We find in Sacred Scripture – and the Church – a gradual unfolding of truth, in doctrine, morals and church organization.
Later parts of Scripture rectify & correct imperfect notions found in earlier texts. To do justice to what Scripture teaches, we have to consider Sacred Scripture in its totality and not rely on some isolated passages. We have to be open to new insights, also in our own days.
Growing up takes time
When I was a boy we used to have no mercy with those who joined us for the first time at swimming. The newcomer was promptly thrown into deep water and only hauled ashore when he was gasping for his last breath. Looking back on this practice, I suppose it was some kind of primitive initiation rite. But I doubt whether the experience was helpful from the point of view of pedagogics!
Education takes time.
Many years are required to make children responsible citizens. Teachers will tell you of the remarkable change that takes place between the time when boys and girls enter the primary school and when they leave college. The process is slow and yet in the course of the years what a development can be seen from the small children that hop and skip on the playground to the grown-up housewives, physicians, managers or technicians they eventually become!
Much intellectual, moral and professional training is needed to achieve this transformation. And the secret of it all is gradual instruction. Months of patient labour have to be devoted to the teaching of the A-B-C and the instilling of the first principles of duty, honesty and charity. The straight plunge into the deep does more harm than good. No child would benefit from being confronted with a textbook on Higher Science on the day it entered the primary school, not even if he or she was destined to become a second Einstein!
God’s plan of salvation was to culminate in the incarnation of his Son. A rather intricate message of redemption and a many-sided code of sanctity were connected with it. How could humankind be prepared for a proper response to this divine action ? God had no other choice but to arrange, as it were, for a gradual education. Adopting one nation as a foster child God began to teach it by word and deed until its character and intelligence had matured enough to receive the full redemption in Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament writings collect matter which was formulated from the thirteenth century until the first century B.C. How much development did the nation undergo during these twelve centuries! When they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Hebrews were identical with all other Semitic tribes. They treasured the same popular beliefs, honoured the same moral customs, practised the same superstitions and exercised the same primitive justice as their brothers and sisters.
At the time when Jesus was born the Jewish nation served God as unshaken monotheists. Many primitive notions of the past had been shaken off. The Jews had evolved a highly technical theology and a refined moral standard. They had become firmly convinced of God’s redemptive plans of the world and they were eagerly looking forward to the coming of the promised Messiah. Truly a spectacular change brought about by the divine educator!
Stage One. Growth within the Old Testament Scriptures
Writing and re-writing
This formation of Israel was achieved by the Almighty through a number of means: through the hard facts of historical Providence, through the messages of inspired prophets and, last but not least, through continuous reflection by Israel itself.
Israel’s self-activity was stimulated all along.
We teach our children by making them write essays in their own words. Mistakes in such essays are corrected. The child is then to rewrite it once more. The Old Testament reflects a similar process of writing and rewriting. It combines in one book early and imperfect essays as well as more profound and polished ones.
A good example of such re-writing can be seen in the early notion that God punishes children, even though they are innocent, because of their parents’ sins.
(We have explored this in a previous case study. See Principle 6.)
Evolution of doctrine and morals
In Israel’s concept of God, evolution is clearly discernible. At the beginning Israel tended to look on Jahweh as one of the many gods, the one god who took a special interest in its own nation. Then it begins to confess him as the main God. Only much later is the idea of true monotheism fully perceived and acknowledged. Other changes in perception followed.
- Reward for good and evil had to be given in this life according to Israel’s primitive theology. The immortality of the soul and the spiritual reward or punishment after death are only appreciated after centuries of inspired reflection.
- Also Israel’s life of prayer underwent a far-reaching change in the course of time. At the beginning cult was seen as a matter affecting primarily the community. The community worshipped. The community kept or transgressed the law. The community was blessed or cursed in return. As time went on, spiritual maturity threw light on God’s interest in the individual person. The sacrifice and prayer of each person, his personal virtues and failings began to occupy their rightful share in religious practice. From a rather ritualistic community worship Israel moved to a truer concept of personal sanctity.
