On “core” doctrine: Some possibly relevant soundings

On “core” doctrine: Some possibly relevant soundings

Hefling, Charles


The substance of this article was given as an address at a conference on “core doctrine” sponsored hy SEAD (Scholarly Engagement with Anglican Doctrine) and held at St. John’s Church, Stamford, CT in May 1997. Some revising was done afterwards, partly in the light of discussion at the conference, but the condensed and informal style of the original remain.


The phrase “core doctrine” was introduced in a particular text, as part of a particular argument intended to resolve a particular issue. With these particulars the present conference is not directly concerned. Instead, I take it, the basic question here is whether the phrase designates something appropriate, valid, accurate, illuminating, helpful. In short, what are we to make of it? Since the question of appropriateness depends on having a clear idea of what the phrase “core doctrine” means, or might mean, that is where I shall begin.

The first thing to note is that “core doctrine” is itself a doctrineof a particular kind. It is a second-order doctrine, a doctrine about doctrine. It draws a distinction within doctrine, such that doctrine is to be divided into two kinds or categories, of which one is “core” and the other an unspecified but different “not core.” And besides saying there is a distinction to be drawn, this doctrine-about-doctrine seems to say that the distinction regards importance. On the one hand, not everything that is de facto taught, not everything that falls under the heading of “doctrine,” is worth insisting on, worth emphasizing. But, on the other hand, some things are.

So much, it seems plain, “core doctrine” must mean. What more it means is a question that I find it helpful to address by considering what the opposite of this basic meaning would be. The distinction that the idea of “core doctrine” draws means two things, and so there are two opposites, two ways to oppose or negate or deny the idea. They are not the same, and the difference between them is quite important.

Opposing the notion (1)

One way to take a stand in opposition to the whole idea of “core doctrine” would be to say: “No, the distinction is invidious. It is not true that `not everything which is taught is worth insisting on.”‘ Or, taking out the double negative, “It is true that everything is worth insisting on.” And this first way of denying the notion is not just an abstract possibility. It is a position held, and held by Anglicans, though not for the same reasons. For, on the one hand, you can hold such a position on catholic grounds, by maintaining that the wholeness of the catholic faith is such that to suppress or belittle any part of it affects, for the worse, the coherence and consistency of the whole. Or, on the other hand, you can begin from an evangelical stance, maintaining that the authority and inspiration of Scripture are such that to sort Christian teaching into “core” and “other” threatens the authority, truth, unity of “God’s word written.”

Either way, however, this first kind of opposition to “core doctrine” rests on the idea that Christian doctrine is like a chain: Every teaching depends, directly or indirectly, on all the others, so that the whole falls apart if any item is omitted. Or, to put it less mechanically, Christian doctrine is like a human face: Alter any feature, and you distort the whole. But face or chain, the metaphor suggests quite a different construal of doctrine from the one implied in the metaphor of core and periphery (or whatever the other-than-core doctrine is named).

Here it may be appropriate to add a familiar historical observation. The “formative” Anglican divines were faced with analogous pressures, exerted from outside their own communion. From one side the Romanists complained, “You are heretical, for you deny the teaching of the church.” To which the answer was, “We have departed on no essential point.” From the other side, continental Protestants of some persuasions complained, “You have failed to uphold all that Scripture teaches”-notably in matters of church order and discipline. To which the answer was, “Such indications of ecclesial polity as can be gleaned from Scripture are not of the essence of Christianity.” To both complaints, in other words, the Anglican answer was, “We have kept to the `fundamentals.'”1

My point in mentioning this bit of Anglican history is not to wheel out the standard apologetic of an Anglican via media, nor to suggest that relying on a core of fundamental doctrines is uniquely Anglican, nor to propose that our late twentieth-century situation is significantly similar (though I think it is). At present I want only to say that the idea of drawing some kind of distinction within doctrine, with regard to importance, is not a new idea for Anglicans. It has been with us from the Elizabethan settlement on.

