Monday, October 24, 2011

When God Seems To Change

Called To Communion has responded to an article arguing that Catholicism has changed its doctrine on salvation outside the church. This is a common claim. Atheists often make a parallel criticism that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is bloodthirsty, vengeful, and mean. There are some documents from church history that don't seem to fit with modern Catholic teaching and there are some passages from the Old Testament that don't seem to fit with our image of God shaped by the New Testament.

I think atheists and Catholics are right to point out that this is a real problem. God never changes. When something claiming to be a revelation from God changes over time we need to wonder. It could  possibly be evidence that their claim is false. That this is just man trying to know God but it does not have the reliability of God but rather the reliability of the people involved. When we examine the claims of Muslims, Mormons, or Jehovah's Witnesses to speak for God we find inconsistent statements they have made over time and they become Exhibit A in our case against these false prophets. So can a similar case be made against the bible? Or against the church?

The answer is that God did not reveal everything about Himself and His plan to save man all at once. We see it being revealed slowly over many centuries. God chose to take man on a journey. Man needed to know the seriousness of sin. So we have the event of the flood. Every child knows the story because their are lots of animals involved. But the story is really about the fact that sin was everywhere. God is a powerful and when we sin we are just daring Him to destroy us. This is not smart. God is gracious and does save eight people but only eight. Was that the whole picture of God? No. But it is truth about God. The same God we serve today.

This pattern continues. God focuses His efforts on the Israelites. Why just them? Why not everyone? God wanted to show a contrast. Here is My chosen people and here is everyone else. Did God abandon everyone else? No. But the focus was on the special graces being given to the nation of Israel. God did use His power to carve out a space in a heathen world for His people. He decreed that some nations be exterminated to make room for the Israelites.  A pretty extreme measure to be sure. Is God guilty of mass murder? God is the giver of life so He has the right to take life away. Murder involves us taking that prerogative from God. So murder does not make sense as a charge. But God was showing a contrast. His people could not just fit in with all the other nations. In fact, they needed to be protected from their influence. Extreme measures were needed.

The point is salvation history is not just about Good Friday and Easter. It is very long and complex for a reason. We start to have problems when we simplify it. It is a natural thing to do but we must never lose track of the fact that the big picture is very big.  We end up with a very truncated spirituality. We end up in serious doubt when people point out parts of the bible we have been ignoring.

The same is true of early church history. There was an emphasis on the importance of the church for a long time. That is not something that went out with Vatican II. It was not part of Catholic confusion. It is a real truth about how God is working in the world. To leave the church and try and maintain your relationship with God was and is spiritual suicide. That is the truth God chose to drill into us first. It is possible that a person might have such a dysfunctional view of the church and the sacraments that not much would be lost. That case was not really address until more recent times. The reasons should not be hard to see. People today have used that teaching as an excuse to stop evangelizing and start dissenting. We are very good at ignoring subtle distinctions when it suits our own agenda. If that that had been revealed at the Council of Florence people would have misunderstood it much worse. God wanted to show us anther millennium and a half of what He could do with the church before he made us aware that He has always been working outside it as well. He knows we are slow to grasp certain concepts like obedience.

So at the end of the day both the bible and the church pass the scrutiny. Atheists can fail the bible and protestants can fail the church but that is their choice. We are not logically forced to reject them because the two stories are not incompatible. One is a deeper telling of the other. It forces us to remember some truths about God that may not be fashionable to talk about today but that is a good thing.

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