Jeremy Sheehy finds the doctrine report orthodox, if sometimes hesitantly so
As it says in the Foreword, this Report is Part of a trilogy.
`We Believe m God’ was published in 1987, and in 1991 `We Believe in the Holy Spirit’ was issued. This report is titled `The Mystery of Salvation’, but it could easily have been entitled “We Believe in the One Christ’ and this would have highlighted the way in which the three reports cohere. There will be much in this report (as there was much in its two predecessors) that those who come from the `traditionalist” constituency will want to applaud, and it is generally of a moderately, if hesitantly, orthodox tenor.
Let us, then, follow the report through its various chapters and look at the material with which it deals. In the first chapter “Posing the Problem’ the Commission examines the world in which we live today and a series of the main issues a presentation of the doctrine of salvation in Christ must face. Our modern secularised and individualistic culture, the speed of scientific development (and here they highlight especially the study of physics and the study of human biology and genetics), the challenges of feminism to and in our society, and the presence in Britain of communities of the other major world faiths are identified as particularly significant. If I have a criticism to make about this generally coherent account of our present situation it is that at times it sounds rather as though we are being asked to applaud the breadth of the general knowledge of the Doctrine Commission. I was reminded that someone 1 knew well used to say occasionally, after hearing a sermon by a priest whose sermons they regularly heard: “Oh, it was one of his “See how well-read I am” days.” Well, the Doctrine Commission sounds terribly well- read!
In the second chapter, entitled `The Giver and the Gift’, the nature of salvation itself is addressed. Before we can develop a way of describing how the work of Christ brings us salvation, we must develop a way of describing what salvation is. What doctrine of the atonement we favour will often depend on what aspect of the nature of salvation we choose to emphasise. And the Commission says that this enquiry leads us to talk about God as the Trinitarian God. Salvation’ is not
self-fulfilment, but is (p. 36) `God’s gift of God’s own self to us in his gifts and as himself. ” And this God gives himself to us as Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity arises out of the narrative of God’s self-giving in Christ. There is also a section on the feminist challenge to the ways in which Christians have traditionally tallied God. It is a very balanced discussion, but I would want to echo the comment made by one of my colleagues at St. Stephen’s House, Lucy Gardner, in her review of the report for the `Church Times’ pointed out that a report on salvation, which sought to discuss God’s initiative and our co-operation, and wanted to ensure (p. 49) “that the doctrine of the Trinity does not exclude or subordinate women’ might just possibly have wanted to mention Mary, his mother! She doesn’t appear at all in the index.
The third chapter `Saving History’ deals with the relationship between God’s saving’ work and the history of the world within which we live. Is all within which we live being saved, so that all things are being made new Or are we to be saved from this present order and its ills and woes, when a new heaven and a new earth are revealed? I think the report tends to identify the first emphasis too heavily with Catholic Christianity, and the second emphasis is too narrowly identified with Protestant Christianity. There is a strongly Catholic tradition of Augustinian theology and there have been many Catholic Puritans, just as there have been many Protestants with a strong sense of the glories of this creation and its order.
In the fourth chapter, `The Story of the Saviour”, the New Testament material on the work of Christ is very briefly outlined, and then in chapter five, `Retelling the Story”, a series of modern interpretations of the principal ways in which Christians have understood the doctrine of the atonement are presented. The Commission comments that there cannot be one single statement of the doctrine of the atonement, but that it is (p101) “far better, and more consistent with our rich Christian traditions, to provide a series of angles of vision, or reference points, to sketch the great mystery of the atonement”. There is, of course, a lot of sense in this, but it can sound rather like a bit of typical Anglican fudge.
Perhaps all have won and all shall have prizes, but it would he nice to have some indication of which angle of vision the Commission considers to provide the best viewpoint and of whether there are some angles from which the desired sight is actually out of view. And I have to admit that 1 am not convinced that Peter Abelard’s doctrine of the atonement is as concerned to establish Christ as our representative (and not just as God’s example of love) as they are (p. 1 I 0). One minor quibble: why no reference to R.C. Moberly, first Principal of St. Stephen’s House and, by virtue of his classic, `Atonement and Personality’, the finest Anglican writer on Christ as our representative (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church calls Atonement and Personality ‘perhaps the most original and profound study of the Atonement in modern Anglican theology’) ?
Chapter six is called “Receiving the Gift’ and it looks at what it is from which we are saved and how we express the mystery of the transformation that the work of Christ brings to our lives. It is perhaps a pity that the English word “salvation” is so narrowly religious in its significance. It is, as the Commission point out (p. 121), otherwise in various other languages. Rightly the Commission point out that this involves solidarity and communion: (p. 142) `there is much reason to suppose that such holiness and wholeness cannot be found outside of community.” L think the report would have been strengthened by making explicit reference at this point back to the stress in chapter two on the Trinitarian nature of God.
Finally, chapter seven is a discussion of “Christ and world faiths’ which repays careful reading and includes many moving accounts. It was chapter eight which captured most press interest when the report was released. It is called `Ending the Story’ and its affirmation of Christian prayer for the Christian dead and for those whose faith is known to God alone will be welcome to Catholic Anglicans. But, of course, it was not this, or its affirmation of the common prayer and worship of the communion of saints that caused the press interest. This was focused upon the admission of the report that many of the former images of hell are no longer of any
value. But the press did not always see that the report is quite clear that hell remains a reality. “The possibility remains for each human being of a final rejection of God (p. 198).’ And some of the strongest language in the whole report is found in their rejection of dogmatic universalism. But whilst we must, they rightly say, affirm the reality of hell and of heaven as the ultimate affirmation of human freedom, we are not required to believe that the reality of hell is a reality for any human soul. The sheep go to the kingdom prepared for them as their heritage (Matthew 25:34), but the goats go to a place that was not prepared for them (Matthew 25:41). God desires that all may be saved. Some years back I would have found it difficult to believe that a Church of England Doctrine Commission discussion on eschatology, which means the doctrine of the last things, could be as balanced and as generally orthodox as this chapter is.
There is a final conclusion, and an appendix which looks at the formulations of the doctrine of the atonement in the Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and in more recent liturgical material.
Enough said. It’s worth reading.
Jeremy Sheehy is Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford