Assurance and Development, Part II
The road to doctrinal certainty, as I outlined in a previous essay, is fraught with false shortcuts. There are a million wrong ways to achieve peace of mind about one’s religion; nevertheless, only stability will satisfy our spiritual longings. If these inward groanings are satiable, then there must be a right way to pursue them.
The trouble with each of the aforementioned approaches to certainty lies in a presupposition that was mostly foreign to Christian doctrine merely five hundred years ago: individualism. In each case I discussed, the doubting Christian sought surety in a vacuum. The broader Church was never consulted. Each person became a Descartes in his pursuit of truth; a Luther. This is a great source of doubt in our time.
The Scriptures prescribe unity as the cure to instability. In Ephesians 4, Paul hopes that “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Ephesians 4:14). The Apostle’s aspiration is not mere sentimentality. Rather, he roots his expectation in the continued “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13), reminding the Ephesians that “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
It is no accident, therefore, that the scandal of disunity has bred much of the skepticism that Christianity now faces. Atheists often point to our divisions—Catholic vs. Protestant, Orthodox vs. Catholic, and even Protestant vs. Protestant—and ask how any religion with such disagreement could hold the truth. In one sense, this is an illogical criticism; internal disagreement does not amount to falsity. On the other hand, it is certainly hard to rest assured in a belief when its adherents are constantly bickering. The ugly demonstration of individualistic reasoning only undermines our claims to truth.
Nevertheless, as long as every believer is free to pursue his own conclusions regarding the meaning of the Holy Writ, it is unimaginable that unity will result. As John Henry Newman notes, unity requires both clarity and authority; the clear but sectarian denominations define doctrine but cannot enforce it, and the shallow ecumenism of others brings about a useless alliance of vagaries.
To be sure, false opinions and schismatic inclinations emerge in every age, including the time of Saint Paul. When this occurred, however, the answer was clear: to hold fast to the “unity of faith” (Ephesians 4:13). Unfortunately, without an anchor, the Church cannot stay fixed in the safe harbor of Christian harmony. Once schism or heresy has entered a community, one cannot merely paper over the controversy. The truth must be established, and the uncharitable must be drawn to repentance. How can unity end division?
There must be unity to something. That something must be greater than the individual quarrel, preexist it, but also decide it. The instinct of the modern age is to create structures that respond to disagreements. The Republican and Democratic parties justify their own existence via the existence of the other; they are each other’s boogeymen. The Southern Baptist Convention contrasts with the Northern Baptists; before that, the Baptists contrasted with the Presbyterians and Anglicans. For some time, we in the West have formed associations not because we agree, but because we disagree. The kind of structure I am speaking of now cannot be like that; otherwise, the various factions will have no reason to repent and seek unity with it.
More detail and argument must be laid down before we can fully sketch this structure, or even establish that it is indeed a structure. I will attempt to do so in my next essay.
Photograph from Luca Rossato. Original found here.