Progress or Repeated Failure?

Among the early Church fathers, there were two traditions concerning the Old Testament.  One envisioned the Old Testament as a progressive education of man by an all-wise and provident God designed to raise man up step by step, preparing him for the ultimate revelation of God in Christ.  On this view, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”  So God had to prepare humankind little by little to be ready for His full and final revelation in the Word made flesh.

The fourth-century theologian Eusebius wrote, for example, that “the human race, in olden times, was not able yet to receive the teaching of Christ, the perfection of wisdom and virtue.”  It was necessary first that “the seeds of religion” should be spread abroad throughout the world until “all the nations of the earth should be made ready to conceive the idea of the Father that was to be imparted to them.” Only then did the Word appear in person.

Another tradition suggests, however, that the Old Testament was a repeated series of failures. St. Augustine asks:  “Do we doubt that the law was given for this, that man might find himself?  Therefore he found himself; he found himself immersed in evil.”  Left to his own devices, man “had to undergo a long and varied experience of his own wretchedness, and to plumb the depths, the better to acknowledge that he stood in need of a savior.”  So too, the author of the second-century Letter to Diognetusconfesses that, “We, then, having been convinced of our powerlessness to attain life, God comes to show us that the Savior can save even powerlessness.”

In the work of Thomas Aquinas, one finds both traditions just as both are found in the letters of St. Paul.  On the one hand, says St. Thomas, the law was a “pedagogue,” a teacher or guardian, teaching us, protecting us, and preparing us for the coming of Christ (cf. Gal 3:24). On the other hand, the law also revealed our powerlessness, because even when, tutored by the law, we know what we ought to do, we still cannot do it. The law was powerless to make us good, and it revealed our powerlessness, thereby increasing in us the desire for a Savior and for the gift of God’s grace (cf. Rom 7-8).

So which is it? Is the Old Testament the story of progress?  Or of repeated failure?

It is both.  The Old Testament is the story of God’s covenant with His People.  The People, for their part, fail to uphold their covenant oath and fall away repeatedly. And yet, in spite of their infidelities, God remains ever faithful.  He punishes only to exalt them.

After forty years in the wilderness, which was both a punishment and preparation, He brings them into the Promised Land.  Subsequently, because of their repeated infidelities, He sends them into exile in Babylonia – another punishment, but also another preparation. He brings them back to the Promised Land to rebuild the Temple and prepare for the coming of the Messiah.


In the midst of these triumphs and defeats, the “falling away” and the “raising up,” God in His loving providence is always leading His People to a fuller union and a deeper communion with Him.  The Jewish-Christian story is not the ancient “myth of the eternal return.”  We do not merely keep repeating the same meaningless cycle for all eternity.  We are a pilgrim people, and although we may make many of the same mistakes over and over again, God is directing us back to Himself.

Don’t these two approaches to the Old Testament have something important to teach us?  Can we perhaps see God’s providence at work inspiring these fathers and doctors of the Church, teaching us that we must avoid two opposite mistakes:  imagining that history is supposed to be a story of continual “progress,” on the one hand, or that it is merely an endless series of meaningless cycles going nowhere, on the other?

We confess many of the same sins repeatedly, hoping to do better, only to find ourselves confessing them again.  Are we making any progress?

We were so proud of Pope St. John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI.  It seemed a “new springtime” for the Church.  And yet it has been followed by the “Long Lent” of McCarrick and Company, and people ask, “Have things ever been worse?”  (Answer: yes.  But it’s not a competition.)  Is the Church done for?  (Answer: no. But only because of the Holy Spirit.)

We do progress.  We can have hope the Holy Spirit really does change us.  But we should expect reversals.  We will need to pick ourselves up and begin anew time and again.

Tremendous theological work was done in the twentieth century, and we were blessed with some of the finest popes history has ever seen.  Our understanding of who God is and of the mission He is calling us to have advanced in wonderful ways from the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. through the Second Vatican Council.  This is true progress.  And yet, we continue to make mistakes, often worse than those of the past.

If there is progress, and there is, then it is God’s progress, not ours.  We, with St. Paul, must admit our powerlessness and turn back to Him for the salvation we know we can never provide ourselves.  We are here, as T.S. Eliot says, “to kneel where prayer has been valid.”

. . . And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.



*Image: An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1530 [Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh]. Seen is the contrast between Old Testament Law (LEX) and New Testament (GRATIA). Man (HOMO)’s failure to obey the commandments, led to sin (PECCATUM) and death (MORS – the skeleton). But man, who sits between Isaiah and John the Baptist, is forgiven (VICTORIA NOSTRA) through Christ (AGNUS DEI).

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.