John Richardson takes another look at the Doctrine Commission report on The Mystery of Salvation
Right now, the 1995 Doctrine Commission report The Mystery of Salvation has suffered the same fate as similar reports issued last year – a flurry of newspaper headlines, a couple of articles and book reviews, then a lapse into obscurity only briefly to be disturbed in due time by a Synod debate. We might therefore assume that nothing more need be said. However, this is to overlook an important aspect of modern Anglican ecclesiology. As J C D Clark writes,
In the long history of Anglican debates … the present phase is unusual in that a self-referential committee culture has arisen to displace, wholly or in part, Anglicans’ former attention to the Fathers and to the formidable writings of Anglican theologians of the past. (`The Apostolic Succession, the Ecumenical Movement and the Integrity of Anglicanism’ Faith and Worship, 38 Summer 1995, pp 4-12, emphasis added.)
What Clark has noted is that each of those reports which apparently fade from public view nevertheless takes its place in the developing theological identity of Anglicanism. Just as Issues in Sexuality is now a bench-mark of moral doctrine, so The Mystery of Salvation is already more likely to be quoted than Scripture itself in defining what Anglicans can and should believe.
It is for this reason that we cannot simply overlook these reports, however much we may dislike or disagree with them. Yet we are so used to them being violently disagreeable that when, as with The Mystery of Salvation, one is merely inadequate there is a danger of commending it out of a sheer sense of relief. I feel something of this attitude affected Robert Hannaford and Jeremy Sheehy in the March edition of New Directions and would therefore like to take the opportunity to observe three areas of difficulty which appear to have been overlooked.
From What Peril?
First, The Mystery of Salvation has a weakened soteriology, evidenced by its tendency to talk almost entirely in terms of what we are saved to, rather than what we are saved from. In this respect, the first sentence of the report is deceptively candid and intelligible:
To the drowning passengers of a sinking ship salvation does not need to be explained, only offered – and quickly. (p 1)
However, it is immediately observed that though such a metaphor may “illuminate the ease with which it is possible to speak of being saved when the nature of the peril is clear”, it is inadequate “when the danger being faced is either not clear or is the subject of controversy”. And it soon becomes obvious that the compilers of this report are not at all clear from what peril salvation delivers us. It is admitted that salvation is `from our sins’ (pp 120-127), but the notion of divine wrath as a perilous consequence of sin is itself reduced to a “metaphor” which tells us that “human wickedness … precludes enjoyment of the vision of perfect goodness which is God” (p 126).
Yet to describe “wickedness” as that which obstructs our enjoyment of “goodness” is to fail to engage with “wickedness” at all. Here, as in other parts of the report, Christian doctrine is trimmed to the prevailing secular wind. Karl Barth is noted with approval as “closest to giving a generally acceptable] sense to penal imagery” (p 123, emphasis added). But Barth’s alleged “excluding any necessity for punishment” clearly accords with the sensitivities shared by the authors with modern Western culture. This is underlined by their apparently approving comment in the Appendix that the ASB “contains a rather different emphasis in its implied doctrine of the atonement” (p 215) from that found in the Prayer Book and the Articles, in that the “language of penal substitution and propitiation is avoided in the ASB” (p 216).
Departing from Tradition
Of course, it is perfectly possible to believe that the Prayer Book is wrong. However, a second major problem with the report is that it constantly fails to make clear the extent and seriousness of its divergence from canonical Anglican sources. On the matter of other faiths, for example, Article XVIII states clearly that
They are also to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature
Similarly, the collect for Good Friday asks God that he would
Have mercy upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Hereticks, and take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy word; and so fetch them home … so that they may be saved among the remnant of the true Israelites.
Disagreement with these sentiments is perhaps forgivable, but failure to acknowledge or to identify such divergence is a gross omission in an official document. It can hardly be that the authors were unaware of this difference. One is therefore left wondering whether they just hoped no one else would notice – or perhaps even care.
Third, and finally in such a brief review, the report shows a bizarre laxity on the matter of free will. Theodicy clearly controls theology at this point, so that the `necessity of free will’ explains away any unfortunate suggestions that God is other than a sympathetic liberal. The result, however, is a curious neo-Pelagianism. Indeed, the report’s claim that “the story of Adam and Eve represents the choice which confronts all human beings, and the disobedience to God into which all of us fall” (p 53) sits rather awkwardly alongside the statement in Article IX that “Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk)”!
We might expect a modern report controlled by popular sentiment to reject the insistence on double predestination found in Article XVII. Yet the apparently complete ignoring of the wrestlings of Augustine, Luther, Calvin and others with this issue throughout Church history is breathtaking. Moreover, the report is simply incomprehensible when it further asserts that the “evolutionary history” of the universe is “understood as the divine gift of `freedom’ by which creation is allowed to make itself” (p 188). No mechanism is described, nor can one be imagined, by which such a `freedom’ is exercised, yet the introduction of a semi-gnostic `demiurge’ into Anglican thinking passes unremarked.
Much more could be said. However, the ultimate irritation of this report is its failure to be sufficiently definite about salvation itself whilst saying much that is misleading about the framework within which salvation is to be understood. In the end we return to our opening question: “From what peril are we delivered?” The answer the report appears to give is, “From the peril of not experiencing God’s best”. The answer the Bible gives, and which Anglicanism has traditionally asserted, is “From the peril of experiencing God’s worst”. The two could amount to the same thing. However, the whole tenor of this report suggests that in this case they do not.
John Richardson is Chaplain of East London University.