Something Understood: Doctrine in Devotion
Prayer, in George’s Herbert’s rich and comprehensive phrase, is “something understood”. It concludes his poem on prayer, Prayer (I). But more than a concluding statement, it is really the ordering principle of the poem itself. Prayer is the first word, “something understood” the last. Prayer as “something understood” embraces a great and varied array of images and brings to light their connection with each other and the coherence of their meaning as images of prayer. This does not mean that prayer is simply the sum total of the images in the poem; rather there is “something understood” in each of them and in the relations between them.
Yet prayer as “something understood” also extends beyond the formal structure of the poem itself. For the images in the poem rightly call forth further images which arise, like prayer itself, from them and return to them as to their originating place. They are contained, as it were, within the understanding of the images in the poem. As such, they do not vanish into nothingness. They are something in the understanding of the images which both collects and stands under them. “Something understood” means that there is not in the poem Prayer(I), nor in prayer itself, an indiscriminate array of images, indeterminate in content and indefinite in meaning. Consequently, the appeal of the poem is not to the heart alone, apart from the mind, but to both together. The poem argues the integration of heart and mind.
Prayer as “something understood” suggests at once an act of understanding and that which is understood. It is both intellection and substance: a collecting together of what is distinguished and that which, quite literally, stands under what is distinguished and united in thought. The substance of the images is the understanding which they contain and convey.
Prayer as “something understood” places us in the presence of the God who understands and in the light of understanding which he reveals. Prayer is not made to an unknown god but to the God who has revealed himself in the inexhaustible mystery of the fulness of his truth and being as Trinity: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Prayer enters into God’s own knowing and loving in which all things are known and loved. In its simplest, yet profoundest, understanding, prayer means asking the Father in the Son’s name by the Spirit. It is to God and it is with God. Prayer is rooted in the Trinity.
To name the Trinity is to name the great and central mystery of the Christian faith. It is not one doctrine in an unending succession of doctrines, one among many, as it were. Rather, it is the central and primary doctrine which gives coherence and meaning to every aspect of our faith. The Trinity is the great and distinctive dogma of the Church’s proclamation of the scriptural truth of God’s Revelation. It is the doctrine which clarifies every other essential doctrine as well as the host of secondary doctrines which follow from them in the hierarchy of things non-essential.
To say “Jesus is Lord” is to make a Trinitarian statement. “I have come”, Jesus says, “that they might have life and have it more abundantly”. That abundant life bestowed upon us by the power of the Spirit is our communion and fellowship with God in the divine fellowship and communion of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
What is proclaimed is what is essentially to be believed, that is to say, the Glory of the Triune God. Thus, on the Mount of Transfiguration, we are told “Behold, a voice”. The Father speaks out of the bright overshadowing cloud of the Holy Spirit to give birth to our understanding of the essential identity of the one who was conceived by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. “This is my beloved Son”, the Father says, “in whom I am well pleased; Hear ye him”. The dogma is the kerygma. The doctrine is the story.
“Behold, a voice” – this is the language of Revelation. What does it mean to see a voice? “I turned”, writes St. John in his Revelation, “and saw a voice”. In the turning and seeing what is heard, there is understanding. Hearing and seeing are the intellectual senses, as it were, the senses of understanding. Thus, Word and Sacrament – the Word audible and the Word visible – belong together in the pattern of prayer as “something understood”.
This is wonderfully illustrated in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Dante the pilgrim, upon another mountain-top, is told “guarda e escolta”, look and listen. Look and listen to what? To what unfolds before him. And what unfolds before him is nothing less than the glorious pageant of Revelation; literally, a procession of the books of the Old and New Testaments. But at the centre of the procession appears a sacramental image of Jesus Christ, himself the Alpha and Omega of Revelation. Look and listen to the record of God’s Revelation.
“Hear the Word of the Lord” is a constantly repeated biblical exhortation, even in the face of our unwillingness to hear. To hear in the biblical sense, however, means to hear with the intent to act upon what you hear; in other words, hearing faithfully and obediently. For Anglicans, that pageant of Revelation in all its fulness and in the centrality of Jesus Christ is set before us, audibly and visibly, in the pattern of prayer which is the Book of Common Prayer.
