Thursday, January 10, 2008

Assimilating Paganism

I've finally finished burrowing my way through Newman's Essay on doctrinal development. [I previously discussed portions of this work here (on Bible as authority), here (on continuity of doctrinal principles), and here (on Sects not maintaining the original 'type' of Christianity). This obviously has not been a cohesive review, but simply comments on things that struck me as I went along. I'll end the way I began.]

His "third note" of a true development (vs. a corruption) is that the church has an "assimilative power", an ability to absorb its antagonists (and not be dissolved by them) while maintaining its own identity. By way of example, he discusses the assimilative power of the church's principle of "sacramental grace." [Remember that "principles" to Newman are the fundamentals, which have been there from the beginning, and are permanent over time.]

Analyzing the difference between the ancient Christian condemnation of pagans' use of temples, altars and images, and the Christians' own use of these things, Newman looks to the Church Fathers. We find that the Church has assimilated certain pagan practices by making them good (or sacramentally grace-filled) through their application to its own true substance. The pagan substance was, of course, discarded as being sinful.

""Those," [St. Augustine] says, "who are acquainted with Old and New Testament do not blame in the pagan religion the erection of temples or institution of priesthoods, but that these are done to idols and devils ... True religion blames in their superstitions, not so much their sacrificing, for the ancient saints sacrificed to the True God, as their sacrificing to false gods."[ ] And St. Jerome asks Vigilantius, who made objections to lights and oil, "Because we once worshipped idols, is that a reason why we should not worship God, for fear of seeming to address him with an honour like that which was paid to idols and then was detestable, whereas this is paid to Martyrs and therefore to be received? (371)"

I don't mean to develop a habit of long quotations (a habit though that obviously reflects Newman's own habit), but I'm simply not of a mind to cut these quotes of the early Fathers down further...

Further, and specific to the use of images: "As to the passages you adduce," [St. John Damascene] says to his opponents, "they abominate not the worship paid to our Images, but that of the Greeks, who made them gods. It needs not therefore, because of the absurd use of the Greeks, to abolish our use which is so pious.[ ] Greeks dedicate images to devils, and call them gods; but we to True God Incarnate, and to God's servants and friends, who drive away the troops of devils." Again, "As the holy Fathers overthrew the temples and shrines of the devils, and raised in their places shrines in the names of Saints and we worship them, so also they overthrew the images of the devils, and in their stead raised images of Christ, and God's Mother, and the Saints. And under the Old Covenant, Israel neither raised temples in the name of men, nor was memory of man made a festival; for, as yet, man's nature was under a curse, and death was condemnation, and therefore was lamented, and a corpse was reckoned unclean and he who touched it; but now that the Godhead has been combined with our nature, as some life-giving and saving medicine, our nature has been glorified and is trans-elemented into incorruption. Wherefore the death of Saints is made a feast, and temples are raised to them, and Images are painted ... For the Image is a triumph, and a manifestation, and a monument in memory of the victory of those who have done nobly and excelled, and of the shame of the devils defeated and overthrown." (376-7)"

My own hopes for ecumenicity find encouragement in these words, as they remind me that intrafaith discourse must criticize and challenge each others principles, and not merely our outward practices. Outward practices, as I see it, are fair game only insofar as they reflect (or are co-extensive with) substance, that is, principles.

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