Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Anglicanism's Conceptual Space: A Sketch, Part II (Wright's Fallacy)

I. The Truth is Out There
The historical norm for Anglicanism, I have argued, defines a conceptual space according to the notion:

(~1) There are Christians, and the church lacks infallible knowledge.

That is to say, it is the norm for Anglicans to admit that there is no office, no council, and no group of Scripture readers that possesses infallible, saving propositional knowledge. It may be that most Anglicans, especially now, think otherwise or would loathe to assent to (~1) if it were put to them. And it may well be, as I suspect, that Anglican theologians from the Reformation forward only reluctantly backed into accepting (~1) and did so with a rather low profile.

For they recognized from the beginning that the church in order to survive as such at all would have to take stands on a wide variety of matters, ecclesial and otherwise, regardless of the fact it lacked infallible knowledge. That is to say, it would have to take these stands understanding that it could err presently as it had in the past.

Indeed, infallible propositional knowledge is hard to come by; critique and controversy are much easier. But we should not be overly surprised or dismayed about its inaccessibility. For the most part, the church has not relied on such knowledge here below for its continuing identity and growth. Rather, Anglicans have relied on

(A) A continuing form of life,


(B) An ongoing relationship with God the Father.

The refrain "Come worship with us!" encapsulates a typical Anglican answer to skeptics. Is Christianity true? Well, you won't know unless you try, unless you come worship. In other words, the actuality of worship praxis implies (A) and (B), with the emphasis on (B). And once you have a relationship with the Father in the midst of the common life of the church, the praxis of skeptical questioning is otiose. One may indeed have many questions: Who is the Father? Who is this Jesus guy through whom we are constantly approaching the Father? Why do I need to approach him in the first place? But questioning can be sustained from within the common life of the church in worship even without answers, and ipso facto, the right answers or infallible answers to the questions.

That is why we should hesitate mightily before requiring orthodoxy around the Trinity and Incarnation, much less other lesser matters, of laity and ordained. Even though a requirement of submission to propositional text setting out defined orthodox contect--say like the 39 Articles--is perfectly consistent with a lack of infallible knowledge, such required submission threatens to cut off the process of questioning at the heart of a lively faith ("lively" here in the 16th century sense). Questioning involving, say, works from Bishop Spong and Carter Heywood may turn some ecclesail hair grey prematurely, but it may, and should be made to, contribute to the life of the church.

Why so? The Truth is one; there is not one truth for religion, another for science, one for straights and another for gays. Even though we might be able to approach the Truth for the most part only asymtotically, it is still there to be approached. We are hard-wired to approach it, and debate is an essential part of the questioning through which the Truth which is the Logos through whom we are privileged to approach the Father may be grasped in part.

II. How Wright is Wrong
Consider N.T. Wright's recent interview with Ruth Gledhill in contrast. There he said,

Part of the difficulty is that [2] there is a myth about in some circles that historic Anglicanism has no particular doctrine and is just a matter of worshipping together and believing what you like. [3] If you go back to the 16th and 17th centuries who will find them arguing in great detail over the Articles of Religion which became the Thirty-Nine Articles. They were hugely important. [4] The idea of doctrinal indifferentism is a very recent idea which has sprung up in some parts of America.

I have added some brackets in order to better keep track of Bishop Wright's claims. This is an interesting bit, I think, because Wright here addresses the core of our current difficulties. Whence the authority for doctrinal assent? And with what force ought it to be regarded? It may seem to some that he has, in his [2] above, nailed my position on the head: Anglicanism consists of no particular doctrine, and is just a matter of worshipping together while believing whatever--laissez faire. But that it decidedly not my position at all, and is hardly what TEC attributes to historic Anglicanism. Seeing the difference is very important.

I have said, and I think this is TEC's position, that Anglicanism must take doctrinal stands, that its practice must consist in definite doctrines. The point is not to avoid commitment to propositional content. As of this hour, TEC is committed to a large body of propositional content abouot the Faith: go read the Catechism, the Chalcedonian Definition, et al. So I think TEC's leadership would of course not be surprised at Wright's [3] above: that Reformation theologians in England and Caroline divines heatedly debated the truth of certain propositions. Of course; so we continue to do so today. Wright's charge of Doctrinal Indifferentism in [4], the doctrine he alludes to in [2], is lucidly false. It is a straw man, and the fact he makes the charge shows he is ignorant of what is truly at stake.