Opposing the notion (2)

Still, the fact that it is not a new idea does not mean it is a good idea. This leads to my “second opposite,” a second and different way to deny or oppose the whole notion of “core doctrine.” For if the meaning of that phrase is that not all doctrine is worth insisting on, though some doctrine is, it can be countered by saying, “No, none of it is (worth insisting on).” Where the first kind of opposition sees all doctrine as equally significant, this second kind sees it all as equally insignificant. Why? Because doctrine itself is not “of the essence” of Christianity.

This view is quite common; at least as common as either the catholic or the evangelical branch of my “first opposite.” It can be held on any of several interrelated grounds: the ground that experience is more important than doctrine, the ground that spirituality is the real core of Christianity, or the more particularly Anglican ground-which for present purposes is the one to take notice of-that “we are not a confessional church.”

The implications of that slogan work themselves out concretely in various ways. Here is one anecdotal example. I have two academic colleagues in the Boston area, each of whom has recently left the Roman Catholic church to become an Episcopalian. Being professors, each had asked what the Episcopal church teaches. Both were told not to worry about that, since what matters for Episcopalians is not belief or teaching or doctrine but worship. The important question was whether they found themselves “at home” with the Book of Common Prayer.

Mere anecdote though this is, it may be worth pausing over. That “we are not a confessional church” is part of our Episcopal self-image, part of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. One of our teachings is that we do not stress teaching, at least not in the way some churches do. Exactly when this doctrine about the relative unimportance of doctrine compared with worship emerged would be difficult to pin down. Certainly, however, it is not a story that Anglicans have always told. Not until the present century, perhaps, did they often tell it explicitly, although when they began it could well be that they were only making explicit what had already entered implicitly into the attitudes and practices of their church and may have been implicit from the first. But leaving the historical question aside, let us for purposes of discussion suppose that this story is an accurate story-that the carrier or vehicle or medium of Anglican Christianity is to be found not, or not principally, in teachings but in worship. Such, let us say, is the “Anglican ethos.” I think it should be pointed out that the fact of our having such an “ethos” is an increasingly nebulous fact and, more important here, an ambiguous fact.

It is an increasingly nebulous fact, because in its usual form it says more than just lex orandi lex credendi, “belief follows worship.” For it says that what belief follows is public worship, common prayer, according to one prescribed form-the Prayer Book. The “Anglican ethos” relies heavily on a semi-sacred text. But this text, as such, is dissolving. For about four hundred years, right down to thirty years ago, it would have been possible to write an Anglican theological treatise in the form of a commentary on the Prayer Book. Variations, geographical or historical, were minor. Today it is otherwise. For better or worse, it is all but impossible to imagine that uniform liturgical formulations will ever again bear the burden of doctrinal meaning.

Yet even if Prayer Book revision had never happened, the fact that liturgy has been the vehicle of Anglican belief would still be an ambiguous fact, in the sense of being open to quite different evaluations. I will mention two. Each, it will turn out, entails taking a stand on a specific doctrine.

Assessing the unconfessional “Anglican ethos”

One way to evaluate the centrality of liturgical meaning can be found in Taylor Stevenson’s article on “Lex Orandi-Lex Credendi” in The Study of Anglicanism.2 What this assessment comes down to is that we may thank divine Providence for blessing us with forms of common prayer but not with strong doctrinal formularies. Having the one without the other has kept Anglican thinking in a symbolic, imaginative mode, which is always in flux and never captured in definitions. To attempt to define, to state positively the content of some teaching, to reach a judgment or proposition that invites assent, is to quench the Spirit, control the uncontrollable, and so on. Notice that, on this first evaluation, the root of the “Anglican ethos” with respect to doctrine is a doctrine; in this case, a doctrine about revelation. The primacy of the Prayer Book, that is, reflects and safeguards the uncontrollable elusiveness, the other-than-propositional truthfulness, of divine self-disclosure.

