A PLAIN GUIDE TO
To be fair, most doctrinal study is derivative. It consists primarily of
comment on and elaboration of established decisions and formulations. In
other words, it is a dependent exercise, not an original one. It forces
the enquirer constantly back into the past. The arrival points appear to
me to consist of the earliest ecumenical councils (such as Nicea) and
certain authorities who have somehow been given a central role in
clarifying doctrine (such as Thomas Aquinas).
Houlden also takes New
Testament scholars to task.
They keep running for cover in enclosed historical or linguistic
investigations. They will not come out with clear guidance on what is to
be done with their deliverances ... not only are they too wedded to New
Testament words and ideas, but they seem unwilling to reckon with so
many considerations which are plainly important theologically ... they
just disclaim responsibility, in a way which the doctrine scholars find
feeble and infuriating ...
If this is the parlous situation faced by ordinary Christians today,
what is to be done? What of clerics and ministers who risk so much if they
teach doctrine founded on modern theology? And what of the scholars? For
if interpretation rules, those whose task it is to guide and purify
doctrine in the light of the New Testament might find themselves without a
At this point it seems to me vital to assert that the Christian
way of life derives from a historical person, someone who actually lived
and died just as we do. Jesus of Nazareth is the lodestar of how you and I
are to steer our courses through life. Whatever came after him, is
necessarily secondary. This grants to the gospels - and to a lesser extent
the rest of the New Testament - an authority which no other source of
doctrine possesses. In other words, the authority of the Church differs in
type from the authority of the New Testament.
The authority of
the New Testament is primary and definitive because Christianity is
not in essence a religion but a way of life. Christians use
religion to achieve certain aims and effects. But it is how they
live which defines them. That way of life is, in some fundamental aspects,
defined and determined by, and aligned with, what we know about Jesus.
This understanding places New Testament scholarship in a critically
central position in the life of the Church. And because what we know as a
matter of good history about Jesus is unlikely ever to be either
exhaustive or agreed on by all, the Christian way of life can never be
laid down in absolute terms.
The authority of the Church
is secondary. It can best be termed the contemporary interpretation of
what we know about Jesus. That is, it is the doctrine or teaching about
how each generation understands Jesus.
It is the relentless flow of
history and new visions of the world which make doctrine shift and change.
Some tides of history flow slowly. Then doctrines may seem to succeeding
generations to remain relatively stable. At other times history races
through narrow straits. Then those used to a slower pace may feel that
past certainties are being swept away by the current.
puts the matter like this:
It is possible for [the councils of] Chalcedon, Trent or Calvin's
to be seen as points along the way rather than authorities ... no
account will be satisfactory which imposes on the New Testament the
later doctrinal agenda of the Church.
This rather stern approach is embarrassing for some Church authorities.
For it means that neither the Trinity nor the Immaculate Conception (to
take two instances) can validly be touted as binding doctrine. They and
other doctrines were born and survived in cultures and times radically
different from those which prevail today. Thus they have limited relevance
to the Christian way of life in the 21st century. In addition, they are
supported only by the most doctrinaire interpretations of the gospels as
we now understand them.
To put the issue more positively: it makes
no sense to confine doctrine entirely to a straightjacket of New Testament
studies. These are primary and essential. But they must nevertheless be
applied to a situation. Christians need to constantly struggle to
understand Jesus and the culture in which he lived and died. They also
need to place this understanding in the contemporary world in which they
live. In this sense, the formulation and refining of Christian doctrine is
an ongoing mission for us all.
The lasting problem, it seems to me,
lies not with the preservation of any particular doctrine or in the
revision of doctrines in the light of prevailing paradigms. Rather, it
lies with the insistence by Church authority that doctrine can in any
sense be obligatory or definitive
of Christian faithfulness. Tradition is an inherited pattern of thought or
action. But it must not be objectified. It becomes toxic the moment it is
imposed upon those who are attempting to live out the Christian way of
life as they understand it.
New Testament scholars, says Houlden,
... acknowledge the force of tradition ... but they cannot forbear,
as they look out towards the history of the Church, to indicate the
measure of illusion which invariably afflicts those who claim to be in a
tradition of faith.
That is, scholars admit that what we know and can know about Jesus "as
he really was" is not only limited but is also constantly shifting. That
does not mean that every interpretation of his meaning is equally
permissible. For example, while we may argue about our interpretation of
what Jesus meant by the "kingdom of God", a suggestion that Jesus will
soon bring history to an end in a blaze of power and glory is so far from
the truth as we understand it that it cannot be admitted as good doctrine.
Houlden makes the point well:
Theology, as an expression of faith, is ever creative and ever
unfaithful to the tradition, if faithfulness is measured by fixity.
A further implication of this approach is that all doctrine is subject
to personal autonomy. Church authority which tries to exclude
traditional doctrine from this rule must inevitably progress towards an
abyss of compulsion. Enforcement inevitably leads to the persecution of
those who are called to creativity in Christian living.
implication must, on the other hand, be properly balanced by the
recognition that Christian doctrines can and should endure on their
merits. When properly formulated and widely accepted, a teaching which is
relevant and useful should not be ditched simply because it proves
inconvenient to an individual. Another way of putting this is to say that
the same disciplines and strictures which apply to good New Testament
scholarship apply just as much to doctrine.
As new evidence and
thought can and does change the way we perceive Jesus, so it can and
should change Christian doctrines. Lest anyone think this point is of
limited relevance, consider the matter of Resurrection as an instance.
Traditional Christian doctrine universally regards affirmation of the
resurrection of Jesus from death as absolutely essential to valid ongoing
membership of the Church. Anyone who proclaims otherwise should, if Church
authority is valid, be excluded from the Christian fellowship.
if my argument has any power, this absolute ruling collapses for a number
of reasons. First, New Testament scholarship has failed to establish that
accounts of a risen Jesus in the gospels have, and potentially can
have, anything like the force of those other gospel accounts generally
regarded as historical.
Second, the relevance of the doctrine to the
Christian way of life is dubious. Whether or not either Jesus or we
ourselves come to life again after death has no immediately obvious
bearing on how we live today. That we all die is certain. The evidence of
life after death is restricted to those who are dead - and with them we
have no commerce. Third, all the evidence we now have about how the
natural world works - evidence unknown to previous generations of
Christians - indicates unambiguously that resurrection of any human being
from death is unlikely to the point of impossibility.
respect, Leslie Houlden remarks that
... the message of New Testament studies to doctrine is a counsel of
simplicity and the warning that much of alleged doctrinal debate may be
factitious and misconceived ... what intelligible basis can there be for
the controversies about the sacraments or the ministry or the nature of
the Church which have long been so high on the doctrinal agenda?
To sum up: even though so much uncertainty bedevils the picture at the
moment, it is possible to be reasonably certain and clear about Jesus.
Doctrine plays its part - as does a constant effort to penetrate the veils
which obscure the Jesus of history from us. It is wrong to dismiss either
the Jesus of modern New testament scholarship or the Jesus of official
doctrine. Both play their part. Both are there to guide and inform
Christians as they live out their lives.
Control of either New Testament scholarship or doctrine leads to a
blind, not a lively, faith.