written word. Confessing his new-found faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, he is baptized in the thrice holy name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Though, tragically, for many, this can be the end of the journey, not so for noble Hambone. He's committed and zealous--he passionately desires to spiritually mature, so he continues to prayerfully read and reflect upon the treasures of the scripture.
It comes to pass that our hero starts to wonder about the nature of Jesus Christ. The Lord's question to the apostles echoes through the hall of his memory: "Who do you, Hambone, say that I am? That's right, I'm talkin' to you!" Now, good old Hambone's faith is solid--there's no doubt in his mind that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God." But Hambone wants more than a memory verse--he longs for a deeper understanding of what this means. Like a parched deer jonesing for a pure stream, his soul cries out to truly know his Lord. Yep, he's got the Jesus jones, and he need his fix!
In all this excitement, new questions arise for poor Hambone. If Jesus and the Father are one, could Christ then be a unified Yahweh appearing in different modes at different times? If the Father is greater than the Son, and if the Father alone is good and alone knows the hour of the Day of Wrath, could Jesus not be the merely greatest of all creatures? After all, doesn't a Son come after his Father? And isn't God's only begotten Son the firstborn of all creation? But then again, the Word was with God and was God--so Jesus must be God, then, mustn't he? Could that mean there are two Gods? Throw the Holy Spirit in for good measure, and Hambone's in quite a pickle! Our friend Hambone's no arch-heretic: he's a sincere believer trying to better know his beloved Master. Though at any given point in his reflection, he may lean toward adopting an untrue position, this is just the natural course of open, honest study. Poor ol' Hambone even gets frustrated a time or two, and finds himself briefly wondering if this Jesus business is worth all the effort. After all, if he can't ever know anything with any certainty, why bother? Hambone truly loves his Lord, though, and he snaps out of his momentary funk, more determined than ever to understand the truth. So, what does he do? You guessed it! He prays. He reflects. He consults believers--posing questions to them and, more importantly, to himself. Eventually, he becomes convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is God the Son, coequal and coeternal with the Father.
And so it goes with Hambone for the rest of his life. He practically lives and breathes sacred scripture, always plumbing it for new depths of wisdom. After awhile, he pretty much masters the basics, the first principles of Christianity, but every reading of scripture sheds new light into the glorious mysteries of Jesus Christ. From time to time, new questions arise. Every time, he studies, prays, reflects, and joins together with his fellow Christians to find the answers. Sometimes, he'll find himself questioning something he thought was true and, upon diligent study, determine that he had been mistaken. Other times, he'll start to consider a new idea for awhile, but in the end determine that his original belief was correct.
This lifelong process of reflection--this is how Hambone came to know the truth, and, with some variety depending mostly on one's upbringing, the same way all faithful Christians come to know the truth. But Hambone, like all faithful Christians, never stops thirsting after the grace that is knowledge of the Lord--never considers himself fully learned of the truth.
The lifelong process of learning, the constant reflection on God's Word, even the temporary dalliances with innocent heresy and frustration--this is the life of the Christian, and it is a gloriously abundant life indeed!
If you'll be so kind as to humor this weaver of tales, I'd like to continue our story hour just a little longer. Let's look at another journey of faith. This time it's a lady, "Electa." Electa's no ordinary lady, that's for sure. First of all, she's more than just a little long in the tooth--going on 2,000 pretty quick-like. All her knicks and bruises make it awfully obvious she's done some serious time in the school of hard knocks, but the old girl's as sharp as a tack, and still going strong with no sign of stopping. She's a pretty lucky girl, too. Back in her day, it was very important for a young girl to be married off to a good man, and boy did she hit the jackpot! Electa's husband is none other than Jesus Christ himself. She always felt a little unworthy to receive such an honor--she didn't do anything to deserve it after all--but her hubby constantly reminds her that he chose her and not the other way around. "You are black but beautiful," he wrote her in a poem once, plus a lot of other nice things that still kind of make her blush.
She's different from other ladies in another way, too. See, most folks are, well, just the one person. Not Electa, brother. No, sir. Why, this old lady's made up of millions upon millions of people, spread throughout time and space, above, on and under the earth. She's a veritable assembly of people, called out by Jesus for salvation. A lot of people like to call her "the Church," and she's just fine with that.
Her journey of faith has been very much like Hambone's. While the Church is greater than the sum of her parts, in a very real way the life and journey of faith of the individual Christian is a microcosm of the life and journey of the Church. This Lady Electa, the Bride of Christ who, together with the Spirit, says, "come," (Rev.22:17) learned in her infancy, when she numbered only twelve, the truths of the gospel at the feet of Jesus Christ. Like the individual Christian, the Church ruminates and reflects on that gospel. As the centuries passed, new questions arose for her to reflect on.
Difficult questions for the individual; such as which ancient writings are inspired, what is the nature of Jesus Christ, and what is the interrelation between Father, Son, and Spirit; can be answered by the individual precisely because the Church as a whole spent four centuries asking questions, studying, consulting with one another, and praying. At times, individuals arose within her, often sincerely, on occasion maliciously, proposing answers to these questions which proved inadequate. Yet the Church always got through these difficult times--and did so, just like the individual Christian, by asking questions, reflecting on God's word, consulting with one another, and praying.
The only apparent difference between the Church's method of obtaining truth and that of the individual is that precious gift of God, his Holy Spirit, which guides and leads Holy Mother Church into all truth; a Spirit that is with her always, even to the end of the world. Such was the promise of God to his Church, spoken by the Prophet Isaiah centuries before her foundation: “This is the Covenant with them which I have made, says the Lord: My Spirit which is upon you and my words that I have put into your mouth shall never leave your mouth, nor the mouths of your children, nor the mouths of your children’s children from now on and forever, says the Lord. Rise up in splendor! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” (Isaiah 59:20-60:1) It's only an apparent difference, though, because the individual can align himself with the Church, and let the wisdom of the ages be his guide along the long journey home.
The macrocosm follows after the pattern of the microcosm. Like the individual Christian, the Church is constantly learning, constantly finding new and deeper meaning in the precious revelation that is Jesus Christ, God the Eternal Word, a Word "once and for all" handed down to her through the apostles. (Jude 3) While never turning her back on the foundation of her beliefs, she constantly builds on that foundation with new insights gained from twenty centuries of contemplation, as St. Vincent explained 1,570 years ago:
"But some one will say. perhaps, Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ's Church? Certainly; all possible progress...Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning...
"But the Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, does not cut off what is necessary, does not add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, does not appropriate what is another's, but while dealing faithfully and judiciously with ancient doctrine, keeps this one object carefully in view, - if there be anything which antiquity has left shapeless and rudimentary, to fashion and polish it, if anything already reduced to shape and developed, to consolidate and strengthen it, if any already ratified and defined to keep and guard it. Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practiced negligently should thenceforward be practiced with double solicitude? This, I say, is what the Catholic Church, roused by the novelties of heretics, has accomplished by the decrees of her Councils, - this, and nothing else, - she has thenceforward consigned to posterity in writing what she had received from those of olden times only by tradition, comprising a great amount of matter in a few words, and often, for the better understanding, designating an old article of the faith by the characteristic of a new name.” (The Commonitorium)
If, then, the beliefs and practices of an elderly, life-long student of God's Word cannot be expected to be, and, indeed, should not be identical to those of his youth and immaturity sixty years prior, why should the modern Church, having matured 2,000 years, be identical in faith and practice to the Church of the New Testament? It seems to this storyteller that she should not.