Monday, November 14, 2005

Anglican Anti-Traditional Principles of "Development" and the "Cult of Uncertainty" (vs. Dr. Edwin Tait)

By Dave Armstrong (11-14-05)

Former title: "Could the Church Catholic Ever Sanction Homosexual 'Relationships' as a Legitimate Development of Moral Theology?"

I was replying to one question on my blog when by sheer coincidence I stumbled into something else which perfectly illustrated the point I had just made. Jeff asked on my blog:

"Someone (I forget who) wrote: "May I toss a fantasy at you: If (God forbid) a future Pope were to teach that contraception is good, would you accuse that Pope of an abuse of power, and publicly reprove him?"

And you wrote:

"Yes, and beyond that, I would leave the Church, unless he was removed due to insanity."

Do you still stand behind that? I'd say, first, it IS impossible; but second, if it SOMEHOW DID happen then I must have misunderstood something about the doctrine. I mean, where else is there to go?

I replied:

Of course I do. I believe it is theoretically possible; but by faith I think it is impossible that the Holy Spirit would ever allow His Church to declare mortal sin to be fine and dandy.

I suppose I would then seek out a small Protestant denomination that preserved traditional Christian morality. That would be the only place to go on those grounds, since even the Orthodox allow divorce and increasingly tolerate or sanction contraception.

Gladly, I don't anticipate ever being in such a situation. Praise God for His Catholic Church, where apostolic Christianity is preserved to this day without compromise!


Lo and behold, immediately after I wrote this, I surfed over to my esteemed Anglican friend Edwin Tait's blog Ithilien, to see what was going on. And I found him making the following rather astounding remarks in his post of 11-13-05: "In defence of Rowan Williams" [the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican communion] :

. . . Just a few weeks ago, a poster on another blog denied that ++Williams was a Christian because of his speculation regarding the possible legitimacy of same sex relationships.

. . . Williams says (rightly) that neither the Church of England, nor the Anglican Communion, nor the Christian Church as a whole today, nor the historic tradition of the Church supports the validity of same-sex (erotic) relationships.

. . . Bishops do not have the authority to invent their own faith. Their responsibility is rather to lead God's people in discerning the mind of Christ on the basis of Scripture, interpreting Scripture through the lens of the Church's traditions but always remaining open to the possibility that Scripture may correct tradition.

This, it seems to me, is exactly the understanding of the Church that lies behind Williams' remarks at Cairo. . . . As a theologian, Williams has challenged Christians to think more carefully about many issues, including same-sex relationships. But as a bishop, he no longer has the freedom to voice his own views but rather those of the entire body of Anglican believers (with respectful attention to the broader community of believers throughout time and space) engaged in the common task of discerning the mind of Christ.

. . . I don't deny that it is possible for a moral issue to appear to the conscience with such clarity that one can no longer defer even to the consensus of the Church. . . . clearly Williams does not see the legitimacy of sexual relationships between members of the same sex as a matter of such complete moral clarity.

. . . there are many other issues on which the Church's position has developed or even changed significantly. In this process, the Church needs prophets who are willing to be condemned as heretics in order to lead us to a fuller understanding of the truth. But we also need bishops--that is to say, we need shepherds who keep us from following every tempting bypath suggested by the cultural norms of our particular place and time.

. . . If the Church as a whole does, some day, come to a new understanding of the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, the principled moderation of Williams will be one of the major factors in that change. He points the way toward a liberalism that does not simply put the stamp on the spirit of the age, and an orthodoxy that does not accept blindly the cultural assumptions of other ages. Somewhere in this radical balance, I believe, lies the true mind of Christ, and we the people of God must seek it together.


This demonstrates - possibly as clearly as anything could - why Edwin is an Anglican and I am a Catholic. From the Catholic perspective, such a radical change occurring and being sanctioned by the Church simply could not and will not happen. We believe in faith that it is impossible, because of the non-contradictory nature of God, the unchangeable moral law grounded in God's character and nature, the very ontology of sexuality and gender difference and function, and the protection of the Holy Spirit, sufficient to prevent the Church from declaring good that which has previously been regarded as a grave sin, over the entire course of the history of Christianity.

