Believing in the Church

From Newman’s Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Part 1, Chapter 5, Section 3

It is a familiar charge against the Catholic Church in the mouths of her opponents, that she imposes on her children as matters of faith, not only such dogmas as have an intimate bearing on moral conduct and character, but a great number of doctrines which none but professed theologians can understand, and which in consequence do but oppress the mind, and are the perpetual fuel of controversy. The first who made this complaint was no less a man than the great Constantine, and on no less an occasion than the rise of the Arian heresy, which he, as yet a catechumen, was pleased to consider a trifling and tolerable error. So deciding the matter, he wrote at once a letter to Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and to Arius, who was a presbyter in the same city, exhorting them to drop the matter in dispute, and to live in peace with one another. He was answered by the meeting of the Council of Nicæa, and by the insertion of the word “Consubstantial” into the Creed of the Church.

What the Emperor thought of the controversy itself, that Bishop Jeremy Taylor thought of the insertion of the “Consubstantial,” viz. that it was a mischievous affair, and ought never to have taken place. He thus {143} quotes and comments on the Emperor’s letter: “The Epistle of Constantine to Alexander and Arius tells the truth, and chides them both for commencing the question, Alexander for broaching it, Arius for taking it up. And although this be true, that it had been better for the Church it had never begun, yet, being begun, what is to be done with it? Of this also, in that admirable epistle, we have the Emperor’s judgment (I suppose not without the advice and privity of Hosius), … for first he calls it a certain vain piece of a question, ill begun and more unadvisedly published,—a question which no law or ecclesiastical canon defineth; a fruitless contention; the product of idle brains; a matter so nice, so obscure, so intricate, that it was neither to be explicated by the clergy nor understood by the people; a dispute of words, a doctrine inexplicable, but most dangerous when taught, lest it introduce discord or blasphemy; and, therefore, the objector was rash, and the answer unadvised, for it concerned not the substance of faith or the worship of God, nor the chief commandment of Scripture; and, therefore, why should it be the matter of discord? for though the matter be grave, yet, because neither necessary nor explicable, the contention is trifling and toyish … So that the matter being of no great importance, but vain and a toy in respect of the excellent blessings of peace and charity it were good that Alexander and Arius should leave contending, keep their opinions to themselves, ask each other forgiveness, and give mutual toleration.” [Note 2]

Moreover, Taylor is of opinion that “they both did {144} believe One God, and the Holy Trinity;” an opinion in the teeth of historical fact. Also he is of opinion, that “that faith is best which hath greatest simplicity, and that it is better in all cases humbly to submit, than curiously to inquire and pry into the mystery under the cloud, and to hazard our faith by improving knowledge.” He is, further, of opinion, that “if the Nicene Fathers had done so too, possibly the Church would never have repented it.” He also thinks that their insertion of the “Consubstantial” into the Creed was a bad precedent.

Whether it was likely to act as a precedent or not, it has not been so in fact, for fifteen hundred years have passed since the Nicene Council, and it is the one instance of a scientific word having been introduced into the Creed from that day to this. And after all, the word in question has a plain meaning, as the Council used it, easily stated and intelligible to all; for “consubstantial with the Father,” means nothing more than “really one with the Father,” being adopted to meet the evasion of the Arians. The Creed then remains now what it was in the beginning, a popular form of faith, suited to every age, class, and condition. Its declarations are categorical, brief, clear, elementary, of the first importance, expressive of the concrete, the objects of real apprehension, and the basis and rule of devotion. As to the proper Nicene formula itself, excepting the one term “Consubstantial,” it has not a word which does not relate to the rudimental facts of Christianity. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan and the various ante-Nicene Symbols, of which the Apostles’ {145} is one, add summarily one or two notional articles, such as “the communion of Saints,” and “the forgiveness of sins,” which, however, may be readily converted into real propositions. On the other hand, one chief dogma, which is easy to popular apprehension, is necessarily absent from all of them, the Real Presence; but the omission is owing to the ancient “Disciplina Arcani,” which withheld the Sacred Mystery from catechumens and heathen, to whom the Creed was known.

So far the charge which Taylor brings forward has no great plausibility; but it is not the whole of his case. I cannot deny that a large and ever-increasing collection of propositions, abstract notions, not concrete truths, become, by the successive definitions of Councils, a portion of the credenda, and have an imperative claim upon the faith of every Catholic; and this being the case, it will be asked me how I am borne out by facts in enlarging, as I have done, on the simplicity and directness, on the tangible reality, of the Church’s dogmatic teaching.

