1. What was taught and/or assumed to be taught in the Middle Ages (Anselm and Thomism),
2. What was taught in the Council of Trent (which was responding to the Protestant Reformation),
3. What was taught through and in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.
I will try in the coming days to devote at least one or two blog posts explaining each of these time periods. One really does have to get a grasp of the historical backgrounds and conflicts of the various eras to begin to unravel why the Church teaches what it teaches. It can be confusing and a vast sea of teachings and seemingly conflicting theological ideas and suppositions, but there is a method to the madness.
Before I get to that, however, I posit a general rule of thumb that guides my own thinking on interpreting these issues and making sense of it all.
Time goes by and cultures and demographics change. Scientific and philosophical progress or digress alter our understandings of the world; thus, worldviews change over time amongst peoples. Juxtaposed with this is that God, however, is unchanging, and His major revelations to men are thus unchanging. In the Catholic faith, we call this Divine law.
So, on the one hand, you have a world always in flux and change, which leads some misguided theologians to take as operative Gospel truth in the banner cry of "The Church must change or die!" However, there is also the idea from the Book of Ecclesiastes that the more things change, the more they stay the same, that "vanity...vanity...all is vanity!"
To respond to the changing of seasons but also the cyclical nature of overall human existence, the Church is always in need of reorientation. Notice here that I use the language of reorientation, not necessary one of breakage or reform. Sometimes the Church does need reform if corruption has been allowed to enter and take root, but this is not always the case. Regardless, the Church always needs to be checking to see if it's message and actions are in sync with the eternal message of the eternal God (i.e. the Gospel) but also in sync with a world that might no longer understand your theological babble and lingo and ceremonies. If you are lacking in one area or the over, you can get off track fairly quickly, at which point you need to re-orient yourself and your message to reach as many people as possible with the message of love and hope.
By saying all that, the Church must be mindful of not selling out "the faith once delivered" and relativizing it in the name of progress or "getting with the times" to achieve general social acceptance or popularity in the short term. The Church must also be mindful to not begin to operate and isolate itself in what I call a theological ghetto. I always think of the classic children's picture book, Duck For President, where you have this farm duck that revolts against the farmer and finally gets himself elected US President by holding rallies "saying things that only other ducks understand." The Church must always be vigilant to make sure we don't just assume people know what our message is and what we are talking about (for instance, if we throw 50 cent words around like soteriology). Perhaps at one time in culture, people did understand that stuff, but if they don't anymore, are we, as Paul says, just a "clanging symbol" that only other Church ducks understand.
Thus, there is always that tension of being true to the Faith but also being open to explaining the faith to people who have no idea what we are talking about or why they should even care.
It is this idea of reorientation, and the balancing act thereof, that has led to different eras and methods of understanding how we are saved that have lead to the 3 different time periods I talk about above. The Church has not broken with the past in terms of talking about how we are saved, but it has had to modulate its message to different time periods so that we are clear about what we are saying. A medieval peasant and a 1960s Hippie radical both needed to hear the message of Christ, but the way the Church tells the message to one and then the other was quite different indeed.
We must avoid Duckspeak but be true to the Message of Christ and not be wooed into preaching the Spirit of the Age. This is not an easy task. Sometimes mistakes are made in how far we re-orient the Church. Sometimes we have done too much and gone too far, sometimes we have done to little and not done enough, but we always have to try.