That is one way to evaluate the “Anglican ethos.” Another, rather different way would be to say that the fact of our having a Prayer Book but no doctrine (to speak of) is just a reflection of political expediency. We may recall the famous sentence on the first page of Powicke’s book: “The one definite thing which can be said about the Reformation in England is that it was an act of State.”3 When Elizabeth Tudor became queen, she was determined to have one church in England. Accordingly she enforced conformity to one liturgy while making sure that doctrinal standards (such as they were) would be few and imprecise. And again, on this second evaluation the root of the “Anglican ethos” is a doctrine-this time, an ecclesiological doctrine. The primacy of the Prayer Book went along with holding that the church is (among other things, no doubt) an instrument for influencing conscience and a means of mass communication, a sociopolitical glue rather than a repository of truth. The fact that the Church of England got notably ambiguous Articles of Religion on the one hand, and a liturgy fixed in every detail by act of Parliament on the other, had everything to do with its being the Church of England.

I hasten to say that this second evaluation need not be a cynical one. Nor is it necessarily incompatible with such an evaluation as Stevenson’s. Queen Elizabeth could very well have been an instrument of divine Providence, quite apart from what she thought she was doing (and what she thought on religious matters is anyhow something we know very little about).

To ecclesiology I shall return. First, to resume the thread of my “sorting out,” I have been saying that it is possible to object to the notion of “core doctrine” either on the ground that no distinction should be drawn within Christian teaching, or on the ground that doctrine itself is not worth fighting about, because experience is what counts or because spirituality is what counts or because liturgy gives us our Anglican identity. The two objections (my two “opposites”) can be combined, but they are distinct in principle. Of the two, the “first opposite” is probably the more common, but the “second opposite” cuts deeper. So I propose to take my “soundings” there. For the question that I think has to be asked sooner or later, and better sooner than later, is this: What sort of thing is “doctrine” such that it matters? What is it about doctrine that makes the issue of whether doctrine has a “core” an important issue?

A prior question: “salvation”

With a nod to the “Anglican ethos,” we might notice that the Prayer Book contains some doctrines about doctrine which suggest that it is important. Here are two of them:

“They also are 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” (p. 871).

On the positive side: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith…. This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved” (p. 864).

The first comes from the XXXIX Articles, the eighteenth; the second quotes the beginning and the end of the “Athanasian” Creed. Both these texts are grouped in the American Prayer Book among “Historical Documents,” whatever that may mean; and both, perhaps significantly, were regarded with suspicion by the Founding Fathers of the Episcopal Church. The first, negative assertion is to the effect that one is not “saved” by just anything; the second, positive one says that one is “saved” by (among other things, certainly) “holding” the catholic faith. My point in quoting them is this-and it is in some sense the major point of these soundings: There is not going to be any clarity on (1) whether teaching or doctrine is appropriately distinguished into “core” and “other,” and if so any clarity on (2) what the “core” consists in, without getting some clarity on (3) why the church ought to teach, and Christians to believe, any doctrine at all.

Otherwise stated, the prior question I am raising is: What connects “holding” certain things, certain doctrines, certain teachings, with “salvation” or “being saved”? It is an enormous and complicated question, which is the kind it is worthwhile to think about. All I can do is sketch a line of reasoning-where I might go, having cleared some ground and brought matters to the question I have just posed. Enormous regions of controversy must needs get covered in few words. But an address is not a treatise.


Teaching systematic theology at a Jesuit university has the advantage that you have to know something about Thomas Aquinas, who is a very good theologian to know. I will perhaps be pardoned for beginning as he does, in the very first article of his Summa Theologiae.

Whether sacred doctrine is necessary

Is there (Thomas asks) really a need for any other teaching (doctrina) besides what we get from the philosophical disciplines? No, or so it seems. After all, those disciplines cover everything. But yes, Thomas argues: “It is necessary for human salvation (salus) that there should be doctrine based on divine revelation, besides philosophy.” Why? “Because we are ordered, ordained by God to an end that passes our comprehension.” (Here Thomas quotes Isaiah: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard,” and so on.) But you cannot get anywhere by your own intention and action unless you know where you are going. So if there is a “supernatural” goal-“salvation” in that strong sense-then yes, we need to know about it, and philosophy cannot supply the knowledge. It can tell us a lot, but not everything needful.

