Hunter/Dogmatic Theology/I/I

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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology


11. Plan of the Treatise. — In this Treatise we shall show in successive chapters, first what is meant by the Revelation of a Mystery and that such Revelation is possible. Then that Miracles and Prophecy are possible, and that they may serve as the credentials of one who claims to be commissioned to proclaim a Divine revelation. Thirdly, that Miracles and Prophecy attest the claim of Christ to be considered a Divine Messenger. Lastly, it will be pointed out as the result of this discussion that the Divine origin of the Christian Revelation is certain but not evident.

12. Subject of Chapter. — The first chapter will point out the supernatural character claimed by the Christian religion, and we shall study the nature and necessity of revelation.

13. Christianity Supernatural. — It can scarcely be seriously disputed that Christianity claims to be a supernatural religion. Its leading doctrines, the Trinity in Unity and the Incarnation, are thoroughly supernatural: they could not possibly have been known to be true, except by revelation from God, and even assuming that they have been revealed, the natural powers of man are totally incompetent to understand the intrinsic reasons on which they depend: those who accept them do so purely on the authority of God. Moreover, the proof that Christians adduce to justify their belief that God has spoken is itself supernatural; for it depends upon a succession of prophecies and upon miracles, of which the principal is the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead. And further, Christianity holds out to man a final destiny beyond the powers of his nature or that of any creature, and offers him supernatural help, to enable him to attain this destiny. A religion, which is supernatural in its doctrines, its credentials, and its aims, certainly claims to be called supernatural. By "supernatural" we understand what surpasses the powers of a creature: the fuller discussion of this most important term will find a place when we treat of the condition of our first parents before their sin.

14. The Primitive Story. — That Christianity as it now exists, and is professed by the great bulk of its followers claims to be supernatural, will be generally admitted: but it is sometimes said that this was not the primitive character of the religion. There are those who profess the highest respect for the teaching of Christ and avow themselves His followers, but declare that He never aspired to a higher character than that of a purely human instructor in a sublime system of morality; and whatever else is attributed to Him is, they say, a later corruption. These men will quote with admiration the Sermon on the Mount, and the verse where St. James teaches that pure religion is to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction (St. James i. 27); and they add that St. John the Evangelist, in his old age, had no last lesson to inculcate upon his disciples except mutual love, as St. Jerome tells us in his commentary upon the last chapter of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians (P.L. 26, 433), where St. Paul exhorts his disciples to work good to all men, and to bear one another's burdens. In all this, they say, there is admirable morality, but nothing of the supernatural, or of the subtleties of theological doctrine.

This patronizing tone was adopted as long ago as the third century by Porphyry, as we learn from Eusebius. (Præp. Evang. 3; P.G. 22, 236.) Socinus was driven to it, as an escape from the doctrinal strife of the early Protestant sects in the sixteenth century. It was adopted by the English deists of the Georgian era, from whom it was borrowed by the German Lessing, whose influence is still felt in his own country. Renan has made the view popular in France, and it prevails extensively in England, being preached by many popular writers. It is probably rife among some Freemasons. We have here to deal with one of those worst of falsehoods, which are half a truth. There is no height of charity or other natural virtue so sublime but what Christianity invites men to aspire to it, furnishing them with potent helps in the endeavour, and motives and examples. But along with this, as we have shown, the religion has a marked supernatural character. The bases of Christianity are found in the books of Holy Scripture, especially of the New Testament, which as they are commonly read are full of narratives and discourses, which admit of no natural explanation. Accordingly, in all ages those who are not content to accept Christianity as it was left by its Founder, have asserted that these books have been largely interpolated, or that their true date is far later than is commonly supposed. Thus, they refuse to admit the authority of the Gospel of St. John, and of many of the Epistles, but those who go furthest in this line will admit that the three Synoptic Gospels represent the original story, as do also the Acts of the Apostles, and four at least of the Epistles of St. Paul: those to the Romans and Galatians and the two to the Corinthians. But even from these they cut out the miraculous narratives as being spurious interpolations, and explain as best they can such passages as those in St. Matthew (xi. 25) and St. Luke (x. 21), where our Lord thanks His Father for the fulness of the revelation that He has granted to the little ones of earth. We shall prove the authenticity and genuineness of the Gospels in its proper place (nn. 48—53); but we must here call attention to the utter untrustworthiness of the line of argument, which rejects passages from an author on purely internal grounds, though such grounds may have a certain weight when they go along with other circumstances. For instance, there is not a particle of external objection to the account given by St. Matthew (i. 19) of the miraculous conception of our Lord: it is found in all the manuscripts and versions. To reject it as an interpolation and then to argue from the silence of the document, thus manipulated, as showing that there was nothing supernatural in the original story, is a plain begging of the question. A course like this seems to have been adopted by the Manicheans, and elicited a protest from St. Augustine. (De Utilitate Credendi, c. 3, n. 7; P.L. 42, 69.)

