Last week we discussed the notion that there was to be some content to what defines a Christian. The Church has never held that it is enough to think that one has encountered Jesus. There are many spirits in this world, and not all of them are good ones. The Apostles and Evangelists themselves warned about false teachers, which suggests that, as St Paul insisted, there was a set of teaching inherited orally and in writing from which it was perilous to depart. In his work on the great St Athanasius, (Select Treatises of St. Athanasius, volume II) the Blessed John Henry Newman, reminded us of some important truths here:
REVEALED truth, to be what it professes, must have an uninterrupted descent from the Apostles; its teachers must be unanimous, and persistent in their unanimity; and it must bear no human master’s name as its designation.
On the other hand, first novelty, next discordance, vacillation, change, thirdly sectarianism, are consequences and tokens of religious error.
These tests stand to reason; for what is over and above nature must come from divine revelation; and, if so, it must descend from the very date when it was revealed, else it is but matter of opinion; and opinions vary, and have no warrant of permanence, but depend upon the relative ability and success of individual teachers, one with another, from whom they take their names.
It is the claim of the Church that it has done this faithfully. It has sought to deepen the understanding of the ‘faith once given’, but never to change it. It is the servant of the Truth, not its master. So, however many the arguments given in favour of having women as priests, or approving active homosexuality (as long as the partners are faithful), it finds its hand bound: this is not what the Apostles said; these thing would be novelties; they would be changes. They are, by that, tokens of error. Just as it would have been easier to have had a single version of the Gospels with the seeming inconsistencies ironed out, or to have a version of the doctrine of the Trinity which made complete sense, so now, as then, the Church is bound by the Apostolic tradition. The Apostles did not teach thus, it cannot teach thus. Though it would win the applause of princes, it cannot bend to do it, just as it cannot do so to win the plaudits of public opinion.
That does not mean the Church ossifies. Not one Apostle ever recited the Creed, St Peter was married, and once many priests were. Once, what we call the Mass was celebrated in Greek (as it still in in some churches), and it has had many forms. Once there was not even a New Testament, just Apostolic books received by the Church because tradition said that is what they were. But precisely because the Church cannot change what is immutable, we know that what we call the New Testament is what we claim it to be; there is no other way. So the fidelity of the Church is to the teaching of the Apostles, and we have their successors who are authorised to say whether such and such a thing is in accord with the Apostolic deposit. At the beginning and the end of the day, we either, as Catholics, believe that, or we abandon the firm ground and go who knows where?