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Updated considerations on Christian doctrine
The change of doctrine is an expansion that moves in many directions at once, both forwards and backwards in the context of the present.
As I go through a sort of deconstruction, I’m trying to work through the key principles of my Christian belief and how I express it. One key question concerns Christian doctrine: what type of thing is it? I’ve laid out five principles for my present approach to doctrine, and discussed these principles in relation to developments in the Nicene Creed below.
1. Christian development is integrative.
What is true must have, in some way, always been true. There must be a continuity, such that Christian articulations today do not cut us off from Christianity across the ages. One of my concerns is the ways in which Christians today can talk about “finally getting it” in ways that are fundamentally condescending to historical Christian communities, the Gospels, and even the words of Christ. There is no time in which the Church has “finally arrived,” whether that time be the middle ages or post-Vatican II. Rather, the Church is always arriving. The Church is in a constant state of arrival, in new times, places, cultures, and lives. These changing and new contexts may bring out particular strengths and challenges in the Church, but one must be very cautious in saying that one time or context is per se better than another.
2. Christian doctrine develops.
Christian doctrine does develop, and often is ways that can be surprising and unexpected. The tendency of the Church alive is to expand.
3. Orthodoxy should be a dynamic principle.
Charity remains the paramount Christian virtue. Charity is the virtue by which we will ultimately be judged and is ultimately the virtue by which Christians are recognized (John 13:35). Charity is a principle of Christian doctrine, because it stands above doctrine as something which orders and moves the Christian life. For these and other reasons, constant preoccupation with orthodoxy is a vice, as is a constant preoccupation with others’ orthodoxy. Preoccupations with orthodoxy tend towards heterodoxy. I do believe, with Mary Karr, that when it comes to “cafeteria Catholicism,” “we’re all cafeteria everything.” Orthodoxy is a pursuit, rather than an achievement. And it is something that will come out more fruitfully when arising out of charity, rather than arising out of a concern with being correct. Doctrines, as John Cavadini once put it, should be lights on the pathway to charity.
4. The bishop is owed some form of obedience, and this informs doctrine somehow.
This obedience is neither unqualified nor absolute. I’m not quite sure what this exactly consists of. But a form of obedience is owed by virtue of the office, and it is related to doctrine in that this office is, in part, an office of teaching and articulation. Similarly, a certain reverence is owed towards bishops and priests by virtue of their office. This does not mean evil acts by these persons should be condoned; they should be condemned. Relations in the Church ought to be complementary. And the head of the Church, wherein authority ultimately resides, is not the magisterium but is Christ. All Catholics have distinct authority proper to their roles in the Church. Every Christian is called to be priest, prophet, and king. (Yes, even women.) The development and articulation of doctrine arises in the complicated relationships in the Church.
5. Church teaching is conditioned by the times.
Doctrine is conditioned by the times in two ways: by going into culture and by coming out of culture. First, doctrine is only lived contextually, in specific cultures and times and places. Second, doctrine is only articulated contextually, coming out of the languages and frameworks of the cultures in which they are lived. This is unavoidable. Christians need to be cautious. Christians of all socio-political positions tend to hold the spoken and unspoken prejudices of our cultures and contexts, and our understandings of Christianity tend to be conditioned by these prejudices. Doctrine is always read through and developed in an interpretive lens and is never read or developed in a purely abstracted form. This is one reason why doctrine is constantly developing, and also a reason why doctrine is in constant need of new articulations. In this way, it is more like the book of Revelation and less like the Deuteronomic code. (In other ways, doctrine is like the Deuteronomic code.) This does not mean that doctrine developed in one context is irrelevant for other contexts. But context matters.
The interconnectedness of these considerations can be seen in Catholic treatment of our most important teachings, those held in the Creed. When one argues that “Catholic teaching never changes,” perhaps the most significant example of this belief can be found in the Nicene Creed that Catholics recite at Mass. The only problem with looking to the “unchanging creed” is that the creed has changed.
English-speaking Catholics do not say the same creed we said ten years ago. In 2011, a new translation of the Mass was introduced, and the Nicene Creed changed, in significant ways. No longer did the creed begin with a proclamation by “we.” Instead, the first word was a proclamation of “I.” “I believe in one God.”
Someone might respond, “No, it’s really the same creed. It’s just that the new translation gets us closer to the original Latin.” There are a few problems with this position. First, the argument that the new translation gets us closer to the “original Latin” only underscores the fact that this new translation is different. At the very least, as of 2011, something was incomplete, insufficient, or incorrect in the previous translation, in the creed that English-speaking Catholics had been reciting for decades. The new translation has a different treatment of certain ecclesial and theological matters. Indeed, if the creed never changed, we would not have needed to change it in order to get “closer” to the Latin.
Second, the Nicene Creed was not originally in Latin, but was in Greek. And when the Greek is compared with the Latin, the Latin has changes and insertions that did not exist in the Greek text. That is, when the creed was recorded in Latin, the Creed was changed. Words, and even entire lines, were cut out. And then, when the Latin was translated into English, the Creed changed again. And when the English was retranslated, the Creed was changed again. Interestingly, the Greek Nicene Creed starts with “Πιστεύομεν” (“We believe”), which makes the pre-2011 English translation more of a literal translation of the older Greek text. (See below for a detailed outline of changes.)