III. Righting Wright's Wrongs
It seems to me that Wright holds some form of Doctrinal Homogeneity:

(DH) All church doctrine should be held with equal force.

I presume he thinks the church possesses core doctrine that is necessary to its continuing identity--even TEC admits such in the findings of the Righter trial in 1995. But then, by (DH), it follows that:

(5) All church doctrine is necessary to the identity of the church.

But (5) is patently false--as is implied even in the 39 Articles which Wright cites, as these articles admit, inter alia, that church councils can err. There is something self-defeating, even self-referentially incoherent, in Wright's strident posturing throughout the interview. His thinking there is muddled--perhaps he does not really wish his audience to examine what he says there too closely. Perhaps: I cannot tell.

My point is that Doctrinal Homogeneity is false. Everyone should agree that it is in fact false, left and right, even Wright, I think. But admitting the falsity of (DH) poses an existential question (EQ): Will the question of what doctrine is necessary for the identity of the church and what is not affect your relationship with God, your worship? If the question does not affect worship, something is wrong: primary and secondary theology are being artificially separated.

But what would it mean to pose the existential question (EQ)? One could opt for holding that the church has infallible knowledge in some particular way, and then go on to build that option into the liturgy. Having infallible knowledge, the church sure could settle exactly what is and is not necessary doctrine. However, I think that option is the wrong way to go, at least for an Anglican. But then bereft of infallible knowledge, we are faced with the problem of how to live well with each other in Christian community; after all, the church must make definite doctrinal stands, as GC and others have done again and again, whatever Wright may claim to the contrary. It seems to me the best policy will include conscious adoption of epistemic humlity about exactly where the boundary between necessary and unnecessary is. That is, we should not pretend to be more sure than we really are about what doctrine is necessary to being church; to so pretend is not a matter of moral indifference, but positive vice.


At 11:28 AM, Blogger R said...

Thank you for this most helpful piece. Epistemology seems to be very close to the heart of the matter, as you so well put it here. It seems very much tied up in where we place much of our liturgical and theological weight, i.e., the certainty of our own biblical interpretations or the mystery of God's grace present with us in the sacramental life. Of course, most of us Anglicans live somewhere on a continuum between the two. . .

At 2:34 PM, Blogger *Christopher said...


It seems to me helpful to delineate that our approach to Truth, or rather our being taken up into All Truth by the Spirit is firstly in Encounter, meaning that it is in being taken up into God's own Leitourgia, God's work for us, through us, with us, and in us now made available to us in our worship. Our words in worship provide some lim around which this is so and understood in our theologizing, but even then is open to refinement ongoingly in light of ongoing life in the Body before and in God.

For the sake of teaching some reflection on what this means and the bounds upon which if one is teaching, one should be considerate in trespassing. Personally, I like the differentiation between dogma and doctrine.

But even our creeds are not infallible in their dogma, for to say so is to say the Infinite God can finally be contained and fully comprehended in our words, which is simply silly if it didn't happen that so many folks would like it that way. But nonetheless, our words in dogma as contained in the Creeds, Trinity and Incarnation, are the expression of our doxology in a more systematic lens, and provide for us a signpost, if you will.

Within that framework there seems a lot of breathing room, comprehension, and room for doubt, even of the finality of our dogma as without distortion (our words are always finite and broken in light of the Infinite, but they're what we have so we must use them). So on other matters, doctrines, such as the how of atonement or questions about the how of sanctification/divnization, etc. we have secondary matters in which quite a bit of leeway and disagreement is allowed, even encouraged.

Our response, what we might call moral theology or ethics or Christian life(styles) is tertiary in being doctrinal, and therefore even of more limited status as infallible teaching, open to new insights and revisions and pastoral refinements and conscience and a disagreements.

Sans doing some quite controversial if not erroneous moves, such as inserting gender into the essence of the Trinity or making Christianity a fertility cult, I cannot see how our disagreements about sexual practices are dogmatic and considered core to what Christians have understood as being at the heart of God's revelation to us in Christ and still in our worship today.

