May 12, 2007

Doctrine Divides

Some things I believe about the nature of the church

The "body" of the church consists of its various members. Each member remains individual, and each local church remains as a "member" with its own identity even as it shares in the unity of the whole, as "the church in that place" wherever two or three are gathered together. In an analogy I've made before: just as each loaf of eucharistic bread remains identifiable as an individual loaf and yet each such loaf represents and makes present the whole body of Christ, whether that loaf is in Geneva or Dubuque. Moreover, the bread of communion is most emphatically divided: it is in the breaking of the bread that Christ is made known. And yet, it remains the One bread. This is modeled in the church (in a positive sense) by the existence of the church in Philadelphia, the church in Pergamum, the church in Denver, and so on. They are divided from each other in the sense of their local particular identity, and yet remain one in the spiritual reality that binds them together: which is the One Lord, through the One Faith and the One Baptism; but to each is given some special gift. It is out of the "oneness" that the "eachness" grows; one Spirit empowering a multitude of ministrations. The unity of the church is a spiritual reality that gives rise to the many physical ministries embodied in each instance.

Now, in latter days, (though within the lives of the apostles!) these local divisions were also exacerbated by inner divisions over doctrines: circumcision, gentile inclusion, meat offered to idols. Those on all sides of these debates no doubt still considered themselves to the the "true" Christians; but as history is written by the "winners" (or the survivors, at least), we tend to see the main Pauline strand we inherit as "the" church. Of course, that apostolic and post-apostolic church continued to fragment -- and it is these divisions which are, I admit, problematical, and they are divisions which I believe it is in our utmost interest to seek to mend. In seeking to mend them we do well to focus on the cause of the divisions: sometimes purely political or social, often doctrinal. And often the differences over doctrine in one age come to appear trivial in a later one: but at the time were celebrated causes of division.

But I believe that the ecumenical venture is meaningful because I believe in the underlying unity of the church that cannot be destroyed. Think of it, getting away from sacrament language for a moment, as the situation in a family. The siblings are siblings by a physical descent; yet they can disagree, fight, and not see each other over this or that disagreement. But that doesn't alter the fact that they are still siblings: the underlying real genetic relationship cannot be dissolved (what I call first-order unity), and the superficial divisions (which are second-order) are capable of healing precisely because of the underlying unity. But unity is not identity. All members of the family are equally part of the family while remaining individually themselves.

Which gets us back to Paul's language of the body: I repeat the image I've advanced before, and which Paul enunciates, that unlike the eucharistic bread (which is always and everywhere "bread" though even then each loaf is "itself") the various members of the church have organic identities even though they all participate in the same body. But the body thrives precisely because each organ plays its part and contributes to the whole --- eye, foot, hand. As Paul will say, the body wouldn't function if it were all eye, or all hand. This model of local churches working cooperatively with other local churches in mutual recognition is the model of the early church. And the head of that body is Christ, not an earthly representative (sorry, your holiness; and you too Henry -- you' re both wrong).

The problems arise with the anathemas and schisms, the declarations "we're the church and you aren't" (and these have been going on for a long time) -- usually based on a doctrinal difference of opinion. This is why I see "doctrine" as the problem and the obstacle to unity. And ultimately I think anything other than agreement on a subset of all doctrines is unlikely if not impossible. And I'm not entirely convinced that uniformity on all doctrinal matters is desirable even if it is obtainable. A monolithic doctrine on all matters — without distinction between the essential and the indifferent — would be incapable of correction, and would presume infallibility.

So much as I would like to hope it, I do not see a future in which all Christians share an identical doctrine on all matters. I seriously doubt this has ever been true, otherwise Paul wouldn't be trying to correct or expound "his" gospel over against "some other gospel" and Priscilla and Aquila wouldn't have needed to "instruct" Apollos.

So fixing on a completely unified doctrine on all things will likely never work. So I turn to Huntington's model of agreement on a core of doctrines, and the model proposed in the collect for Richard Hooker: comprehension rather than compromise. Comprehension holds diverse positions (and sometimes contradictory positions, as in the Elizabethan settlement on eucharistic doctrine) together, in an agreement to coexist without trying to convert the other. The focus isn't on the doctrine, but upon the brother or sister in Christ — who they are, not what they believe or do.

