Saturday, May 12, 2007

Tobias Haller on How Doctrine Divides

As I noted earlier, I have been doing some remedial reading on church history. What theme that has struck me is how the history of the church has largely been a story of schisms--how differences about doctrine lead to a division of the church.

I was therefore quite taken with this post by Father Tobias Haller on how doctrine divides, and why we should not allow it to do so. Here are some highlights:

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.

Read it all.

I think that something is lost when we break the body of Christ into pieces over doctrine--even important doctrines. And I think that the search for doctrinal purity leads to yet more division. So let us stay true to what we believe--and fight the good fight within the Church--but in the end let us take the Eucharist together as one body.

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