I will suppose the objection urged thus:—why has not the Catholic Church limited her credenda to propositions such as those in her Creed, concrete and practical, easy of apprehension, and of a character to win assent? such as “Christ is God;” “This is My Body;” “Baptism gives life to the soul;” “The Saints intercede for us;” “Death, judgment, heaven, hell, the four last things;” “There are seven gifts of the Holy Ghost,” “three theological virtues,” “seven capital sins,” and the like, as they are found in her catechisms. On the contrary, she makes it imperative {146} on every one, priest and layman, to profess as revealed truth all the canons of the Councils, and innumerable decisions of Popes, propositions so various, so notional, that but few can know them, and fewer can understand them. What sense, for instance, can a child or a peasant, nay, or any ordinary Catholic, put upon the Tridentine Canons, even in translation? such as, “Siquis dixerit homines sine Christi justitiâ, per quam nobis meruit, justificari, aut per eam ipsam formaliter justos esse, anathema sit;” or “Siquis dixerit justificatum peccare, dum intuitu æternæ mercedis bene operatur, anathema sit.” Or again, consider the very anathematism annexed by the Nicene Council to its Creed, the language of which is so obscure, that even theologians differ about its meaning. It runs as follows:—”Those who say that once the Son was not, and before He was begotten He was not, and that He was made out of that which was not, or who pretend that He was of other hypostasis or substance, or that the Son of God is created, mutable, or alterable, the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.” These doctrinal enunciations are de fide; peasants are bound to believe them as well as controversialists, and to believe them as truly as they believe that our Lord is God. How then are the Catholic credenda easy and within reach of all men?

I begin my answer to this objection by recurring to what has already been said concerning the relation of theology with its notional propositions to religious and devotional assent. Devotion is excited doubtless by the plain, categorical truths of revelation, such as the {147} articles of the Creed; on these it depends; with these it is satisfied. It accepts them one by one; it is careless about intellectual consistency; it draws from each of them the spiritual nourishment which it was intended to supply. Far different, certainly, is the nature and duty of the intellect. It is ever active, inquisitive, penetrating; it examines doctrine and doctrine; it compares, contrasts, and forms them into a science; that science is theology. Now theological science, being thus the exercise of the intellect upon the credenda of revelation, is, though not directly devotional, at once natural, excellent, and necessary. It is natural, because the intellect is one of our highest faculties; excellent, because it is our duty to use our faculties to the full; necessary, because unless we apply our intellect to revealed truth rightly, others will exercise their minds upon it wrongly. Accordingly, the Catholic intellect makes a survey and a catalogue of the doctrines contained in the depositum of revelation, as committed to the Church’s keeping; it locates, adjusts, defines them each, and brings them together into a whole. Moreover, it takes particular aspects or portions of them; it analyzes them, whether into first principles really such, or into hypotheses of an illustrative character. It forms generalizations, and gives names to them. All these deductions are true, if rightly deduced, because they are deduced from what is true; and therefore in one sense they are a portion of the depositum of faith or credenda, while in another sense they are additions to it: however, additions or not, they have, I readily grant, the {148} characteristic disadvantage of being abstract and notional statements.

Nor is this all: the disavowal of error is far more fruitful in additions than the enforcement of truth. There is another set of deductions, inevitable also, and also part or not part of the revealed credenda, according as we please to view them. If a proposition is true, its contradictory is false. If then a man believes that Christ is God, he believes also, and that necessarily, that to say He is not God is false, and that those who so say are in error. Here then again the prospect opens upon us of a countless multitude of propositions, which in their first elements are close upon devotional truth,—of groups of propositions, and those groups divergent, independent, ever springing into life with an inexhaustible fecundity, according to the ever-germinating forms of heresy, of which they are the antagonists. These too have their place in theological science.

Such is theology in contrast to religion; and as follows from the circumstances of its formation, though some of its statements easily find equivalents in the language of devotion, the greater number of them are more or less unintelligible to the ordinary Catholic, as law-books to the private citizen. And especially those portions of theology which are the indirect creation, not of orthodox, but of heretical thought, such as the repudiations of error contained in the Canons of Councils, of which specimens have been given above, will ever be foreign, strange, and hard to the pious but uncontroversial mind; for what have good Christians to do, in {149} the ordinary course of things, with the subtle hallucinations of the intellect? This is manifest from the nature of the case; but then the question recurs, why should the refutations of heresy be our objects of faith? if no mind, theological or not, can believe what it cannot understand, in what sense can the Canons of Councils and other ecclesiastical determinations be included in those credenda which the Church presents to every Catholic as if apprehensible, and to which every Catholic gives his firm interior assent?