About that article there are two points worth noting. First, the if it involves is a very big if. We need to know “sacred doctrine” if the “end of man,” the ultimate goal and purpose of human living, is something beyond this present life, which “eye hath not seen nor ear heard.” It is a big if because the subject matter of eschatology, in the sense of the “life of the world to come,” is not high on the list of theological priorities at present. To speak for myself, however, I do not see that there is any other reason to bother with Christian theology. If science and philosophy and psychology and political economy together tell us all we need to know about where we come from, where we are going, and how we get there, then all the church can do, really, is add a sort of liturgical halo. On the other hand, if there is some sense in which what is at stake in the way we become ourselves is something that transcends us, then knowing what Thomas calls sacra doctrina can hardly be an optional extra. Doctrine is, in that case, intrinsic to Christian pilgrimage, precisely because we are on our way towards a reality that we do not and cannot know except by believing.

The second point to note in connection with the opening article of Thomas’s Summa is a point that makes matters even more problematic. For once you begin to take such a line of thinking seriously, you will sooner or later come up against what in many circles has become, in the figurative as well as the literal sense, a four-letter word: true. Sooner or later you will have to come to terms with the idea (which I take to be a correct idea) that “we believe” such-and-such means “we hold these truths.” It means more than that, surely-for faith in the Christian sense is not reducible to assent, not just affirming that such-and-such is so-but as far as I can tell it does mean that too. And such a position, at the present time, is as full of difficulties as the idea of a “life of the world to come,” if not fuller. The whole notion of truth, let alone the truth of Christian teaching, is very much a matter of debate. Believing (we are told) is really a kind of aesthetic participation in a play of symbolic signifiers; truth (we are told) is just a strategy for calling a halt to conversation.

Since I am attempting only to sketch a line of argument, I will not stop to quarrel with that species of postmodernism, except to mention that I think it is ultimately self-destructive. What I will say is that I am convinced it is possible to affirm and rejoice in all the symbolic richness, all the poetry, all the mysteriousness, all the non-cognitive aspects and functions of Christian teaching, without abandoning the one that is relevant here-the aspect, namely, that consists in doctrine’s saying something about something. Sacra doctrina does many things. They are all important. One of the things it does is tell us what is so.

Now the argument I am sketching is meant to specify as precisely as I can where the crucial question in regard to “core doctrine” lies. And what I have just said is that the crucial question arises if you suppose, as I do, (1) that believing is a cognitive activity, whatever else it may also be, and (2) that believing is intrinsic to making our way Home.

At that point, the question about “core doctrine” becomes the question whether some truths are more important than others. In different and, in some ways, better language, is there a “hierarchy of truths” in Christianity? I think there is. But let me begin with two examples of what might be meant by such a hierarchy.

Gradations of doctrine: first example

With apologies, a second time, for borrowing from our Roman Catholic cousins, my first example lies in the scheme of “ecclesiastical notes and censures” that used to be a standard feature of textbook theology. These were two sets of ratings, so to say, assigned to doctrines either positively or negatively.

On the positive side are notes. The highest or most positive of these, applied to a doctrine, characterizes it as de fide, a matter “of faith.” The series continues with proxima fide, “bordering on matter of faith,” through “theologically certain” to “common teaching” to “solidly probable opinion” to “more probable opinion” down to “pious opinion.” On the negative side, the censures begin with “heresy,” used only for doctrine that contradicts a matter “of faith.” The next most severe censure is “suspected of heresy.” Then come “false,” “temerarious,” “erroneous,” “less probable opinion,” and finally the mildest one, “offensive to pious ears.”

To show these distinctions in use, the doctrine of Christ’s full humanity is “of faith,” and to deny it would be “heresy.” But the doctrine that Christ, in his earthly life, enjoyed the vision of God as the righteous do in heaven has (or had) only the note of “common teaching” or perhaps “theologically certain.” To deny this teaching is no heresy, though it may be a mistake. At the far end of the scale, teaching about guardian angels is at most a “pious opinion.”

