Christian Believing: The Nature of the Christian Faith and its Expression in Holy Scripture and Creeds.Written by The Doctrine Commission of the Church of England Reviewed By Gerald Bray
To attempt a coherent analysis of a document produced by an official commission of the Church of England is an invidious task for any reviewer. Everyone knows that the Church of England in 1976 contains within itself a diversity of theological opinions which leaves even its closest rivals, viz. the Society of Friends and the British Labour Party, trailing in the dust. It is all the more astonishing therefore that the Doctrine Commission should have achieved unanimity in its report, a fact which its defenders never cease emphasizing. And not without reason. For behind the inevitable vagueness surrounding all official documents of this kind there runs a theme of remarkable power and consistency which should not be underrated, since it amounts in effect to a complete repudiation of the Christian faith.
Ultimately it is time, not language, religion or culture which, according to this report, is the chief obstacle to our understanding. Now it is a commonplace among the educated (as distinct from the merely learned) that the hallmark of a great work of art consists precisely in its ability to transcend time, to speak with full power and compulsion to men of our age as much as of any other. That there are people today incapable of appreciating this need not surprise us—there were plenty of people in fifth-century Athens, and no doubt in Egypt and Mesopotamia too, whose cultural pretensions never rose above the pedantic, and who were as insensitive to great works of art as are many of our contemporaries. It is not time, but education which makes the difference, as anyone who has known the fellowship of the great minds of our civilization will testify.
Furthermore what is true of classical culture will, a fortiori, be true of the Old and New Testaments. For if Euripides and Gilgamesh, in their pagan blindness, are able to transcend the centuries, how much more is this the case with the literary products of the men inspired by the eternal Spirit of God? ‘Can we today genuinely share the thoughts and feelings of the first readers of St Paul’s Epistles … Can we even begin to enter into the spiritual experience of a first-century Jew?’ (I quote from page 9.) Only a mind totally in the grip of secularism could think of posing such superficial questions. Does anyone seriously imagine that Galatians, say, owes its preservation to what it tells us about its readers’ spiritual experiences? As any serious reader of the Bible must know, we are dealing here with a much more profound reality, namely the revelation and proclamation of God himself. If we do not understand what the Ephesians or the Corinthians felt when they heard it, it is not because we come from a different age and culture. It is, quite frankly, because we have not understood the message, and this message—we repeat it again—is not bound to time and space categories of thought.
We have dwelt at length on this point because it underlies the fundamental misconception of the whole report, which renders it deeply un-Christian in nature. Once we have understood the commissioners’ blind worship of Time, all the rest follows in an inevitable sequence. What, for instance, are we to make of the following?
‘The shattering changes in the understanding of reality that have marked the modern world have forced us to face the fact that man is an historical being, that he exists in a continuum of change, and that he cannot therefore take for granted that all ages and cultures shared his own principles and forms of thought. If, then, we cannot with integrity treat the words of the past as though they were our own; and if at the same time the exercise of entering sympathetically into an understanding of the past is both problematic and productive of little that is of general value; what is our attitude to the past to be?’ (page 10).
So man, in the last analysis, is a creature of Time, ‘an historical being’ with no eternal destiny at all. From this standpoint the past does indeed become a problem, and nowhere more so than when we consider the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. For what, after all, can a first-century Jewish carpenter possibly have to say to the ‘advanced’ generation of 1976? The logical answer, of course, is ‘nothing at all’, and we are gratified to find this candidly admitted on page 11:
‘Jesus himself lives in the world of today not so much in his recorded words as through the community which he founded but which may both in its teaching and manner of life have changed radically from anything he envisaged.
In this one statement we see proclaimed the final death of any concept of objectivity. Henceforth, the only possible basis for religious knowledge is subjective experience which, because of the onward march of Time and civilization, bears no relationship to its original point of reference in Jesus Christ. As the first chapter pompously proclaims, the Christian life is turned into ‘a voyage of discovery, a journey, sustained by faith and hope, towards a final and complete communion with the Love at the heart of all things’. No Buddhist could have put it better.