It means a double grace. “Of his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace”. There is the grace of beholding and there is the grace of our being with what we behold – our communion with God in the communion of the Trinity. We behold the fulness of God in his self-revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We participate in what we are given to behold. Our participation signals our being transformed into what we behold. “We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are being changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord”.
The Transfiguration is the summertime epiphany of the Trinity. It complements the wintertime epiphany in the celebration of Christ’s baptism. For both there is a beholding of what is heard. “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (Matt.3.17) and again, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; Hear ye him” (Matt. 17.5). The one, the Baptism of Christ, inaugurates the way of the obedience of Christ for us – our justification; the other, the Transfiguration of Christ, commands the way of the obedience of Christ in us – our sanctification, hence the added charge, “Hear ye him”. Both reveal something of the Glory of the Triune God.
To behold what is heard in these visions is to be transformed in the renewing of our minds. As the 17th.century Bishop John Hacket reminds us in his exhaustive series of Sermons on the Transfiguration, “If we keep his sayings we are Christs, and Christ is one with us, hear him” (Sermon #7). And noting that “the glory of the transfiguration fell upon him at no other time but in the fervour of prayer” (Sermon # 1), he identifies a scriptural prayer of Jesus which helps illuminate our understanding of the meaning of the Transfiguration. “Father, I will that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory which thou hast given me” (John 17.24). The transfiguration signals our transformation in the vision which we are given to behold, but only by way of prayer. Prayer places us in the company of the Trinity.
To name the Trinity in relation to prayer is to signal the necessity of doctrine in devotion. To put it more sharply, no doctrine, no devotion. Against the anti-dogmatic and anti-doctrinal tendencies of our church and day, this necessity suggests that doctrine is not simply about logical propositions to which intellectual assent is given or refused, nor is it just information – the mere positivity of holy facts, as it were. More importantly and more fundamentally, doctrine is relational. Doctrine belongs to our living relationship with God in faith. It is the understanding of that relationship, not in the sense of containing God in a box in our mind, but in the sense of being contained in God’s infinite self-relation. Thus, prayer stands upon what is revealed and understands something of the Revelation of God into which we enter through prayer.
We find ourselves in the understanding of the mystery of God revealed, in the faith which is objectively proclaimed and with which we are identified individually and corporately in our baptism. We are named in God’s own naming of himself as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We enter sacramentally into the faith which we profess in the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed expresses the essential identity of God with God in God, the identity of God with us, and the form of our participation in the Trinitarian life of God through the Church. The Apostles’ Creed, together with its further elaboration and explication in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, articulates the essential doctrinal content of the Scriptures.
The Creeds themselves are an act of understanding. To pray them is to enter into the understanding which they present. What is that understanding? It is an understanding of the Revelation of God through the Word of God in God’s Word written, the Holy Scriptures. Doctrine, in the primary sense, is the distillation of what the Scriptures essentially teach. This is expressed in the Creeds. But to speak of the Scriptures is also to speak of an understanding: the understanding which composes and writes, and the understanding which collects together and arranges in order the various writings into what we know as the Bible. The same kind of understanding is at work in the establishment of the Canon of Scripture and in the development of the Creeds. The question “what is the Bible?” goes along with the question “what is the Faith?”. One cannot speak of the Scriptures apart from the Creeds and one cannot speak of the Creeds apart from the Scriptures. The Creeds come forth from the Scriptures and return us to them in an order of understanding.
This fundamental unity of Scripture and Doctrine shapes the devotional life of the Church. It means praying what we believe. The various ways of conceiving the form of the unity of Scripture and Doctrine reflect different emphases upon the essential principles of the faith and the manner of their expression in devotion. They give rise to secondary doctrines which form the defining characteristics of particular churches and/or schools of spirituality. Ultimately, they must be seen as belonging to and measured by the doctrinal understanding which underlies the continuum of prayer.
