So we’ve been talking for the last few weeks about Adolf von Harnack, a twentieth-century Lutheran theologian and historian who argued that the church had changed over time, and that this change had taken the faith away from its historical core. He looked to excavate the original beliefs of Christianity, and return the faith to how it used to be, before the Catholics (allegedly) corrupted it over time. He published these views in a series of lectures in Berlin in 1900, titled ‘What is Christianity?’, and we’ve spent the past month or so picking through them (for instance here and here). Harnack’s whole thing is that the institutional church is dragging people away from the historical faith, taking people away from what it used to be and making it worse in the process. He particularly thinks the Catholics are the worst offenders on this front.
However! In 1902, the French Catholic priest Alfred Loisy fought back. In his book The Gospel and the Church, Loisy responds at length to Harnack’s lectures. When Harnack claims that the Catholics changed Christianity, Loisy says – well, of course we did! Christianity is a living thing; it’s meant to change and evolve over time. Jesus, according to Loisy, gave us Christianity “not as a simple deposit that the faithful of all time had but to guard, but as a living faith in the form of a collection of beliefs, which had to live and grow after him, even as they had grown and lived before by the preponderating influence of the spirit that animated them” (Section 3, Ch 3). He argues that the faith was always meant to change with the times – which is not to say that it gave up its essential core. “There is nowhere in [the church’s] history any gap in continuity, or the absolute creation of a new system: every step is a deduction from the preceding, so that we can proceed from the actual constitution of the Papacy to the Evangelical Society around Jesus, different as they are from one another, without meeting any violent revolution to change the government of the Christian community” (Section 4, Ch 3). He believes that the development of the church speaks to its living, active nature, that the changes that took place were a natural evolution and not some foreign or perverting influence.
And there’s an interesting little tension here. Believers want to acknowledge that the church changes, which just seems like a very obvious historical fact. Key Christian doctrines (such as the doctrine of the Trinity) weren’t fully developed for a couple centuries after Christ. The Bible didn’t even exist as we know it until nearly 400 AD. Again: for 400 years, Christians existed without the Bible in its set, canonized form. There wasn’t a Bible, and then there was. What is that if it’s not a meaningful change? However, alongside that recognition of change, believers also want to say that there’s a consistent, unbroken thread of truth that runs throughout the whole thing. The church might not have been the exact same before the Bible existed, but it has always been the one true church. It was, in some meaningful sense, the same Christianity both before and after the completion of the Bible. People put a lot of effort keeping those two statements balanced. They want to be able to say in one breath – the church changes; the church is unchanging. And different people put the emphasis in different places. Sometimes believers accuse each other of changing too much, of losing sight of that core thread. Sometimes you get movements trying to restore things to their fundamentals – that’s the origin of fundamentalists, for example. And sometimes believers accuse each other of not changing enough, and becoming stuck in the past. Progressive Christians think that conservatives have failed to move with the times, that they’ve become wedded to the letter of the law and are incapable of growing and changing like they’re supposed to. And the balance here is still up for debate. The church changes; the church is unchanging. Each half has its own form of excess, and each has its criticism of the other.
But even that’s not all of it. The debate here isn’t just between balancing change and constancy – it’s also about where we locate authority. For Harnack, the Protestant, each individual should read the Bible and come up with their own understanding of what’s going on, and then we should all live together as people who worship God, but who have different ideas about what that means. The basic unit for Harnack is the individual, the self. For Loisy, the Catholic, it’s more about the community as a whole. Where Harnack bangs on about the institutional church as crushing the free expression of individuals, Loisy sees value in the community as a sort of cultural shorthand. Not everybody wants to go into the full history of the Bible and re-invent the entire faith for themselves. “It is inconceivable that each individual should recommence the interrogation of the past on his own account, and reconstruct, for his own use, an entire religion. Here, as elsewhere, each is aided by all, and all by each one.” In fact, Loisy says, the church as an institution provides exactly the balance we’re looking for – “a durable society, a church, can alone maintain equilibrium between tradition, which preserves the heritage of acquired truth, and the incessant toil of human reason to adapt ancient truth to the new needs of thought and knowledge” (Section 5, Ch 3). And besides, he says, all this talk about the repressive Catholic church is overexcitement. “It is not true that ecclesiastical authority is, or ever was, a species of external constraint repressing all personal activity of conscience. The Church is an educator, rather than a dominating mistress: she instructs rather than directs, and he who obeys her only does so according to his conscience, and in order to obey God” (Section 4, Ch 3). Loisy really went in to bat for the Catholic church on this issue, which is ironic, because in 1903 they censured The Gospel and the Church, and in 1908 they excommunicated him. I’m honestly not sure whether that proves his point, or Harnack’s. I’ll leave it up to you.