This, as I see it, is the question before the Anglican Communion today. Do we seek a uniformity on an issue about which there is actual division of opinion (either by surrender on the part of some, or their excision or departure from the body -- in which one "side" essentially triumphs over the other but all are diminished) or do we allow each other to coexist in a larger mutual_ submission in which neither "side" forces its way upon the other? If this is "liberalism" then I would suggest it is the only means by which a unified church can be maintained -- through the comprehension of divers views, promontories on the continent, organs of a body, members of a family. The only other option, it seems to me, is the image of islands existing in the splendid isolation of doctrinal purity, perhaps with the odd bridge here or there, and the occasional ferry. The Spirit of love gives life, but the Letter kills: the spirit unites; and doctrine divides, if we let it.

Tobias Haller BSG


Anonymous said...

Seems to me that you can test this approach by trying to apply it to the issue that is, in fact, presently trying the Anglican communion. Is it a sin for a man to have sex with another man? Some think so, others think not. It is a matter of moral theology that presently divides the church.

Can this disagreement be kept from breaking the communion by simply agreeing to disagree? It only can if the church can stand having different parishes teaching the opposite of one another, and bishops and priests disagreeing. Can Bishop Robinson be seriously expected to tolerate the preaching of one of his priests that men having sex with each other commit a serious sin? Or can a bishop who actually holds that view, consistent with his own convictions, not intervene if a priest is living in an open homosexual relationship?

The Anglican communion made a rather noble attempt to keep the peace in the approach to the ordination of women. Its action was a model of sensitivity to the concerns of the minority. But the result is that part of the laity, some of the clergy, and at least one bishop will not and cannot accept the authority of the American primate. Surely that is a model that can't last.

I think that certain kinds of difference can easily co-exist--theories of the Real Presence, or of the Atonement, for example. But if there is a stark difference, that some think something is a serious sin, and others think it almost sacramental, it seems to me that there tolerance is not going to work.

To put it in its most stark terms, where one group simply will not accept sodomy, and the other simply will no longer put up with bigotry, it seems a little late to be suggesting that the answer is mutual tolerance--even if perhaps a substantial section of the clergy and laity would be willing to live with the conflict.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, this does put it bluntly. And it seems that the church will find its own "level of self-toleration" as it always has. I know as a matter of fact that Bishop Robinson does put up with people in his diocese who ardently disagree with him. If they can tolerate that ambiguity, then they can stay; if not, not.

To take up your example of the eucharistic doctrine: although this may seem a minor matter now, back in the heyday of the 16th century advancing the wrong theory in the wrong place could get you burned at the stake. The Elizabethan Settlement was precisely a willingness to live with ambiguity on a matter about which people felt very, very deeply. And some could not abide it, which gave rise (in part) to the Puritan revolt on one side and the recusant catholic plot against Elizabeth on the other. (The ordination rite of the 1662 BCP contained the oath to abjure the notion it was o.k. to kill the monarch just because the pope said it was o.k. to do so!)

So I would say that agreeing to remain together in spite of disagreements is possible, but it will only be undertaken by those who truly see unity in fellowship as more important than purity in doctrine.

Anonymous said...

"So I would say that agreeing to remain together in spite of disagreements is possible, but it will only be undertaken by those who truly see unity in fellowship as more important than purity in doctrine."

I can't disagree with what you say. But if you substitute "the truth of the gospel" for "purity of doctrine" you have essentially said the same thing, but with a different implied weighing of the choice.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, that's quite true. But does anyone really defend and support a position they think isn't true? That is part of the problem, it seems to me, and why there is a disagreement. I'm sure, as various others have tried to say as we wade through this mess, that everyone is earnest and seeking what they believe to be best. The problem lies, again it seems to me, with those who think only they possess the truth. Obviously they cannot coexist with those with whom they disagree. This is why the value of "epistemic humility" is so important as a way towards keeping the peace. And it seems to me that the gospel calls us to peace, to suspension of judgment, and so on.