Anglicanism finds her place in that continuum and gives particular expression to the unity of Scripture and Doctrine in the pattern of prayer which shapes the character of her life and witness. The denial of the unity of Scripture and Doctrine, on the other hand, has serious consequences for the life of prayer.
But first, let me raise the question which perhaps has been stirring in people’s minds. I have argued that prayer is something understood and that essential doctrine as concentrated in the Creeds, for example, is that which is understood in prayer. The question which arises is “whose understanding?”.
The question raises the suspicion that there may be something arbitrary about the understanding that is arrived at and claimed for in the Creeds. It suggests that they might be otherwise; Arian rather than Athanasian, for instance. It allows that the result is really a matter of power. Doctrine might simply be about who shouts the loudest, about who has the greatest number of votes, about who controls the committees and about who rules the day. And as in the past, so now. We might create for ourselves a new understanding. After all, why should we be bound by the determinations of others, especially a bunch of patriarchal fuddy-duddies with long beards and piercing eyes, at least judging by the icons? Why the fathers even look like the images of God the Father and who needs that? Is this not the feminist complaint as expressed by Daphne Hampson, for instance, that “God has been shaped in the image of those who have created Him?”(Theology and Feminism, 1990,p.165).
The question “whose understanding?” really comes to mean “whose will to power?” And it means, too, that doctrine becomes merely a matter of historical contingency. Everything might have been otherwise. Total primacy is given to the contextual experience. But where the context becomes everything then it is nothing. Where there is no content, the context is barren and empty.
But this is to rest in the moment of refusal – the refusal of the idea of the Divine Word. It means the refusal of the divine necessity which impels the articulation of doctrine. More fundamentally, it denies the character of revelation as mediation with its twofold purpose: to reveal God to man and to redeem man to God. The revelation of God and the redemption of humanity are succinctly set forth in the Catholic Creeds. They are wonderfully drawn together in a phrase from the Creed of St. Athanasius (so-called). Christ the Divine Mediator is one “not by conversion of Godhead into flesh,/but by taking of Manhood into God” (BCP, p.697).
The point is that there is a divine necessity to the development of the Creeds which ultimately belongs to the revelation of God in the witness of the Scriptures. This necessity, of course, comes to expression in and through the vagaries of politics, personalities and powers. The Creeds and their conciliar explications were hammered out in the cauldron of controversy and conflict. But the divine necessity at work in the historical emergence of the Creeds cannot be reduced to the contingencies of the finite and the parade of human sin and folly, however much it illuminates our understanding of the conditions of our being in the world and our need for grace. Something more is at work in the emergence of fundamental doctrine. What is at work is the quality of our engagement with the divine understanding – our understanding as participating in the divine understanding. Essential doctrine, we might say, is the shape which God’s revelation gives itself through our thinking upon it.
The development of essential doctrine belongs to the revelation of God. What is to be believed – the credenda – is revealed by God as articulated in the Creeds. The 16th.century Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz puts it this way: “the articles of faith which are set forth [in the Apostles’ Creed] are not human inventions, but divine teachings delivered in the Word of God”.
But it is a seventeenth century Anglican Divine, Archbishop John Bramhall – known as Athanasius Hibernicus, an epithet worthy of his doctrinal fortitude – who best expresses the necessary inter-relation of Scripture and Creed and in a way characteristic of Anglican divinity. “We have”, he says, “a certain rule of faith, the Apostles’ Creed dilated in the Scriptures, or the Scriptures contracted into the Apostles’ Creed” (Vol.II, p.630). The two belong together as one rule of faith.
The Scriptures and the Creed are not two different rules of Faith, but one and the same rule, dilated in the Scripture, contracted in the Creed; the end of the Creed being to contain all fundamental points of faith, or a summary of all things necessary to salvation, to be believed “necessitate medii”: but in what particular writings all these fundamental points are contained, is no particular fundamental article itself nor contained in the Creed, nor could be contained in it; since it is apparent out of Scripture itself, that the Creed was made and deposited with the Church as a rule of Faith, before the canon of the New Testaments was perfected.(Vol.II,p.597)
Bramhall understands that the impulse towards doctrinal definition is present in the Scriptures, particularly in the writings of what comes to be the New Testament. The rule of Faith, which ultimately emerges as the Apostles’ Creed, complements the establishment of the canon of Scripture. It also orders our understanding of the Scriptures themselves.
