Hunter/Dogmatic Theology/II/V

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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology


110. Subject of Chapter. – It has been pointed out already (n. 19) that private revelations by God to man are always possible, and we hold that in fact they are given occasionally, even at the present day. In the present chapter we shall give our reasons for believing that no addition has been made to the body of doctrine which constitutes the Christian Revelation since the death of the last survivor among the Apostles, and further, that no new public revelation is to be looked for in the future. Also we shall explain the sense in which it may be admitted that continual growth is going on in our knowledge of Christian doctrine, and in doing this we shall freely assume points of doctrine which we have not yet established, for we bring them forward only as illustrating our subject.

111. Heresies. – Almost all Catholic writers agree in holding that the Divine scheme for undoing the work of the Fall and for raising mankind, and enabling them to attain to their supernatural last end was completed by the Death of our Redeemer and by the foundation of the Church. But we read in the Gospel of St. Matthew (xxiv. 24) the warning given by our Lord that the time should come when there would arise false Christs and false prophets; and a solemn warning is given to us not to be misled. Nor has the event failed to show the truth of the prophecy and the necessity of the warning, in spite of which many have been led astray in every age of the Church. Preachers have arisen who have taught a Gospel besides that which was handed down by Tradition, and they have found men and women ready to neglect the warning given by St. Paul to the Galatians (i. 8), and to listen to them. It will be enough to mention a few of those who have sought to supplement the Gospel that tells of the Word of God made Flesh for the redemption of man, by a new pretended Gospel of the Holy Spirit; as though there were to be a third dispensation under which the Third Person of the Holy Trinity completed the work which was begun under the Old Testament by the First Person, and was carried on by the Second Person in the New.

Among the number of these was one Montanus, who taught in the rude districts of Phrygia, in the latter part of the second century, and of whom we read in the words of an anonymous author quoted by Eusebius (H.E. 5, 17; P.G. 20, 464), that he uttered strange sayings beyond the Tradition handed down from old times. Some of his followers, including two women, spoke as though carried away by the Holy Spirit and full of the gift of prophecy. Manes, the founder of that Manichean heresy which has been so deadly a foe to the Church, called himself the Paraclete, and professed to know all things from all eternity. (St. Epiph. Hær. 66, n. 19; P.G. 42, 57.) The year 250 may be assigned as his date; and, to pass over many centuries, the pretended prophecies of the Abbot Joachim, who died in 1202, remained in credit for many years, in spite of the condemnation by the Fourth Council of Lateran in 1215 of the doctrine on the Blessed Trinity taught by their author; and new revelations were among the extravagances of the Fraticelli condemned by the Council at Vienne in 1311.

Among the sects that sprang from the Reformation of the sixteenth century, similar delusions have been plentiful; it may suffice to mention Swedenborg, whose death occurred in 1772, who claimed to have direct illumination from God, not through Angel or Spirit; Irving, who believed that the marvels of the first Pentecost were renewed about the year 1830 among those who attended his ministry; and Smith, the American, who pretended that the Bible of the Western Continent was discovered to him in 1823, and who was murdered in 1844. The followers of this last are numerous enough and devoted enough to be a trouble to the Government of the United States, but it may be doubted whether the bond of union among them is not social and economical rather than any living belief in the revelation which their prophet professed to bring. It is deserving of notice that the Catholic Church has been little troubled by ebullitions of this kind in recent times.

112. The Catholic Doctrine. – In opposition to all these, the doctrine of Catholic theology is that the body of public revealed doctrine has received no objective increase since the days of the Apostles. It is true, as St. Thomas remarks, (Summa Theol. 2. 2. q. I. a. 7. c.) that the whole of the Divine economy of salvation is in some sense contained in the two fundamental articles which have been revealed from the beginning, that God is, and is a rewarder of them that seek Him: the explicit belief in which truths is and always has been a necessary condition of salvation, according to the doctrine of St. Paul. (Hebrews xi. 6.) But the whole body of Christian doctrine could never have been discovered as contained in this primitive and, so to speak, elementary revelation, had not further revelations been vouchsafed; and such revelations were given from time to time under the patriarchal dispensation, under the Mosaic Law, and during the life of Christ and His Apostles; also, the theologians of the Church continually discover, and will continue to discover, more and more of the fulness of meaning contained in these revelations, and from time to time the Church imprints the seal of her infallible approval upon their explicit statements of what was heretofore known implicitly alone; but we maintain that no substantially new revelation is given or will be given, to be proposed by the Church for the belief of the faithful.

