Priesthood And Doctrine

This is the third in the series of meditations given to the clergy of the Diocese of Albany.


In many of our churches there are more people in the basement attending 12 Step meetings during the week than there are attending the worship of the church on Sunday. If you attend these meetings you discern a feeling, a sense of things that is absent from many of our churches. People come to the 12 Step meetings because they are in a life or death struggle with what they call “a crippling disease.” Sometimes this disease is given a personality. It is referred to as a “canny disease.” “You can’t outsmart it.” Hope lies in attending the meetings and sharing in the faith, hope and encouragement that is there. Hope lies in attending to a teaching, a doctrine, the 12 Steps which are a matter of life and death and the only practical means of salvation from certain, sure and complete destruction. (The seriousness with which this teaching is taken is shown in the prohibition against the discussion of literature which is not “conference approved.”) But if destruction apart from the “program” is sure, inevitable and complete, with the “program” there is a confident promise of recovery, healing and new life. Meetings regularly include testimonies by people who have been saved by following the Steps and returned to sobriety and sanity. The contrast between the old life and the new life is dramatic and affecting. Often people express their gratitude for the disease which propelled them on a search which has led to a far better life than they would have otherwise had.

This sense of a life and death struggle with a real and canny evil, of being in the grip of a dark power, of being unable to extricate oneself and of needing( what else can it be called) salvation, this sense that is so palpably present in these groups of having indeed found the one thing needful, I call this feeling, this consciousness of both the need for salvation and the reality of an answer to that need, as a living reality, a sense of soteriological urgency.

Soteriology has to do with the soter, the saviour. In theology soteriology is the doctrine of salvation. Anyplace where people human beings ask life and death questions and where there is an urgent search for an answer to these questions, any place where an answer is made to such questions with the sense that upon your choice, decision or action there hang the most weighty consequences, such a place, such a moment is marked by soteriological urgency. One can think of many places, and the many ways in which those questions are famed and which answers are offered. This sense of the drama of salvation, of an answer to the problem of evil and suffering can take many forms, personal, corporate, economic, social, political and religious. One can see how it is impossible to find an answer to the cry of the human heart for an answer to these questions which concern us a matters of life and death which do not embrace in some ways all the dimensions of our existence. When the physician talks to the patient about the “options” for treatment, when someone gives a testimony about liberation from the disease of addiction thanks to the intervention of a “higher power,” when young people fill the streets to protest policies they believe will lead to global ecological disaster, it is clear that we are in the presence of soteriological urgency, that an answer to the problem of salvation is being sought and that a witness to the real possibility of salvation is being made with the utmost seriousness and with a demand for decision, commitment and action as a matter of life or death.

Clearly the language of the Bible is a language of soteriological urgency. when Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal by calling down fire from heaven, the people are astounded, but immediately comes the demand, “choose this day whom ye shall serve, whether God or Baal.” The message of the prophets is that the one hope of Israel is that she should repent and return to the Lord. The Lord is her strength and her salvation, apart from God there is only ruin. “Better one day as a door keeper in the House of the Lord, than to dwell forever in the tents of wickedness.” Then finally, the last of the prophets comes and he says, “I baptize with water, after me comes one who baptizes with Holy Spirit and with fire.” And that one when He comes speaks of selling everything for the pearl of great price, tells his disciples that they will only find their lives if they will lose them for His sake and for the Gospel. He bids them go now, this instant, for the harvest is heavy and the laborers are few. He warns them to keep watch for they do not know when the master of the house will return; “stay awake, therefore, and watch.”

The liturgies and formularies of the church, especially the Book of Common Prayer, because they are so replete with the language of scripture are full of these words of Jesus which are urgent words, words of life and death, of that which may be found or lost, words of salvation and destruction. “You made us in your image but when we fell into evil and death you did not abandon us but sent your only and eternal Son. . .” Christ had died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” “Do you renounce the evil powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” “Will you turn to Jesus Christ and accept Him as your saviour?” Will you follow and obey Him as your Lord?” “The blood of Christ which was shed for you preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. . .” “Ye that truly and earnestly repent you of your sins and intend to lead the new life walking from hence forth in God’s holy ways, draw near with faith and make hour humble confession to almighty God devoutly kneeling.”