Yet, to speak of the Creeds is to speak of a defining feature of Christianity itself. There is an intrinsic necessity to be able to say what the Faith is which is to be believed, a compulsion from within to state, in a short and comprehensive form, the essential principles of the Christian faith. There is not, properly speaking, a Jewish Creed or a Graeco-Roman Creed, for example. To speak of the creed of other religions as in Wordsworth’s “Great God! I’d rather be/ A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn” is really the application of this Christian compulsion to other religions, desiring a short-hand expression of their animating principles, as it were.
“I believe” is a defining feature of Christianity which centers on Jesus Christ. It arises from the sense of our identity with him who has identified himself with us in his essential identity with the Father and the Holy Ghost. “Ye believe in God, believe also in me”, he says. The Creeds, as the form of thinking the question “what is the Faith?”, may be seen to arise from Jesus’ question in the Gospels. “Who do men say that the Son of man is?…Who do you say that I am?” (Matt.16.13,15). Peter’s answer serves as a scriptural witness to the character of the Creeds as the form of Divine Revelation working upon the human understanding and issuing in Divine teaching. “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God”(Matt.16.16).
Jesus’ response shows that what Peter understands, he understands from God. “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven”(Matt.16.17). It is not simply a finite understanding. His understanding participates in something more. And it is through this understanding that Simon becomes Peter and it is upon this understanding that Jesus says “I will build my church” against which nothing will prevail. But how well do we stand upon this rock of understanding? Again, Peter provides the paradigm.
For no sooner has he confessed Christ and been named Peter, the rock, then he is rebuked as Satan for denying Jesus’ teaching about the necessity of what will unfold in his going up to Jerusalem; namely, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Blessed by Jesus for an understanding revealed by God through him, he is then, cursed by Jesus for being on the side of men against God.
What is shown here is that Peter does not fully understand the confession which he has made. It is not that the confession itself is not true, but that his understanding of it is not altogether adequate to its truth. There is the constant need to think its comprehensiveness, to realize something of the fulness of understanding it contains. As with Peter, so with us.
Peter has to learn that the sufferings of the Messiah belong to the glories of Christ. He went not up to glory but first he suffered pain. The way of the Cross, moreover, is required of us in our identity with Jesus. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16.24). And what follows directly in the Gospel in this sequence of teaching is the Transfiguration, which ends with Jesus commanding them: “Tell no one the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead”. It is in the light of the Resurrection that we understand that the moments of suffering and glory are comprehended in the confession of “Christ, the son of the living God”. The confession conveys as well the character of our identity with Christ: “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him”.
The Creeds, in due course, articulate the saving essentials of Christ’s redemptive work and set them before us as the pattern for our life in Christ. The patristic understanding of the necessity of the Creeds is summarized in a passage attributed to Augustine.
The Creed is a simple, short, full comprehension of our Faith, that the simplicity may provide for the rudeness of the hearers, the shortness for their memory, and the fulness for their doctrine.
This sense of their fulness would come to mean, especially for classical Anglican divinity, that the Creeds present the essentials of the Faith “to which none can add, from which none can take away”(Bramhall,Vol.I,p.40). “We know no other necessary articles of faith”, Bramhall states, “but those which are comprehended in the Apostles’ Creed”(Vol.II,p.313).