But Edwin not only denies that; he actually grants that such a thing is entirely possible (not merely the remotest hypothetical, as in my example above). For Edwin, this is the kind of "development" that he regards as legitimate. Thus, our clashing in recent posts about the nature of true, genuine developments and corruptions . . .

THIS is clearly an example of what the Catholic Church has long since condemned as "evolution of dogma": where something can evolve into something else entirely different: in fact, the very opposite and antithesis of what came before (Hegelian synthesis). And the Catholic Church condemned it during Cardinal Newman's lifetime, thus making a definite demarcation between this heretical "evolution of dogma" and Newman's development of doctrine, whereby no reversals take place, and all developments unfold the essential core or kernel of a belief which was there all along, from the time of the apostolic deposit, in fact.

But for the Catholic liberals in 1968, Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical from Pope Paul VI which reaffirmed the Church's prohibition of artificial contraception (already infallible in the ordinary magisterium as constant teaching), was a dead letter because it was supposedly outmoded and out of touch with the zeitgeist and fads and fashions of the world at the height of the frenzy of the "freedom" of the sexual revolution.

For them, the notion of contraception being for 1900 years a grave sin, and then evolving into a harmless, morally neutral piece of technology which enables a fuller human freedom and liberation of women from the shackles and slavery of imposed motherhood and from being (gasp!!!) ontologically (not just anatomically) different from men, was about as humdrum as changing the color of one's living room, or choosing a different cereal.

Likewise, for Edwin, many of today's Anglicans and those who think in such terms, it is entirely possible that the Church could one day overturn this overwhelming historical consensus against same-sex sexual relationships, and that this would be a development and new understanding that all "catholics" (in the sense of the little-c Protestant understanding) ought to yield to as a fruit of the Mind of the Church, fully in tune with the supposed Mind of God.

This can happen, in his opinion, because it has already happened with regard to other issues (he gives as one somewhat analogous example, women's ordination). The latter is still at present a minority view, but as it gains in force and approval, it, too, can become a new understanding or "development" of the Church to the point where the apostolic Tradition will be overturned and forgotten, for all practical purposes.

I could go on and on about this, but I trust that the reader can grasp the vast difference between the two viewpoints. Moral theology and the rock-solid record and beliefs of the Catholic Church in that respect were fundamental in my decision to convert. Recent trends and scandalous developments in the various non-Catholic denominations have only greatly confirmed my decision.

I will be reminded, no doubt, by someone (or at least some will inevitably think it), that the Catholic Church has had its own terrible sexual scandal. Yes it has, and it is unutterably tragic and alarming, but notice that we are not going around saying that homosexual activity between priests and little boys is merely an alternate sexual lifestyle. We have sinners in our midst like anyone else, but we do not change our doctrines to call evil good.

Episcopalianism in the United States, on the other hand, has recently prided itself for ordaining a practicing homosexual as a bishop (because now the bishop's sexual practices - formerly regarded as gravely disordered by all Christians, including Anglicans - is no issue at all). See the difference?

I didn't become a Catholic because of a silly utopian, Puritan-influenced notion that it was a sin-free paradise of human goodness in the vast majority of its membership, but rather, because the Catholic Church taught that which (through long analysis and reflection as an evangelical Protestant, and eventually, much study of the history of Christianity, I came to realize) has always been held by Christians throughout history, with regard to moral theology.

Anglicanism no longer does this. In fact, it often practices the very opposite of this steadfast adherence to traditional morality. Not even Orthodoxy has proven itself capable of entirely resisting the decadence of postmodernity, and has increasingly compromised itself with regard to contraception and (long since) the indissolubility of a valid sacramental marriage.

I want to go where apostolic Christian teaching is to be found, untainted, uncompromised, consistently developed while remaining essentially the same, not watered-down, not rationalized away, not explained as a supposed "development" when it is a corruption and reversal and overturning of what always was before. This is a Church worthy to defend! And as an apologist whose task is to defend His Church and the teachings it holds, needless to say it is a joy to be able to contend in favor of such a Church, which has resisted all the moral and philosophical nonsense of postmodernity, rampant, mindless secularism, and the sexual selfishness of our increasingly narcissistic and barren age.