In solving this difficulty I wish it first observed, that, if it is the duty of the Church to act as “the pillar and ground of the Truth,” she is manifestly obliged from time to time, and to the end of time, to denounce opinions incompatible with that truth, whenever able and subtle minds in her communion venture to publish such opinions. Suppose certain Bishops and priests at this day began to teach that Islamism or Buddhism was a direct and immediate revelation from God, she would be bound to use the authority which God has given her to declare that such a proposition will not stand with Christianity, and that those who hold it are none of hers; and she would be bound to impose such a declaration on that very knot of persons who had committed themselves to the novel proposition, in order that, if they would not recant, they might be separated from her communion, as they were separate from her faith. In such a case, her masses of population would either not hear of the controversy, or they would at once take part with her, and without effort take any test, which {150} secured the exclusion of the innovators; and she on the other hand would feel that what is a rule for some Catholics must be a rule for all. Who is to draw the line between who are to acknowledge that rule, and who are not? It is plain, there cannot be two rules of faith in the same communion, or rather, as the case really would be, an endless variety of rules, coming into force according to the multiplication of heretical theories, and to the degrees of knowledge and varieties of sentiment in individual Catholics. There is but one rule of faith for all; and it would be a greater difficulty to allow of an uncertain rule of faith, than (if that was the alternative, as it is not), to impose upon uneducated minds a profession which they cannot understand.

But it is not the necessary result of unity of profession, nor is it the fact, that the Church imposes dogmatic statements on the interior assent of those who cannot apprehend them. The difficulty is removed by the dogma of the Church’s infallibility, and of the consequent duty of “implicit faith” in her word. The “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” is an article of the Creed, and an article, which, inclusive of her infallibility, all men, high and low, can easily master and accept with a real and operative assent. It stands in the place of all abstruse propositions in a Catholic’s mind, for to believe in her word is virtually to believe in them all. Even what he cannot understand, at least he can believe to be true; and he believes it to be true because he believes in the Church. {151}

The rationale of this provision for unlearned devotion is as follows:—It stands to reason that all of us, learned and unlearned, are bound to believe the whole revealed doctrine in all its parts and in all that it implies according as portion after portion is brought home to our consciousness as belonging to it; and it also stands to reason, that a doctrine, so deep and so various, as the revealed depositum of faith, cannot be brought home to us and made our own all at once. No mind, however large, however penetrating, can directly and fully by one act understand any one truth, however simple. What can be more intelligible than that “Alexander conquered Asia,” or that “Veracity is a duty”? but what a multitude of propositions is included under either of these theses! still, if we profess either, we profess all that it includes. Thus, as regards the Catholic Creed, if we really believe that our Lord is God, we believe all that is meant by such a belief; or, else, we are not in earnest, when we profess to believe the proposition. In the act of believing it at all, we forthwith commit ourselves by anticipation to believe truths which at present we do not believe, because they have never come before us;—we limit henceforth the range of our private judgment in prospect by the conditions, whatever they are, of that dogma. Thus the Arians said that they believed in our Lord’s divinity, but when they were pressed to confess His eternity, they denied it: thereby showing in fact that they never had believed in His divinity at all. In other words, a man who really believes in our Lord’s proper divinity, believes implicitè in His eternity. {152}

And so, in like manner, of the whole depositum of faith, or the revealed word:—If we believe in the revelation, we believe in what is revealed, in all that is revealed, however it may be brought home to us, by reasoning or in any other way. He who believes that Christ is the Truth, and that the Evangelists are truthful, believes all that He has said through them, though he has only read St. Matthew and has not read St. John. He who believes in the depositum of Revelation, believes in all the doctrines of the depositum; and since he cannot know them all at once, he knows some doctrines, and does not know others; he may know only the Creed, nay, perhaps only the chief portions of the Creed; but, whether he knows little or much, he has the intention of believing all that there is to believe whenever and as soon as it is brought home to him, if he believes in Revelation at all. All that he knows now as revealed, and all that he shall know, and all that there is to know, he embraces it all in his intention by one act of faith; otherwise, it is but an accident that he believes this or that, not because it is a revelation. This virtual, interpretative, or prospective belief is called a believing implicitè; and it follows from this, that, granting that the Canons of Councils and the other ecclesiastical documents and confessions, to which I have referred, are really involved in the depositum or revealed word, every Catholic, in accepting the depositum, does implicitè accept those dogmatic decisions.

I say, “granting these various propositions are virtually contained in the revealed word,” for this is the {153} only question left; and that it is to be answered in the affirmative, is clear at once to the Catholic, from the fact that the Church declares that they really belong to it. To her is committed the care and the interpretation of the revelation. The word of the Church is the word of the revelation. That the Church is the infallible oracle of truth is the fundamental dogma of the Catholic religion; and “I believe what the Church proposes to be believed” is an act of real assent, including all particular assents, notional and real; and, while it is possible for unlearned as well as learned, it is imperative on learned as well as unlearned. And thus it is, that by believing the word of the Church implicitè, that is, by believing all that that word does or shall declare itself to contain, every Catholic, according to his intellectual capacity, supplements the shortcomings of his knowledge without blunting his real assent to what is elementary, and takes upon himself from the first the whole truth of revelation, progressing from one apprehension of it to another according to his opportunities of doing so.

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