Friday, May 21, 2010

Relection: Theological Discernment

As I have aged – I will not say matured – my approach to theology has aged, as well. I pray more and argue less. I submit more and speculate less. I reason more with the mind in the heart and less with the mind in the head. At least, I hope so.

And so, my approach to disputed theological matters has changed significantly. I have found myself – really rather unconsciously – resorting increasingly to two criteria for assessing theological truth claims: the Vincentian Canon and the Canon of the Martyrs.

If the Church has spoken definitively on a matter, I consider it settled. The important doctrines codified in the Nicene and Apostolic Creeds, for example, are not subject to debate. Other issues I refer to the Church Fathers and to the consensus fidelium, the consensual voice of the faithful, under this general rubric: that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all (Vincentian Canon, St. Vincent of Lérins). This canon rules out geographically local innovations (everywhere), chronological novelties (always), and denominational distinctives (by all). In short, if the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has spoken with a united voice – in Scripture, Creed, liturgy, accepted faith and practice – I accept its testimony and there take my stand.

If the Church has not so spoken I then appeal to the Canon of the Martyrs: Can this expression of the faith explain the willingness of men and women to die joyfully for our Lord Jesus? Granted, this is more subjective than the Vincentian Canon, but not, I think, less valid. I am currently in a discussion with a brother who apparently rejects the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in any meaningful or historical sense. To him, the Eucharist is essentially a symbolic memorial of the death of Christ enacted, primarily, as mnemonic and proclamation of that death until Christ comes again. While I think this theology fails under the Vincentian Canon, I know it fails under the Canon of Martyrs. Depending on circumstances and context I might or might not cross the street to “celebrate” a Eucharist in which Christ is proclaimed as absent, but I certainly would not die for such a Eucharist. The faith of martyrs must be sufficient to support the sacrifice of the martyrs. It is that faith – and its theological expression – that I want.

While some – perhaps many – will find these two criteria wholly inadequate, I find them to be quite helpful. But, I will not argue about them.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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