The proof is partly negative. There is no hint in the New Testament that any such new revelation is to be looked for. Whatever prophecies or other indications of future events are met with, refer either to the fortunes of the Church under the present dispensation (I Timothy iv. 1), or more especially to the circumstances that will attend the Second Coming of our Lord, when the time of probation is over for all mankind and all receive the eternal reward of their works. (St. John xii. 48.) But there is not a word that can be represented as pointing to a time when the Church shall be replaced by another more perfect institution having the same object, and when means of grace will be granted to men more efficient than the Christian Sacraments. In the Old Testament there are expressions which, taken by themselves, might seem to point to the perpetual duration of that institution (Genesis xvii. 13; Numbers x. 8); but these do not necessarily imply that it shall not receive a more perfect form; and in fact many passages plainly point to its destiny to act as the slave, himself unlettered, that conducts a boy to the school where he will be taught. (Galat. iii. 24.) See, for instance, any of the well-known Messianic prophecies, such as Deut. xviii. 15, where Moses warns the people of Israel that the time will come when his message will be spent and they will be called on to hear another prophet; and in the New Testament we see that Jewish priests and people looked forward to the coming crisis. (St. Matt. ii. 5; St. John iv. 25.)

The positive proof of our doctrine is derived directly from the Epistle to the Hebrews, throughout which St. Paul insists on the transient character of the Synagogue as opposed to the perennial existence in store for the Church. This meaning is plain if the whole Epistle be read; but we may cite especially the verse (xii. 27) where St. Paul speaks of the translation of moveable things as made, that these things may remain which are immoveable: and it is noticeable that the Apostle, addressing Jews, rests his teaching on an interpretation of two words in the prophecy of Aggeus (ii. 7), and shows us the depths of meaning that may lurk in the minutest portions of the inspired text.

That the Fathers did not believe that any new public revelation was possible, is plain from their constant habit of appealing to Tradition, as the one source of our knowledge of Christian truth. We may quote St. Irenæus (Contra Hæreses, 3, 1; P.G. 7, 844): "We know no other Gospel than what came to us from those that wrote the Scriptures. For it cannot be said that they preached before they had full knowledge, as is boldly asserted by some who boast that they can improve upon the Apostles. After the Resurrection of our Lord and the coming of the Holy Ghost, they had perfect knowledge and went forth to preach." Further examples of such passages are also given in nn. 76, 77, 106.

113. Progress of Theology. – But although there can be no objective increment in the public revelation committed to the custody of the Church, yet Theology is far from being a dead, unadvancing science; on the contrary, it makes constant advances. The exact mode and form of this progression has varied in different ages of the Church, but it has never ceased. No serious-minded man will suppose that the truths which it has pleased God to reveal contain no more than is apparent at the first glance; in fact, they are full of depths of meaning which are sounded only by those who bring to the task a variety of qualifications, intellectual and spiritual, which this is not the place to enumerate. This labour results in glimpses being gained of truths that are implied in the monuments of the Tradition of the Church which had not hitherto been explicitly recognized and set forth. Mistakes, no doubt, are made from time to time; theological students mistake the import of what is before them and draw erroneous conclusions, and it may even happen that they gain a considerable following. But such an error will commonly soon die away of itself, or perhaps will be condemned by the supreme authority; but in some cases, the Holy See, in its prudence, allows the controversy to remain undecided, and in this way there are schools of theology within the Church, more or less opposed to each other, and well inclined to maintain their views, but all agreeing in readiness to submit to the decision of the Church, whenever the infallible voice is heard. In this way an end was put in 431, by the Council of Ephesus, to the controversy concerning the exact mode of the union of the Divine and Human Natures in Christ; in 1854, Pope Pius IX. terminated the long discussion concerning the Immaculate Conception of our Lady; and the Vatican Council of 1870, under the same Pope, finally established true doctrine as to the Primacy and Infallibility of the Successor of St.Peter. All this will be better understood when the Treatise on the Church has been read.

