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)



... 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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Some three hundred years ago a process began which is only now coming into full fruit. It is the examination of traditional Church teaching in the light of contemporary thought. Things have moved fast - far faster than many would have liked. We are now in a situation where in the West few are convinced and many scandalised by Christian doctrines. This short article attempts to put the matter into perspective.

Doctrine is a technical term for "teaching". But when used by Christians it tends to take on extra meaning. First, it is applied to the whole body of Christian teaching over time and all its variants. Second, it refers to particular beliefs to which Christians must give verbal assent.

In the second of the two meanings, doctrines have been enforced throughout the history of the Church. At times compulsion has been vicious. At other times it has been relatively lax. Sometimes Christians have been killed for their heresies. At other times they have merely been excluded. This may be done formally (as in heresy trials) or by making life in a Christian congregation unbearable for the "sinner".

In theory all doctrine is rooted in a single source. One author claims that

All Christians agree that the original statement of Christian doctrine is found in the Bible. [1]

She points out that if one accepts this then the history of doctrine in the Church is, in effect, the history of the interpretation of the Bible. 

Disagreements about what is "right" interpretation have been many and profound. To this day, official pronouncements of the various church parties differ enough to perpetuate divisions in the Church. There are now some 40 000 churches worldwide, all exhibiting differing versions of "right" teaching.

For the last 500 years or so increasing pressure has been put on Church authorities to reformulate some doctrines in the light of what is broadly termed the "Enlightenment". The latter term usually refers to deep changes in the way the world is known and understood. There has been intense debate about the degree to which doctrines can be revised by insights of reason, by new findings of science and the analytical disciplines, and by political, social and economic experience.

There have been many doctrinal controversies over the centuries. But it seems to me that a new crisis is on the boil. Renewed attempts are being made in many churches to curb the promotion of new teachings.

There are two main frontiers of conflict.

[1] Westerners tend to be better educated and more exposed to the wider world and all its variations of religion and philosophy than those in poorer and less-developed nations. As numbers of those who formally  belong to churches in the West fall, so numbers of Christians in less-sophisticated countries are rising. Their leaders seem unwilling to adopt the so-called "liberal" doctrines often espoused in the West. This is leading to intense conflict over matters of ethics and morals.

[2] Traditional teachings in the West appear to be losing, or have already lost, the power to convince any but a minority of the population. In the United States and Canada special circumstances have preserved a nominal Christian majority. Indications are that they are now coming under the same pressures which have reduced Church membership in Europe to a small minority. Those who have left or never joined the Church have evolved a loose set of convictions which often bear little relationship to traditional teachings. Partly in reaction to this "New Age" theology some churches show signs of preparing to sniff out and punish deviant teachings. In the Church of England, for example, a new measure seeks to discipline or expel clergy who publicly promote unacceptable doctrine.

These struggles inevitably force attention towards the capacity of doctrine to be normative. More and more people are asking, "On what grounds does the Church insist that its members must assent to verbal formulas such as those enshrined (some would say entombed) in the creeds?"

Those who ask this and similar questions have a good point. For if doctrines are to be normative, one might conclude that the leaders of the Church would agree on the verbal expression of those norms. Just the opposite is the case. All major Christian churches disagree about foundational teachings. Many uneasily tolerate significant levels of disagreement even within their own leadership. Amongst laypeople everywhere levels of disagreement are great. In short, there is no such thing in real life as normative doctrine - except in theory.

We saw above that the New Testament is supposed to be the bedrock upon which all Christian interpretation is built. Even if differing interpretations do actually lead to division, many Christians will maintain that "the faith" (by which they mean doctrinal formulas) is derived from the Bible, and from the New Testament in particular. 

Unfortunately for them, this turns out to be very far from the truth for a number of good reasons:

  •  The New Testament is not about theology. The gospels are stories written with a theological slant. The letters are pastoral documents. None presents theology as what we would today call a topic or subject. Thus Christian theology must in most part be inferred rather than reproduced from these documents. They prove to be a weak vessel for normative doctrine.

  • Some of the most important Christian teachings are barely referred to in the New Testament. An example is monotheism, the teaching that there is only one God. Does the elaborate and normative theology of the Trinity accurately reflect a biblical norm? Most scholars now agree that it does not - and yet it continues to be touted as a doctrine necessary to salvation.

  • The New Testament consists of writings by a number of different authors, each with his own emphases and interests. Each gospel author responds uniquely to the person of Jesus. Many theological terms are used differently by different authors. Any normative use of these terms in formulating doctrines does not reflect the true nature of the biblical texts. There is something which can be called "the theology of Luke". But there is no such thing as the theology of the New Testament.

  • The Bible can only be partially understood, no matter how much we research it and think about it. This is because we find many aspects of its background barely comprehensible. Our cultural distance even from first-century Palestine is too great for close understanding. We can only partially grasp the thoughts and worldview of New Testament people and authors.

  • The history of the Church is now better known and understood than it ever has been. One consequence is the recognition that all doctrinal formulations are filtered by the personal and cultural spectacles of those who develop them. For example, no matter what the Bible says, no societies now allow legal slavery and few the subservience of women in law. As a result, no honest interpreter of the Bible in the West can approach either of these in precisely the same way as did first-century Christians. Even the most intense awareness of interpretive subjectivity, and even the most profound immersion in biblical background, cannot completely bypass this factor.

The upshot of this is that all doctrines based on the Bible have, in the final analysis, derived at least in part from the personal needs, interests and preconceptions of those who interpret it. If this needed demonstrating for the modern age, Albert Schweitzer did so brilliantly in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906. If the above account is correct, the same undoubtedly applies to doctrine throughout the ages.

To sum up so far: Even the most dispassionate, detached scholarly study of the Bible issues in some degree in doctrine - if only because of the Bible's central place in Christianity. But research into the New Testament can't be normative, given the nature of the Bible and our cultural distance from it. The only other source of normative doctrine is those in authority in the Church who claim to infallibly (that is, normatively) interpret the Bible. Despite their claims, it is clear, given our understanding of both the source and the interpreters, that any resulting doctrines are biased in many ways.

A number of pressing questions arise from this analysis. Can anything be done to make Christian doctrine more persuasive? Given the present highly fluid and uncertain situation, is it possible to restore the Bible to its previous pride of place? Is that even desirable? Can those who claim access to absolute doctrinal truths rightly be given authority to discipline their Christian brothers and sisters for error? And should Bible scholars be allowed a decisive role in formulating normative doctrine?

Two immediate problems present in trying to answer these questions:

  1. Those who want clarity and consistency of doctrine may look to biblical scholars for their norms. But if they do they will find only complexity, confusion and irredeemable variety. The New Testament does not present a corporate view of Jesus. Even the existence of a coherent body of thought we might call "Paul's theology" is in doubt.

  2. If New Testament scholars look to doctrine for a reference point, they will find a pseudo-discipline neither tidy nor attractive. This is an anarchic field of study, lacking clear criteria. Even its subject matter is uncertain.

Leslie Houlden makes a similar point:

The land of doctrine is not a tidy or a pleasant sight. Who knows on what principles matters are conducted there? Are its inhabitants committed to expounding the authoritative doctrines of Christianity ... [or] Are they interested in the New testament evidence? ... Or are those who live in the land of doctrine committed to something much closer to the philosophy of religion? In that case, New Testament scholars find it hard to discover a point of attachment, yet they know that such a point must be found. [2] 

[1] Shirley C Guthrie Jr in A New Dictionary Of Christian Theology,
SCM Press Ltd, 1983
[2] Alternative Approaches to New Testament Study, Ed. A E Harvey, 
SPCK, 1985

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