Stage Two. Growth from Old Testament to New Testament Scriptures
Gradual correction of imperfect ideas
Crude ideas on morality can be found in the older parts of the Bible. The eye-for-an-eye mentality corresponds well to the hard justice among a half-savage people. The merciless attitude towards non-Jews, the views on divorce and polygamy do not embody ideals of sanctity but are meant to curtail greater abuse. Jesus himself gave the best commentary on such moral principles when he said that God “allowed them for your hardness of heart” (Matthew 19,8).
There is no denying that the Old Testament contains imperfect notions both in doctrine and morals, though the blame of this imperfection does not fall on the Divine Teacher but on the limitations of the pupil. With infinite patience and forbearance God took up the slow work of educating Israel. As a good pedagogue God allowed the pupil to make mistakes, knowing full well that it could only be corrected in degrees:
“Therefore Thou dost correct little by little
those who trespass, and dost remind them and warn them
of the things wherein they sin, that they may be freed from wickedness and put their trust in you, O Lord!” Wisdom 12,2
This process of gradual correction was only completed in the New Covenant. Then Jesus Christ, God’s only-begotten Son, would proclaim the more perfect order;
“You have heard that it was said to the people of old:
‘You shall not kill…!’;
but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his
brother is liable to judgement….!” Matthew 5,21-22.
“You have heard that it was said….
But I say to you ……..!”
Six times Jesus repeats this formula to underscore the need of upgrading the Old Testament moral demands. Indeed, those imperfect notions should never be seen separate from the perfect revelation for which they prepared the way!
In the old dispensation the standard of moral sanctity was conditioned by imperfect human examples:
“. . .Walk before me as David your father walked,
with integrity of heart and uprightness,
doing according to all that I have commanded you ….”
3 Kings 9,4
But Jesus taught us a far higher norm:
“You, therefore, must be perfect
as your heavenly Father is perfect! ” Matthew 5/48.
Stage Three. Growth from the inspired Scriptures to full realization in the Christian community
Jesus promised that – in the future – his Spirit would make his followers grasp more fully all the implications of the revelation he had brought. The Spirit is literally called the ‘Paraclete’. [In the Greek-speaking communities of that time ‘paracletes’ were interpreters and counsellors who gave legal assistance in court.]
This is what Jesus said to the apostles at the Last Supper:
“I will ask the Father,
and he will send you someone else as Counsellor
to be with you for ever,
that Spirit of Truth
whom the world can never receive
since it neither sees nor knows him;
but you know him,
because he is with you, he is in you.” – John 14,16-17
“I have said these things to you
while still with you.
But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything and remind
you of everything I have said to you.” – John 14,25-26
“I still have many things to say to you
but they would be too much for you now.
When the Spirit of Truth comes
he will lead you to the fulness of truth,
since he will will not be speaking as from himself
but will say only what he has learnt [from me];
he will explain to you
things that lie in the future.” – John 16,12-14
According to John’s Gospel, therefore, Jesus’ Spirit in our hearts acts as an advisor and interpreter who helps to understand what Jesus would have wanted within the new circumstances of the future. In that sense, what Jesus taught had to grow by the deeper and fuller insight of the Christian community in future ages.
One example of this we have already discussed. The discrimination between free persons and slaves had been radically abolished in Christ (see Galatians 3,28), but in other New Testament writings and in Christian teaching and practice for many centuries the implications of this had not been realised.
See our case study on slavery.
Case study: The subjection of women to men – Genesis 2,4b – 3,24
Look at this video (click on start arrow):
© Wijngaards Institute.
Can you work out how to interpret the submission to men interpreted as a punishment imposed by God on women?
After thinking about this yourself, go here for more information.
In a previous case study we have already considered the fact that Jesus only selected men to be members of the apostolic twelve – See Matthew 10,1-4; Mark 3,16-19 and Luke 6,13-16.
We know that the Congregation for Doctrine in Rome claims that by excluding women Jesus established a permanent norm that reserves the priestly ministry only to men. Read the Vatican texts here.
In the light of our new principle – the growth of understanding what God really wants – could you now give an even more complete response to the issue of the all-male apostolic twelve?
- Consider especially: did Jesus establish a permanent norm by only choosing men at that moment?
- How does this fit within God’s overall plan?
- Does the Church play a role in all this? Why, or why not?
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