Doctrine Calcifies

This is prompted in part by the recent news of the Episcopalian House of Deputies voting to reject a ban on gay clergy, a few days following the announcement that a human female was elected to lead the Episcopal Church.

The Protestant Reformation can be viewed, in part, as a reaction to corrupted doctrines within the Catholic Church. To fully understand the Reformation, one must also realize the social, political, and economic mores of the era, which provided the driving motivation for a schism that took doctrinal differences for its raiment. However, the perception of a reality often matters more than reality itself, especially in matters that involve the masses. With the growth of large-scale democratic institutions, we must realize that the original forces at play are no longer relevant, while the public perceptions of them have taken on an existence of their own.

Thus, I choose to examine the schism of the Reformation and the current debates within the Anglican Communion in this light. That is, the model of the Reformation as a response to corrupt doctrines can also be applied to the current controversies. A common example of a corrupted doctrine from the Reformation was the use of indulgences. The debate became an issue of the importance of good works in determining salvation. If works alone were sufficient, then they would inevitably be commoditized and the question of salvation could be put to rest with a sufficient amount of wealth. The Reformation took the inevitable counter that man is saved through faith alone. Of course, with works out of the picture, serious questions must now be answered regarding predestination and the role of free will, assuming it existed at all. The question of how one could be saved still remained, and in an ironic twist could still be answered by reference to a person’s wealth. The difference being, of course, that wealth became an indication of salvation rather than an enabler of salvation.

Doctrines can extended and applied based on the rigorous application of a system of logic. This is not necessarily what happens in all cases, but certainly does apply to the example given above. The application of logical rules to church doctrine can easily result in situations that are on reflection contrary to the supposed principles of a church. This can be cited as an example of the irrationality of religion, but in practice is more often the result of starting from a set of axioms that does not appropriately model those principles. (The issues raised by Gödel are beyond the scope of this essay.)

The popular view of the Reformation thus involves a situation where a doctrine had been established and exercised in a manner contrary to what could be considered consistent with Christian principles. Unwilling or unable to resolve this conflict in time, the Church inevitably split. As the Church had taken the dogmatic stance in opposition to the reformers, the loss of reformers likely contributed to its continued conservative tendencies. The Protestants, on the other hand, were gifted with the curse of all revolutionaries; namely, a tendency toward overzealousness.

Doctrine, as we have seen, can become very dangerous, often calcifying into dogma. When this occurs, it is necessary to reevaluate it in light of a church’s core principles. Often, there will be massive amounts of historical inertia that must be overcome. With every religion are those who take doctrine as a bulwark of their faith, relying solely on it to determine the correctness of their actions. Anyone who has ever asked “what does the Church teach on matter X?” for guidance is guilty of this to some extent.

The current controversies within the Anglican Communion are excellent examples of this problem. Doctrine that was created within a few centuries of the Church’s creation has remained unchanged until recently. Like the idea of slavery, its historical inertia is incredible, as is its distortion from its pre-Christian state. We are perhaps fortunate that, like the Pax Romana, we have a period of enforced tolerance that allows society the luxury of examining and changing its beliefs without the traditional accompanying warfare.

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