15. Course of the Discussion. — We might at once proceed to show that this claim of Christianity to be a supernatural revelation is in fact well founded; after which it would be superfluous to prove that such revelation is possible. But it will be instructive first to discuss the grounds alleged by some writers for believing that nothing of the sort can happen, and to show their futility. In this discussion, we shall assume as granted the existence of God, the all-wise and all-powerful Creator of all things. This truth will, of course, be proved in its proper place, in the second volume.

16. Revelation and Mystery. — Revelation is the making known of something, which was previously unknown: the unfolding of a mystery. Mysteries are of various kinds. The thing may be in itself cognizable by the senses, which, however, have no opportunity of receiving the necessary impression: thus, it is a mystery to me how much money my neighbour has in his pocket, and the state of things on the other side of the moon is a mystery to all mankind. There are other mysteries, which lie beyond the scope of sense; for instance, my secret thoughts are unknown to my neighbours, except so far as I please to reveal them. In all these cases, man is capable of understanding the matter if it be brought before him; he can see how the subject and predicate hang together: but there may be, and in fact are, mysteries of a higher nature, in which the manner of the connection of the terms remains obscure, even when the truth of their connection is known. These are called Divine mysteries, as are also all matters that depend upon the free-will of God. We shall meet with examples of both sorts when we prove the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, and the form of government, which it has pleased God to give to His Church. Meanwhile, we remark that whoever denies the possibility of the existence of such mysteries assumes that the Divine understanding is no wider than his own: a presumptuous and baseless assumption. The Vatican Council was therefore justified in declaring that such mysteries do exist (Const, I, c. 4; Denz. 1643): a doctrine plainly contained in such passages as Romans xi. 33, where God's judgments are declared to be incomprehensible, and His ways unsearchable.

17. Possibility of Revelation. — We have now to show that it is possible for God to grant to men the revelation of certain Divine mysteries; which can be done only by showing the absence of any insuperable difficulty in the way. We must pronounce all things to be possible to God in which we do not perceive a contradiction. Now, the work of instruction can always be carried on if the teacher knows the matter, the pupil has capacity to receive the instruction, and communication can be established between teacher and pupil. But, when God is the Teacher, He certainly knows the matter, for He is all-knowing. Man is capable of receiving instruction in these mysteries, for nothing else is needed than that he should have some understanding of the terms: and it is not difficult to understand to some extent what is meant by "substance" and "person," and this is sufficient to make it possible intelligently to believe that in God there are three Persons in one Substance, although how this is be entirely unknown, and even what these Persons are is beyond our comprehension. Just so, a boy going to sea understands what is meant by a needle and by the North; and he may believe when told that a magnetic needle, properly poised, will point to the North, although the wit of man has hitherto failed to invent a plausible explanation how this happens. Man is, then, capable of believing truths, which come to him on sufficient authority, even when he does not see their intrinsic reasonableness. (See further, n. 323.)

18. Mode of Revelation. — Nor is it impossible for God to communicate with man; to say otherwise would be to deny to the Creator a power which is possessed by the creature. Man is capable of communicating with his fellow-man, and this by means not of natural signs alone, but also by arbitrary signs, such as language. The origin of this power is unknown to us, but its existence is proved by every day's experience. There is, therefore, nothing to prevent God, if He pleases, communicating with us; and we must not call this in doubt merely because we do not see how it is done.

