Faith: Reception vs. Reconstruction
Faith is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, any attempt to reconstruct it based on the best data is doomed to fail. Instead, one must receive the catholic faith where it is always held in purity: the Church.
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
The Baptism of Christ shows the work of the Trinity. Just as the Holy Spirit is the gift of the Father to the Son before all ages, likewise He is given by the Father to the Body of Christ, so that all who are incorporated into His Body may receive that same Gift. Man does not work to receive the Holy Spirit. He does not somehow become a meet vessel through his own preparations. Rather, the Gift of the Holy Spirit first comes to him and conforms him to Christ. And this Gift works faith in man.
It is foundational to the Gospel that faith is a gift. Of course, the Bible is given to man as a gift, but that is the rule of faith not faith itself. Faith is the belief and trust in God's Revelation which is given to man. Man does not create or manufacture this right belief based on the best data (whether biblical, historical, or otherwise). In fact, this faith (since it is founded in the all-knowing Lord) corrects and determines our best data. Rather, right belief is freely given to man by the Holy Spirit through the ministry of the Church.
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
This faith—not simply the rule of faith but the right belief itself—was given once and for all to the saints: the Church. Just as Christ's sacrifice is ‘full, perfect, and sufficient’ and never needs to be repeated, likewise His sufficient gift of faith to His Church never needs to be re-given or re-completed. The Church, always having the faith, is entrusted with guarding the deposit and communicating it to man in every age. And since this gift of faith is final, and secured through the promised Spirit of Truth (as discussed in Sacred Scripture & the Authority of the Catholic Church), the Church Catholic never fails to believe and teach the right faith. Rather, she hands down this gift purely in every age, confronting heresies and settling doctrinal disputes once and for all.
Of course there are communities which fall away and chase after heresies and false beliefs or fall away due to disobedience and schism. However, there will always exist in historical continuity a bishop and his faithful gathered around the Lord's Supper giving the same faith as given at Pentecost. And it will always be the ministry of those orthodox and catholic churches to give that faith to all of mankind through the power of the Holy Spirit who will never let His gift be destroyed from the face of the earth.
If this is the case, then there is never an occasion where the pure, true faith ever needs to be reconstructed based on the best data; it simply needs to be found and received. The Protestant Reformers were right when they looked at the Church around them and saw that it was not catholic and that the pure faith of the Fathers was corrupted with papal accretions. However, their response was not to then receive the right faith from where the Church had continued to exist and to preserve it. Rather, an ecclesiastical despair brought them to reconstruct the faith based on the Fathers & the Scriptures. However, this never solves this despair. Rather, this reconstructed faith will then be re-reconstructed as new data or insight comes to light, as the West has experienced for some time now.
This betrays a key misunderstanding about faith: if you don't have it, you can't receive or make it from yourself. Faith must be received from the Holy Spirit through the Church, because the faith was deposited to the Church with the promise of the Holy Spirit.
By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
2 Timothy 1:14
Theology within the Church
It is difficult—if not impossible—to find a Father of the Church whose theological imagination could envision Christian men trying to work out the Catholic faith outside of the context of the visible Catholic Church. The despair is fundamentally incompatible with the trust and hope our Fathers in the faith had in Our Lord’s promise to always be with His Church.
And it is trust in a true promise. For those who find themselves in a community built upon reconstruction, it cannot be proper to merely inherit this despairing reconstruction. Man is not simply a blank slate with no history. Rather, he brings forth his fathers to the present, and he needs to reflect on their virtues and vices. True piety is recognising the sins of one’s fathers and replacing those sins with the corresponding virtues in oneself. Therefore, if isolation from the rest of the Body of Christ is inherited, then one should recognise that it is not rightly ordered and join oneself to where the Church has always been.