Since it is equally obvious that man on his own could not resist all that on such a wide ecclesiological scale (since no Christian body but one has in fact resisted all of it), it is apparent that God must be specially protecting the Catholic Church, which to me is one of many strong evidences that this Church is precisely what it claims to be: the One True Church, established by our Lord Jesus Christ, historically continuous, led by popes, and protected by the Holy Spirit in order to be the unique Guardian of the fullness of apostolic Christianity.

Other Christians are imperfectly part of this Church by virtue of baptism and other graces and truths, but the fullness resides here, and I will spend the rest of my life proclaiming this and defending it, so that men and women can better know and serve Jesus Christ, overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil, and achieve a transformed life and eschatological salvation.


I have to disagree with your [another commenter's] equation of the blessing of (monogamous) same-sex relationships with the revocation of Nicea. And I have to disagree because I know people (some of them homosexuals themselves, most of them not) who clearly believe in Jesus as I do but who differ from me with regard to homosexuality. I cannot accept the view of many conservative Anglicans that those who embrace the validity same-sex unions have rejected Christianity at its core and adopted some form of Gnosticism. Some of them, no doubt, have done so. But many have not, and they are the ones I'm concerned with. They accept the basic truths of Christian orthodoxy (Trinity and Incarnation), and they accept the moral essentials of Christian sexual morality (i.e., the call for faithful, monogamous unions that show forth the love of God sacramentally). They believe that the blessing of same-sex unions is an expression of these basic truths. I disagree with them profoundly. But I cannot rule them out or dismiss them or say that I am totally closed to their point of view, as long as I discern that they hold with me to faith in Jesus Christ. I must be open to the possibility that they are right and I am wrong.

And yes, this is why I remain, with doubts and fears, an Anglican.

. . . Also bear in mind that I was bending over backwards to do justice to the liberal perspective and express as much openness as I could. I don't think it's likely that an orthodox case for same-sex (sexual) relationships will ever be made. Indeed, the implications of the Christian faith as I understand them would exclude such a thing. But yes, I do have to say that I could be wrong here, and that I'm unwilling to say that those who differ with me (while maintaining their faith in Jesus Christ as God Incarnate) have totally abandoned the Christian Faith.

[Note: I haven't made the latter claim - perhaps others in this thread have, or believe that -; I only argued that certain proposals are heretical and intrinsically inconsistent with Christianity]

. . . You can find ways to defend the infallibility of the Catholic Church, if you really need to. But it takes a lot of work, which raises the question of whether it is indeed necessary. I would not leave the Roman Communion if I were already in it. Indeed, I believe firmly (much like Dave, in fact) that the steadiness of the See of Peter in the midst of doctrinal and moral turbulence is a great gift of God to the Church. But perhaps the existence of Protestant churches who are more open to less traditional understandings is also a different kind of gift. I know this sounds mushy, but I keep finding myself pushed toward this conclusion by the reality I encounter in the world around me.

. . . I would humbly suggest that the position I'm defending does not make Scripture and Tradition captive to the zeitgeist, because (as the Archbishop said) any change in the Church's teaching must come on the basis of an overwhelming consensus. I think the position I'm defending allows the "zeitgeist" (less pejoratively described as the cultural attitudes of one particular era) a fitting role in the development of Christian doctrine, without giving it a free hand (as more liberal positions do). . . . Neither past nor present are necessarily inferior, and neither should be dismissed automatically.

I asked Edwin in the comments:

What are the doctrines and moral teachings that you cannot imagine ever being overturned? I am curious at what point you start to allow scenarios in which the Church could possibly "develop" in ways which reverse Tradition.

Is, e.g., fornication outside of marriage a possibility for something that will one day be considered upright and moral? How about polygamy (or polyandry)? Or euthanasia and infanticide?

As for theology, is process theology such a potential true development in the future? Or the denial of original sin? Or maybe reincarnation?

The best way to answer your questions with another question: Why is it important to make such a list?

1) In order to examine one's thinking, to be sure that it is morally consistent.

2) In order to avoid the common human tendency of the slippery slope.

