The Historical Approach to Truth and Faith
by Charles Davis
Chapter 4 from A Question of Conscience Hodder & Stoughton, 1967 pg 210-219
However, before going on to examine positively how the visible
Church should be organized in the context of modern society, I must
deal with the question of the approach to truth demanded by man's
present historical consciousness.
The modern historical approach to truth can best be seen in contrast to its opposite extreme. This is extrinsicism. The extrinsicist view of truth holds that objective truth, precisely because it is objective, exists already out there, outside history in some unchanging realm. In other words, it exists apart from its possession by any subject, stands complete and fixed outside living minds. For that reason it is not involved in the historical process and can be formulated in immutable concepts and propositions. There are developments only in the sense that the same truth, while remaining unchanged, may find different applications in the changing, historical world, with perhaps as a consequence an incidental touching up of previous formulations. Linked with extrinsicism is conceptualism. The conceptualist holds that concepts are primary and static. Concepts are taken in themselves apart from the understanding of living minds. They are considered as stable and unchanging, so that they can be ordered and systematized without reference to the developing intelligence of men.
Now, it would be wrong to say that all the thinkers of the past before the coming of modern historical consciousness were extrinsicists and conceptualists in their approach to truth. That is untrue, for example, of Thomas Aquinas. But the modern sense of historicity has further drawn out the implications of what some previous thinkers had already recognized, namely that truth exists only in living minds, that, although it is objective, it is always related to the knowing subject, so that all human truth is involved in the developing process of human intelligence. Genuine concepts are the product of human understanding and remain at the service of a dynamic intelligence, sharing in the imperfections, progress and frequent tentativeness of all human thinking.
The existence of human truth only in human subjects means that truth as attained by man is conditioned by the historical process. There is an historicity of truth reflecting the historicity of man. What is truth for man must be related to his becoming. He has his being only in an historical unfolding and attains truth in the same manner.
I have earlier in this book already outlined the main principles of an historical approach to truth. Let me recall the points made, with some further precisions concerning their application to Christian faith.
Man's relation to truth is that of unceasing pursuit in the context of open questioning. Truth is no longer held as truth, but as prejudice, if it is removed from the open dynamism of human intelligence, which seeks truth by questioning.
All the same, in pursuing truth man does reach limited certainties. A man may be said to be certain when in regard to a particular point there are no further present relevant questions. The answer that thus meets the question at issue may be therefore affirmed with firmness or certitude. The certainty affirmed is, however, limited for two connected reasons. First, men always grasp and know truth from a particular standpoint. They can never entirely prescind from or escape the limited perspectives imposed upon them as subjects involved in an historical process. For man there is no God's-eye view of reality, namely a view that would be entirely unaffected by the mutations of every human standpoint. Human knowledge is always a knowledge conditioned by the existing limitations of personal and social development. Second, because every man is involved in both a personal and social becoming, standpoints and perspectives are constantly changing. Hence, although there may have been no further relevant questions disturbing an answer given from a particular standpoint, new and unexpected questions may arise when the standpoint changes. A problem once reasonably judged as solved may then have to be reconsidered from a different point of view or in the light of fresh related developments in knowledge. For these two reasons, all man's certainties are limited and perfectible; existing in the context of the developing human mind, they must always remain open to revision and correction. So, human truth cannot be definitively formulated in unalterable propositions and immutable concepts.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that human knowledge lacks all objectivity, that it is entirely relative to the individual subject or historical epoch and without objective reference. What both indicates and secures the limited though essential objectivity of human knowing is that man by ceaseless questioning constantly transcends each particular standpoint. He moves from one standpoint to the next, from one historical perspective to another, and, in doing so, reviews and perfects his certainties, corrects subjective distortions and overcomes the limitations of his previous point of view This dynamic thrust of man's intelligence, with the constant revision and correction of his certainties it imposes, is inexplicable without a reality independent of the subject, to which man is striving to relate himself in his knowing. And, although man can never disengage himself from every limited standpoint and gain a total view of reality, a view freed from the conditioning of any perspective, he is able by his endless questioning to approximate his knowledge ever more closely to objective reality and avoid imprisonment in any particular subjective standpoint or historical perspective. In other words, as a knowing subject man is like a person who cannot obtain a complete, aerial view of a region, but has to move from hill to hill to build up his mental picture of the lie of the land gradually, except that with knowledge in general the hills to be climbed are without number.
Those remarks are not intended as an answer to all the difficult problems surrounding the objectivity of human knowledge. Their purpose is simply to indicate that a recognition of the historicity of human knowing does not necessitate a denial of its objectivity and the acceptance of a pure subjectivism or relativism.