All this–it leaps off every page of the Bible and it is the urgent voice of Jesus himself speaking to us out of every liturgy. Yet somehow, in much of our church life, much of the time, though the urgent words, words of life and death, of sin and salvation are there, the tune is not, a true feeling for the words, a true consciousness of soteriological urgency, a recognition of the eschatological crisis which the presence of the Lord must create; this feeling, this consciousness, this music of both desperation and joy is absent.

How is it that the church has in so many instances lost this vital sense of the significance of its own life and teaching? Such a long story could be made of this, of telling how in the West the gift of God’s reason has been turned into a weapon against the supernatural, of how the world has been split into a secular world of objective facts and a subjective world of beliefs, opinions and values, of how this sphere of the sacred has become more and more private, more personal, more idiosyncratic, unreal and bizarre, how the churches have acquiesced in this tearing asunder of God’s cosmos and have colluded in secularizing themselves and traded the mission of bringing to the world the objective saving presence of the living Lord for the mission of promoting “humane values” and being “centers of spirituality and inclusive community”, of how the inhumanity, injustice and immorality that are the natural consequence of the god forsaken world which secularism creates are used to further condemn and accuse the Christian message and God himself, of how, as C.S. Lewis says, God is now in the dock.

When it is said by confessing Christians, including the ordained servants of the church that Jesus Christ is a way of salvation for me but not necessarily anyone else, it is a witness to the advance of a process by which the salvation of God as an objective fact which happened in Palestine, “under Pontius Pilate,” and upon which the whole history of the human race hinges, has been turned into a private opinion and the inspiration for a merely personal spiritual journey. When such things are said by the ordained and consecrated teachers of the church, it is a witness that there is a deep crisis of confidence in the church about the truth of its teaching, about its doctrine as a saving doctrine.

At this point more is offered and with greater conviction in the basement of the church during the week than is offered in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. In such a case the words of salvation will continue to be used but they will indeed, become a ritual in the worse sense of the word, a nostalgic reminder of what people used to believe and of a hope that once answered questions no longer being asked. Lassitude and ennui become the constant facts of life in such a church. To fill this emptiness which comes from a lack of faith in our own teaching, our own doctrine, our own proclamation, the church will flee to other rhetoric about salvation and will constantly try to fan up a sense of urgency about the things of this world, as thought they were the one thing needful and the salvation of humankind, and the life of the world to come. It is very tempting in such circumstances to resort to psychological tricks and emotional manipulation to keep at a fever pitch an artificially manufactured sense of religion.

There is a great need for a renewal of the role of doctrine within the life of the church. There is a need to reclaim the doctrine, the teaching of the church as a mater of life and death, as the means of making plain the urgent Word of salvation, the urgent reality of salvation that is in Jesus Christ which meets the urgent search of the human heart for “a power greater than ourselves,” that can save us from sure and certain destruction by a dark, canny and destructive evil. There is a great need for the Christian priest whether bishop or presbyter, whether charged with the responsibility of teaching in a diocese or a parish to regain a sense of the priesthood as an instrument of salvation and of the role of teaching sound doctrine as a role that has to do with matters of life and death, of salvation and destruction in this life and in the life of the world to come.

The heart of the Christian Faith is not teaching, not theology but the crucified and risen Lord and the new life with the Father and with each other, this life which is a foretaste of the life of the world to come. But that presence, this opportunity to turn away from this world which passing away and from the rulers of this world and toward the life of the world to come as that life comes to meet us in the Risen Lord, all this is brought to light, illuminated, made accessible, made into an understandable and necessary word of salvation, brought to light as a reality to which we would gladly surrender, brought to light as the living Word of life and light to those of us who are dying by sound doctrine and by consecrated teaching.

