Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Function of Christian Doctrine

This piece was originally the second in the 2007 Lenten series presented at All SS Episcopal Church in Rehoboth, Delaware. I was partly responsible for planning the series entitled “The Foundations of Christianity”, and, so, when I began preparing this talk, I found myself in a serious dilemma. Had I really suggested that one of the topics should be Doctrine? Serious reflection forced me to admit that I had, indeed, suggested this topic, and I was forced to admit that it was an unthoughtful suggestion, if not, indeed, a very silly one.

Inauguration Date of Church

What is the problem? It is that the foundation of a building is invariably the first course of brick or stone that is put in; if, to recall the Dominical word, it is to be a firm foundation, put into a trench that goes down to a stratum of rock. All the other topics of this course fit (or can be made to fit) into that definition. As the gospel tradition itself suggests, the foundation is the work of Jesus followed closely by that of the first group of Disciples: prayer was clearly there from the start and activity in the world was, and is, essential. Some ingenuity is needed, perhaps, in spite of conservative evangelical insistence, to see the writings of the NT as foundational in quite the same sense since they were the product of the groups that grew (to change the metaphor) from the original work of Jesus and the Apostles. We might date the beginning of Christianity, not from the Crucifixion in, say, 30-32 C.E., but around 120 C.E. when the last bits of our NT were written, and that would make it clear that the N.T. collection of documents is fully foundational. (Interestingly, that would make today’s date, March 8, 1887). This option is, I suppose, not open to a fundamentalist, but on historical grounds it is a very reasonable position to take, noting for example, that it was many decades before the followers of Jesus attracted the nick-name Christianoi.

Doctrine as Scaffolding

Further reflection suggested that it might be better to treat doctrine under the metaphor of scaffolding, rather than foundation. Some interesting reflections flow from this particular metaphor. A building needs scaffolding to grow, but it remains independent of it. Only in extreme cases, the tower of Pisa comes to mind, does the support have to stay in place for a protracted period. As an aside, I wonder if this suggests the obsession with correct doctrine on the part of certain sections of the church results from the felt need to prop up something they sense is falling down? Another reflection: What materials are used as scaffolding? It depends, of course, in what part of the world you are and also very much on technological norms for the time. All the great mediaeval cathedrals were built using wooden frame-works, and in the East bamboo was (and often still is) the material of choice. Another aside: doctrine is heavily influenced by cultural conditions.

Doctrinal Norms & Creeds

We need now to look very briefly at some history. The basic meaning of the word doctrine is ‘teaching’ (L. docere), and since the 4th or 5th centuries the word has been used more or less in the sense of “communally authoritative teachings regarded as essential to the identity of the Christian community”. (Enc. Mod. Christian Thought, Ed. A.E. McGrath, p112). However, the concept of ‘Christian community’ in this definition needs some attention: at least since the major division of the East and West in the 11th century, the plural really ought to be used, and, after the Reformation, we are confronted with an array of communities, sharing some things, but differing from one another in many respects. Clearly the norms of doctrine for the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Quaker and Anglican branches of the church differ very significantly, not to mention the dozens of internal divisions in each community.
One important way in which the agreed norms of the community have been expressed is in the Creeds, the earliest of which are found in the N.T. itself. Perhaps the clearest, and most interesting example is found in Paul’s letter to Rome (10.9), “If you confess with your lips ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. Paul, of course, is not alone, but he gives the earliest and clearest statement. In the Acts of the Apostles there are numerous references to baptism which imply the formula we find in Paul (8.15; 2.38; 22.16) and others in the rest of Paul’s letters (II Cor. 4.5; Phil. 2.11; etc.). In the light of the later creeds, this early confession is startlingly simple: that it is centered on the action of God is clear if we compare even a more developed baptismal creed, the Apostles’, with Paul’s brief formula. The Apostles creed says, “he rose form the dead”, whereas Paul, and, indeed the vast majority of N.T. references say, “God raised him”. This may seem a tiny, almost nit-picking issue, but it really is not, because it alerts us to the way in which formal doctrine was to develop, moving the NT emphasis from God’s saving activity to the saving function of Jesus. When Paul says, if you confess Jesus you will be saved there can be little doubt that he understands God to be doing the saving, through the agency of Jesus the Messiah.

The Apostles’ Creed

The first more developed creed seems to have been the one used for baptisms in Rome by the middle of the second century, called the Apostles’ Creed. It is a significant expansion of the NT formulae, but stands in striking contrast to the creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries like the one we call “Nicaea”. The Apostles’ Creed makes statements that are largely scriptural quotations and does not give the impression of attempting to give metaphysical explanations for them; for example, it mentions Jesus’ burial, but there is no suggestion of his visiting and preaching to the dead of previous ages. It is noticeable, too, that there is no sign of a phrase like, “begotten of the Father before all worlds” which we find in the 4th century creeds.