3) In order to see whether one's thinking might be subject to a reductio ad absurdum.

4) In order to see if your thinking has an overall rationale which governs it and properly established premises.

So now I'll ask you a question, too: do you agree that such reasons are good enough to justify my question?

In response to your questions, I don't see any possibility that Christians could ever approve of any of the items on your first list. (I could see simple fornication perhaps being redefined as venial sin, but I don't see how it could possibly be seen as good and holy).

That's strange. St. Thomas Aquinas taught, I believe, that polygamy was not intrinsically evil. Indeed it could hardly be since kings and others in the Old Testament had many wives and concubines (without, apparently, an absolute prohibition from God or in the Mosaic Law). Yet you can't imagine the Church ever sanctioning this at all, whereas you can imagine it doing so for homosexual "marriage" (given the crystal-clear prohibition of sodomy in the OT, etc.)?

Cohabitation is quite popular these days. I can easily imagine much of Christendom caving on that, seeing that virtually all of it other than Catholics have already caved on contraception (another immoral sexual practice).

All of the mainline denominations have caved on abortion, too, yet you can't see any possibility that euthanasia and infanticide would be sanctioned (but you can conceive that homosexual practice might be one day)?

I could see this if one includes Catholics in the equation, because we will never condone any of these things. But of course you define the "Church" in the usual Anglican fashion. And you defend this Anglican ecclesiology over against Catholic ecclesiology. And this ecclesiology entails things like the ordination of a practicing homosexual as a bishop . . .

>In response to the second list, I'm less sure, because there are important questions of definition to ask. I'd put reincarnation in roughly the same category as same-sex unions, I suppose--I think it's unlikely that it will eventually be found to be compatible with Christian orthodoxy, but I wouldn't rule it out (for instance, some people have suggested that those who haven't heard the Gospel are reincarnated until they make a final decision one way or the other. I think this is unlikely, but not totally impossible).

You astonish me, Edwin. You actually think there is leeway enough in Christianity, so that you wouldn't "rule out" reincarnation as a possible development???!!! It looks like you are engaging in auto-demolition of your own viewpoint on development of doctrine, by envisioning moral and doctrinal absurdities such as these. You make my work in our ongoing debate on that topic very easy . . .

I'd actually consider reincarnation a lot more likely than same-sex unions, but basically in the same category--things that are incompatible with the implications of the Christian faith as I (in keeping with the consensus of the Church) understand it, but do not self-evidently and directly contradict the basic affirmations of the Faith.

I find this absolutely amazing (and quite surprising, coming from you). Now you entertain possibilities of things that are not only contrary to Catholic teaching and Tradition, but that of all traditional Christianity whatsoever (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike).

Just to clarify for you and anyone else who may misunderstand me: I know that you don't hold these things yourself, but to me, even allowing any possibility that they could one day conceivably be considered "orthodox" is utterly untenable, because they cannot be squared with Christianity in any way, shape, or form.

Claiming that they can be (even of remote possibility), is, in my opinion, a very dangerous slippery slope and a sea change in outlook which might be quite harmful indeed in the long run to orthodoxy, if the principle is followed through to any greater extent than you have already allowed it to be.

I don't understand process theology well enough to answer there. It sounds heretical, but I'm unwilling to make a judgment . . .

I'll save you the trouble: it's absolutely heretical; again by the doctrinal standards of theology proper of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Yet you won't judge it. I truly see now why you have decided to remain Anglican.

A certain branch of Anglicanism loves such "open-mindedness" and "broad-mindedness." Where else can one remain essentially "traditional" in most respects, yet entertain [even if only in terms of abstract "theory" or future potentialities only] such heretical thoughts?

As for original sin, that can be defined in so many ways that the question is almost unanswerable. No, I see no possibility at all that we will ever abandon the concept of the Fall, because that's clearly in Scripture. On the other hand, I don't believe in original sin exactly as Augustine taught it anyway.

I'm happy that you "held the line" with regard to original sin.

I'm not trying to be evasive. I'm trying to be accurate. The broader issue is that I don't think drawing up such a list is very important (we're back to the broader issues of certainty about which I've written a lot already).