Anonymous said...

"Epistemic humility" is possible to those who understand 'the truth of the gospel' not as not a catalogue of facts and rules but as a mystery -- something ineffable, yet accessible to human understanding. Doctrine can never be large enough or subtle enough to contain it or express it fully. Making doctrine is a creative human activity in which we hope to be guided by the Holy Spirit, but can always fail through human weakness. Doctrines might better be seen not as barricades against error, but as windows that let in the light of Christ.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you Mary Clara. As Christ would say, in John's account, He is the Truth of the gospel. The living Truth is a person, not a proposition; the Way and the Life is a person, not a program.

Anonymous said...

There is much here with which I agree. Unity is not the same as uniformity; what is possible (and good, and right) is solidarity on some core truths[0] and an attitude comprising desire to understand and some acceptance/tolerance. I suspect / hope this is what Huntington and Hooker and Paul were about too.

[0] I would vote for our views on unity to *be* one of the "core truths".

That brings me onto the problems I see with what you've said. I vaguely recall seeing noises coming out of Nigeria that attack your "first-order unity"; the above attitude is not possible when other partners do not see you as, shall we say, "different but still Christian in core ways". It is the attitude which is under attack, not (just) a specific doctrine.

I've been reading a handful of theology books of late. Sometimes the doctrines attributed to people down the ages strike me as daft, but at least that leaves the possibility of study, learning, and stronger faith through extra understanding - knowing WHY you believe something. This is why I'm asking at church for an unpacking of the liturgy, to see the spectrum of viewpoints from which it's derived; difference and diversity run deep into every congregation, but division tends not to.

Mark Diebel said...

I offer this very rough thought for you because I like what you are trying to do here. The sort of separation that I see going on in our church is really quite specific and narrow. It involves a limited portion of our lives and interests. In fact, we remain united in many ways after this ecclesial disunification.

For instance, biologically. Many opposed on one level may share blood with "the enemy" in other circumstances. We eat food grown by people of very different beliefs. Our families are made up of people likewise different. We walk past one another, breathe the same air... exhale it for one another too. (Yikes)

We share many idioms; many common desires. We love similar or maybe the same stories. Mathematics works for us all.

The disunities we are calling down upon ourselves are finite; but perhaps can be deepened and increased. There may be a progress to our disunification that will show itself more and more as time goes by. I suspect so.

Perhaps the picture we should have is how great and many our unities are to begin with. Our little divisions enter history for certain times and seasons. Maybe we don't even understand why we are really creating the divide to begin with or what will really be accomplished by it.

What exactly is schism? I don't think it is really so absolute as some might think.

Anonymous said...

But...if you really believe that doctrine as devisive should not be normative, how do you justify the recitation of the Nicene Creed, which contains a large number of propositions that exclude other Christians (for example, the notion that baptism is for the remission of sins excludes Baptists)? Or the Apostle's Creed? Or the Lambeth Quadralateral (whose insistence on the historic episcopate excludes the congregational and reformed traditions)?

If we don't insist on the doctrine of the incarnation we may be able to join with Jews and Muslims. If we don't insist on the existence of God or the soul we can be together with the Buddhists. In the end, I suppose, we can be united with everyone by holding to nothing. But what's the point?

Anonymous said...

Another good essay. Your responses to Rick are also good, but I must say I share some of his concerns. Could the Angican communion include churches which accept lay presidency at the Eucharist? Or that conducted no Eucharistic services at all? That would be a stretch for me. And if, as you say, the province and not the diocese is the focus of the church, then the accommodation with the diocese of Fort Worth can only be a stopgap measure, not one which could outlast the current bishop.

Anonymous said...