This does not mean that there are not other truths which are revealed and which are important. The necessary distinction is between what is essential for salvation – necessary to the truth of our being in God – and what is, properly speaking, non-essential – which is to say, they have a different kind of necessity. Bramhall, again, puts it this way:
All truths that are revealed, are not therefore presently fundamentals or essentials of Faith; no more than it is a fundamental point of Faith that St.Paul had a cloak. That which was once an essential part of the Christian Faith, is always an essential part of the Christian faith, that which was once no essential, is never an essential. (Vol.II,p.279)
Consensus Fidelium/Sensus Fidei
The Creeds establish the essential core of what comes to be known as the consensus fidelium – the consensus of the faithful. “Whose understanding”, then, properly means the consensus fidelium. But the consensus fidelium is not something which is re-invented by each and every generation, for then “whose faith” would altogether eclipse “what faith”. The consensus fidelium centers on the sensus fidei – the understanding of the Faith objectively proclaimed in the Scriptures and the Creeds with which we subjectively and corporately identify. The Faith is something revealed and known. But I have to will what is known. Then the Faith is my faith, the Faith with which I identify and into which I enter and upon which I grow in understanding and love.
This means that while the consensus fidelium is not something which is re-invented by each and every generation, it is nonetheless something which has to be re-appropriated by each and every one of us in lives of faithfulness and prayer. We have to make it our own. Hence the importance of Credo, I believe. It has to be willed. This does not mean that we create an understanding, but that we enter into an understanding arrived at through our thinking upon and within the revelation of God, by the grace of his Word and in the power of his Spirit. The Creeds embody the essential understanding of that revelation. We cannot make the faith our own apart from the understanding they convey.
The historical emergence of the Creeds into the liturgy of the church demonstrates that the development of doctrine, especially essential doctrine , is crucial for the life of prayer. Doctrine must be expressed in devotion. This suggests that it is not some “shape of the liturgy”, real or imagined, but the shape of doctrine that is primary in the life of Prayer. Prayer as “something understood” means that prayer must be shaped by the doctrinal understanding in which it participates. The Creeds, historically and theologically, do not function simply as logical propositions, but as the way of understanding – the way of thinking and praying – the essentials of the faith.
In the character of their liturgical use, the Creeds are more than formal statements of the Faith; they are the formative principles by which we pray what we believe. They give shape to what they state. The Creeds, we may say, set before us the Faith with which we may see ourselves in Christ and in which we may live with him. They are crucial to our being transformed into the image of Christ by the renewing of our minds. The point is wonderfully made by Augustine.
Call your faith to mind, look into yourself, let your creed be as it were a mirror to you. See yourself there, whether you believe all which you profess to believe, and so rejoice day by day in your faith. Let it be your wealth, let it be in a sort the daily clothing of your soul. Do you not always dress yourself when you arise? So by the daily repition of your creed dress your soul. (Sermon 58.13)
Prayer, as Herbert says, is “man well drest”.
Doctrine in Devotion in Anglicanism
The adjectives dogmatic and doctrinaire have cast into disgrace the nouns dogma and doctrine. Yet, the principle of doctrine in devotion belongs to the history and life of the Christian church. It remains to be seen how this principle is expressed in what we have come to know as Anglicanism.
The Book of Common Prayer, as Fr. Robert Crouse observed some ten years ago,
“constitutes the fullest expression of the consensus fidelium for Anglicans”. It does so because it presents a pattern of thinking the essentials of the faith. The life of prayer is ordered upon the sensus fidei, the understanding of the Faith. The Book of Common Prayer, historically and theologically, is the critical matrix through which Anglicans understand their fundamental identity as Christians and the particular form of their Christian identity as Anglicans. We neither have nor can have any Anglican magisterium apart from The Book of Common Prayer.
The Book of Common Prayer embodies the Anglican understanding of doctrine in devotion. Anglicans, it is commonly said, have no distinctive confessions of faith or fundamental doctrine of our own. This does not mean that Anglicans have no doctrine; quite the contrary, we lay claim to the essential doctrines of the Christian Faith, contained in the Scriptures and articulated in the Catholic Creeds. The way in which those are understood in the Common Prayer tradition, moreover, defines certain characteristic features of Anglicanism which are equally crucial to our fundamental Christian identity. The primacy of Scripture, the principle of doctrinal restraint or sufficiency, and the inter-relation of the doctrines of justification and sanctification, for instance, are among those characteristic features through which the essential doctrines of the faith shape the devotional life of Anglicans.