Now such schemes (for they are many, and none of them is itself de fide) are out of fashion at present, not without reason. They tend to be mechanical, and they promote cut-and-dried, angels-on-pinheads ideas of Christian doctrine. I am not recommending them, apart from the principle they embody. To apply that principle: The current American Prayer Book insinuates what certainly looks like the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary (see p. 243, though also p. 924). It is not a doctrine I believe, not a truth I hold. I can be content with its being taught (if taught it is) provided its status is that of a “pious opinion.”

Gradations of doctrine: second example

It was inevitable that Hooker should be invoked in a paper such as this, and my second example invokes him. What are Anglicans to make, Hooker asks, of the Roman church’s doctrine that Christ’s merits have to be “applied” through satisfactions and penances? By way of answer, Hooker distinguishes between a doctrinal “foundation” and what is built on that foundation; and within the latter he draws further distinctions.

The foundation is “salvation by Christ alone.” To overthrow that foundation is primary or first-degree heresy. Hooker’s example is the teaching that the church is not catholic-that it is limited, say, to the circumcised. Holding such a doctrine is holding that salvation is not by Christ at all. But one can also deny the foundation by implication, and the implication can be more or less direct. To deny it by direct implication is second-degree heresy. The Christological teachings of Nestorius and Arius belong in this category, inasmuch as they imply that Christ is not such as to be a Savior. The Arian Christ was just one of God’s creatures, albeit supreme among them; but only God can save. Nestorius taught a fully divine Son of God, who nevertheless was not one and the same with the Christ whom Mary bore and through whom salvation comes to mortals.

These Christologies are one step removed from the “core,” so to say. Further removed is the third-degree heresy of the Romanists, whose teaching about Christ’s merits as availing through penance conflicts with the foundation only by indirect implication. The Roman church, in other words, holds the foundation and holds the Christology which is consistent with that foundation, although at the same time it also holds a doctrine of merit that does not fit well with these.

Hooker’s tripartite division occurs in the negative context of controversy,4 and accordingly is not exhaustive. What I would point out is that it involves a set of distinctions within “doctrine,” that is, within truths that pertain to salvation, as contrasted with matters of discipline and polity, which for Hooker do not pertain to salvation and are in another sphere altogether (the argument of his Laws). And I would note the consequences of these distinctions. Hooker is not unchurching the Romanists. He says that their doctrine of merit is wrong, but not ruinous-inconsistent with the full truth, but not damnable error. His attitude is not to declare an anathema sit; it is more on the lines of saying, “You ought to recognize the incoherence of teaching what you do. It does not rest stably on the foundation that you and we both hold.”

I am no more recommending Hooker’s scheme, qua scheme, than I am recommending the neo-Scholastic notes and censures. I would, however, commend (1) the spectrum of gradations, degrees of closeness to what Hooker calls a “foundation”; (2) the fact that these gradations are matters of thinking coherently about Christian doctrine regarded as true and thus as something about which there can be intelligent, rational argument; and (3) the implications of such a spectrum for dealing with conflict and disparity of teaching. We need as much of “the judicious Hooker’s” reasonableness as we can muster.

And that is my conclusion so far, very broadly sketched: If something like Hooker’s way of approaching questions of doctrinal distinction entails affirming that there is such a thing as “core doctrine,” then yes, there is such a thing and the idea is useful. If instead of the rather simplistic “core”-and-“other” notion, we think of concentric circles, then yes, the idea of drawing distinctions within Christian teaching, on matters pertinent to “salvation,” is appropriate. Some teachings are right at the heart of Christianity.

It is not much of a conclusion. It is, for one thing, extremely formal. It does not get us very far, but I think it does get us somewhere. And it leads to a further question assigned by the conference planners: How are we to discern “core doctrine”? The emphasis, I presume, is on “we” in the sense of “we in the Anglican communion generally and the Episcopal Church in particular.” The question, that is, is being posed as a corporate question, which in my opinion is the right waythe only way-to pose it. Unfortunately, the only answer I can give will be indirect, largely negative, and so not immediately helpful.