Did I detect a piece of Tobias fudge just then? rick Allen asked "Can Bishop Robinson be seriously expected to tolerate the preaching of one of his priests that men having sex with each other commit a serious sin?"
To which Tobias replied(in part) " I know as a matter of fact that Bishop Robinson does put up with people in his diocese who ardently disagree with him. ".
So does this extend to having a priest in that diocese teach that the bishop is in serious sin? "People" may just mean pewsitters.
One church (Redeemer) left over the issue of recognising Robinson's authority as bishop - he does not seem to tolerate any ambiguity on that matter.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Many interesting thoughts, and I only have a moment to reply as I head off to worship. To address the last comment, first, Obadiahslope, that is not fudge, but truth. I have no direct knowledge that any priest in NH preaches as described. I do know that there are parishes in NH that were opposed to Bishop Robinson and that he has worked with them in an open and generous way. I'm not going to speculate.

Tim, that is a real problem; and I think the only answer is that one can offer peace and welcome but can't enforce it. Jesus tells us to offer peace, and if it is not received move on. "I am on the side of peace, but when I speak of it they are for war." -- Archbishop Akinola is welcome in my church, but he would probably not want to come; I am not even welcome in his unless I meet his conditions.

Mark, I think you are on to something in terms of the degree to which schism is relative.

Finally, Rick, yes being a Nicene Christian is different from being a Baptist -- although I still recognize Baptists as fully Christian and they are welcome at my altar rail. I think that is the point I was trying to make in reference to our common baptismal faith. The issues of church governance and "denomination" are second-order and need not become impenetrable obstacles unless we insist they must. Obviously, within Anglicanism, we are talking about a certain minimum core of doctrine, which does include the Creed. I think when we come to other religious traditions there are still elements of sharing, and where we share common doctrines that is the thing to emphasize. And even with those with whom we share no religious belief we may have elements of ethical thought -- and our humanity -- in common. I suppose what I'm saying in the long run is that seeking what is common is preferable to seeking to divide, even while we recognize there are differences of belief.

Ephraim RAdner said...


Your desire to see the body of Christ united in a way that transcends “doctrinal” difference, has a venerable pedigree, and in fact represents one of the more basic and original ecumenical motives among Protestants: agreement in “fundamentals”, and charitable cooperation and even communion within and beyond all other differences. Someone like Stephen Sykes has shown the historical pitfalls of this hope – “fundamentals” themselves keep metamorphosing in people’s minds -- but that doesn’t make it less attractive.

The place I see a real point of departure with earlier Protestant ecumenical efforts of this kind, and one that has grave consequences, is in your sense that, because “history is written by the winners”, the “Pauline strand” of the church’s self-identity is less than ecclesially absolute in its authority. This view is certainly not one that most Protestants (and Catholics) could have adopted in the past, when at least the struggle to grasp Paul’s sense of the Church’s doctrinal integrity was generally shared, whatever the diverse outcomes. But the current relativizing of the Scriptural church as an accident of historical power or “survival”, which you seem to share with many others today, may well explain the current relegation of “agreement” as a vocation within ecclesial life. Paul, in any case, thought such “agreement” was constitutive of the Church of Jesus – the citations are too numerous to list, including most famously places like 1 Cor. 1(:10) or Phil. 2:1ff.. This agreement included what, as you note, were seen to be “doctrinal” matters (e.g. in Galatians or 2 Corinthians). And the lack of agreement was seen to have as its effect the Church’s ill-health and even divine judgment. It is possible that, on the basis of something like John 17:17ff., Jesus himself spoke to this aspect in his prayer for unity.

If one accepts the authority of the “Pauline” strand, then it is simply not possible to accept your claim that “doctrine divides”, except in the most trivial way. For Paul, it is not “doctrine” that divides, but the sinful pride and self-assertion of unsanctified believers (or unbelievers). And although I do not wholly agree with the statement when made by gun advocates – guns don’t kill people, people kill people – I do hold the analogy with respect to doctrine: doctrine doesn’t divide the Church, people divide the Church.