Does that mean there is not truth about human sexuality. By no means, but even that will always be limited and to some degree a mystery, for how can we ever fully know another, much less ourselves, and even less so God, though he has shown us who he is in Christ. What we should look for is the kenotic or Christic pattern of going out of oneself for another and markers of character that resemble THE IMAGE OF GOD--Christ to discern what is truthful, and good, and "natural". Sex without the lens of Christ shows us very little about who God is as far as I can tell, though relationships have the potential to give us a glimmer even without such reference, for our desire (eros) at its deepest is for God and we comes to God sacramentally or iconically through others and in our bodies and in bread and wine, not unmediatedly as if God destroys our own persons and flesh, but that potential in such relationships is still without fullness of understanding sans the lens of Christ.

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Tobias said...

Wright it not at his best in interviews. I'm not sure where he is his best anymore, but clearly interviews are out. I would call much of what he says in this interview simply inane.

I wish we had more folks with the wisdom of Wm Reed Huntington, who on the matter of doctrine (underlying his Quadrilateral) was the notion, "My whole effort in connection with the doctrinal legislation of the Episcopal Church has been to reduce the required dogma to a minimum, while yet insisting upon that minimum. What has ailed the Church, it seems to me, has been, not the principle of dogma, but the multiplication of dogmas."

At 4:09 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

You are right to point out the centrality of epistemology. More and more people seem to me to be explicitly noting this is a big part of our problem.

The whole thing may be too difficult to unravel, inasmuch as competing epistemologies will continue to clash at the object-level without resolution when in fact the real work to be done is at the meta-level.

That is, we should be asking not so much "How and where do get our infallible propositional knowledge?" but rather, "In the context of woship, of serving Christ as Lord and Savior, what role do propositional knowledge claims have to play at all?" The second question is of another type from the first altogether.

At 4:16 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Let me agree emphatically with your first paragraph and its emphasis on Truth-as-Encounter-in-the-liturgy.

The dogma/doctrine distinction is useful, and both different and better I think than my core/peripheral doctrine distinction. We can include alot under dogma without having to specify exactly what will count as absolutely core--for instance, we are about to change dogma by altering the wording of the Nicene Creed on the procession of teh Spirit, but this is not to alter the core. And "dogma" is all we need to make the point that teaching on gay unions or ordination is mere doctrine.

At 4:21 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


ahh--Huntington! There is true wisdom indeed, and even humility. I would love to hear why the Quadrilateral is insufficient here in our plight.

The folks over at ACI writing for Gomez will say that our teaching on unions and ordination violtes that part of the Quadrilateral enshrining Scriptural authority.

But that has always rung hollow for me--the Quad only calls for Scriptural authority. It lays down no laudry list of teachings that with which all who take the Bible as authoritative must agree in order to really be taking it as authoritative. That is, the ACI folks seem to have confused Scriptural authority and doctrinal uniformity--two rather distinct things.

At 9:11 AM, Blogger MD said...

This post is the stale trick of constructing a dogmatic club in the name of "epistemic humility." When someone invokes "epistemic humility," you already know the next move.

"Because none of us can really know anything, I'll tell you what to know and how to know it -- And how can you argue with someone as humble as me? And how do you know I'm humble? I just told you, so you can take my word for it."

And soon, the sirens of flexibility and humble broadness harden into a dogma all their own, and the formerly orthodox find themselves under sanction. When orthodoxy becomes optional, it is soon proscribed.

The ruined lives, vocations, parishes, and even dioceses (and now threatening the entire Communion) are a testament to this self-annointed, enlightened broadness. With so much devastation in its wake, it must be of God!

At 10:11 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


As much as I disagree with your asessment, I have to admit that you may be partly right. That is, it may well be that blessing SSBs is a bad idea from a scriptural point of view.

But insofar as grace complements nature, the evil of blessing SSBs should be visible.

The evils you describe--ruined vocations, fractured parishes--these just are not necessary to blessing SSBs. They may be due to ecclesial politics working out, or personal vices around anger management, or violence perpetrated by the immoderate, and so on.

As for your rejection of epistemic humility as an approach to the existential reality of ecclesial fallibility: although I appreciate your heated rhetoric, you really do need some kind of argument. Proper moral response to the Kerygma is never just a matter of personal preference, and an argument has the laudable property of rendering personal conviction visible for the rest of us.


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