It is only fair to begin by stating what I myself would put at the “core” or, as I would prefer to say, in the innermost concentric circle. Stated in old-fashioned terms, it would be “theology” and “economy,” that is, the doctrine of the Trinity (which in an older nomenclature was the content of theologia) and the “economy of salvation,” the Christian answers to the questions of who we are, where we are going, and how we get there-answers that are the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Gift of the Spirit.

And I would note that this is pretty much what Hooker, in the different context of the Laws, says belongs most centrally or “foundationally” to doctrine. But having said that, and having invoked again the authority of Hooker, I have to mention some problems, and two of them in particular.

First problem

We cannot just opt for Trinity-and-Incarnation in the same way Hooker did. By “cannot” I mean “cannot responsibly.” The reason? A great deal has happened since Hooker. There is a way in which he is much closer to medieval theology than to us. Like Augustine, Hooker is a transitional thinker. Augustine was on the verge of being a medieval theologian, but chronologically and conceptually he remains in the Patristic camp. Eleven hundred years later, Hooker is at the other end of medieval theology-on the verge of what we are pleased to call “modernity,” without crossing the line. (In fact, it could be argued that the line did not begin to be crossed in Anglican theology until the nineteenth century, a hundred years after it happened in Germany, and that we are still trying to cross it, even as people are beginning to think in terms of postmodernism.)

To make that more specific: Hooker wanted to believe in and with the church, the “great church,” the church catholic-universal in time as well as space. He wanted to be at one with the communion of saints in matters of doctrine. But, to oversimplify a good deal, believing what the church believes was for Hooker a matter of looking things up, of quoting authoritative texts and reasoning from them logically. That is not a criticism of Hooker in particular; such was every pre-modern theologian’s “theological method.” Thomas is constantly quoting “the apostle,” “the philosopher,” and Augustine-Paul, Aristotle, and the foremost authority of Western Christianity-scripture, reason, and tradition. If I may put it so, Thomas was quite familiar with “our” three-legged stool.

But if we want to believe with the church, to believe what the church has believed, and do so responsibly, we cannot think of the church catholic as a thing, a static entity enduring down the ages.

The church is (and always has been) a process, going forward through time and changing along the way. To put the situation differently, one leg of the stool has changed, and changed drastically, namely “reason,” and the change has affected the other two. By that I do not mean that we know more than Hooker or Augustine, as is sometimes said. We do have more information, but that is not the same thing. Nor do I mean that logic has been transcended. It has not, and we need a lot more of it. What I mean is that we come to know differently. Thomas was perfectly well aware that Aristotle had been dead for centuries, yet he does not treat “the philosopher’s” books as belonging to a context which was different from his own and which had to be recovered. They might have been written the day before. Whereas, for us, understanding what Aristotle-or Augustine, or Thomas himself-believed and thought and wrote is inseparable from understanding their “pastness.” Arriving at knowledge of human realities is no longer what it was before “historical mindedness” (as Dean Alan Richardson dubbed it) emerged. That is one of the things that makes “modernity” modern. Having arrived, historical mindedness is here to stay, and we need to recognize that it had not arrived when Hooker wrote, much less Thomas or Augustine.

By saying that historical mindedness has come to stay, I do not mean that everything is up for grabs. I mean, in two words, doctrine develops. It changes in time, and the changes are part of what it is. We speak, for instance, of “the doctrine of the Incarnation.” Exactly what is it? That question is more like the question “Whom am I?” than it is like the question “What is the boiling point of water?” To answer the question “Who am I?” it would be necessary for me to take into account data going back forty-something years. The answer would not come from any single item; it would come from the whole collection. The identity of “I” is what has been developing in and through all the changes to which those data bear witness. To put it another way, the “am” in the question “Who am I?” does not refer to a punctilear instant, past or present.

What, then, is the doctrine of the Incarnation? The analogy limps, as analogies do, because a doctrine is not a person. A doctrine is, however, a human reality, and that is the point of the analogy. We have data on the apostolic preaching, the great councils, the first, second, and now third quests of the historical Jesus, and so on-snapshots, as it were, taken along the way, or cross-sections of an ongoing process of discernment within the Christian community. “The” doctrine of the Incarnation is not located at any single point; it is “in” the whole movement. Again, the “is” in “What is the doctrine of the Incarnation?” refers to a span, not an instant.