Just as every member of the body is visibly connected to the others and all animated by the same soul, likewise every member of the Body of Christ must be visibly united in communion with the others to be animated by the same Spirit. As discussed in Refusing Communion, communion is not a mere legal agreement or a compromise on ‘essentials’ (as if the Scriptures taught such a category). Rather, communion is true unity in the same faith. This communion expands across space and time; it is the communion of saints, all holding and passing down the same faith in every age.
The responsibility of every Christian is to hold the catholic faith in authentic communion with the rest of the Catholic Church. Just as a finger is dead when severed from the body, likewise no Christian can live while severed from the visible and historical reality of the Church existing from Pentecost until today. As St. Augustine rightly notes:
Christ is both head and body. The head is the only begotten son of God and the body is his Church, bridegroom and bride, two in one flesh. Whoever dissents from Holy Scripture concerning the head is not in the Church, even if he is found in all places in which the Church is designated. And, in return, whoever is in agreement with Holy Scripture concerning the head and is not in communion with the unity of the Church is not in the Church, since he separates himself from the witnessing of Christ himself concerning Christ’s body, which is the Church. … whoever indeed believes that Christ Jesus came in the flesh, as has been said, and that he rose in the same flesh in which he was born and suffered and that he is the son of God, God from God, one with the Father, the unchangeable Word of the Father, through whom all things were made, but nevertheless so separates himself from the body, which is the Church, that his communion is not with the entirety wherever it is extended but is found in some separate part; it is clear that he is not in the Catholic Church.
On the Unity of the Catholic Church, par. 7.
Where to Go?
The doctrine requires the reflection by all Christians: do I believe the same faith within the same Church teaching it from Pentecost unto today without change? This poses a unique problem for those in communities which come from the Reformation. The Reformation recognises that the Catholic faith was lost in the West. Even if one wants to describe it as only partially corrupted or sullied or eclipsed, the Reformation claim that certain truths of the Catholic faith ceased to be believed in the West cannot be minimised. There are two solutions:
The Catholic faith is not always present in the Church, so each Christian has to reconstruct the faith based on the best data, and this reconstruction needs to focuses on every doctrine which can be up-for-grabs in every age.
The Catholic faith was given to the Church and will always be kept in the Church through the ministry of the bishops teaching their faithful, so if a man lacks the faith, he must find where it is still being taught and submit to that teaching.
The former is a works-based theology; the latter is a grace-based theology.
Appendix: Infallible Certainty?
It is essential for spiritual balance to reflect on one’s intentions when discerning these issues. Unfortunately, this conversation and reflection has often been sullied by a neurotic and scrupulous obsession with certainty. To exalt the Church, many denigrate the Scriptures and say that the Scriptures are so obtuse, and man’s reason is so dark, that he cannot actually know the Scriptures, so he needs to blindly submit to the Church (as if one’s virtue of faith could be outsourced) in order to have ‘infallible certainty.’
While it is true that man’s reason is darkened by sin, that does not impute blame upon the lantern of the Scriptures which guides him. And if man’s reason cannot understand the Scriptures with certainty, how does adding church documents help? In every age, the Church’s teaching has been misunderstood and misconstrued. Every clarification, to this scrupulous mind, is not a new opportunity of infallible certainty but to further misinterpretation and confusion.
No. We do not seek the Church for supposed infallible certainty. Such a search is built on the error and illness of skepticism. It comes from hell and leads only back to hell, for it will eventually come after one’s knowledge of not only the Scriptures but also the Church and even Christ Himself. Rather, we seek the Church because it is from her that we receive the light of faith.
Man’s intellect will always be fallible. However, we are bound to seek Him who loves us and leads us to Himself. It is only in man’s recognition of his own brokenness and fallibility that he truly appreciates that it is to Christ’s Body that we owe joyful obedience in the Spirit. And this gift of faith actually enables us to faithfully read the Scriptures, not isolated and alone but as taught and guided by our orthodox fathers in the catholic faith. Let us seek not a phantasm of certainty but the obedience of faith.