Variety of Belief

It seems that in the first century and a half of the church’s life among the local churches of the Mediterranean world, there was a considerable variety of emphasis in beliefs about Jesus and his work. That he was the son of God was universally confessed, but quite early on shades of meaning are apparent. At what one might call the soft end of the spectrum it could be taken, as in Judaism, as a designation of all righteous teachers, with the added insistence that Jesus had the closest relationship with God ever known. At the other end of the spectrum, the “hard” version was moving to positing a metaphysical relationship, the end product of which was to say that Jesus was God, the second Person of a Trinitarian God. This type of theology led to formulae about the two natures of Christ inhering in the unity of his person: technically called Christology. The creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries seem to have been produced to exclude the views of some theologians, men like Arius who advocated the softer option about Jesus’ divinity and Nestorius who held a softer view about the human/divine fusion in the person of Jesus. The two main documents that affirmed what came to be the “orthodox” view were the Creed of Constantinople of 381 (it appears as the Nicene Creed in our P.B.), and the Definition of the Council of Chalcedon, 451 C.E.

From Variety to Orthodoxy

It is not at all clear why it was that the church moved from the earlier, softer approach to doctrine. Possibly the word orthodox itself is suggestive of one reason. The two Greek words that lie behind orthodox are orthos, straight (coming ultimately to = correct), and doxa, opinion. This points to an increasing emphasis on holding correct views about God, Jesus, and salvation, and a move away from worshipping and acting in the new ways initiated by the living presence of Jesus in the early community. It has to be remembered, too, that immense cultural influences were at work as the church moved out into the Hellenistic world where religion and philosophy were closely intertwined. There was, in addition, the Imperial pressure after the conversion of Constantine to codify and remove anything that seemed to point to a fracture of the one, now universal church. As another aside: I think it is interesting to look at the contemporary drive within the federation of churches, springing ultimately from the reformed C. of E., to insist on homogeneity and to set up tests of right opinion. Whatever the reasons, by the 6th century, the church had established a doctrinal framework that became mandatory for all Christians.
This was significantly challenged in the Reformation. Questions arose about the authority of Pope or Scripture. Teaching about the sacraments was challenged. An enormous issue was how the atonement, that is, the saving work of Christ, should be understood. The doctrine of purgatory came in for some heavy bombardment, though hell remained fairly safe since the followers of Calvin required the ultimate punishment for the reprobate, and, even more unpleasantly, as part of God’s plan for those predestined for such an eternal fate.
The Reformers, however, were concerned not only with issues of belief; they also had plans to change many practical things such as the language of the Liturgy, the prohibition of marriage for the clergy, and above all the structure of the Ministry. It is interesting to note just how many things that were once regarded as essential in order to be counted as a good Christian, have changed.

Change in Doctrine and Practice

Today, only a minority of Christian bodies, (I am not speaking of individuals), insist on Pacifism: the Quakers and Mennonites spring to mind, and there may be others. Yet in the first century it was required of anyone seeking baptism. Soldiers were automatically excluded. For more than a millennium, usury, lending money for interest was totally forbidden to Christians, yet today it is the very foundation of our society, religious as well as secular. Incidentally, we have Calvin to thank for producing a rationale for the change. Perhaps one of the most glaring changes has been in the understanding of marriage. Until the 20th century, at least in Western Christianity, divorce was forbidden, though as early as Matthew’s version of the gospel, the absolute prohibition on the lips of Jesus found in Mark, whose book was used by Matthew, has been softened slightly to allow divorce in the case of adultery. One needs to recall, though, that that means a man may divorce his wife if she commits adultery: not the other way round.
Many more examples could be adduced, but it is clear that teaching and rules about patterns of behavior can and do change. Of course, the most traditional sections of the church, the Roman Catholic on the one hand and the conservative Evangelical churches, on the other, tend to hold out longer, though largely in the case of sexual behavior: they don’t have problems with war or capitalism, for example.
Does doctrine concerned with how one has to believe change too? The answer has to be yes and no. Before the 4th century there was acceptable variation, then for almost a millennium a standardized body of teachings, embodied in the major Creeds, the declarations of Councils and, above all, in Papal encyclicals remained unchallenged, though individual Theologians were relatively free to speculate.

