I’ve often maintained, not least when my posts are the ones prompting them, that the comments section of this blog is sometimes the best part of it. Our Orthodox commentator ‘No Man’s Land’ was, as I suspect Orthodox Christians would be, amused by the use of the word modernist:
I find it amusing when modernists, pejoratively, call other modernists modernists. I guess it only serves to show how far the West really is from a patristic and medieval hermeneutic, theology, and spirituality
and when I said it did have its amusing side, he added:
Particularly exegetically. How the West reads Scripture, at least generally, is very modern, even amongst those who think they are anti-modernists. And by that I mean that one of the primary components of modernism is that the whole meaning of a text or the brewing of coffee or of anything rests in what we can know about it literally i.e., historically or scientifically. To put it in terms of Aristotelian causality, everything is material and efficient in the West, nothing is final or formal anymore.
That set off a train of thought which, as perhaps with all my trains, came off the rails and may not have been going anywhere anyway, but let me try to see if it will.
The relationship between Church and Scripture is a complex one, because they are to parts of the same phenomena – the way in which God conducts his relationship with saved sinners, and the way in which he draws the unsaved to him. As Jock MacSporran has recently reminded us, the Bereans did not simply receive the word from Paul, they strove hard with their God-given brains to study it in relationship to Scripture. The implication seems to be that they knew Paul was telling the truth because they found infallible signs in Scripture. Given the date, this is unlikely to mean they were perusing the Gospels or any of the NT, because for the most part, those texts did not exist – so they were probably studying the Jewish Scriptures, and, of course, Jesus do often referred to them as the evidence that he was the Messiah. So, they received what Paul said orally and in writing, but they used their intellects to test it – to sift the evidence if you will.
My own Church has long maintained that a combination of Scripture, tradition and intellectual examination are the three legs of the stool upon which we stand as Christians; it is hardly a novel conclusion, and all churches have used some version of this paradigm. Tradition covers a variety of things. On the one hand you have things like the threefold model of holy orders, the Eucharist, the Creeds, which to our way of thinking, are foundational; on the other, you have other things, such Marian veneration, which many of us consider a good things, but which at times, and in places, can get out of hand and lead to excesses; too often a failure to distinguish here can lead to the sort of things Bosco writes about Our Lady – proper, holy love for the Mother of God is as far removed from idolatry as one can imagine; but like all good things, it can be taken too far and end up looking like it – the answer is reform, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The Latin West has long had a different habit of mind than the Greek East. It seems to have been the nature of the Roman temperament to define, to codify and to make laws; in all of this there is much that is good – but taken too far it can look like excessive legalism and lead to comparisons with Pharisaical attitudes toward spirituality. As one of our commentators, No Man’s Land pointed out the other day, from the point of view of the Jewish Law the Pharisees were actually right in objecting to what Jesus was doing on the Sabbath and in terms of table fellowship; that ought to make us think a bit about the place of law and how it balances with love and mercy. For the Greek East, there was less of a desire to define and codify and more of a willingness to accept great Mysteries without the need to define them – the bread and the wine are the body and blood of Christ – how that happens, what happens to the bread and the wine are, no doubt matters of interest to minds which need to think that way – but that is the same mindset which led the west to where it is now. The Greek and Russian East have only had to deal with modernism as a phenomenon of the West – it did not arise from their way of doing theology – it arose from the West’s need to define and measure. It is no accident that the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment came out of the West and not the East.
I am not an intellectual historian, I am neither an historian nor an intellectual, but it seems to me there are interesting questions to be asked about the roots of modernism in Latin theological methods. For, either a form of thinking newly arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which had nothing to do with the dominant mode of thinking – theology – or the roots of modernism lie in a way of doing theology taken too far?
Lurking behind all of that is another question. For many centuries the Churches were able to work with society and to use its philosophical and ethical notions and infuse them with Christ’s teaching. Did there come some point at which that became impossible? Or was it simply that some churches were so deeply entrenched in a defensive posture by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that they preferred to reject rather than adapt modern ideas?
As I have more questions than answers, I’ll stop there.