What follows? That no single “authority” speaks for the churchnot Hooker, not St. Thomas Aquinas, not St. Augustine, not St. Paul. The meaning of a doctrine is a trans-personal reality. It does not reside in a single mind, much less in a single text that expresses a single mind. It is the expression of the mind of a community, in many texts and monuments, not all of them doctrinal. And this leads to a further problem.

Second problem

What I have been saying is that a doctrine is its development. But its developing is the work of human minds, and human minds are fallible. There have been derailments and dead ends as well as increasing insight. No doubt “to grow is to change,” as Newman said; but changing is not always growing. There is such a thing as heresy. While there is no doctrine that has not changed, not every change has been for the better. You may believe, as I do, that in the long run the church is indefectible, that the gates of hell will not finally prevail; but that doctrine does not and cannot mean that we may settle back and let divine Providence do all the work. We have to cooperate in setting our house in order.

That, I take it, is what theology is for, using the word in its more usual sense. Theology is the ongoing process by which the church discovers what it believes and has been believing and should believe. It is the church’s deliberate activity of knowing its own mind-which may include acknowledging its own mistakes. The Articles tell us that the church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome “hath erred . . . not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.” There is no a priori reason to think the Anglican church hath not.

To put the same point differently: The mind of the church is two thousand years “long.” That on the one hand. On the other, the only point at which the church’s mind can (on earth) come to know itself is today. The saints in glory have no need to worry about “core” doctrine any more, which is not the least of their reasons for praising God. We, however, have no choice but to examine our own mind, and to examine it not once but again and again. And the point I would stress is that the examining, the coming to light of a common mind, cannot but be a common project-the project of discerning the sensus fidelium, the common meaning of the faithful. There are, to be sure, formal statements of the church’s mind, dogmas in the technical sense of official church teachings in which corporate judgment on “the truths we hold” has been formulated. Yet those judgments mean anything only in so far as they are meant again, over and over.

All this is extremely general. That is because it is extremely basic. And I think it extremely important to conceive the issue in extremely basic terms. For it follows from everything I have been saying that when it comes to discerning the heart or “core” of the truths we hold and live by, we have no external criterion, no authority independent of human minds. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the authority, and it is us-as in fact it has been, these two thousand years. In no way does saying this overthrow the doctrine of divine authority exercised through revelation. It does acknowledge that a doctrine of revelation is a doctrine, and that responsibility for discerning and teaching it is, as with every other doctrine, a corporate responsibility. God does not bypass secondary causes. What the church teaches today will not and cannot be better than the intelligence and goodness and holiness of its teachers. We need all the help from one another we can get.

Episcopal Church impediments to collaborative discernment

Whether the Episcopal Church in particular has taken seriously the responsibility I am talking about is a question worth asking. I do not presume to answer it. I will say that there are quite a few features of American Anglicanism that tend to obstruct collaboration and cooperation in any concrete sense. I mention four.

(1) The first is obvious, and endemic to every branch of the Anglican communion. We have no formal teaching authority, no organ in our ecclesial body that specializes in doctrinal matters. We have canonical ways of dealing with false teaching. Whether they work is another question. In any case we have no institutional process for clarifying what is true.

(2) The next item is thoroughly American. We are a small church in a big country. We have no center of teaching analogous, say, to Cambridge and Oxford. What we have is a perhaps disproportionately high number of small seminaries, all of them fiercely independent. We are surrounded-and influenced and pressured-by varieties of Christianity that differ more or less importantly from ours. Such professional theologians as we have are constrained by the peculiarities of the North American academy, where the study of religion is tolerated but theology is suspect.

(3) There is a sense in which we have never recovered from 1776, by which I mean that the deism, individualism, and utilitarianism that were characteristic of Anglicanism in the eighteenth century (not, by anyone’s reckoning, its noblest era) marked our beginnings and are with us still in subtle ways.