Understanding the nature of these changes is key to understanding what kind of thing Church teaching is. Church teaching is not a dead letter, something best not translated for fear of change. Rather, Church teaching is something in need of constant change in order to speak to the unique times it finds itself in, and in order to be faithful to itself. Fidelity to the history and historical context of the text will always be necessary to ensure that it is an honest and good faith translation. But every age requires retranslation, and retranslation necessarily involves interpretation, change, and, at times, even guesswork. It also involves working to understand the times, cultures, and contexts of the world that the Church is currently being translated into, and it recognizes that no statement of Church teaching will ever be the end-all-be-all statement. We will have to recognize that, as times progress, certain statements of Church teaching (like the previous English translation of the Nicene Creed) will be rendered irrelevant, unnecessarily confusing, or no longer accurate.
The new English translation of the Mass helps to demonstrate how change can be both organic and a challenge to existing “orthodoxies.” The previous translation of the Nicene Creed came out of a Latin original, and the new translation also came out of that Latin original. What this helps to show us is how the development of Christian doctrine isn’t just unidirectional. It’s not just the continuation of linear sequencing. It is, rather, an expansion that moves in many directions at once, both forwards and backwards in the context of the present. Thus, we should look with skepticism both at doctrinal entrenchments that are purely nostalgic and at proposed doctrinal changes that are purely “progressive.” Here, the wrong thing is not to change or challenge the orthodoxy of 2010, but to challenge the presumption that the orthodoxy of 2010 must be the orthodoxy of all time. A written word is a dead word, and Christianity is not a dead thing.
I often think about the words of John Henry Newman when it comes to Church teaching: “To live is to be change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Changes to the Nicene(-Constantinopolitan) Creed
Below I will give an overview of changes to the Nicene Creed, looking at the following:
Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) (modification of the Nicene Creed of 325) (NCC)
Later Latin version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (LAT)
Pre-2011 English translation (2010)
Post-2011 English translation (2011)
God the Father
NCC: Πιστεύομεν εἰς ἕνα Θεὸν Πατέρα παντοκράτορα, ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς, ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καὶ ἀοράτων. (We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen.)
LAT: Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem caeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium. (I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.)
2010: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.
2011: I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
The Nature of Jesus
NCC: Καὶ εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων, φῶς ἐκ φωτός, Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί· δι’ οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο· (And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the father before all ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made, one in being with the Father, and through whom all things were made.)
LAT: Et in unum Dominum Iesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum, et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula. Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de De overo, genitum, non factu, consubstialem Patri; Per quem omnia facta sunt. (And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, and not made, consubstantial with the Father; through whom all things were made.)
2010: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.
2011: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.
NCC: τὸν δι’ ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους καὶ διὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν σωτηρίαν κατελθόντα ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν καὶ σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα, (And who for us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Virgin Mary, and was made man,)
LAT: Qui propter nos homines et propter nostrum salute descendit de caelis. Et incarnates est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est. (Who for us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven. And by the Holy Spirit he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.)
2010: For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
2011: For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
NCC: σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου, καὶ παθόντα καὶ ταφέντα, καὶ ἀναστάντα τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ κατὰ τὰς γραφάς, καὶ ἀνελθόντα εἰς τοὺς οὐρανούς, καὶ καθεζόμενον ἐκ δεξιῶν τοῦ Πατρός, (He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and on the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father.)
LAT: Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato; passus et sepultus est, et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas, et ascendit in caelum, sedet ad dexteram Patris. (He was crucified by Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried, and on the third day he resurrected, in accordance with the Scriptures, and he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.)
2010: For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
2011: For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
NCC: καὶ πάλιν ἐρχόμενον μετὰ δόξης κρῖναι ζῶντας καὶ νεκρούς· οὗ τῆς βασιλείας οὐκ ἔσται τέλος. (And from there he will come again with glory, to judge the living and the dead. And his kingdom will have no end.)
LAT: Et iterum venturus est cum Gloria, iudicare vivos et mortuos, cuius regni non erit finis. (And from there he will come again in Glory, to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.)
2010: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
2011: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.
The Holy Spirit
NCC: Καὶ εἰς τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον, τὸ Κύριον, τὸ ζῳοποιόν, τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον, τὸ σὺν Πατρὶ καὶ Υἱῷ συμπροσκυνούμενον καὶ συνδοξαζόμενον, τὸ λαλῆσαν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν. (And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.)
LAT: Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem: qui ex Patre Filioque procedit. Qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur: qui locutus est per prophetas. (And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life: who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified: who has spoken through the prophets.)
2010: We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.
2011: And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
NCC: Εἰς μίαν, ἁγίαν, καθολικὴν καὶ ἀποστολικὴν Ἐκκλησίαν· ὁμολογοῦμεν ἓν βάπτισμα εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν· προσδοκοῦμεν ἀνάστασιν νεκρῶν, καὶ ζωὴν τοῦ μέλλοντος αἰῶνος. Ἀμήν. (And in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.)
LAT: Et unam, santam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam. Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, et vitam venture saeculi. Amen. (And in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the remission of sins. And I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come. Amen.)
2010: We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
2011: And one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.