A lot is made today of the fact that Anglicanism in general and the Episcopal Church in particular is not a ‘confessional” church that doctrine is not what holds us together. All of this comes at the end of a long period when there has been a tendency in the seminaries, entranced by secularism, materialism and the historical-critical method to treat the doctrinal inheritance of the church as a collection of cultural artifacts and curiosities, as the telling title of one of the sections of our prayer book puts it, “historical documents.” We are held together, it is said, by our worship and common prayer. Unity of belief is not required of us, it is said with some pride. We find our unity in worship and “deeds, not creeds.” Almost immediately this is said monumental and revolutionary changes are proposed in liturgy, worship and sacraments which challenge the most fundamental historical consensus about basic Christian doctrines.

It is quite true that the English Reformers did not set up a confessional church in the same way that the Lutherans and the Calvinists did. It is also true that both the majority of the clergy and laity of the Church of England came to be revolted by the violent and uncharitable controversy leading up to the Elizabethan settlement and gladly accepted the Book of Common Prayer and the modest, by Reformation standards, explication of the Thirty Nine Articles as sufficient formularies of unity. It is true that because of this history there developed an ethos of granting the greatest possible latitude to conscience, (assuming of course, that the conscience in question was formed and informed by the scripture, the liturgies and the great teaching tradition of the church,) and of accepting actions, a willingness to sign the articles, a willingness to use and pray the offices of the Prayer Book as sufficient and purposively allow for some finessing of definition in order to comprehend the greatest unity possible. It may be that of all Christian churches, Anglicans have practiced the art of a diplomatic language of theology. At times this has made possible a respect for conscience and a maintenance of community other churches have missed. At times it makes us liable to cynical obfuscation.

It is not right to say that we are not a doctrinal church. I doubt there can really be such a thing. There is no way of salvation of which I am aware that does not have a teaching–a doctrine. In our church basements week in and week out a saving doctrine is proclaimed with great confidence and conviction as a sure guide to a ‘spiritual experience” which can save one from destruction by the disease of addiction. Many of the paths of salvation that are offered today are notorious for the complexity and tediousness of their doctrine. So the comedian can make a good living telling jokes about what it means to be politically correct. There is no salvation without doctrine. Indeed some paths of salvation appear to consist only of doctrine and teaching. There is no authentic form of Christianity that is without doctrine, though the purpose of the doctrine is to point away from itself and toward Christ.

It is just plain false and dishonest to say that we are not a doctrinal church. All versions of the Christian faith are doctrinal. They have doctrine, authoritative teaching of the Lord, of Christ Himself, and they have doctrine, authoritative teaching about Christ and about the salvation which He brings. All the extant Books of Common Prayer ring with such doctrine on every page, the teaching of the Bible itself, in its own words, the teachings of the Lord Himself in His own words, “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” and very explicit, straight forward teachings about Him and the meaning of the salvation to be found in Him, “ We believe in one God and in His only begotten Son,” “Very God from very God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father,” “who for us and for our salvation was crucified under Pontus Pilate.” “We believe in the resurrection of the dead, the forgiveness of sins and the life of the world to come.”

Baptism, Eucharist, Ordination, Prayers for the Sick, Holy matrimony, Burial, all these contain a great deal of explicit doctrinal teaching of the most traditional sort, often self consciously reaching back and bringing forward the insights of the Patristic period. There is even more doctrine that is implicit, as in the place given to the Eucharist in the American prayer book of 1979. Anglicanism in general and the Episcopal Church in particular is highly doctrinal. To say that it is not is to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the words that echo in our common prayer and to deny their plain meaning and the documented intention of those who were authorized to craft them on our behalf.

