The Faith Once for All Delivered

People have noted that the Fundamental Text of the German Synodal Way threatens outright schism in the Church over issues such as homosexuality, women priests, marriage, and much more. But it also distorts various theological questions. And it’s well worth taking a careful look at that as well. It’s a long and complex document, so here I’ll limit myself to the chief marks of its idea of Revelation, which are personal, historical, and dialogical.

The Text identifies the locus of revelation as a personal encounter between God and man “in which God’s living Word – Jesus Christ – is heard and appropriated, interpreted and transmitted.” This divine-human encounter is dialogical, creating an historical-personal space, according to the Text, with man continuing to respond in faith to the revelatory experience of Jesus Christ.

The encounter is revelatory – we’re told – and man’s response appropriates, interprets, and communicates his revelatory experience. The experience is revelatory, and not the content of faith, doctrines, creeds, confessions of faith, catechisms, and the like. All these are theological expressions arising from revelatory experience, later reflections drawn from men’s experience.

The Text draws distinctions among “witnessing instances of faith,” namely, Scripture and tradition, on the one hand, and the contemporary context on the other: “human reason, philosophy and history, conscience, science, social and cultural developments, insights of ecumenical dialog, and other cultures and religions.”

Scripture and tradition have primary authority, in this scheme, with the contemporary context having secondary authority by virtue of contributing to our understanding of the revelatory experience that has been appropriated, interpreted, and communicated in the theological expressions of the “canonical testimony of the apostolic faith, material and criteriological foundation of the Church’s faith.”

In sum, “God’s revelation has been given once and for all [in experience] – but its reception and interpretation [and communication] take place in a human way, i.e. within the framework of historically and culturally determined processes of understanding [formulated at Nicaea and Chalcedon] – already in the Bible.” In other words, the human response formulated in theological expressions of what Christians believed are products of their time. The Text, thus, leaves us defenseless against historical relativism.

St. Paul affirmed that “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17). What, then, has been revealed by His word? Nothing at all, according to the Text, because there is no revealed data, that is, no propositional revelation, mediating determinate knowledge of God, man, and the world, in other words, no revealed truth.

The absence of propositional content is not surprising. Why? The Text states, “at the beginning of all tradition there is no text and no doctrine, but a living encounter that is transmitted through communication.” Thus, the revelatory experience of Jesus Christ is itself empty and free of actual content of the faith.

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In this perspective, dogmas such as the Incarnation, Trinity, Redemption, and the like, are merely the products of human reflections. I am reminded here of arguments by the British Catholic philosopher Michael Dummett: “Unless we suppose that he (sc. Jesus) knew that he was God” we have “no reason to accept” what Nicaea and Chalcedon taught about him.” In addition, “We could have not valid ground for believing so extraordinary a doctrine as the Trinity, let alone making it an integral part of Christian teaching, unless Jesus knew that fact concerning God and said enough for us to come to understand him as communicating it.”

In short, we need to be taught by God.

Contrary to the Text, the idea of revelation in Dei Verbum (Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) recognizes, “the plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity.” In other words, there are two distinct but intrinsically united modes of revelation, and hence Dei Verbum speaks of the deed-word revelation. Thus, jointly constitutive of God’s special revelation are its inseparably connected words (verbal revelation) and deeds, intrinsically bound to each other because neither is complete without the other. The historical realities of redemption are inseparably connected to God’s verbal communication of truth.

Furthermore, rejecting propositional revelation leads the authors of the Text to ignore Dei Verbum’s claim that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit.” (Emphasis added.) This statement presupposes assertions regarding “divinely revealed realities” that are presented as true, as universally valid truth, as truths corresponding to objective reality.

With their focus on the dynamic of revelatory experience, and the corresponding denial of propositional truth, it is not surprising that the Text holds that contradictions even in core convictions may legitimately be allowed to exist in the Church. “For theology, too, there is no one central perspective, no one truth of the religious, moral and political world, and no one form of thought that can lay claim to ultimate authority.” The text leaves us defenseless against a radical subjectivism.

On this view, there are even contradictory ways the revelatory experience may be expressed. This is not surprising since there isn’t a single and unitary revelation of propositional truths of faith that may be expressed in a legitimate variety of conceptual, literary, and linguistic forms. Contrary to what the Text claims, to be legitimate expressions of these revealed propositions, they must always be eodem sensu eademque sententia, that is, according to the same meaning and the same judgment of truth, regarding the Church’s teaching, already confirmed and defined.

This is precisely the view of Vatican II as expressed by St. John XXIII in his opening address, reiterating Vatican I, who is turn was citing Vincent of Lérins: “For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; the fashion in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.”

The authors of the German Text have abandoned the Second Vatican Council. We need to return to the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI who legitimately appropriated, interpreted, and communicated the teachings of the Council and hence of the Faith “once for all delivered.”

All these matters receive a book-length treatment in my study, Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma.

 

*Image: Handing Over of the Keys by Pietro Perugino, c. 1481-82 {north wall of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Rome]

 

 

Eduardo J. Echeverria

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II (2015) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018).