It is clear to anyone examining the history of Christianity that our understanding of the ‘faith once delivered’ deepens and develops. The word ‘Trinity’ appears in the Bible as often as the words ‘the New Testament Canon’, and yet the Church would, and does, say that both are critical parts of our Faith. We all (I hope) read Scripture and reflect upon its meaning, and being fallen beings, we can all come up with interpretations which, to us, are plausible; but say, for example, that, like Arius, we come up with the idea that Jesus was, as the Son of God, a creature, and not God? We can, as Arius did, provide reasons for this view, and we can convince ourselves we are right. It is only if we are willing to submit our judgment to that of another authority that orthodoxy can be maintained. We might, of course, care not a jot for orthodoxy and be firmly convinced that where all previous generations,and most of this generation of Christians have erred, we alone are right, but that way lies chaos, and a house built on sand will not stand. But what authority do we accept?
One of the most attractive aspects of the form Anglicanism I grew up with was that it was dynamic; it expected us to grow in the Lord. The idea that the faith was delivered once for all to the Apostles is directly from the Scriptures, but our history tells us that we (Christians) did not understand it all at once, or even over a few years. indeed, surely one of the points of Paul’s letters is that even those converted by him through the Spirit, did not ‘get it’, and even when they did, some of them fell away. That was why the letters were written; it was why they were kept; it is why we read them to this day.
Yet. St. Peter himself acknowledged that they were not always easy to understand, and warned us that some people, in their attempt to do so, had twisted his words. So, from the beginning, the Spirit guided Christians; indeed we might even say that that is why God inspired Scripture itself, so that we should have God’s word to hand. But Scripture does not verify itself or validate itself or explain itself.
We might turn to an Ecumenical Council, but no more than Scripture, does an ecumenical council verify itself. No one said before Nicaea or Ephesus that this was going to be an ecumenical council, and the Orthodox are right to say that only when it is accepted by the people and bishops as such is a Council ecumenical.
We might go to the maxim of St. Vincent Lerins, which tells us that orthodoxy is what has been believed everywhere at all times by everyone, but that will not quite do either, as it does not answer the question of development. Before the Church developed the theology of the Trinity, one might claim that it was inherent in Scripture and therefore has always been believed by everyone, but that begs the question about what ‘everyone’ understood, or understands, by ‘Trinity’?
In the West, the office of the papacy developed to fill this need, with Leo the Great, as we saw yesterday, claiming that that his interpretation of the Petrine claims inhered in Scripture. By the eleventh century the Christian East was unwilling to concede the level of development claimed by Rome, not least when it came to changes in the wording of the Nicene Creed. But the Great Schism did not provide the East with an answer to the question of authority, and it has not help an ecumenical council. The Reformation in Europe was a rejection by some, of Rome’s claims, but it did not fill the gap either; indeed it opened the way to every man claiming personal infallibility.
It may be that modern man needs no authority other than his own, but historically this has not been the case. That is not to say that the existence of the Pope and the Magisterium creates a trouble-free attitude to authority (as any reading of some of the comments on this blog alone would testify), but it is to say it is the least worst option we have evolved.