It is a very dishonest thing to claim that we are not a doctrinal church and those who make it do so not because they want to propose a doctrineless Christianity, such a thing is not possible, but because they wish to be released from some of the particular doctrines of the church, so that they may embrace some other doctrines, often doctrines that are alien and hostile to the teaching of the Apostles, for instance that there is not resurrection of the body, or that Christ is a way rather than the way, the truth and the life. To profess the traditional doctrine is not to trade a “worship centered” Christianity for a doctrine centered or confessional church life. To cease to profess the doctrinal tradition is simply to trade a church life loyal to the teaching of the Apostles for a church life based on some other teaching which must necessarily be the doctrine of a salvation other than the salvation found in Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the Apostle and the high priest of God. He brings the living reality of salvation. He is completely consecrated to true teaching about the identity of God, “Truly, Truly, I say to you. . .” He teaches us about the goodness of God, about God’s care for each person, explicitly, “Not a sparrow falls but your Father knows it, are you not worth more than these.” He teaches the same doctrine in parable, “ A man had 100 sheep and left the 99 to go in search of the one.” And He teaches a doctrine about God by His actions and especially by His treatment of sinners and His fellowship with them. He has a terrible and awesome doctrine about the seriousness of sin, about the lost vocation of the people of Israel, about how sin is to forgiven and Israel renewed and restored to her place in God’s plan of salvation as “the light of the nations.” The Messiah must suffer and die, that is the Lord’s teaching and doctrine and the Apostles reject it. When Peter tempts the Lord to abandon His doctrine, the saving truth which He has come not only to teach but to be and to accomplish, Jesus calls him Satan. On His way to the cross the Lord has harsh words of condemnation for the false and distorted teaching of the Pharisees and religious leaders who by false and insincere teaching lead the people astray. After His Resurrection on the road to Emmaus, He walks with them teaching them, opening to them the scriptures, helping them to see the meaning of the salvation wrought in His death and resurrection. He promises the Holy Spirit who shall lead them into all truth. He commissions them to go into all the worlds to make disciples, in other words to teach a doctrine and what they are to teach is not their own but their witness to His teaching which He gave them by word and by His death and rising again. The priesthood of Jesus Christ includes an absolute consecration to a saving doctrine about who God is, who God’s Messiah is and what God is doing in Him for the sake of a lost world. This consecration is in the blood of the cross.

When the Risen Lord breathes upon His disciples after the Resurrection He gives them His Apostalate. “As the Father sends me, even so I send you.” They are witnesses to the living and risen Lord, to who He is and what God has done in and through Him for the salvation of the world. Their consecration to Him as Apostles and priests includes a consecration to be stewards of a definitive teaching, a definitive doctrine about God, about Jesus, about the need of humanity for costly salvation that is to be had by an encounter with the Risen Lord as He makes Himself known in the Life of His body, the church. Thus the Apostle Paul says, “If an angel or if I myself return and preach to you another Gospel, do not believe it.” In the Bible, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, in the ministry of the Apostles, the matter of true doctrine is a matter of life and death, of salvation and to be in the Apostolic succession, to be a priest, is to be a person of doctrine, a person who can give a confident teaching that clearly points the way to a real and effective salvation, a person not who teaches with detachment and irony about historical curiosities but as one who answers the urgent questions of the human heart with an equally urgent, true and trustworthy word, with trustworthy words about the Lord and trustworthy words of the Lord.

The Reformation was a moment when the seriousness of true doctrine was rediscovered, when the power of false doctrine and false teaching to lead people astray and to hide and obscure the salvation of Christ, rather than to bring it to light, was disclosed. The Reformers perceived that the odious doctrine of indulgences and sinecures obscured the goodness of God and grace of salvation and caused people to fall either into a false complacency and impious reliance on works, or to fall into despair because they knew they could not atone for their own sins nor ever balance the books of their lives no matter how many good deeds they did or indulgences they bought.

