Biblical interpretation and doctrine based on Scripture have certain parameters that anyone rightly handling the word of truth must observe. The particular rule that I have in mind in this posting is the simple avoidance of anachronisms. That is, if an idea did not exist at the time of the New Testament, or shortly thereafter, but is, in fact, a modern development, then, whatever the writer might have meant, he could not have meant something that wasn’t an idea until the modern period. This is a fairly simple rule. If it can be shown that an idea is uniquely modern, then, if it is used as an interpretation of Scripture, we can be sure that the interpreter is reading back into Scripture something that is not there nor can be there.
In no case is this sort of anachronism more flagrant nor more distorting of Christian doctrine, than the notion of the self – and thus of the nature of what it is to be human. The idea of what it means to be a person, or “the self”, etc., is not a given. It varies widely from culture to culture (particularly between ancient cultures). Evidence of this would be quite strong if one was comparing the Christian understanding of the self (in any form) and the Buddhist conception of the self (or the non-self).
But within Christianity, the self has undergone radical change in its definition and the cultural understanding of what it means to be a person. One of the most magisterial treatments of this topic was published in 1989, Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity. For years, Taylor taught Moral Philosophy at Oxford and more recently at McGill University. He has his own philosophical agenda that is not of particular interest to me, but in the course of his work he offers one of the best descriptions of the evolution in Western thought of the conception of the human person.
He notes that a radical change took place at the time of the Reformation and the early Enlightenment. The arguments of the time succeeded in redefining what it meant to be a person – particularly a person in relation to God. At stake was the theological effort to undermine the traditional claims and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, many of which were simply the common inheritance of both Orthodoxy and Catholicism, the understanding and teaching of the early Church.
In a very insightful passage, Taylor has this to say about the Church and the change it underwent with regard to the emerging modern identity:
If the church is the locus and vehicle of the sacred, then we are brought closer to God by the very fact of belonging and participating in its sacramental life. Grace can come to us mediately through the church, and we can mediate grace to each other, as the lives of the saints enrich the common life on which we all draw. Once the sacred is rejected, then this kind of mediation is also. Each person stands alone in relation to God: his or her fate – salvation or damnation – is separately decided. [emphasis added]
As his description of this change develops he describes what happens to the Catholic Christian who is redefined by the Reformation (which happened throughout the Protestant world).
I am a passenger in the ecclesial ship on its journey to God. But for Protestantism, there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat. [emphasis added]
The great shift that occurred was to move from seeing a human being as a person participating in a common human nature – indeed whose existence and salvation are to be understood almost entirely in terms of participation (koinonia). The shift was a move towards the modern autonomous individual who is defined primarily by the choices made in his/her life. The modern individual, understood as consumer, is an almost perfect example of the evolution of this thought. Taylor’s book is a must-read for anyone who wants to follow this movement in the history of Western thought.
However, the modern conception of autonomous man is a concept not shared by Scripture. It does not undergird the thought of St. Paul or St. John, indeed it undermines both if it is wrongly brought into the realm of Scriptural interpretation. Its application in Christian doctrine has tended to shift the emphasis in modern Christian teaching away from a sacramental (participatory) understanding and towards a form of volunteerism where the decision of an individual for Christ is the sole defining characteristic of salvation.
Interestingly, Christ never said, “Except a man accept me as His personal Lord and Savior He shall not inherit eternal life,” even though many modern Christians would think that much of what He said means precisely that.
Christ does say, “Except a man be born again (or “born from above” the Greek is purposefully ambiguous) he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” But birth is not an autonomous act, nor does it ever involve a decision by the one being born. I am not arguing here that the role of the human will plays no role in salvation, for it does – but not in the way imagined by modern volunteerists.
In the classical Christian understanding of what it means to be human – we do not exist alone – but as participants in a common nature – and though our fall from grace has left us damaged – so that we generally experience ourselves as autonomous individuals – this is not our proper end – salvation restores us to a place of proper communion with God and with other persons. There is an extension, an enlargement of the self, such that our life can no longer be defined simply by reference to the self, but must be seen as it exists in communion with God and others. Thus love becomes the defining act of our existence.
In no place does this participatory understanding of human existence play a greater role than in the life of the Church – both the Church that we see – and the Church that we do not see – the saints who surround us and pray unceasingly before the throne of God.
It is this proper understanding of human salvation that is safeguarded in the Church’s teaching of the communion and intercession of the saints. And it is the self understood in its modern, autonomous form that makes the doctrine of the intercession of the saints seem so foreign to many modern believers. Saints for them simply get in an individual’s way when he seeks to relate to God.
But if the human person and his salvation are understood in a proper participatory sense – nothing could be more normal than the intercession of the saints. It is simply a description of what it means to actually share a common life – the life of God. How can those who share in the common life of God not care for and pray for one another? How can they not solicit each other’s concern? Far from distracting from God – it draws us towards a right understanding of God – who is the Lord of Hosts – not the God of the autonomous individual.
Thus St. Paul when looking for ways to describe proper Church life will use images such as the body to describe how we are to relate to Christ and to one another. We cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” We cannot say to the saints, “I have no need of you.”
In classical Christian teaching we are told, “No one is saved alone. If we fall, we fall alone. But no one is saved alone.”
Our will has its role. Orthodoxy strongly teaches the importance of asceticism (acts such as fasting and prayer, almsgiving, etc.). But the purpose of asceticism is not self-improvement, but simply to learn cooperation with the communion of grace that is saving us. In fasting and prayer we learn that our life depends not on ourselves but on others – God who is the Source of all life – and our proper communion with the rest of creation.
The Church never teaches a doctrine or dogma simply for the sake of teaching. Such proclamations are always about the truth as revealed to us in Christ – particularly as it relates to our salvation. The intercession of the saints is one such dogma. For it safeguards the revealed teaching concerning what it means to be a human created in the image of God and the very nature of our salvation. Human beings are created such that we are meant to share and live a common life – the life of God. The Communion of Saints is simply a dogmatic expression of that reality – a verbal icon of the truth of our being.
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