Horizontalism Invades Theology

By “horizontalism,” we primarily mean that false ideology that reduces causality to physical or material principles acting upon each other. Carl Sagan’s “primordial soup” as an explanation of all life, and Democritus’ “atoms and the void” are examples of horizontal causality as explanations of ultimate reality. Scientism is entirely imbued with this error. Rationalism and Naturalism are good examples of erroneous “-isms” of modernity that deny vertical causation and make all cause horizontal in nature.

As scientism invaded the intellectual world after the Enlightenment, and especially after the popular rise of Darwinism in the nineteenth century, philosophers and theologians adapted themselves to these currents. Among many other teachings of the Church — and aside from the philosophical tradition that the Church embraced to explain her doctrine — what the Catholic Faith teaches about God as Creator is alone sufficient to show that the introduction of horizontalism into theology can do nothing but harm, and great harm. And so it has done.

Here are three Scriptural texts that we can keep in mind as refutations of the ideology of horizontalism:

“Every best gift, and every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration.” —James 1:17

“And no man hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.” —John 3:13

“[T]he Holy Ghost being sent down from heaven, on whom the angels desire to look.” —1 Peter 1:12

Here are a few areas of theology that horizontalism has invaded.

  1. Christology — In his excellent book, Gethsemane, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri critiques what Karl Rahner called “ascendance Cristology,” which is also called “Christology from below.” To put it in crass terms, this error makes of Jesus the man who became God. For Rahner, Christology is a sort of deification of anthropology, as when he says, in his typically turgid and murky way, “What man is, constitutes the affirmation of the totality of theology in the absolute.” Historically, there are different heresies that have this “horizontalism” or “from-below” aspect in common with Rahner’s Christology. The Ebionites were a Judaizing sect who denied that Jesus was God but reduced him to a mere human Messias. The Adoptionists had Jesus being a mere man who became the Son of God at His Baptism. The Nestorians had Jesus the man (a human person) being united to the divine person of the Logos, as if he were taken possession of by God. The Arians had Jesus being a sheer creature, not God, although he was not a mere man, but a super-angelic being. Certainly horizontal activity was at work in the Incarnation; if it were not, Saint Matthew’s genealogy of Our Lord would be a meaningless series of “begots,” but this does not negate the fact that, by an act of all three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Second Person was made Man in Christ Jesus.
  2. Moral Theology — There are many examples in moral theology. To take but one, we have that subjectivism that assigns absolute primacy to the individual conscience such that if I think a given act is morally good, then it is so. Thus contraception, divorce, remarriage, fornication, usury, unjust wars, etc., are all justified on the basis that my own subjective conscience dictates their moral goodness. The true Catholic notion of conscience is, by contrast, a beautiful illustration of “vertical causation” operating both in a natural and in a supernatural mode, for it tells us that an informed conscience follows both the natural law which is written on man’s heart, and also the supernaturally revealed law of the Old and New Testaments. Both of these laws are mediated to us by the teaching Church, to whose doctrine we have a sacred obligation to conform ourselves. Add to this the fact that God gives us grace from above to assist us in keeping this law, and we see a wonderful example of “vertical causation” at work.
  3. Biblical Studies — The Documentary Theory of Julius Wellhausen, which denies the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, postulates that the first five books of the Old Testament are a patchwork of four different authors whose work was later redacted: J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), P (Priestly), and D (Deuteronomist). Biblical inspiration and inerrancy quickly fall through the cracks of such a bizarre evolutionary system. In New Testament studies, we have the absurd example “Q,” the non-extant primitive gospel held out to be the common source from which all the Evangelists drew their accounts of Jesus. Needless to say, the actual writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not those four men, but groups of writers and redactors. But it all goes back to Q, even though nobody has ever seen Q. There are actually Biblical scholars who carry out exegetical work on Q, which is rather like a biologist who studies Martians. Once again, the true teaching is a case-in-point of the beauty and order of vertical causation: The human author, employing his own language, style, sources, etc., writes under inspiration from the Holy Ghost, who assuredly guarantees that everything written is free from all error.
  4. Development of Doctrine — There are orthodox theories of doctrinal development, but much of what is popular in modern theology falls under Pope Saint Pius X’s condemnation of “the evolution of dogmas.” Briefly, the heretical notion goes something like this: There was a primitive revelation given by Jesus to His disciples from which they derived their simple “kerygma” (proclamation), which subsequently evolved over much time into the vast body of Catholic dogmas in such a way that the final product has little in common with the much simpler original. We can call this heretical view a heterogeneous rather than a homogeneous development of doctrine. It is evolutionary and clearly horizontal in nature, as it negates inspiration, inerrancy, and the infallibility of the Church — all of which come “from above.”
  5. Social Teaching — Any theory of society which has it that authority comes from below (“the people”) and not from above (God) is a complete contradiction of Catholic social teaching. Jesus Christ is King, and He must reign in society. Absolute democracy (power emanating from the people), social contract theory (e.g., of Hobbes, or Rousseau), strict constructionist constitutionalism that omits the natural and revealed law of God, naturalistic legal positivism, etc., are all forms of horizontalism in political thought. These have invaded the sacred precincts of the Church such that in our day we need a vigorous reassertion of the Church’s traditional social teaching.
  6. Liturgy — Many modern Catholics, including liturgists, see the Church’s sacred liturgy as the work of human hands, whereas our liturgy is something received, not something fabricated.
  7. Ecclesiology — The Church did not evolve from the primitive Christian community; rather, it is identical with it. The Catholic Church is what Jesus said He was going to build, and did indeed build, on the Rock of Peter. It is what issued forth from Our Lord’s pierced side on the Cross, which also became a very public fact on Pentecost. It is the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, a supernatural organism that is completely coterminous with the Catholic Church. In it, we see both the horizontal and vertical at work, since it has both human and divine elements.
  8. Theology of Grace — The ancient heresy of Pelagianism, which is still very much with us in an attenuated form, was a baptized version of Stoicism that negated the necessity of grace for sanctity and salvation. Salvation is not a do-it-yourself undertaking. Without divine grace, our works really are nothing, and merit nothing toward eternal life. Grace must come “from above” (vertically) for us to be saved, though we must cooperate with it internally in our own souls, and externally, by working to help save others. This latter realty shows an authentic horizontality (as opposed to horizontalism), which cooperates with the work of vertical causation.

More could be added to this list, and each of these brief summaries could be expanded to much greater length, but I have made my point.

“Nothing under the sun is new” (Eccles. 1:10). Just as horizontalism in philosophy and the natural sciences is nothing new, neither is it new theology. It just so happens that we live in a time when horizontalism is has long been part of the zeitgeist. It has reigned entirely too long in theology, and must be dethroned if we are to “re-establish all things in Christ” (Eph. 1:10).