The ordinal of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is a beautiful and profound rite and is an example of the positive impact of the liturgical movement in the life of the church. It represents a repristination of the liturgy, reaching back to liturgical forms that come from the witness of the Patristic Age. The ordination rite in the 1979 Book brings out very strongly the reality of the Body of Christ and the interdependence and mutual relationships in the one Body between the different orders of ministry. The actual formula for ordination was rightly recognized to be a prayer together with the laying on of hands. For the formula “take thou authority” the prayer for ordination was substituted, for the long exhortation on the ordained ministry was substituted a succinct teaching on the Apostolic succession, the Body of Christ, the three orders of ordained ministers and of the role of the ordained in service to the church. Anything that could possibly lead to an inappropriate clericalism was edited out. There has been great gain in all of this but in the process the note of seriousness and weightiness of preaching and teaching Apostolic doctrine, which is a very distinctive element of the all the Books of Common Prayer from 1549 through the American book of 1928, has become muted. Let us recall some of these words from the old book which remain little changed from Cranmer’s original. In my view, we are more threatened by a forgetfulness of the office of the sound teaching of Apostolic doctrine than we are by an exaggerated clericalism.

You can not read the service in the 1662 book without being struck by the way in which it drives home the significance of the work of the ordained ministry in the salvation souls and the significance of teaching and preaching in that work. Over and over the ordinand is urged to look to his (sic) doctrine. The opening collect prays that God who by the Holy Spirit hast appointed “divers orders of ministers” would replenish the ordinands with “the truth of Thy doctrine” and with “innocency of life.” But perhaps the most remarkable part of the 1662 service is the exhortation which proceeds the examination. It persisted in the American church with little change through the 1928 book. In the exhortation there is a sense of the solemnity of the office being conferred, a very intense sense of soteriological urgency, “Now again we exhort, in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye have in remembrance, into how high an dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved by Christ forever. Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which He bought with His death and for which He shed His Blood. . .” And so it goes in the most solemn way beseeching earnest labor, warning of the horrible punishment that will ensue from any negligence of office and urging that the priest persevere in bringing all the people of the parish, “unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion or for viciousness of life.” Here there is a vision for a personal, pastoral, sacrificial parish priesthood which has a care and concern for the teaching of sound doctrine and the religious understanding of the people at the very heart of it. The connection between “error in religion” and “viscousness of life” is taken for granted. It is assumed that good and sound teaching helps people to grow into the full stature of Christ and that erroneous conceptions of God, of the saviour, of the path of salvation can not help but result in personal immorality and parish discord.

The exhortation goes on to make the obvious point that such a ministry is impossible without the grace of God and bids the ordinand pray for the Holy Spirit, “and seeing that ye cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man, but with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the Holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same, consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the scriptures and in framing the manners both of yourselves, and them that specially pertain unto you, according to the rule of the same scriptures; and for this self same cause, how ye ought to forsake and set aside, as much as ye may, all worldly cares and studies.” The exhortation continues with a call that “ as much as lieth in you, ye will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing, and draw all your cares and studies this way;” And further, “that by daily reading and weighing of the scriptures, ye may wax riper and stronger in your ministry.”

Teaching, scripture, doctrine, a personal and pastoral interest in the people with a view to their eternal souls, a life long commitment to develop and grow in understanding and as a teacher of truth and by God’s grace to lead the people into maturity of faith and out of any “error in religion or viscousness of life;” these are the components of the vision of the priesthood the old ordinal gives. The priest who is a pastor with a real care of souls must be a profound student of the scriptures and a teacher of sound doctrine.

Then comes the examination in which the significance of teaching out scripture is reiterated. Promises are exacted to minister the “doctrine and sacraments and discipline that you my teach the people committed to your charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same.”

Then this, “Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence to banish and drive away from the church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both public and private monitions and exhortation, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your cures, as need shall require, and occasion be given.” The commentaries on the Book of Common Prayer note that the inclusion of this promise in the form for ordination to the priesthood adds to that order a responsibility that was found in the Medieval ordinals only in the service for the consecration of bishops. Evidently the framers of the Prayer Book wanted to magnify both the authority and the responsibility of the parish priest for the stewardship of Apostolic doctrine and for the unity of the people in faith.