The Reformation and After

Then came the Reformation and significant variation once more has become the norm.
Some foundational doctrines remained fairly universal: the existence of the One God; the Trinitarian nature of that God (though this is not so universal – witness Unitarians and the Deists of the 18th century (including, interestingly quite a number of the USA Founding Fathers); the central role in Christianity of Jesus and his designation as Messiah and Son of God (though here again, complete unanimity is absent). George Lindbeck in The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia, 1984) writes, “We may assume that some doctrines are permanent. For example, "God is love" (not actually formulated like that in the New Testament until the late Epistle of John). This could be said to be a sine qua non for claiming to be part of the catholic church. No Ecumenical Council has ever decreed it, but doctrines like this are "part of the indispensable grammar or logic of faith". (p. 85).
In general, the statements of the Apostles’ Creed have remained a kind of norm, expressing the dependence of the world on the creative power of God, assuming the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, centrally, seeing Jesus as the focus of God’s saving activity for us. Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus remains central, but, and it is a sizeable “but”, how that is to be understood has been a matter of fierce debate for the last century and a half, and, at this point, it is necessary to look at some of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Doctrine Today

Such a consideration is crucial for our understanding the status of Christian Doctrine today. The work of geologists, biologists and historians and those of other scientific disciplines more than ruffled the waters of the doctrinal pond as the nineteenth century progressed. The veracity of Genesis was the first casualty as it became certain that the world was not a mere six thousand years old. Christiann orthodoxy had by the beginning of the 19th century adjusted to astronomy, adjusted to the fact that the moon was not just a few hundred miles away; that the sun was hundreds of thousands of miles away. The adjustment had been relatively smooth because most of the early astronomers were committed Christians, and because the new astronomical knowledge could be seen as adding to the majesty of God and the perfection of the divine plan. Geology and biology were much more upsetting: the former because the study of rocks and fossils undermined the inerrancy of the Bible, the latter because the study of life and its origins seemed to remove divine providence from the equation and at a stroke to question the idea of purpose in the universe and in individual lives.

Summing Up

At the start of the 20th century, several positions on Doctrine, which are operative today were emerging.

(1) The hard liners (RC church, Conservative Evangelical, particularly among Baptists, but found in all major denominations) moved into a barricade mode; the “new learning” was seen as dangerous and it was essential to emphasize and stand on Christian Fundamentals. Of course, there were great differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant positions, not the least being the active hostility to democratic ideas clearly expressed in the Papal establishment, but there was agreement that the tide must not be allowed to come in.

(2) The moderates, found mainly, but not exclusively in the C of E, the Methodists and Congregationalists, remained firm about the central doctrines of the creed but allowed that adjustments had to be made in the way we read the bible and understand the physical universe. Very often in this approach, a distinction is made between the spiritual truths of the Bible and Christian doctrine, and the historical and physical facts found there.

(3) As the 20th century progressed, these rather tentative alternatives to rigid dogma began to loosen up further. The powerful cultural influences that were involved in the early formation of dogmas (as we may now call them) were exposed, the earlier variety of doctrinal positions was revealed, and the result was that significant reinterpretation and reapplication of basic tenets were frequently debated.

(4) Perhaps, the most radical approach in the contemporary debate is to insist that much of the early language of the Christian religion is metaphorical, much like the parables. Thus the statement that Jesus is the Son of God should not be understood as giving us information about the inner workings of the Godhead (as though it were an engineer’s drawing), but as pointing to the fact that he had, and has, a uniquely close relationship with God, who in a metaphor (which we mostly forget is a metaphor) can be understood as the Father of Jesus, and of us all as brothers and sisters of the Messiah.
One of the most interesting attempts to make sense of doctrine in a world-view radically different from the one in which it developed is the work of George Lindbeck: doctrine is like syntax or grammar in a linguistic system. If you want to be understood, follow the rules; if you want to be considered a Christian follow the doctrines. But the rules will be different if you want to be a conservative RC rather than a liberal Anglican.
Lindbeck writes:
"Religious change or innovation must be understood, not as proceeding from new experiences, but as resulting from the interactions of a cultural-linguistic system with changing situations. Religious traditions are not transformed, abandoned, or replaced because of an upwelling of new or different ways of feeling about the self, the world, or God, but because a religious interpretive scheme (embodied, as it always is, in religious belief and practice) develops anomalies in its application in new contexts. . . . Prophetic figures apprehend, often with dramatic vividness, how inherited patterns of belief, practice and ritual need to be (and can be) reminted." (Lindbeck, 39, italics added).

Anglican Primates, listen up. Where are your Prophets?

(5) In closing the scaffolding metaphor may be pressed into service once more. It suggests that Doctrine and Dogma are necessary, but not necessarily immutable. Scaffolding gives shape, it supports, and can be taken down and put up again for repair or restoration, but it is not the building in which we “live and move and have our being”.
Unhappily, there seems to be quite a bit of evidence that some in the Anglican Communion are mistaking the scaffolding for the building.

1 comment:

seamus said...

In closing Simon, you state that many have mistaken the scaffolding for the building. That reminded me what I believe CS Lewis observed about " fundamentalist" mentality being like that of a dog.-"You point at something and it(the dog) looks at your finger!"