A further point, however, should be made. When we adopt an historical approach to truth, we see that particular truths usually have error intermingled with them and particular errors usually contain some truth. Because all particular truths are limited and are affirmed from a particular standpoint, they are usually bound up with elements that later prove erroneous and have to be left aside. Likewise, an error often has an element in it that points in the right direction, raises a useful question or lays its finger upon an inadequacy in accepted views. It can thus serve a valuable function in man's intellectual development. It is related to truth, though in an oblique fashion. It is worth noticing that only at a later stage of development can-the truth be separated from the erroneous elements with which it is intermingled or the error that contains some truth be completely discarded because that truth has been grasped directly. At the time, truth and error or error and truth are inextricably entangled. A development is needed to distinguish between them. We should recognize the limitations of human knowing and both the inevitability and frequent usefulness of error in the historical process of man's learning.
Now, faith can exist only in the dynamic context of man's intelligence and freedom. Faith, as I have already explained, cannot be rationally demonstrated; it is not a conclusion that can be proved by reason nor the holding of a doctrine that can be incontrovertibly verified. But it is the response to a perceived duty, the answer to a call of God which manifests itself with sufficient clarity to make our free response a reasonable action for an intelligent being. Led by God's Spirit, we leap beyond the world where the human mind proceeds by proof and verification. But neither our intelligence nor our freedom are violated; they are indeed enhanced.
Christian faith is a personal commitment to God through Christ. It is not just an intellectual assent to a body of doctrine, but a total self-giving to God as present in the man Jesus. It has therefore the absoluteness of an irrevocable self-surrender to another person. At the same time, the personal commitment of Christian faith would be meaningless without a doctrinal content. The presence of God is mediated to us through his Word, and if his definitive Word is a person, Jesus Christ, the presence of Christ is mediated to us today through the preaching of the Gospel. Without a doctrine of Jesus Christ, of his message and his work, commitment to Christ would be indistinguishable from personal fantasy or historical and philosophical invention. The Spirit within us acts in conjunction with the historical tradition of Christian belief coming to us from without.
Indissolubly linked to a doctrinal content, the personal commitment of Christian faith inevitably undergoes conceptualization and formulation. And the absoluteness of that commitment is reflected in the continuity of the historical tradition of Christian belief. The Christian believer is committed to an acknowledgement of that continuity. Irrevocably committed to Jesus Christ as mediated in his Gospel preserved and transmitted in history, he does not envisage any development that will render Christian commitment and its essential doctrinal content obsolete or untrue.
All the same, the doctrinal content of Christian faith was given and could have been given only within the historical process. The message was originally presented in the setting of a particular culture and therefore formulated from a particular standpoint. And all subsequent conceptualizations and formulations are likewise made within particular cultural contexts and from particular standpoints. The absoluteness of Christian belief consists in a continuity that subordinates all the limited, perfectible formulations to the preservation of Christian commitment in a succession of different cultures and to the drive towards a better understanding of Christ and his work and in the fact that no development leads to the dissolution of that commitment. It does not and cannot consist in the achievement of unalterable concepts and immutable propositions existing outside history or in gaining a total, God's-eye view of Christ, unconditioned by any particular standpoint or historical perspective.
It is impossible, therefore, to isolate an absolute, unchanging core of Christian belief. To try to do so is an illusory project, because it is in effect an attempt to remove Christian belief from history. Some of the efforts to extract the Christian kerygma from the rest of New Testament teaching seem to me to fall into this error. Granted that a central message can be distinguished from secondary elements, the formulation of that message is always culturally conditioned and from a particular standpoint. Each age will ask new questions about its meaning and seek to formulate it afresh. There is no pure essence of Christian belief, abstracted from historically conditioned teaching. We live our Christian commitment and grasp its content only within the serial reality of history.
To say that Christian truth exists in the context of the questioning dynamism of man's intelligence is only to express the same point in a different way. Since every formulation of Christian belief is limited, it is open to further questions, leading to its bettering or correction. The Christian believer will be confident that no questions will lead to the destruction of Christian faith, but that confidence should be expressed by the bold and honest confrontation of all relevant questions, not by their suppression. To suppress relevant questions would mean that Christian doctrine is no longer held as truth, but as mere prejudice. The believer will not expect to prove his faith, but he will recognize that genuine questioning will lead to its better understanding.
