The Making of Christian Doctrine

Wiles, Maurice
Cambridge University Press (1967)
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Maurice Wiles (1923-2005), a theologian's theologian if ever there was one, shows through his eminently lucid writing that Revelation 3.15-16 might not always represent the whole case fairly, for he is neither hot nor cold, his analysis being cool and his empathy being warm. He might have written the previous sentence himself - though no doubt more stylishly - because the essence of his case in considering the development of theology in the Patristic period is that the formulations of the 'orthodox winners' and the 'heretical losers' of disputes each suffered from logical fallacies, though not to an equal extent. On the whole, while questioning the methodology by which the corpus of our Creeds were assembled, he gives the 'winners' a point’s decision over the 'losers'; there never was a knock-out.

Wiles had the misfortune to write some of his best material, including this book, in the shadow of Vatican II where, paradoxically, there was a great deal of room for rhetorical departure but hardly any room for doctrinal creativity which explains, to a large extent, why the impact of the Council has been so feeble and short-lived. In this beautifully crafted short book on how we got to where we are with the Trinity and its component parts, he took up the challenge set out by Karl Rahner in a wide variety of his Theological Investigations but brings them to a brave and fruitful crux. The essence of his case is that: first, the arguments adduced for the difference between the 'persons' of the Trinity undermine the case the case for the 'equality' of those persons; secondly, that the radical Platonic packaging of the competing prospectuses led Athanasians and Arians to formulate their competing prospectuses unhelpfully; and that, therefore, thirdly, we in today's world have a real problem getting to grips with the essence of the arguments. He proposes that we should neither want radically to overturn what has been agreed over two millennia nor to leave doctrine precisely where it is. Our mistake, he says, is to stick 'dogmatically' to our means of discussing doctrine instead of adhering faithfully to our ends which he describes as the quest to understand God through the study of Scripture, the activity of worship and our experience of salvation. His concluding point has been crudely transformed into the apparently glib question: "Is God a noun or a verb?" Wiles is definitely pointing us towards a position where to think of what God does, which we have some chance of apprehending, rather than what God is, where we have no chance at all which is why the Church Fathers 'failed', might be helpful. Even as early as the mid '60s he grasped the point that objectification is a methodology running out of steam and that, therefore, the human experience of God must count for more and the philosophical propositions count for less. He has turned out to be startlingly correct; objectification has been well nigh destroyed by postmodernism. He thought this need not be a disaster because people who act with integrity when they bring their interpretative skills to a problem will not necessarily descend into propaganda; but he did warn that it would be dangerous to grant a monopoly to any three of his pillars and that, too, has turned out to be startlingly correct. In spite of the pronouncements on the centrality of Scripture at Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has retreated into tradition which is itself a derivative of a certain narrow view of Scripture and a serious denial of experience derived in worship; the Evangelical wing of the church has reinforced Sola Scriptura with a narrow view of salvation; and the charismatic movement has combined its worship experience and its salvation perspective with little regard to Scripture.

I would want to argue that the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches have a shared responsibility for taking up Wiles' questions with an open mind. Of the three, the Orthodox Churches have the great dual advantages of having rejected Saint Augustine's notion of original sin and his wild late writings on predestination. The Roman Catholic Church enjoys the lesser but still significant advantage of an almost inexhaustible corporate memory which has seen every form of speculation at least once before; and the Anglican Communion has shown itself to be disinterestedly creative. And that last word is the one which rounds off Wiles' argument: citing Thomas Kuhn on Copernicus, he says that we should not judge any new formulation on the basis of what it preserves of the old but what creative possibilities it offers for the future. He is far too cautious to agree with me that the Creeds need re-writing but that logical conclusion of his findings cannot be evaded.

Kevin Carey
27th October 2011