Archive for the ‘doctrine’ Tag

Further Reflections on Clement and Ignatius: Authority and Doctrine   Leave a comment

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Why this blog post

In the previous posts in this series on Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch I did not discuss much a key theme in both of their writings that was highlighted in Daryl Arron’s book.  That it is authority and doctrine in the church. Here I mean authority over the body of the church’s teaching not discipline of the behaviour of individuals.   In fact, this theme is inherent in the very title of Arron’s book “The 40 Most Influential Christians Who Shaped What We Believe Today“.

My thoughts were directed to think about this further by two events this week.

Firstly, a friend posted a link on Facebook to a London talk by Joseph Atwill, author of “Caesar’s Messiah”.

Then, wanting something to eat my dinner in front of one evening, I watched a repeat of an old TV documentary I saw years ago on the Gnostic and other non-biblical Gospels. [Discovery Channel, “Lost Gospels”]. (I have seen better documentaries covering the same ground e.g. the BBC documentary of the same title presented by Pete Owen Jones.)

Personal Reflections

I am not going to discuss Atwill’s writings in any detail here. (I am preparing a separate blog post on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth). However, Atwill’s hypothesis (he would put it stronger than that) is that Christianity was a fabrication of the Flavian Imperial Roman dynasty (69 to 96 CE) to help suppress Jewish revolt.  There is plenty of discussion of this on the WWW with some scholarly debunking from biblical and historical scholars of both Christian and non-Christian standpoints.

What Atwill’s claims made me think, in light of my reading about Clement and Ignatius, was how difficult such a fabrication would be and how unlikely an explanation it is for what we know about the first century or two of Christian history.  Both Clement and Ignatius show the lineage of the Christian message from Jesus, to the apostles and then to them who are the next generation of Christian leaders.  It is important in their understanding of the handing down of authority.  Indeed there is a whole web of characters mentioned both in the canonical Bible and other early Christian writings.  Many of these like Ignatius were martyred because of what they believed and taught.  Not many people would be martyred for what they think to be a fabrication.

This blog series is not a set of apologetics, for what the church (or different parts of it) have taught and thought through history, but a recording of personal reflections on reading or re-reading through a selection of that.  Nor, should it be apologetics for what I believe at this point in time, but the record of a personal reflective journey.  I am going to have to keep reminding myself of this as I do here.  Hence I ended the theme of the previous paragraph where I was tempted to research into details of source documents and earliest extant manuscripts etc.

The existence, in addition to the canonical ones, of numerous other gospels, in fragment or complete versions,  is indicative to me of this period following Jesus’ life where numerous people, in different groups, were groping with the questions of who was Jesus and what meaning did he have for them.  A few of these gospels, are possibly contemporary with Clement and/or Ignatius but most are thought to be from later in the 2nd through to the 4th century CE. Of course much of the teaching, and discussion at this stage would have been oral and we have no record of it.  It is in this context we have Clement and Ignatius being concerned about unity and false doctrine and noticeably in Clement’s writing love (or arguments about doctrine not showing love).

My reflection at this point was how did they discern what they considered to be true or false doctrine, and more relevant to this exercise how do I?  For myself, firstly this is not a simple black and white issue.  Perhaps a better expression of such questions would be:

  • “What is the truth in that?”

Truth for me, – how shall I phrase it?, let’s say – about matters of the divine and his/her interaction with creation, is sublime and of necessity often only understandable allegorically.  I use the term , without defining it, “poetic truth”.

A key part of the process of “discernment” for me is working through tensions in my world view.  A process I recently captured in a phrase that jumped into my head (I think I have coined it):

Now, I have been subject to decades of Christian teaching from different traditions, from people who I think honestly with St. Paul would say “what I received I passed on to you” [1 Cor 15:3].  I imagine this being very much how Clement and  Ignatius thought of their roles as Bishops in their respective churches.  However, certainly since my early teen years, and probably before, this has been received by me with a questioning mind.  How does this bit fit with that other bit of Biblical or Church teaching?  How does this fit with my scientific or historical understanding of the world?  What about these insights from other religions of philosophies?

My wife would tease me that I think too much and more seriously ask about my relationship with God as opposed to my thinking about Him.  There is some wisdom in that.  However, for me a key factor in that relationship is this continual thinking though my understanding.  Sometimes this thinking is stormy, and the cognitive dissonance remains for a long time.  However, I usually find a place of rest with the thoughts that reminds me of an Old Testament account of the one of the prophet Elijah’s encounters with God:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
[1Kings 19: 11-12, RSV]


Thursday 8 December 2011 – “Title deleted”   Leave a comment

There are a lot of challenging even contentious issues raised by the notes and the Bible passages set for today.  I was planning a short reflection before heading into the office but … (I ended up going in an hour late and finishing off these notes in the evening).