St. Thomas (Summa Theol. I. q. in, a. I. and 2. 2. q. 172, a. 2.) teaches that revelations are brought from God to man through the ministry of angels. The various modes that are recorded to have been employed are collected by St. Augustine in a sermon which is sometimes called his 12th, on Scripture, sometimes his 16th, de Diversis. (P.L. 38, 102.) He puts the Holy Scripture in the first place as containing messages to us from God; but the same purpose may be served in several other ways. It is to be observed that the power of communicating with another involves the power of making that other know from whom the communication comes, for the gift of language would be useless to me if I could not ensure my friend knowing that what he hears is my voice, and not the voice of a stranger, or perhaps the soughing of the wind. Mistakes are possible, but they are exceptional; and so also, Divine revelations may be given but not recognized as such, or their existence may be imagined without sufficient ground; but regularly the truth will be known.

19. Revelation, why necessary. — It is conceivable that God might have so disposed the world that there should be no need for Revelation: He might have assigned to man an end which would have been within his reach without requiring the knowledge of Divine mysteries. But as a matter of fact, the end for which man is destined surpasses his natural powers, as will be shown in its proper place. And this is a great benefit to man, not only on account of the high destiny that is placed within his reach, but also because the method of guidance by the revelation of mysteries is specially suited to man's mental nature. Man has a constant natural craving to know something of the secrets of God, and this craving is satisfied by the Christian Revelation, for the contemplation of its truths has afforded full employment to some of the greatest intellects that the world has seen: to St. Augustine, St. Anselm, and St. Thomas. When this revelation is rejected, men endeavour to satisfy their craving by such means as they think suitable: this is proved by the devotion of the Neo-Platonists of the fourth century to magic, and of the Priscillianists to astrology in the fifth: this art was cultivated by the votaries of revived paganism at the time of the Renaissance, among whom also the study of the Cabbala found favour. During the excesses of the French Revolution these modes of seeking to pry into mysteries had great vogue; and in our own time, men seek to replace Christianity by Esoteric Buddhism, Spiritism, and the like. Further, all instruction necessarily begins with an exercise of faith on the part of the pupil, who accepts much that he cannot understand simply upon the authority of the teacher: and unless he do this heartily, he will make little progress, as will be seen if we consider the process of teaching the beginning of any art or science. Man on earth is beginning to learn a lesson which he is destined to know perfectly in the world beyond the grave: the boast, therefore, of Rationalists of all ages that they believe nothing upon mere authority is false in fact as well as unreasonable in theory. This is excellently pointed out by St. Augustine, in his book, De Utilitate Credendi (P.L. 42, 63 92), directed against the Manicheans, the Rationalists of his day, and his arguments are still applicable. Especially he insists that the Christian Revelation does not call upon men to believe absurdities, which important point calls for illustration. No part of it is contradictory to any other part, or to any truth which our intellect perceives to be certain and necessary, (n. 322.) Apparent cases of the kind are met with, but they will be found on examination to depend either upon a misunderstanding of the true doctrine, or upon a hasty assumption that what is ordinarily true is true necessarily, so as not to admit an exception even by miracle. For instance, our experience shows us that each substance is regularly accompanied by its own set of accidents, but no man can ever prove that this is necessarily so; and thus the doctrine that in the Blessed Eucharist the Body of Christ exists under the accidents of bread, does not contradict any known truth, but merely furnishes an exception to the rule which is found to be ordinarily observed. We decline to discuss the supposition of a Divine revelation being given which contradicts a known truth, for this supposition is impossible, (n. 322.) God cannot contradict Himself, whether He speaks by nature or by revelation; and any communication, which purported to be a revelation, would be at once discredited if it were shown to contradict known truth. In the words of the Vatican Council (fourth chapter of the First Constitution), "Although Faith be above Reason, yet between Faith and Reason there never can be true variance." (Denz. 1645.) Lastly, we may conjecture that God chose this way of training men by the revelation of mysteries in order to help them in combating pride, which refuses to take the humble position of a learner, as well as disclaims all subjection to law, and thus is the source of all the sins that are committed.

20. Recapitulation. — We have seen in this chapter that Christianity claims, and has always claimed to be a supernatural religion: we have explained the nature of mysteries, and have shown that Revelation is possible and suited to our nature. As will be remembered (n. 15), we have throughout assumed provisionally the being and providence of God, the discussion of which will hate place in our second volume.

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