Project Canterbury

Dancing before the Lord
and Other Sermons
Preached in St. Ignatius' Church, New York

by the Reverend Arthur Ritchie

Reprinted from "Catholic Champion."

New York: The Guild of St. Ignatius, 1892.

Sermon VII
The Unchangeable Faith.

"It was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once (for all) delivered unto the saints." St. Jude 3.

It has become quite the fashion in these days, even in our own beloved Church, to declaim against dogmas and against the Creeds which gather together and put dogmas into form. Men are clamouring, we are told, for a restatement of the great principles of Christianity, such a restatement as shall make them less hard to accept, more unobjectionable to the thinking ones of these enlightened days.

The Christian system is no longer in its infancy: why then keep it in the swaddling clothes of infancy? The dogmatic statements that are suited to childish minds, need limitation and qualification when presented to the understanding of full-grown folk. Does it not stand to reason that the modes of expression which suited early Christianity, fifteen hundred years ago, are not likely to be the best for men of these days in which we live? Is it not natural that they should be found inadequate and misleading? The Fathers of Nicaea were no doubt holy men and many of them well learned according to the learning of their time, but surely it is likely that the truth they had been taught and which has come down to us can now be more simply and profitably set forth than by the phraseology of the Creed which they framed.

Every other department of knowledge has advanced and developed, natural science, philosophy, and all the rest of them, why should it be thought necessary that theology should remain stationary? Of course truth cannot change, but the expression of truth may be modified for the better as men know more about the things concerned in and affected by it. Think how far the morality of the New Testament exceeds that of the Old; think how greatly the theology of the New Testament improves upon that of the Old; why then should Christian morality and Christian theology settle down upon the definitions and dogmatic statements of the first five centuries and say these may never be altered, they cannot be improved upon? The case of the clamourer for readjustment is a plausible one.

Let him illustrate it for us in regard to the Bible. In old times Christians believed every word in the Bible to be inspired by the Holy Ghost. We are much wiser now. We have proved that some parts of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament are untrue in fact. There can be no reasonable doubt that much of Holy Writ is altogether human in origin, and wholly uninspired. There is a germ of inspired utterance to be found in the sacred writings, indeed it is permissible to hold that they contain the Word of God, but that they are the Word of God is an exploded idea no longer worthy of being held by any intelligent man. Are we prepared to accept this sort of thing? Certainly not.

The cry for a restatement of the Christian position is urged with vehemence, and perhaps with the greater effect, because it is evident to all that many people, both men and women, are drifting away from the Faith. The advocates of readjustment hold that this defection is almost entirely due to the unreasonable demands which the old theology makes upon a man's faith, and one cannot but observe that many devout old-fashioned Christians are influenced by the plea. They view with natural alarm the rapidly growing unbelief of the day, and they say if it be possible to so restate the religion of Christ that men may accept it, by all means let it be done. Let us then look into the matter very seriously and try to discover what can be done without sacrifice of fundamental truth.

I. Our first inquiry must be, Whence came this system of faith, morals, and religious observance which we call Christianity? The answer to that is by no means difficult, but it is one too-often lost sight of in the great discussion. It all came from the Lord Christ. This is not to say that there may not have been additions to and supposed improvements upon and developments of the original system, but only that its root and core are confessedly from Christ. And this fact is of supremest importance because it of necessity makes the original revelation different from all other systems of doctrine, morals and philosophy known to the world. For Who is the Lord Christ? Is He the first and noblest of men, or is He God Almighty? Is He a human person or a Divine Person? This matter is vital to the whole subject, and it is the first point to be clearly settled in the broad-church controversy. The broad-churchman would like to evade a positive answer to that question concerning the Divinity of our Lord, at least most men of that school are vague in their utterances about it; but there are exceptions; in the Ohio case at least there was no evading of the issue. The unhappy priest who has been so justly condemned declared unequivocally that our Lord had an earthly father, as other children have,' and that His Body did not truly rise from the grave. This is simply to say that the founder of Christianity is a human person and not of one substance with the Father. It must be kept most distinctly in sight in the whole course of the debate that we hold the Lord Christ to be the eternal Word of God.

II, A subtle form of heresy meets us now, which reviving a certain error of early times, reminds us that although our Lord is Divine in Person yet He took human nature, and because human nature is capable only of limited and not of infinite knowledge, He being perfect man as well as perfect God, did not as man know more than the men of His time. He willed to lay aside not only His omniscience while He abode here on earth, but also that perfect human knowledge, or infallibility, which belonged of right to His mind because His human nature was inseparably united to God the Word. So, by His own will and self-denial, not knowing more than the men of His day, He could make mistakes about matters of fact, and teach, in good faith, that the Old Testament was the inspired Word of God when it really was not by any means wholly so. This position involves logically, indeed it says plainly, that our Lord could make mistakes and did make mistakes concerning matters of fact. It is not hard if one can believe that to believe also that He might make mistakes, and very likely did make them, concerning Divine truth and what man must or must not accept. I think that no one who acknowledges our Lord's Divinity will ever consent for a moment to so horrible a heresy as this.