The contention for me begun with the title.  My convention on these blog posts of my reflections has been to title them with the date followed by the title chosen by the author of the notes. I could not do that today for fear of wrongly presenting my faith to the world (well anyone who happened on this blog).  Hence the rather bizarre title of: “Title deleted”.

Today, in the Roman Catholic calendar is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (when Mary was said to be conceived free from original sin). Hence the authors of the notes for today had titled them “The immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.  Quite simply I do not believe in this dogma. Belief in Mary’s immaculate conception is not a doctrine within Anglicanism, although it is shared by many Anglo-Catholics. The tradition I was brought up in would have spoken of it as being “non-Biblical” and some would have spoken out quite vehemently against it.  Indeed it seems to be a doctrine not to have emerged in any part of the Church before the C11th or C12th [Frederick Holweck, “Immaculate Conception” in The Catholic Encyclopedia 1910].

While respecting that I have much to learn from Church history and the development of its formal doctrines I think this is a point where the church has got its “proverbial knickers in a twist”. The doctrinal “logic” goes something like this:

  • All men/women are born in a sinful state (the doctrine of original sin)
  • Jesus as God’s son came to save us from the consequences of that state and was Himself “free from original sin”
  • For Jesus to be free from original sin then his mother Mary must too have been “free from original sin”

This falls down for me on several points but there is a simple logical one.  Why then did not Mary’s mother (parents) not have to be born free from original sin and so on back to the first man and woman? Hence there would be no original sin.  My view is this is an example, and there are numerous,  where humanity in the limitations of its insight and intellect tried to tie up a divine mystery with a formulation of words.  The consequence is that you end up with a signpost (the doctrine) that is a poor, even misdirected, pointer to the sublime truth. [See my blog post: “Hello again Anthony de Mello“]

The Bible Passages Set for Today were Genesis 3: 9-15; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 11-12; and Luke 1: 26-38.

The Genesis passage is part of the story that gives rise to, or supports, the doctrine of original sin when Adam and Eve are found out for having eaten the forbidden fruit.  I have long liked a quote about this story (myth), I think by a former Bishop of Winchester: “whether or not there was a fall, man is certainly fallen”.

The passage in Luke tells of the angels announcement to Mary that she will bear Jesus.  If we read on a little, Mary goes and tells her cousin Elizabeth.  Then we get Elisabeth’s words that form part of the “Hail Mary” formulation:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
[After Luke 1:42]

In response to Elizabeth’s exclamation Mary utters the beautiful hymn of praise usually referred to as the Magnificat.  The includes the words: “From now on all generations will call me blessed“.  As much as I might reject a lot of the Catholic doctrine around Mary I have a deep reverence for her.  I gladly say the “Hail Marys” when the Angelus bell rings when I am on monastic retreat. The Reformation, like most revolutions, probably over-corrected in matters concerning Mary and this has possible led to a neglect of Mary in most protestant churches.

The passage in Ephesians covers God’s ordination: “He destined us in Love …” [Ephesians 1:5]. This brought to mind when I read it the post-Reformation debates between pre-ordination and free-will (Calvinism vs Arminianism) that I wrestled through as a teenager. However I am going to conclude this reflection with Mary’s response to her sense of God’s destiny for her, the Magnificat:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,

And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
[Luke 1: 46-55 KJV]

Hello again Anthony de Mello   1 comment

When writing my Reflection on Advent Sunday I had cause to look for a web link to Anthony de Mello.  His book Sadhana, and commentaries on it, were a key resource in my early explorations in contemplative prayer.  So I discovered for the first time the online resources of the DeMello Spirituality Center.  I didn’t explore extensively but this quote in their scrolling banner stood out for me:

The master made it his task to systematically destroy every doctrine, every belief, every concept of the divine, for these things, which were originally intended as pointers, were now taken as descriptions.

He loved to quote the Eastern saying: “When the sage points at the moon, all that the idiot sees is the finger.” access 28 November 2011]

I characterise my own spiritual journey over the last 25 years or so – possibly longer – as going through, past, beyond, even around doctrine and dogma to the sublime truth behind.  I am not claiming to have travelled very far but that is the nature of the journey.

I take heart in the fact that it seems to be a journey made by many before me.  I find it too in Fowler’s Faith Development Theory.  This is an academic study of the stages of faith observed in people of different religions/denominations and none.