Recognition of the historicity of Christian truth as held by men also implies the acknowledgement that Christian believers do not and cannot avoid all error in grasping and formulating it. Particular formulations are usually intermingled with elements that are later seen to be erroneous and left aside. The imperfections of man's view from limited standpoints and the unavoidable interference of physical, emotional, social and cultural factors upon his intellectual development and activity even as a Christian would make the exclusion of all error miraculous. find it would be an unnecessary miracle. The Spirit can sufficiently secure the indefectibility of Christian faith by constantly counteracting and overcoming error, without the need to exclude it. As long as there remains a sufficient hold upon Christian truth among Christians to form the basis for a renewal and eventual opposition to any error, the continuity of Christian tradition is safeguarded.
Christian history would suggest that such is in fact the manner in which Christian truth has been preserved. Particular errors have often been widespread, sometimes universal, among Christians, but there has always remained a sufficient basis of Christian truth from which they were in time counteracted and overcome. And when we look at particular formulations of Christian teaching, we find elements in them that later had to be rejected. At the same time, many errors have had an important function in pointing to truth and urging the inadequacy of a one-sided formulation.
What is true of Christian tradition generally is likewise true of the Bible. The Bible is a unique and indispensable witness to God's revelation, which culminated in Christ. It is not, however, free from the limitations of its cultural context, or rather contexts, nor is it entirely without error. The limitations and errors do not destroy the unity and continuity of its teaching nor the fact that it embodies the absolute truth of God's Word. At the same time, it is a human and historical document, subject as such to inevitable imperfections and limitations. While it will remain the perennial centre of the Christian tradition and never be rendered obsolete, both in itself and in its interpretation it must be regarded as existing within the historical process. It cannot be isolated from history as an unhistorical absolute.
After this brief examination of the historical approach to Christian truth, we can now ask what social structure of the Christian community is implied by it.
It seems to me that the structure should be such as to keep Christian truth within the context of history and in interaction with human historical development, both individual and social. Once it is removed from the historical process, it ceases to be truth for man and becomes antiquated legend or obstinate prejudice. On the same count, it must be kept within the open, questioning dynamism of human intelligence. Questions must not be suppressed, the value of particular formulations not exaggerated, and errors met by carefully examining their implications, not by supposing that they can be immediately condemned from a total possession of the truth.
These conditions, I am convinced, will be realized only by regarding Christian truth as belonging to the Christian community as a whole as in fact being the common world of meaning that constitutes it as a community. Only by being firmly placed in the hands of the Christian community as a whole will Christian truth be fully engaged in the process of man's becoming, fully linked to his individual and social development. And Christian truth as a common world of meaning will be preserved and transmitted by open communication. Open communication will secure that relevant questions are not suppressed, but are taken up by others and met by common effort. Through it the inadequacy of particular formulations will be revealed and counteracted by fresh thought to meet new situations and problems. Open communication can provide the remedy for errors. Particular Christian groups may fall into serious error, blinded by national or racial prejudice or influenced by specious arguments. Other groups or individuals can resist these errors and work to overcome them. When an error spreads generally among Christians, open communication allows for the dissident voice that eventually makes itself heard.
Christians will believe that the processes of open communication are effective in unfailingly preserving the presence of Christian truth in the world because of the support and guidance of the Spirit. Nevertheless, the Spirit acts through humanly relevant structures. As we see it in the modern world, open communication is achieved by personal relationships and social intercourse, by writings and meetings, by numerous organizations directed to particular purposes, by teaching (a procedure now understood as involving dialogue and discussion), and by the use of other modern means of communication. There is no reason why the Spirit should not be seen as acting through such means.
Such processes of open communication establish the scientific community as a common world of meaning, transcending national, racial and even cultural barriers, without the need for an overarching organization or for an external authority issuing scientific edicts. And if this is repudiated as a possible analogy for the Christian community on the grounds that the scientific community embraces only an elite-a point which is questionable when one considers the full extent of its pervasive influence-similar analogies may be drawn, not only from schools of thought and literary traditions, but also from tenaciously persistent folk cultures and traditions. There are no rational grounds for asserting that a common world of meaning cannot be preserved, transmitted and developed outside the framework of an over-arching organization ruled by a teaching authority empowered definitively to decide questions that arise. The Christian world of meaning is indeed founded upon the authority of God's Word. But it does not follow that the Spirit in evoking faith in that Word must act through a system of hierarchical authority. The authority of God's Word may be seen as embodied in the Christian community as a whole with its common tradition and biblical record and then preserved and transmitted through open communication
The Christian tradition is a present and historical fact. Despite the many divisions among Christians, it exists recognizably as a common world of meaning to which all Christians, with the possible exception of some fringe groups, belong. The individual should not and does not need to create a Christian belief for himself. He joins himself to the historical tradition and enters into that world of meaning. He does so through some meeting with other Christians. These introduce him to the Christian faith through their own understanding of it, and usually at present they owe allegiance to a particular Christian denomination. The new Christian will therefore at the moment generally become a member of one of the Churches that now divide the Christian community. But his understanding of his faith should not remain static. He can develop his Christian belief by gaining a deeper arid wider knowledge of the Christian tradition as a whole through his own reflection, through contact with other Christians, through reading within the vast range of Christian writing, through benefiting in general from the processes of communication amongst Christians. This will lead him considerably to modify his original understanding of Christian belief, but to do so within the general context of the Christian tradition.