This is our heritage and the historical and theological roots of the Prayer Book vision of Holy Orders. Each age emphasizes themes that seem particularly needful in the life of the church at that time. The 1979 Book emphasizes in a very beautiful way the themes of the Body of Christ and the role of the ordained ministry within the interdependent life of the one Body. This is in the foreground along with the significance of the pastoral and liturgical function but the note of sound teaching is still there and I think we are well within our rights and well advised when in the 1979 Book the bishop gives the ordinand the Bible as a sign of authority to preach the Word of God and to administer the his Holy Sacraments and says, “Do not forget the trust committed to you as a priest of the Church of God,” to hear those words of Cramner from the 1662 exhortation laying out for us the weighty and solemn nature of that trust and our need to be teachers of sound, wholesome and Biblical doctrine.

But what is this doctrine and where is it to be found. If you say the Bible, how can you get around the wide variety of legitimate interpretation and settle on any kind of authoritative teaching? We have no confession, no majesterium, so how can a vision of sound teaching of authoritative doctrine be made plausible? We have also in front of us the very dispiriting example of an official court of the Episcopal church defining Apostolic doctrine down to the vanishing point.

Yet, the ordinals of all the Books of Common Prayer, including those presently in use exact a promise from the ordinand which imply that there is such a thing as sound teaching and saving doctrine and that to be a teacher, professor and defender of that doctrine is at the heart of the office to which we are ordained. The ordinals do not belabor the content of the doctrine but take it for granted that it is discernable to a person who has met the canonical requirements and that in the time leading up to ordination the bishop who is the premier steward of doctrine will have been satisfied with the ordinands capacity to teach the orthodox faith. That commissions on ministry are often more interested in more topical issues does not change the weight and responsibility that is upon us to set forth the doctrine of salvation.

At the very least we are committed to teach and explicate the doctrine that is explicitly and implicitly taught in the liturgies of Baptism and Holy Eucharist, as for example, in the recitation of the Nicene Creed in the Eucharist or the Apostles’ Creed in Baptism, as well as what is implied and what is enacted in the liturgical performance of these two fundamental sacraments.

Especially in he Holy Eucharist, the sacrament toward which, as St. Thomas says, the priesthood is ordered there is in all of the Eucharistic prayers a recitation of the mighty deeds of God culminating in the sending of the eternal Son to be our salvation. There is without doubt, take any view of eucharistic sacrifice that you please, a presentation of His death on Calvary as an atoning, sacrificial death and there is an explicit proclamation of His resurrection and a prayer for the gift of His Spirit, “that we might receive all the benefits of His passion”. . .”That He might dwell in us and we in Him.” There is even a specific and explicit liturgical reference to the Apocalypse and the expectation that the Lord will come at the end of time to bring in the Kingdom in power and glory.

Implicitly, explicitly and in the enacted presentation of the liturgical action there is summarized and represented the whole doctrine, the whole Apostolic teaching about God, humanity, about creation, the Fall and sin, about the providence of God in choosing Israel, about the revelation of the Word of God in the law and the prophets, about in the fullness of time the Incarnation of the Son of God from the flesh of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, of the teaching and healing of Jesus, of His atoning and saving death, of His Resurrection, Ascension, gift of the Spirit, and His coming in glory, of the judgment of “the quick and the dead,” of “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” It can not be that we are commissioned to say these great words which ring with the preaching of the Apostles and echoing voices of the whole history of Christian thought and feeling at the altar without also be obligated to a deep contemplation of this doctrine and being consecrated as teachers of this doctrine in and to the church.

