DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Doctrine  (Continued)

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 job.

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.

Leslie Houlden puts the matter like this:

It is possible for [the councils of] Chalcedon, Trent or Calvin's Institutes 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, must

... 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.

This 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.

But 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.

In this 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.

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