Blondel: History and Dogma

We’ve been talking over the past few weeks about the role of history in the church. First we had Harnack, who argued that the church – especially the Catholics – had introduced a whole bunch of changes and developments, taking the church away from its true historical identity. Then we had Loisy, who argued that the church was meant to change, and that it was a natural living evolution of the same core principles. Then, most recently, we had the Vatican, who excommunicated the Catholic Loisy, and absolutely refused to consider that the church changed over time. They rejected Loisy, and they rejected Harnack – and, you know, it sort of just seemed anti-intellectual, rejecting the pretty clear historical evidence that the church had changed over time. Today, we’re looking at a fourth position: Maurice Blondel’s History and Dogma, a 1904 text where the Catholic Blondel tries to resolve some of the gaps opened up between Loisy’s historical inquiry and the Vatican’s emphasis on dogma.

And Blondel’s probably onto something, right. In theory, if Christianity is true, you’d think there shouldn’t be any gap between Christian beliefs and historical facts. It should be perfectly fine for historians or archeologists to go off and do their studies, because if Christianity is true, then the historians should only find things that prove Christian beliefs. There shouldn’t be any sense of threat, or even any sort of gap between the two groups. They should be perfectly in agreement. As Blondel says of the two groups, “both affirm that if facts are to support faith they must possess an independent consistency, and that faith in its turn illuminates and guarantees the facts.” And yet as we’ve seen the two groups attacked each other: “both sides reproach one another with endangering religion, both the spirit and the letter of religion.” The problem, according to Blondel, is that there actually is a gap between history and dogma:

“It is generally agreed that there is, as it were, a double movement between fact and faith, a sort of coming and going passing over two obscure intervals: for while it is true that historical facts are the foundations of the Catholic faith, they do not of themselves engender it, nor do they suffice to justify it entirely; and, reciprocally, the Catholic faith and the authority of the Church which it implies guarantee the facts and draw from them a doctrinal interpretation which convinces the believer as would a historical reality itself, but on other grounds than those which the historian is able to verify.”

Christian faith is historical, in that Christians believe that Jesus was a real historical dude who was also literally God Incarnate. In that sense, historical facts are the foundations of the Catholic faith, or of Christianity more broadly. The integrity of the faith hinges on the historical moment of Jesus. However, as Blondel says, the historical facts aren’t really enough on their own to justify the faith. Christians believe that faith is something given, something bestowed, not something reached through our human powers of argument or analysis. In another text, ‘The Letter on Apologetics’, Blondel calls faith a “gratuitous gift,” and says that “no apologetic, however demonstrative we may suppose it to be, can communicate it or produce it.” In that sense, the historical facts are the foundation of Christianity, but they’re also not enough on their own to generate faith. Similarly, through faith, Christians come up with a bunch of interpretations, a bunch of doctrines and beliefs, and faith serves as the proof of those beliefs. In that sense, Christianity channels both facts and faith. They aren’t two separate channels – as Blondel says, there’s a double movement back and forth between them – but there’s also potentially some difficulty or tension in that interaction. It’s not entirely obvious how that double movement works. We can trace some of the difficulty through these earlier stages of debate – through the Vatican’s Oath Against Modernism, for instance, where Catholic teachers had to swear to “condemn and reject the opinion of those who say that a well-educated Christian assumes a dual personality – that of a believer and at the same time of a historian, as if it were permissible for a historian to hold things that contradict the faith of the believer.” That was a transparent power grab, an attempt at banning any historical inquiry that wasn’t aligned with the pre-existing conclusions of the Vatican. It was dogma attempting to take history hostage.

In the same way, however, Blondel recognises that historical inquiry is not some objective, neutral practice. People bring their own ideals and beliefs into historical research – they construct and interpret: “behind the witness and his testimony, if they are really to enter history, the critic puts an interpretation, a relation, a synthesis; behind these critical data the historian inserts a general view and wider human preoccupations.” History is not a value-neutral exercise. We bring ourselves to the discipline. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a reminder of the boundaries of historical research, and a way to identify any historical overreach. In particular, Blondel identifies a certain sleight of hand, where certain historians restrict their inquiry to areas appropriate to historical research, but then also imply that any other type of inquiry is entirely invalid:

“At one moment … he is told that it would be presumptuous to solve dogmatic problems or to trespass on the domain of psychology and metaphysics – in a sense an irreproachable attitude. At the next moment … the affirmations of the moral or theological order, which equally claim to be historical interpretations of the facts, are set aside as impossible to discuss or even to conceive; and then it is no longer a question of a methodological critique … but of conclusions consistent and complete enough to occupy the whole field and to claim the right to formulate basic exclusions.”

This is something we saw with Harnack, when he talked about the Gospel of John. He sets miracles outside the bounds of historical inquiry, and then claims that nobody should believe in miracles because they can’t be historically proven. It’s declining to speak on an area outside your expertise, but then also acting like nobody should speak on that area at all.

So we have this gap between history and dogma, where each discipline can potentially overreach and seek to control or push out the other. They need some sort of governing relationship, some unifying force that can bring them together in a balanced, productive way. For Blondel, this unifying force is tradition. It’s – honestly a bit of a slippery idea, but I’ll try and sum it up. Blondel describes tradition as sort of like the living being of the church: “Something in the Church escapes scientific examination; and it is the Church which, without rejecting or neglecting the contributions of exegesis and of history, nevertheless controls them, because in the very tradition which constitutes her, she possesses another means of knowing her author, of participating in His life, of linking facts to dogma, and of justifying both the capital and the interest of her teaching.” It’s not quite the culture of the church, but it’s something in that direction. It’s maybe the collective spiritual identity of the community, the collective life and communal spirit of the body of believers. It brings the two streams together, drawing on the findings of historical research, and ratifying dogma as it changes over time: “The active principle of the synthesis lies neither in the facts alone, nor in the ideas alone, but in the Tradition which embraces within it the facts of history, the effort of reason, and the accumulated experiences of the faithful.” The body of believers exists as the ocean, in which dogma and history ebb and flow in doubled movement.

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