III. Having settled in our minds distinctly that the founder of our religion is the eternal Word of God, even the Lord Christ, let us proceed to examine the nature of the system which He has given to men. It is called in the text the Faith. We may distinguish our faith from our knowledge by remembering that such things as we have only by the testimony of others we believe, and such things as we have experienced or reasoned out for ourselves we know. It is evident that the greater part of the Christian system could not have been found out by man, but must have been made known to him by the revelation of God; therefore it is properly matter of belief and not of knowledge, and is called the Faith. To make this quite clear we have only to glance at the nature of the things revealed, the origin of man and his destiny, the life of God, the relation of the creature to the Creator, the existence of sin and the plan of salvation, the judgment, heaven and hell. How could one ever hope to find out definitely concerning any of these things by experience or logic?

Study history and natural science, penetrate the mysteries of biology and archaeology, and you will find out wonderful things, but never half so much as you are told in the first few chapters of Genesis. Practise all the divination you will, consult soothsayers, read the deep sayings of the stars, hear all that supposed voices from the spirit world can declare, and you will not know so much about the future of the human soul as the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew can tell you. Study all the dark sayings and mysterious writings of ancient Egyptians and Hindus and you will not have found out concerning the Divine nature one-tenth part of what the first few verses of St. John plainly reveal. Meditate unceasingly upon and ponder the marvellous imaginations of the world's poets and philosophers with regard to what shall be hereafter, and you will confess that from them all you have gained nothing clear, while in the last three chapters of the Apocalypse the whole matter is most satisfyingly made known.

How indeed could human studies make plain to us any of the deep secrets of life? They come not within the tiny sphere of man's experience and logic. They are the subject matter of Divine revelation, and can be declared by that alone, therefore to human faith they make their appeal.

Just as truly are they things not affected by time and human circumstances. They are above these; they pertain to that realm which knows neither space nor time; they belong to the infinite and the eternal. And if they be so, and if He Who has declared them to the children of men is Divine, of almighty wisdom to frame their expression, and of almighty power to set it forth, why should we suppose there could be any necessity for a restatement of revelation?

IV. We shall be told, perhaps, that revelation has been entrusted to men, and men are fallible; therefore we have every reason to suspect that the original deposit may not have been safely kept and handed down through these eighteen hundred years. It behooves us then to consider this point of the preservation of the faith once (or as the Revised Version puts it, once for all) delivered. To whom was it delivered by the Revealer? To the saints, the Apostle says. Who are these saints? We use the word theologically of those who have entered into the joy of their Lord, the holy ones already perfect in spirit, if disembodied, in Paradise or heaven. But not so is it commonly used in the New Testament: rather of the whole body of the faithful, the members of the Church. The question might I suppose be raised whether backsliders, those who were once faithful and have since fallen away, ought to be reckoned among the saints in the Bible sense of the word. That question, however, is immaterial to our present investigation. The saints to whom our Lord delivered the Faith once for all are the great company of the believers, the members of the Church Catholic. It is important to accent this, for it seems to me a wonderful thing, and a singular proof of the divinity of our religion--what founder of a human religion would dare so bold a deed--that God was not afraid to entrust the Faith to His people at large as a body.

Without doubt He provided safeguards. The Faith is enshrined in two distinct ways, yet not so as to destroy the reality of its deliverance to the whole body of the Church.

1. It is enshrined in the written Word, the Holy Bible, the books of that sacred volume being inspired by the Holy Ghost Himself, that all things might be expressed as He would have them expressed, so that no mistake or false statement could be inserted in the supernatural record through human fallibility.

2. It is also enshrined in that marvellous system of sacramental worship and grace-bestowal in which the Church is constantly exercised. Here again the Holy Ghost works to raise natural things to supernatural dignity, that through transmutation of bread and wine our Lord's Body and Blood may be continually offered up before the eternal Father, and the faithful fed with food essential to their spiritual progress.

Yet even with the great deliverance of the faith to the saints thus safeguarded by the written Word and the supernatural system of worship and sanctification, there is left vast scope for human departure from that which was delivered once for all, in man's fallibility, his ignorance, and his tendency to add to and to subtract from and to alter in a thousand ways the plan of religion which his Maker first drew up for him. The Bible must be interpreted in many places, for its meaning is not obvious to every reader, and the plan of salvation must be explained and the balance of its parts duly maintained throughout the ages. Therefore to insure the integrity of Holy Scripture and the purity of the Church's system of worship and sanctification, there is needed logically an infallibility, an authoritative voice to overrule all contentions, to decide finally all fundamental questions.

