The Texas Inkling


Can the Creeds Change?  The Importance of Doctrinal Orthodoxy (part I) by JC Sanders

“It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do no agree in their theory of the universe….But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd than burning a man for his philosophy.  This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century.”  --GK Chesterton, Heretics

Those who have followed the news’ coverage of the recent presidential inauguration have more than likely heard by now that our new president was sworn in not once, but twice.  The second oath of office was administered Wednesday night after Obama jumped into his repetition of the Oath early, throwing off Chief Justice Roberts’ cadence and apparently also his concentration.  The oath originally administered thus varied slightly from the formulation found in the Constitution of the United States of America.

It is not surprising that a number of people, from news commentators to bloggers, have commented on the misstep by Roberts.  The reactions have varied, from Roberts’ own gracious acceptance of the blame for the mistake to Obama’s joking indifference to the angry folks who rail against Roberts’ for “ruining an otherwise perfect event.”  The episode has generated a fairly considerable amount of interest, and no small amount of buzz between Obama’s supporters and his opponents (at least prior to the second oath) preparing to defend or denounce his presidency.  The words express ideas, and ideas have consequences; the slightest deviation from our Constitution’s enshrined phraseology, and partisans of both sides are in an uproar.

All of this leaves me to wonder why such an uproar is so rare when applied to religious creed.  Why do so many people become so passionate about a single misplaced word in the deliverance of the Presidential Oath of Office, but not in similar missteps with dogma, or philosophy, or theology?  It seems that many people consider their religious beliefs, indeed their very worldview, to be vague; precision in doctrine become irrelevant.  Ask an average Christian whether he believes in God, and he will surely say yes.  Ask him Who or What God is—a Supreme Being? a cosmic force? what kind?—and he may become a bit more confused.

The historian and critic Hillaire Belloc once wrote that “Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some part therein.”  Yet isn’t this exactly what is done today when a person brushes aside what seems “a small quibble over a word?”  How easy it is to forget that there have been wars fought over such quibbles in the past, when the ideas expressed by those words seem to have mattered more.

How strange it may seem to us today that the Church has held Ecumenical Councils such as the one at Nicea in which heated debates centered over the use of a single word.  Yet, the Church would be very different today had the she chosen to state that the Father and the Son were cosubstancial (of like substance) rather than consubstancial (of the same substance).  For, indeed, if the Son was only of like substance to the Father, then the Son would be a created being, and not both fully God and fully man.  The Church would not be able to teach the salvation of the resurrection.  As Belloc observed in The Great Heresies, the Church might resemble Mohammedanism (Islam) more so than Catholicism.

In spite of this, it is too often considered bad form to argue (or even discuss) these minor differences.  If a man wants to believe that God is a Cosmic Force rather than a Supreme Being, then so be it; and if he wants to call himself a Christian, then that’s of no concern to any of the Christians who worship a God Who is a Trinity of Persons.  Or if a woman wants to believe that God is “our Mother” rather than “our Father,” then what concern is it of mine that she teaches catechesis for RCIA?

The problem with any of these changes is that they are just that—changes to the faith.  This faith is supposed to teach Truth, a truth which is revealed, firm, objective:  it does not change with the ages, but rather is “a sign that will be contradicted.”  Belief the God has a specifically feminine gender is not Catholic one, nor can a Church which believes this really be the true Catholic Church—even if an all-powerful Mother appeals more to some than an all-powerful Father.  For the Church is not called to teach that which is popular or appealing; rather, she is called to teach that which is true.  If the Church is truly the organ through which the Holy Spirit speaks and indeed teaches in this world, then to ignore that voice for the sake of convenience or tolerance is in fact to ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit, the very voice of God’s revelation. 

It is to place our own voices on equal (or greater) footing than that of the Holy Spirit, to make ourselves equal to the Holy Spirit.  To make such a claim towards equality with divinity is blasphemy if false.  In this case, it would be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin which one ought not to take too lightly.

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