(4) A final and related point is that the pragmatism which, arguably, is part of English temperament, and thus part of Church-ofEngland temperament, has been modulated into a characteristically American anti-intellectualism-what has been called the “aw, shucks” attitude. The learning that once distinguished the Anglican clergy is valued and promoted less and less seriously. With perhaps one exception, the American church has yet to produce a world-class theologian.

What I am suggesting, in sadly crude outline, is that there is and has been an Episcopal cast of mind such that the church in general, and its bishops in particular, have not been noticeably interested in attending to doctrine, not especially concerned with deliberate, openeyed theological examination of “the truths we hold”-at least, not until something blows up. We care for doctrine in much the way people like myself care for houseplants: a policy of benign neglect. Mind you, there would be nothing wrong with that-my houseplants are thriving-if teaching were a matter of common agreement. In that case, we could all get on with the business of living Christianly, in the light of teachings that, if not uniform, were complementary.

In fact, of course, that is not how things have worked out. It has been said recently that there are “two Episcopal Churches.” That is quite wrong. There are not two Episcopal Churches. There are four or five. Not that Episcopalians are unique in that regard, although it is true that we probably have wider differences than any other church except possibly the Roman Catholic. Nor do all our in-house differences have to do with doctrine. But a lot of them do; and for us as for everyone else the deepest point of disparity is not what does and what does not belong to “core” doctrine. It is whether doctrine is sufficiently important to have a “core.”

Suggestions in conclusion

Take all that together, and what it suggests to me is that there needs to be some serious intra-Episcopal ecumenism. We have highlevel confabulations about doctrine with other churches. I think we should start having them with each other.

What might such a conversation be like? If I were setting up an Intra-Episcopal Ecumenical Project on Doctrine, I would not assign as its guiding question, “What is the `core doctrine’ of this church (or if you prefer, of these churches)?” That, as I have tried to suggest, is a vastly complicated question, and it has presuppositions which are themselves in need of discernment. Nor would I tell the Project to get busy on the Trinity and the Incarnation. While I do think they are the “core,” the “foundation,” I do not think it wise to start there-though I hope the discussion would eventually end there.

No, the topic I think such a Project ought to examine is the doctrine of the church, meaning quite concretely this church. What is it for? What is its purpose? If it has more purposes than one, how are they related? What means does it use to achieve that purpose, or those purposes? Where, to use a pair of traditional terms, does the “church as teacher” fit, and the “church as learner”? Who are this church’s teachers? What is their authority, their responsibility? Where does their authority come from, and to whom are they responsible? How do they, as it once was said, “both by their life and doctrine set forth” God’s “true and lively word”? Part of the definition of the church in our Articles comes from Augustine: the church is “where the Word is rightly preached.” What then does it mean for the Word to be rightly preached? And why does it matter what is preached, or how?

Those sound like elementary questions. So they are, in the sense that they are concrete, and that they can be asked with reference to parishes and dioceses as they actually exist and actually go about their business. But elementary though they are, it is far from clear to me that answers can be taken for granted. And I would suggest that a good deal of honest, deliberate soul-searching about the church, as it is and as it ought to be, is the background-perhaps the indispensable background-to what I have said is the crucial question in the whole business of “core doctrine.”

I end, then, by repeating that thesis: There is not going to be any clarity on whether teaching or doctrine is appropriately distinguished into “core” and “other” and, if so, on what the “core” consists in, without getting some clarity on why the church ought to teach, and Christians to believe, any doctrine at all.

1For further discussion on the theme that Hooker seems to have been the first to call “the essence of Christianity;” and more generally on the idea of “fundamentals” in Anglicanism, see the excellent though studiously inconclusive article on “The Fundamentals of Christianity” by Stephen Sykes, in The Study of Anglicanism, ed. Stephen Sykes and John Booty (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), pp. 231-245.

2 Ibid., pp. 174-188.

3 M. Powicke, The Reformation in England (London, 1941).

4 It will be found in his “Learned Discourse of Justification, Works, and How the Foundation of Faith is Overthrown,” pp. 14-75 in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, vol. 1 (Everyman’s Library; New York: Dutton, 1907).

* Charles Hefling is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Spring 1998

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved