One of the arguments that Protestants, papists, and the Orthodox have involves the way we see doctrinal, canonical, liturgical, and practical development in the Church. Certain extreme Protestants reject the whole Christian experience outside (and thus after) scripture. Protestants of another stripe wish to reinvent their religion in every generation by following the passing fads of the world. Papists accuse the Orthodox of being stuck in antiquity, late antiquity, the Middle Ages, or whenever it suits them to locate us, thinking that the Orthodox emphasis on continuity stifles the Spirit (and not only the Zeitgeist). The Orthodox accuse Westerners of casually disregarding precedent and of exalting contemporary authority over the consensus of our forefathers who, in the Orthodox view, inherited and passed along the apostolic faith.
These are broad accusations, and all of them are somewhat unfair—although I have met several Protestants who fit the “reinvent your own personal wheel” caricature rather well. Should they even qualify as Protestants, though? There cannot be Christianity without truth claims. Yet, the rest are not wholly accurate. Even the most ardent sola scripturist holds onto much of the Christian tradition without admitting as much. He makes many unprincipled exceptions to his model of authority, though he remains ignorant of his inconsistency. Were he aware, he would be forced to entertain heresies that he cannot stand or to give up his rather unscriptural doctrine of sola scriptura. Moreover, there are many riches of Western and Eastern reflection on the history of the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity among the people of God. Cardinal Newman was not the only man to wonder what development means in the Church.
Orthodox doctrine and practice are quite ancient, and yet there have been changes. Most of the interesting changes involved great controversies that were the defining theological and political issues of their time. They came about because the challenge of heresy or misunderstanding became acute and the Church had to make explicit what Christians before held latent. An in depth discussion of Trinitarian theology did not occupy Christians’ attention due to philosophical musings at churchmen’s leisure. Rather, it happened because Arius explored a possible way of thinking about the Trinity within a certain philosophical world view, and it struck a significant number of Christians as wrong. The controversy ensued, mutating often through the years into one of ecclesial and imperial politics and of narrow personal interests of some figures involved. The result, however, was a deeper intellectual understanding of what the deposit of faith entails.
Other changes happened slowly and sometimes unnoticed. The development of monasticism institutionalized the prophetic witness of individual ascetics—a change that profoundly influenced world history. Yet, one could argue that the monastic, ascetic ethos goes back to the Hebrew prophets and never departed the Abrahamic tradition. The rise of female monastics probably led to the disappearance of deaconesses. Monasticism’s growth in importance surely contributed to the celibate episcopacy.
There are some changes, though, that occurred due to what I call existential logic. Sometimes, life lived—and the resulting culture of a community wherein life is lived in a certain way—embrace countless principles and values that people hold without necessarily reflecting upon them. Human beings, despite all their fallacies and convenient exceptions to principles, remain logical agents who like consistency and intelligibility in life. Men tend toward undoing contradictions in their thought, values, and actions; they also tend to assimilate new ideas and experiences into their overall understanding and experience of the world. This is existential logic.
A Christian community lives—or aspires to live—the gospel, and as such it tends to develop a Christian culture. Diversity exists across Christendom, but there are certain themes that become dominant in a culture of a converted people. The existential logic of those who live their life in the Church transforms their pagan, pre-Christian ways and leads toward the “baptism” of many practices. A good deal of popular piety expresses this transformative aspect of the faith.
Last week in the “Paradox of the Hebrews,” I suggested that the increase in Hebraic obedience to God that Gibbon considered might be due to group maturation. Eventually, the lessons of the people are going to sink in. I think that existential logic might be responsible for this, as well. The longer the Hebrews lived under the Mosaic law, the more they absorbed the lessons of that law and developed a complete culture in harmony with that law. During the forty years in the wilderness, the Hebrews may have had Moses and the visible presence of the Lord with them night and day, but they were still a rather paganized people whose way of life had been shaped by living among the Egyptians for generations. Long after the age of the prophets, Pharisees preached to what seemed a much more obedient and observant population. One may ask if the impressive work of rabbinical legal scholarship could have come to be in the desert. It is unlikely. The Hebrews had to mature. Of course, men always sin, err, and transgress their own principles, but they fall short less often when there are strong communal supports that nourish the beliefs and practices of their people.
Anyway, I think of existential logic when I hear primitivist challenges from certain “Bible Protestants.” These folks dismiss anything that is not mentioned explicitly, at least to a clarity and full elaboration sufficient for their liking, in Holy Writ. If these chaps stopped and considered existential logic, a lot of what they find objectionable would make sense to them. Why do we honor the Theotokos in the particular ways that we do? It is simple. Consider who she is and what she does in salvation history. Then, traditional Christian practice through the ages makes sense. Why do we revere the holy vessels that are used for the Eucharistic service? I do not know the history of such practice, but I doubt that there were many canons in the first and second centuries about those vessels. Yet, when you consider what the Eucharist is, these practices make sense. It is for this reason that the apostolic age in the first century should not be the definitive model in all ways for Christians today. A community must live its way of life for some time, and then changes occur that reflect the fundamental truths and values of that community.