The point I am making is that the refusal of an over-arching organization for the Christian tradition and of a hierarchical teaching authority does not mean that each individual is left free to create his Christian belief ab initio. The Christian tradition or historical Christian faith exists as a matter of fact. It is not embraced by any single social structure, and all the present institutions are under question. But it certainly exists as a common world of meaning to which a person can join himself by a commitment to Christ, a commitment mediated through it. His Christian commitment will then share in his own becoming, guiding and animating it. And the Christian will participate in the common, historical becoming of the Christian community by communicating with other Christians, by working with them and by joining one or more of the various organizations embodying and serving the Christian faith and mission.
An over-arching organization and a hierarchical teaching authority are not merely unnecessary for the preservation and transmission of the Christian tradition, but they also embody an archaic approach to . truth, out of keeping with modern historical consciousness.
A hierarchical teaching authority rests upon a view of truth as static, just as hierarchical orders in general presuppose a view of i society as static. The deposit of faith is regarded as an unchanging, timeless body of truth, capable of being definitively formulated in authoritative statements imposed as irrevocable. Christian tradition in what concerns its essential preservation and transmission is taken out of the hands of the community as a whole and given to a special class empowered to decide any controverted question. Any role assigned to the community must, despite the increasing stress upon such a role, be kept essentially subordinate to the hierarchy and is controlled by it. This removes the Christian tradition from the context of open questioning by the community of believers, with the striving such questioning implies towards a genuine consensus, strengthening, enriching and developing a common world of meaning. In the hierarchical system, questions are treated as either difficulties or aberrations to be countered by reference to a static body of truth held in trust by authoritative teachers. And a hierarchical teaching authority establishes a paternalistic order in the Church in relation to truth-an order appropriate only when education is a limited privilege. The general body of the faithful are grouped together as the taught and placed under a special teaching class. Teaching itself is conceived in an old-fashioned manner as an authoritative didactic rather than heuristic procedure, dialogue and debate being admitted only by way of concession, so that, for example, the Pope can remove a point from discussion if he wishes. But, as I have already remarked, belief in the authority of God's Word and in the working of the Spirit does not necessitate the acceptance of obsolete procedures. ' The hierarchical teaching authority has become increasingly irrelevant in the life of the Church, and the hierarchical system has already to a great extent broken down. The general movement of thought is forging ahead in the Roman Catholic Church, and papal statements, when not hostile to it, are largely inadequate and restrictive formulations of ideas widespread. Little notice is taken of their inadequacy and restrictions, and theologians continue on their way, simply garnishing their books with suitable selected quotations. The same may be said of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which unlike those of previous Councils, including Trent, did not add, but only cut back the understanding already achieved. The hope cherished by many is that the authoritative acceptance of ideas will promote their spread within the Church, but such authoritative sanction is beginning to matter less and less. And it is becoming ever more- evident that the hierarchy simply do not command sufficient authority to decide any really controversial matter. It is unlikely that they would dare to do so. If they did, the probable result would be disastrous for the Roman Church. Hence a series of unheeded warnings is taking the place of authoritative teaching. What is now happening to papal and conciliar authority occurred some time ago in regard to the teaching of individual bishops. It is long since that teaching was taken seriously because episcopal.
Some may argue that the existence of hierarchical authority is a safeguard against popular error and majority prejudice. It prevents the Church from being dominated by a contemporary, local milieu, with its blindness and limitations, and allows it to insist upon temporarily unpopular ideas. Pastors are more detached and independent than their flocks.
The facts, however, show that this is not so. With all its claim to authority, the hierarchy concerned with its own prestige and with the preservation of the institution does not dare to take an unpopular line, especially in any matter with social and political repercussions. To keep its authority it does not resist majority prejudice. Carl Amery has shown this conclusively with reference to the Church in Germany and his book has a wider bearing. (1) Open communication, with the freedom it allows for dissidence, is the only true safeguard against popular corruption.
(1). Capitulation: An Analysis of Contemporary Catholicism. Translated by Edward Quinn (Sheed and Ward London 1967).
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