When speaking of the Canon of Scripture (n. 152), we shall explain that there was a time when doubts existed within the Church as to the character of certain books of the Old Testament. Before these doubts were raised, there had been a period of unreflecting acquiescence in a certain view: doubts founded on difficulties of the sort that are called critical, led to discussion: discussion resulted in the solution of these doubts, and in the explicit recognition of what had been implicitly held from the beginning; and when theological discussion had done its work, the Holy See gave the sanction of its authority to the truth, which thenceforward became an integral part of the defined faith which cannot be denied without loss of the name of Catholic. These three stages of implicit belief, doubt and controversy, and explicit avowal, sometimes followed by formal definition, may be recognized in the history of many points of doctrine. A superficial study of the history will sometimes suggest the idea that the doctrine was new when the first critical doubts were started; but in the course of the discussion it becomes clear that there is nothing new in the substance of the doctrine, but only in the mode of statement. These three stages are all seen in the cases of Baptism by heretics, of the Real Presence, and of the Immaculate Conception, but in no instance better than in the controversy concerning the Canon of Scripture.

114. The Vincentian Canon. – The explanation just given serves to remove the difficulty which is sometimes felt in understanding how the Catholic Church can be said to be unchanging in faith at the same time that cases are easily produced where a matter which was not a defined doctrine at one date, subsequently comes to be defined. This is no more a change than it is a change for the germ that is in a seed to unfold and become a tree. It is no change of doctrine when that which has always been held implicitly, becomes the subject of an explicit declaration. There would be change if the Church of one age taught as of faith, what had not been held in any sense in a previous age; still more, if it taught the contradictory of what had been previously held: but neither of these cases has occurred, as we shall see from time to time, as we treat particular doctrines.

The reader will now understand the sense in which we may accept the principle laid down by Vincent of Lerins in a well-known passage, which is called from him the Vincentian Canon. This Vincent was a monk who received his surname from his residence at Lerins, an island in the Mediterranean, off the south coast of France. He lived in the first half of the fifth century. The canon in question occurs in the second chapter of his work called Commonitorium (P.L. 50, 640), and runs as follows: "In the Catholic Church we must with all care hold that which has been held in all places, at all times, by all men, for this is truly and properly Catholic." Commonitorium is the name given to a work having for its full title, "A Warning against the Profane Novelties of all Heresies," and this title sufficiently describes its character. Directed especially against certain heresies that concerned the Word of God, and His union with Human Nature in Christ – Arian, Nestorian, and others – its argument is by no means confined to these forms of error, but extends to every form of doctrine that is not the doctrine of the Catholic Church: if once a doctrine can be shown to have been received as part of the deposit of faith in all places, at all times, and by all men, then this doctrine is assuredly part of the Catholic faith, and whatever is opposed to it is error; and this principle is as true now as it was fourteen centuries ago, and it leads us at once to reject whatever teaching is out of accord with the teaching of Ephesus in 431, or with the Vatican Council in 1870. And it is clear that Vincent did not mean more when he laid down his canon; he did not mean that what has at some time been denied by Catholic theologians cannot be part of the faith; for he himself points out (c. 6, p. 646) that the Saint and Martyr Cyprian fell into error in denying the validity of Baptism administered by heretics, a point which had not been definitely decided by the Church; and his error gave occasion to a letter of Pope St. Stephen, who, quoting the great principle that no novelties were to be introduced which Tradition did not teach, finally settled the controversy.

115. Recapitulation. – In this chapter which has been mainly historical, and which has been illustrated by reference to sundry points of Catholic doctrine which will be fully explained hereafter, we have seen that the prophecy read in the Gospel, that false Christs shall arise and false prophets, has had its fulfilment in all ages of the Church. Then we saw the grounds of our belief that the public revelation of God was closed in the days of the Apostles, and that no new economy of salvation is to be expected in succession to the Catholic Church; it was then pointed out that the labour of theologians upon the deposit was continually bringing out and exhibiting explicitly successive portions of truth which up to that time had not been known except implicitly; and finally the sense of the Vincentian Canon was explained, and thus the Treatise on Tradition was brought to a close.

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