Scripture and Creed(s) in the BCP
Central to the Prayer Book pattern of thinking the essentials of the Faith is the opening of the Bible to everyone, both clergy and lay. That meant the translation of the Scriptures into the elevated and dignified English of the vernacular. It meant the printing and the placing of Bibles in the churches. But just as importantly – and this was part of the genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer – it meant setting before people a pattern of reading the Scriptures according to their doctrinal understanding.
This implies a strong sense of the purpose of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are God’s Word written: to reveal God to man, and to redeem man to God. Richard Hooker states the purpose of Scripture thus:
The end of the Word of God is to save, and therefore we term it the word of life. The way for all men to be saved is by the knowledge of that truth which the word hath taught… To this end the Word of God no otherwise serveth than only in the nature of a doctrinal instrument. It saveth because it maketh “wise to salvation”.(Laws,Vol.II,p.85)
The Scripture, then, in a phrase derived from Cranmer and Hooker, is a doctrinal instrument of salvation.
The Bible is not simply opened out so that we can make of it what we want. Just as preachers, in Bishop Latimer’s pithy phrase, were not to “mingle-mangle” the Word of God in their preaching, neither must we in our reading. The Bibles which were ordered to be placed in the churches were chained to the lecterns so that no-one could run off with them. And so, too, we are not to run off with them in the imaginations of our hearts.
Cranmer established the principle of the doctrinal understanding of Scripture formally in the Ordinal and the Articles of Religion. “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation” (Art.vi) – that is the primacy of Scripture. It is primary with respect to matters of salvation. “Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ?” (Ordinal; deacons, priests and bishops) – that is the understanding to which the clergy are held accountable. “It is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”(Art.xx) – that is the understanding upon which the Church stands.
In the first homily of the First Book of Homilies, Cranmer provided instruction and exhortation about the purpose and importance of reading the Scriptures.
For the Scripture of God is the heavenly meat of our souls; the hearing and keeping of it maketh us blessed, sanctifieth us, and maketh us holy; it turneth our souls; it is a light lantern unto our feet. It is a sure, steadfast and everlasting instrument of salvation.
The reading of Scripture builds upon the sure and substantial foundation of Jesus Christ, God’s Word and Son. For “in reading of God’s word, he most profiteth…that is most turned into it, that is most inspired with the Holy Ghost, most in his heart and life altered and changed into that thing which he readeth”.
Beyond formal statement and pastoral instruction and encouragement, however, Cranmer provided for the orderly reading of Scripture. Just look at the Prayer Book. Upon picking it up and thumbing through it, what is its most obvious and striking feature? Simply the sheer quantity of Scripture, ordered and presented to be read and prayed. Over half the book is comprised of the Collects, Epistles and Gospels together with the liturgical Psalter. That should tell you something. Take that away and the whole programme of Common Prayer crumbles.
Cranmer did not invent the eucharistic lectionary, but he took what was received in the continuum of prayer and set it in the center of a book to be the pattern of our life together in Christ. He also improved upon it and clarified its logic in the light of the doctrinal understanding of Scripture. There were masterful translations of ancient prayers and new compositions in the language and images of Scripture shaped by its credal understanding.
The spirit of the whole enterprise is wonderfully captured in a prayer, a Scriptural and Doctrinal prayer, composed by Cranmer. It is the well-known and well-beloved Collect for the 2nd. Sunday in Advent.
Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Collect draws upon the words and the sense of the readings with which it is placed. It articulates the purpose for reading the Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves. “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning”, written for our doctrine, ad nostram doctrinam (Rom.15.4). This was, incidently, the favourite text of the great popular preacher and bishop of the English Reformation, Bishop Hugh Latimer. It was his text for his famous “Sermon of the Plough”(1548) and for, what is probably the most important series of sermons in sixteenth century England, the seven “Sermons Preached Before King Edward the Sixth” between March 8th. and April 19th.,1549. “By the occasion of this text”, he says, “I have walked this Lent in the broad field of scripture” (Seventh Sermon). Prayer, scripture, sacrament and preaching, in the cogency of their inter-relation, illuminate a way of understanding.