Well, you wouldn't, given your viewpoint itself. Obviously, such possible deviations from previous norm do not alarm you (or else you would deny them absolutely, as I do). I think it is supremely important, for the reasons given.

All major heresies begin with a deviation on one point and move on from there. By allowing this "loophole" you open yourself up to that sort of dangerous influence. You have opened a crack in the door of the Church Catholic and have allowed the stormy, destructive elements of "heretical weather" to enter in. The more you open it, the worse it'll be.

It's almost as if there is a "cult of uncertainty" today (I considered writing a paper on that very thing a few days ago). It is fashionable and tolerant (and all the other buzzwords) to be uncertain, so that one is not perceived as "triumphalistic" and closed-minded and (what was Tim Enloe's phrase the other day?), "rigidly orthodox" or "fundamentalist." Many folks seem to have a hard time with any claims of religious certainty.

I don't know for sure why that is (but I have many suspicions and theories about it). Why is it that religious truths are placed (more and more today) in a category of radical uncertainty? This is itself not a traditional Christian outlook. It is, at bottom (in my hopefully humble opinion) , a post-Enlightenment skeptical, hyper-rationalistic viewpoint.

And so those of this bent view folks who claim more certainty (people like me: the apologist-types, or more "doctrinaire" believers, of very firm faith) as somehow (to more or less degrees) psychologically troubled; faced with an unbalanced, abnormal need for certainty which cannot be attained in this world.

Forgive me for making yet another analogy, but this really reminds me of a famous atheist retort to all of Christianity: the "psychological crutch" and infantile need for a father figure and truth spoon-fed to one, in order to face the day and the world with an illusory framework of (supposedly) objective truth to fall back on.

That's what many atheists think about all or virtually all of us Christians, yet now I see this same kind of mentality applied by Christians who feel less certain about doctrine to those of us who claim relatively greater certainty in faith. Now fellow Christians are making analyses that only atheists would have made, for the most part, say, 100 years ago. I find that equal parts fascinating and tragic.

What matters for a Christian is believing in Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Son of God. Whatever turns out to be compatible with that is Christian orthodoxy. Whatever doesn't isn't.

Some things, alas, "turn out" to be intrinsically incompatible, so that it is not possible to entertain the slightest possibility that they might one day be brought into the fold of orthodoxy.

Now you sound like this very low church, "Jesus Freak" type of pastor I know. I asked him once if he had any creed in his Church that people would have to adhere to in order to be a member. He said, "as long as they believe in Jesus." I pressed him a bit along these same lines, but it was clear that he thinks as you do: he was only minimally concerned, at best, about heresy, even Christological heresy.

Your broad view would easily allow a Sabellian heretic to be "orthodox." This heresy, or "modal monarchianism," or "oneness theology," as it is also called, holds that all of God was in Jesus. He was the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It denies the Trinity, but not the Incarnation.

Nestorianism and Monophysitism and Monotheletism are all also examples of Christological heresy; in their cases trinitarian, and also fully adhering to the Incarnation. So now you believe that as long as one accepts the Incarnation, all else in heretical Christology (as historically defined) is now permissible as "orthodox"?

It isn't my responsibility (thank God) to draw up a list of what might or might not be compatible with faith in Christ. That's beyond the powers of any human being.

I see. So now the very notion of orthodoxy itself becomes impossible, since many "lists" and creeds and confessions have been drawn up by men throughout Church history. How could that be, since it was "beyond the powers of any human being"? Was that all mere arrogant human folly?

What matters is that, at each step along the way, we make sure that we are in fact following the mind of Christ and not, as Diane would say, the zeitgeist. And that's why the consensus of the Church (past and present) is so important.

Absolutely. But you make this mind of Christ and consensus so potentially variable that it could easily (in this scenario) come around in many particulars to the same doctrinal and moral nonsense espoused by many "atomistic individuals," not in touch at all with this consensus. You have adopted very dangerous principles.

And THAT is why I am pursuing this. I am trying to warn you of this danger, and others who read this. If that makes me an arrogant, "triumphalistic" cuss, so be it. I think you're dead wrong on this. You think I am wrong. That's what adults do in conversation, so no one need be alarmed on either side.

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