We cannot for a moment believe that God would in so marvellous a way as by the Incarnation of the eternal Son make known to mankind the most tremendous facts of the universe, facts which man could never have found out for himself, and entrust their safe keeping to no infallible authority, but simply to the natural ability and faithfulness of His people, that the fundamental principles of the Faith might be known and venerated for all time to come. The very suggestion of such a thing involves its absurdity. How long would the Church not supernaturally guided preserve inviolate the truths of revelation, and the practices of Divine worship? Probably not for a single century. The belief in a revelation, in supernatural religion, involves necessarily a further belief in an infallible guardian and interpreter of that revelation.

I said it was a most wonderful thing, a thing the wisest man would not have dared to do, that our Lord should have committed His religion to the whole body of the faithful. Man's way would have been to carefully instruct a chosen few, to form them into a mysterious inner circle of believers, whose fidelity-should be guarded by the most strict rule, and the utmost care in the filling of vacancies in their number, a close corporation of elect spirits who should guard the text of Holy Scripture and arrange with authority all the form and manner of Christian worship. Our Lord did not so. There was no esoteric side to the Faith which He delivered once for all to all the saints. How then did He provide for its inviolate preservation? Some who do not understand, or who do not care to understand, the working system of the Catholic Church, will tell you that her infallible voice is to be found in the decisions of General Councils. The theory is that the whole body of the Episcopate has been entrusted with the safeguarding of the Divine revelation, and that the Episcopate of the universal Church speaks through the decisions of General Councils. When men hear such a theory as this advanced they are fain to say: The General Councils neither represent the whole Episcopate in most cases, since, for example, there were 318 Bishops at Nicaea, and only 150 at Constantinople, nor was there always unanimity on the part of those present. The truth is that the General Councils were only assemblages of Bishops from various parts of the world to bear testimony to the Faith handed down to them from the Apostles, and to formulate expressions of that Faith especially as it concerned the guarding of the truth against some particular form or forms of heresy. Then, when the assembled Bishops had given their decision in the form of Creed or Canon, it was sent throughout the whole world, to every local Church, and only when every local Church had received and acknowledged such decision as in harmony with the Faith handed down from the beginning could it be regarded as infallible, because it was truly oecumenical or universal.

In this sense the Church Catholic is the most sublime democracy in the world, for nothing may be taught as fundamental in doctrine or practice save that which has been assented to by all.

Nor is this an unworkable theory of infallibility. The critic may point out that even in the Nicene Creed there is disagreement between East and West in the matter of the Filioque; even in the use of the Blessed Sacrament the dispute as to whether the bread ought to be leavened or unleavened, not to speak of the tremendous issues involved in the question of the Papacy. Yet how small a matter does the Filioque become in view of the fact that throughout the Christian world this great creed of Nicaea has been used at every Eucharist for 1,200 years with no variation save in that one word; and how insignificant is the question of leavened or unleavened bread in comparison of the all-important matter that the whole Christian world for 1,500 years without variation has believed the mysterious gifts of the Altar to be the true Body and Blood of our Lord. The question of the Papacy is a serious one enough, the occasion of the divisions of Christendom, yet for 400 years it was not a question at all, for 600 more it was not serious enough to destroy the Church's outward unity, and despite the terrible contentions it has caused among Christians in the last 800 years, it has neither imperilled the common faith of the whole body, nor made any less strong the agreement of all in perpetuating the Apostolic Ministry, Sacraments, and Form of Worship.

Truly God has bestowed upon His Church the gift of infallibility, lodging it not in any one man, nor yet in any carefully selected few, but in the unanimous testimony of the whole body of the faithful. If, then, truth is one and unchanging, if the Church as the guardian and enunciator of truth is infallible, and if the Church has definitely set forth the unchanging truth as it was delivered to her by our Lord, in the Creed, in the books of Holy Scripture and in her system of sacramental grace and worship, what need can exist for any restatement of the Faith? God in His wisdom would have it that the books of the New Testament (one might also say those of the Old as well) should be given to men in the Greek tongue, that the original Liturgies should be in the Greek tongue, and that the great Creed of Christendom should be set forth in the same wonderful language than which none is more precise in its meaning, more clear in its arrangement. There is no ambiguity about the phraseology of the Nicene Creed. It has difficult words in it, doubtless, as "of one substance," "Catholic" and "Resurrection," yet centuries of uniform teaching throughout the whole Christian world have shown what meaning must be attached to those words. What occasion then can be found for a restatement of the Faith?

Is it not plain enough that what is desired is the surrender of certain articles of the Faith? A restatement of the doctrine of the Trinity means the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity; a restatement of the truth of the Incarnation means the elimination of that dogma from the Creed; a restatement of the Church's belief concerning the Resurrection means that we are no longer to believe in the Resurrection as a fact.

It was the part of the Fathers in the early centuries of Christianity to bear testimony to the Faith they had received, and to formulate it in precise theological language. Our part in these days is to hold fast that which they have bequeathed to us, not permitting one word or expression to be changed, not suffering one dogma to be explained away, not tolerating any disparagement to the inspiration of Holy Scripture, but remembering the injunction of the Apostle make it the business of our lives to "earnestly contend for the Faith which was once for all delivered to the Saints."

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