Every now and then, a traditionalist will accuse us so-called "revisionists" of thinking we're smarter than the founders of the church. See this comment and this one for recent examples.
History tells us that Hippocrates, Galen, etc., were brilliant physicians. But even the dullest university-trained physician of today is light-years ahead of them. That doesn’t diminish the brilliance of the ancients. On the contrary, it glorifies God, who gave us the gift of being able to see a bit further by standing on the shoulders of giants.
We have no reason to think the same shouldn’t be true in theology. Many aspects of the so-called Faith Once Delivered remind me of the four-humours model of medicine. This model held that disease was supposedly caused by an imbalance in the body’s alleged four humours: Yellow bile; black bile; phlegm; and blood. Physicians proceeding under this model did some useful things in the name of restoring the so-called balance of humours, such as prescribing a healthy diet and exercise. But they also did harmful things such as bloodletting, the shock from which is thought to have helped to kill George Washington.
Today's physicians know a lot more, and as a result they can do a lot more good and less harm, than did their ancient predecessors. Theologians who insist on adhering strictly to the Faith Once Delivered would do well to take note.
You make a good point, but I think traditionalists would argue that the beliefs of the Apostles came not from their great wisdom or knowledge, but from the revelation of the Holy Spirit/Jesus. This insight was availible to them in a way that it isn't to us now, therefore we ought to trust and hold to their beliefs, rather than trying to improve on them.
Whether or not this is true, I think the nature of religious beliefs/convictions is different from that of medicine, in the sense that it is largely subjective and non-empirical. It is probably true to a certain extent that our beliefs are built on those of our spiritual ancestors, but I think this building process more closely resembles the handing down of folk lore than scientific inquiry.
Posted by: Jacob | March 28, 2006 at 01:17 AM
Jacob [1:17 a.m.] —
1. I agree with your diagnosis. The problem is that I'm one of those people who reacts badly when people use their subjective, non-empirical intuitions to tell me what I should believe and how I should live my life. My inner two-year-old says, wait a minute, why shouldn't my subjective, non-empirical intuitions be in charge? That way lies chaos, as demonstrated by radical Islam's efforts to impose their subjective, non-empirical intuitions on the rest of the world.
2. I think you're correct that some traditionalists claim (i) that the early church was supposedly inspired in a special way by the Holy Spirit, and (ii) that similar inspiration supposedly isn't available to us now. My immediate reaction to either of these claims is to ask the claimants my Favorite Theological Question # 1: How exactly do you know that — or, less charitably, why should the rest of us think you know what the hell you're talking about?
Posted by: D. C. | March 28, 2006 at 05:59 AM
Ya, that's my question too. Ironically, I think their reasons for believing this tend to be subjective and non-empirical. The major assuption of traditionalists seems to be that subjective personal experiences are universal, thus what rings true for them must also ring true for everyone, and anyone who disagrees must be dishonest and immoral. Their answer to your question would probably be something like "Deep down you know I'm right. You're just in denial." Which is pretty tough to argue with.
Posted by: Jacob | March 28, 2006 at 11:28 AM
I think that there are some important intellectual developments which inform us in ways the ancients were totally ignorant. Scientific facts and theories, epistemology (and especially since the early 20th C, the limits of logic and epistemology). Our worldview is profoundly different. We have much higher standard for accepting statements as TRUE.
The prevailing attitude in the Middle Ages was that the sum total of human knowledge was fixed and we could only lose knowledge and not come to new knowledge. That is not our current attitude as we see continual advances in human knowledge.
But it remains true that substancial areas of human interest remain stubbornly resistant to advances. We no longer look to demonic posession as explanations for mental illness. But we rarely have effective treatment despite our knowledge.
In other warea where we have made remarkable progress, traditionalists would have us keep to moral standards appropriate to another time and place. The effective seperation between sexual relations and reproduction afforded by inexpensive and effective contraception changes the moral landscape in ways taditionalists are not willing to entertain.
Posted by: ruidh | March 28, 2006 at 11:30 AM
someone may say we dont know more than the apostles,but i believe we can do more better than they becouse our God is a progressive revelation. we dont need to stop where the apostles stoped but to start where they stop.christianity is where it is today becouse people dont want to listen to the spirit of God but what the apostles said forgetting that God whon shown to them the revelation is thesame God today who can also show to us more greter thing than that of the apostles.
Posted by: moses | March 30, 2006 at 02:43 PM
DC you did an excellent job. You have theological talents. I find that when things get intellectually demanding, the theologian you responded to says, "that's it. Just hand over the keys." I think it stems from a misinterpretation of the fools / wise choice Paul posits. For paul is implicitly talking about power.
Posted by: John Wilkins | April 08, 2006 at 11:08 AM