The elevation of emotional experience and the consequent subtle denigration of rationality is relentlessly pursued in the third chapter, entitled The Nature of Religious Language. It is a chapter replete with fatuities, but the nadir is undoubtedly reached on page 18, where our weary minds are confronted with the following:
‘Our ideas are based on the perfections and excellences we can see in God’s finite creatures. It is because these are real perfections and excellences, reflecting and communicating something of the goodness and nature of God, that God is known to us at all. But in order to be able to apply these visible perfections to God, we must first remove from them all that belongs to them only in virtue of their finitude and creaturehood; and then the concept thus purified must be raised to infinity to be applicable to God. Knowledge in us, for example, is fitful and discursive, and dependent on sense. When these limitations, incidental to knowledge in our finite existence, are removed from the idea of knowledge, this can then be heightened to convey a clearer mental concept of what the all-embracing, direct, intuitive, and creative knowledge possessed by God might be. This analogical treatment of language about God, though applicable only to abstract concepts, can provide a useful logical check against saying either too little or too much.’
Or indeed against saying anything at all. There is no idea here of revelation, of propositional, objective truth. All is flux and speculation.
The concluding chapters, which deal more specifically with the Bible and the creeds, are, as might be expected, thoroughly confused, in line with the rest of the report. The unity of the Bible is of course denied, again in deference to the great god Time (‘The Bible, therefore, does not come just from the “the past” but from many different “pasts”, some of which were already so unfamiliar even in biblical times that they were plainly misunderstood by other biblical writers’, page 21). In the next breath we are told that the Bible is ‘an extensive sample of the historical process within which Christianity emerged’. God, being by nature outside time, is of course excluded from the survey, and so we are calmly told, in the very next line, that ‘the principal reality in the background of Christianity is Israel’. Well, well, well!
It goes without saying of course that modern, critical views of the Bible are heartily endorsed simply because they are modern; earlier, less enlightened generations are made out to have been seriously defective in their understanding. That there could have been generations of Christians who obediently accepted the Scriptures as their final authority in matters of faith and life, instead of sitting in judgment upon them in the best modern tradition, is, in the eyes of the authors of this report, a misfortune and a scandal which it would be best to pass over as quickly as possible. That such people should continue to exist in defiance of ‘scholarship’ is, evidently, in their view an embarrassment which they prefer to gloss over completely.
It is however in the final chapter on the creeds that the believing Christian meets the ultimate outrage to his rational thought. For the use we make of the Bible is determined by what we understand it to be saying, and this understanding is clearly and systematically enshrined in the creeds. And it is here, not surprisingly, that the most forceful attack on the faith is made. Credal language, we are told, is the product of its time (and hence intrinsically defective) and is in any case totally inadequate to express the reality of God. There is a facile appeal to St Augustine’s apophatic theology (page 34) with, evidently, little awareness that he would have abhorred from the very depths of his soul the conclusions drawn from his words by the Doctrine Commission. As before, a false antithesis is drawn between ‘a life of discipleship’ and ‘credal affirmation’ which would lead one to suppose that it is possible as a Christian to be committed ‘to the Reality men call God’ and yet deny all or part of the historic creeds. Indeed, the only ray of light in this dark maze of illogicality is to be found on page 38, where the adherents of the biblical and credal faith are pitted against the radicals, and we come across the engagingly frank admission that ‘it is, to say the least, very difficult to explain divergences of this fundamental kind merely as complementary aspects of the many-sided wisdom of God’. So there we have it. Despite all the protestations of unity, in the end we come down to the truth of the matter—two different religions, one based on the timeless revelation of God, the other on the subjective experiences of men governed by the philosophical currents of their day. Which of these is Christianity may be left to the reader to judge.
The concluding section of the report consists of eight personal assessments by individual members of the Commission. Evangelicals will agree in essentials with two of them, those by J. R. Lucas, a High Churchman of the old school and by H. E. W. Turner, Professor Emeritus at Durham and a near-evangelical. In this connection it must be said that neither of the two professed conservative evangelicals on the Commission has in any way dissented from the conclusions reached in the report. It is, to this reviewer’s mind at least, incomprehensible. At any rate there can be no doubt that the questions of biblical authority and infallibility, and the place of doctrine in the Christian life, issues for so long sidestepped in evangelical circles, will now have to be met head-on. If they are not, and if clear, unequivocal statements are not forthcoming from evangelical leaders, the future of Anglican evangelicalism is likely to be short indeed.
Gerald Bray is research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches history and doctrine. He is a minister in the Church of England and the editor of the Anglican theological journal Churchman.