From this perspective, there is no Christian virtue in “agreeing to disagree”; there is only virtue in acting in such a way that agreement is fostered and disagreement does not destroy. And that virtue has many possible ways of being furthered, almost none of which are being displayed in the Anglican Communion’s current travails. The goal is not therefore pointless, however; some new way of embodying the “Pauline” call – even in Philippians 2 or Romans 15 – is required.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks once again for the response. First let me put out what I fear is a brush-fire. In my reference to the Pauline strand becoming what we now think of as the church I didn’t at all mean to suggest that the other alternatives with which Paul struggled were equally valid options; only that those who advanced them thought they were such. For instance, the “circumcision party” no doubt thought it had the right (and the Scripture) on its side; and surely there is a hint of major disagreements between Peter and Paul, to say nothing of the difference of opinion on the propriety of eating meat offered to idols (which the Jerusalem Council forbade, but which Paul seems to think a matter indifferent, though best avoided in the interest of charity). I am simply trying to point out that many “divisions” in the church go back right to the beginning; and most of them faded from view as their proponents dwindled. But the main stream survives as the main stream not simply as an accident of history — but as an action of the grace of God; and I did not at all mean to suggest otherwise.

That being said, I would challenge the idea that a kind of charter of fundamentals is a Protestant invention. It seems to me that the work of Nicea and the other early Councils was designed not only to deal with the political issues of the odd wandering bishop, but also to draw up a list of non-negotiables in terms of belief. And I am not utterly opposed to such lists; though I echo your observation that what is regarded as fundamental in one age may seem less so in another.

Rather, I am trying to affirm in this reflection that there is, at base, a fundamental unity in the church, based on baptism, and that we are called to do our utmost not to add to the difficulties by the multiplication of doctrines. As William Reed Huntington put it, “My whole effort in connection with the doctrinal legislation of the Episcopal Church has been to reduce the required dogma to a minimum, while yet insisting upon that minimum. What has ailed the Church, it seems to me, has been, not the principle of dogma, but the multiplication of dogmas.”

I certainly concur with you that agreement is a vocation towards which we should work, even as I sense that a full and complete agreement on every matter of the Christian faith is unlikely (in this life, perhaps as an inevitable consequence of Paul’s confession of our imperfect and incomplete knowledge) — and further, that a certain degree of variation is not only permissible but beneficial. There is a certain richness provided by the different emphases of the great Christian traditions, and they are differences worthy of respect rather than condemnation, and may even be part of God’s intent for the church as it engages with widely different human cultures and traditions.

Naturally, I do not mean, in my shorthand slogan, to suggest that doctrine in itself divides; as with the gun-lobby slogan you cite, the doctrine simply provides, at times, a means for people to find or express division: and to be fair to them, even as with guns, they may be doing so in self-defense.

For example, the creedal language had to be developed precisely because there were people going about making doctrinal claims that had not been adequately addressed in, or drawn from, the plain words of Scripture. Hence the need to come up with a novel (and non-Scriptural) word to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son. The relationship itself had never been in doubt until someone got the not-so-bright idea that the Son was a creature. In a very real sense the “division” was created by the novel belief, not by the one eventually expressed (though formerly inherent) in the Creed: it was the heretical doctrine that led to division, and the articulation of the orthodox doctrine simply restated, as the Fathers said, “What we have always taught.”

I agree completely with your closing comment. That is exactly what I think we need to do more of, and I concur that we see precious little of it in the Communion at present. My earnest hope is that we can weather this storm, though I am not optimistic given the irascibility of some and the impatience of others. Let us continue working in a positive way towards from the points at which we agree, and we may find, as you suggest, not that we “agree to disagree” but discover that the matters we do agree upon outweigh those on which we have, as yet, failed to reach a consensus.

June Butler said...

Tobias, your recent series of posts on the state of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion controversies have been helpful and informative. Thanks for taking the time.

The thoughtful commentary has been enlightening, also.

Anonymous said...

Ephraim Radner said: "From this perspective, there is no Christian virtue in “agreeing to disagree”; there is only virtue in acting in such a way that agreement is fostered and disagreement does not destroy."

This is the crux of the matter, isn't it.

But "agreement is fostered" by persuasion, not by compulsion. Thus, demands and ultimata do not foster agreement, but rather lead to destruction.

Certainly there is enough blame to go around in the Communion over "the issue." But I only see one side saying "agree with me or get out."

Anonymous said...

In relation to this discussion see the reflection on an Anglican Covenant produced by the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission at the webpage of Deacon Ormonde Plater