To realize what has been lost in our day, one only need to look at what has happened to this collect in the world of alternative liturgies, particularly in the BAS. Prayer separated from Scripture is but the consequence of Scripture divorced from doctrine.
Yet, the eucharistic lectionary was not all. It is but the centerpiece of an entire programme of reading through the Bible, more-or-less in its entirety, in the course of the year. This is the purpose and the achievement of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and in the subsequent emergence and completion of the Sunday Offices as well. For if Johnny Ploughboy was to be as well-versed in the Bible as any learned clerk in the Universities and the Cathedral choirs, then it would not be enough just to give him the Bible. He must be taught to read so that he can read the Bible. He must also be given a pattern of reading that is not private, but common to all, a pattern for the ploughboy and the scholar. It must be a pattern, moreover, that respects the understanding of those that have gone before us in the mind of Christ.
Cranmer’s accomplishment was not a static achievement. It inaugurated a living tradition of praying the Scriptures in which there would be changes and developments, but as within the understanding of Scripture as a doctrinal instrument of Salvation. That living tradition embraces the eucharistic lectionary, the daily office lectionary and the Sunday office lectionary, understood as three inter-related, not independent, programmes of reading the Scriptures. They embody the doctrinal mind and devotional heart of Anglican spirituality.
The eucharistic lectionary not only stands in critical continuity with the church of the fathers, but from 1549 to 1959, here in Canada, it has remained virtually unchanged. That itself testifies to its central place in the pattern of prayer. Bishop John Cosin would add some Collects and an Epistle and Gospel for the 6th. Sunday after Epiphany, for example. Propers would subsequently come to be provided for feast days that had been overlooked – such as the Feast of Mary Magdalene and the Transfiguration.
There would even be minor accomodations to some of the hypotheses of modern biblical crtitcism – such as substituting some of the Matthaean pericopes with those of Mark on the grounds that Mark is thought to be the earliest of the Gospels. But hypothetical reconstructions and historical speculations were not made the basis of the church’s reading of Scripture. The doctrinal understanding of Scripture, moreover, also provides an interpretative framework large enough to measure and contain a variety of methodologies and approaches to Scripture.
These changes and improvements to the eucharistic lectionary respected the intellectual integrity of that lectionary in its historical development. Crucial to that integrity was an understanding of the inter-relation of the Epistles and Gospels within the doctrinal pattern of the Church year. As Thomas Bisse explains:
Epistles and Gospels are not cast into our Liturgy at random, or as it should happen; but are placed every one in its order, being suited severally to their proper days, and all jointly to the Seasons, which come between and are govern’d by these cardinal or great Festivals.(The Beauty of Holiness,1723)
The eucharistic lectionary, in the refinements of the Common Prayer tradition, comprehends the twofold programme of justification and sanctification. Justification is the principle of Christ for us and Sanctification is the principle of Christ in us: the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness upon us, on the one hand; the infusion of Christ’s perfecting righteousness in us, on the other hand.
Bishop John Cosin argues the practical application of these principles as presented in the main division of the church year – Advent to Trinity, Trinity to Advent.
Thus in the First part [Advent to Trinity], we are to learn the Mysteries of the Christian Religion: in the second [Trinity to Advent], we are to practise that which is agreeable to the same: For so it behoves us, not only to know that we have no other foundation of our Religion but Christ Jesus, born, crucified, and risen for us; but further also to build upon this foundation such a life as he requires from us.(Works,Vol.V,p.69)
But it is Richard Hooker who expounds the theoretical principle undergirding this devotional understanding.