There is a moment in the traditional Anglo-Catholic ceremonial of the Eucharist taken over from the Latin rite, when after the offertory and before proceeding to the canon of the mass, the priest washes his hands. A so called “secret prayer” is said which is a quote from Psalm 26 “I wash my hands in the water of innocence that I may go about the altar of my God reciting His mighty deeds of salvation.” The recitation, the representation of the whole doctrine of salvation from creation to the parousia is at the heart of the priestly life.

This means that as the liturgy does not leave out any of the well known chapters of the story of the creation, the fall and redemption, neither may we. A priest may not present the goodness of creation in such a way as to leave out the teaching of the reality of the evil one, the fall and the struggle with sin. The Word of love made known to us in the Incarnation may not be presented without the cross, the cross may not be presented without the resurrection, nor the resurrection without the Ascension and gift of the Spirit. The mystery of Christ may not be presented apart from the mystery of the church, the meaning of the holy order of the church and the sacraments. The call to mission and ministry in this life may not be presented apart from the judgment upon this world that is passing away and the hope of the world to come. We are consecrated to bring forth the whole story of the mighty deeds of God from Genesis to Revelation and the whole meaning of this story by setting forth the doctrines of creation, fall, redemption and what has been called the last things, when God shall bring to completion His work of love and glory. This lays upon the priest the greatest obligation to comprehend the wholeness of the story and the meaning of the story reflected in the great doctrines of the church, to see the interrelatedness of the story and the interdependence of the chapters, to perceive the distortion that creeps into the life of a church, whether a local parish or one of the historic denominations when some part of the story is emphasized at the expense of some other part, to perceive also the distortion that creeps into the life of the priest and of individual parishioners when a vision of the wholeness of the faith or the catholicity of doctrine is lost.

In each particular context, in each locality, in each age there are elements of the story, there are particular doctrinal themes that resonate with the people. There are particular elements of the story and particular doctrinal themes that resonate in the heart of the individual priest. Often a priest has a particular gift for bringing out some feature of the great story, some aspect of its doctrinal significance, especially well and with great power. This is to be celebrated but it also points the priest to a challenge to find the depth of the priestly office in the struggle to bring forward the wholeness of the trustworthy Words of God and the wholeness of the trustworthy words about God which are cherished in the Great Tradition of the church and so to light the path to a more complete and profound experience of the saving grace of God.

In the great Christological debates that lead up to the creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon there were moments when the divinity of Christ was stressed to such a degree that His humanity began to disappear and so also began to disappear His sympathy with the human race and His capacity to save what He had assumed. At other times the humanity was stressed to such a degree that Jesus was in danger of becoming a purely this worldly figure, another wise man and teacher who gives yet one more impossible standard to follow and the mighty act of God in the incarnation and atonement, that new life, new virtue, begins to be lost. There are times when the reality of the fall and sin and the Holy God’s judgment upon sin are stressed to such a degree that the vision of the goodness of the creation and the mercy of God are brought into question. In our own day we suffer from an attempt to bypass the fall, the reality of sin and the need for redemption. The inherent goodness of the creation and human nature is stressed to such a degree that it sometimes appears that the church exists to proclaim to humanity that men and women are already blessed and redeemed and need only to have it pointed out ot them. On account of this a new, stern and unmerciful works righteousness is being introduced an people are once again told that they need only try harder to do better in their struggle with evil which is conceived of as mistaken ideas. How much more realistic, even biblical, the language about “our lives have become unmanageable,” and the necessity to “believe in a higher power who can restore us to sanity.”

If the priests of the church do not teach the whole and wholesome doctrine of Christ and truly open the way, illuminate the path to a saving encounter with Christ, people will go in search of a doctrine that recognizes the urgency of the human situation and which speaks an urgent word of life and death in reply.

So He asks them, “Will you now also turn away and leave me.” And the answer comes, “Lord to whom shall we go? For you have the words of eternal life.” He has given us these words so that we might give them to others that they and we should have life in His name. At the heart of the priestly vocation is the mission to hand on faithfully and loyally the doctrine of the Apostles.

©Leander Harding+2003

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