Be Not Afraid: The Development of Doctrine
Has a particular Bible verse ever spoken so clearly to your heart that you understood exactly why this is called the Word of God? One such verse for me is Mark 5:36. In that passage, a synagogue leader named Jairus has pleaded with Jesus to heal his daughter who is dying. Jesus begins to make his way to the girl when word comes that she has died. Jesus, it seems, is too late. Whereas others told Jairus, “Why bother the Teacher further?” Jesus says, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.”¹ He then proceeds to visit the girl and raise her from the dead.
The message seems conflicting. After all, fear is often praised in Scripture. Multiple times in the Bible we read, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; See also Sirach 1:11-30). Also, St. Paul advises the Philippians to “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat, contains the words, “his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). And in today’s Psalm we sing, “Hear now, all you who fear God, while I declare what he has done for me.” Likewise, The Order of Confirmation refers to one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit as “fear of the Lord.” Many of us learned it this way in our childhood. Yet, the previous translation called the gift “wonder and awe in God’s presence.” This, of course, is the meaning of the phrase.
Understood properly, “fear and trembling” and “fear of the Lord” have everything to do with marveling humbly at God’s majesty and power, and nothing to do with terror. God does not terrorize His people. Thus, we read hundreds of times in Scripture a definitive motif: “Be not afraid” (For example, Joshua 1:9; Isaiah 41:10; Matthew 1:20, 10:31, 14:27; Mark 6:50; Luke 1:30; John 6:20; Revelation 2:10, just to name a few). After all, what we have is Good News! This is summed up perfectly by John, who writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). Is it any wonder that Pope St. John Paul the Great began his pontificate with the words “Be not afraid”? He grasped what St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whom he named a Doctor of the Church, understood implicitly when she proclaimed, “How can I fear a God who is nothing but love and mercy?”
So far we have grasped the first part of what Jesus said: “Fear is useless.” The second part is equally important: “What is needed is trust.” This week, Pope Francis reminded us that a rigid view of doctrine that is not open to the movement of the Spirit becomes ideology. Instead of trusting God, we sometimes cling to the human formulations of doctrine. I have often called this ideolatry. It is a form of idol worship forbidden by the first commandment. We sometimes worship ideas instead of God, mistaking the doctrine for That-to-Which it is meant to point. We may cling to a system of thought instead of to the Mystery that all thought ponders and falls short of grasping. We mistakenly fall in love with the beauty of our ideas and the symmetries in our systems of thought, patting ourselves on the back for being so intelligent. We are sure that within our philosophical system everything makes perfect sense and we have it all figured out. We can demonstrate that everything is reasonable and rational. One might wonder why there is even a need for faith in such a case.
Faith—that is, trust in God rooted in love—leaves no room for fear. Oh, the human emotion of fear may still exist. That is only natural. But, beneath our emotions is the calm water of security in Christ. Even if the Barque of Peter seems tossed about by storms, we have Christ in the boat with us; and the guiding wind is still the breath of the Spirit. Doctrine, properly understood, serves this faith. Like Mary, the Star of the Sea, who is not our destination but helps guide us there, so too doctrine is a navigational beacon. It is not the Truth. It points us toward Truth. But unlike Mary, who is a fixed star; doctrine develops and is more like the sails on a ship. In essence, those sails remain the same, but they are adjusted to catch the Wind that is the Spirit. We should never be afraid to adjust the sails. Pope Francis pointed out that the Apostles did just that at the Council of Jerusalem, and that the Church in its Magisterium has continued to do so throughout the ages.
In so many areas of Church life right now, there seems to be division: divorce and remarriage, the role of women in the Church, homosexuality, liturgical norms and practices, political priorities, etc. We should not be afraid. The Church has had divided opinions about doctrine and practices right from the beginning. Doctrine has developed through it all, not in the worldly sense of “getting with the times” or “becoming more relevant in today’s world.” This would be to lose touch with the Truth in favor of popular opinion. Doctrine has developed, nonetheless, as a faithful and fearless response to the Spirit moving the Church to a fuller understanding of Truth. It may sometimes be confusing and scary. We may lose the solid footing that we thought we had. We may even think that something is dying that we want to save. Jesus tells us, as he told Jairus, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.”
¹ St. Joseph Edition, New American Bible, 1970 translation.