There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the world to come: and there is a justifying and a sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness wherewith we shall be clothed in the world to come, is both perfect and inherent. That whereby here we justified is perfect, but not inherent. That where we are sanctified, inherent, but not perfect.(Works,III,p.485)
The first half of the year, from Advent to Trinity, we run, as Dean Anthony Sparrow puts it, “through a great part of the Creed”; the second half of the year, from Trinity to Advent, the Creed runs through us, we might say. Together with the doctrinal structure of the church year, there is also the subtle interplay of justification and sanctification in the epistles and gospels within each season of the church year.
The holding together of justification and sanctification marks one of the defining features of Anglicanism. Through the eucharistic lectionary, the Book of Common Prayer holds together in principle what has frequently been divided and rent asunder in the history of Christian spirituality.
The principle of glorifying righteousness is presented in the major Saints’ Day celebrations which punctuate the church year as reminders of our end in God’s glory. They remind us of our fellowship with the Communion of Saints, and our hope in the Resurrection of the Body and Life Everlasting through the doctrine of the Forgiveness of Sins.
The inter-relation of the principles of justification, sanctification, and glorification belongs to the classical Anglican understanding of the unity of Scripture and Doctrine. They are part and parcel of the Anglican expression of doctrine in devotion.
Bishop John Hacket, for instance, commenting on the change to the raiment of Christ as well as to his countenance in the Transfiguration, speaks of three things metaphorically called garments “in whose whiteness and purity consists the perfection of all our happiness”. Those three are the stola justificationis, the stola sanctitatis, and the stola gloriae.
The robe of justification, he says, is “when God looks upon us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are cloathed with the merits of Jesus Christ: Non est breve pallium; it is no scanty short cloak which will not come down to the foot; but it reacheth over all, from our conception to our death, it is spread over all our sins both original and actual, and hides all our deficiencies, Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The stola sanctitatis is that “fair robe of sanctity and innocency” which pertains to the living out of the Christian faith with which one is identified in Holy Baptism. It is about “serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of [our] life”. But it is “the robe of justification”, he says, which “makes us fit to be invested with the robe of glory, that eternal life which we desire and expect is moralized in the name of a white garment”.
Justification, sanctification, and glorification belong to the grace of our incorporation and transformation into Christ. With respect to prayer, Hacket notes, “miserable men are those that desire not to be transfigured, and to cast off the old man; but more miserable that think to be transfigured without continual prayer”, for “prayer alters the fashion of our hearts”.
There have been changes and developments as well to the Daily Office and the Sunday Office lectionary, but, again, as within this fundamental understanding of Scripture as a doctrinal instrument of salvation. The design of the Sunday Office lectionary or lectionaries was to provide an acquaintance with the most significant portions of the Old and New Testaments, to provide, as it were, the broad strokes of a scriptural understanding of God’s Revelation. It was an implicit recognition that not everybody could join in the public recitation of the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer or even read them themselves, however much that remains the clear intent and ideal.
Apart from the emergence and completion of the Sunday Office lectionary, the most significant development was the ordering of Daily Office lectionary upon the course of the ecclesiastical year, rather than the course of the civil year, as with Cranmer. Together with the Sunday Office lectionary, this succeeded in preserving the ideal of reading through the greatest part of the Bible each year, at the same time, as establishing a greater degree of harmony with the eucharistic lectionary through the doctrinal logic of the church year.
The upshot of these developments is reflected in our Canadian Prayer Book, itself the only modern Book of Common Prayer which stands self-consciously within the principles of the Common Prayer tradition. There one finds the inter-relation of the Daily Office and the Sunday Office lectionary as within the ordering framework of the eucharistic lectionary.
Anglicans cannot talk about the primacy of Scripture without paying close attention to the way in which that principle is realized in the Prayer Book and the Common Prayer tradition. And, as we have observed, it is not enough for the principle simply to be stated in the Articles of Religion, the Ordinal, and in the case of the Canadian Church, the Solemn Declaration. For, in some sense, these documents, too, stand in thin air without the Prayer Book as the embodiment of their teaching. The primacy of Scripture has to be expressed in the lectionary programmes of the Common Prayer tradition, as centered upon the principles of the classical eucharistic lectionary, in order for it to have any meaning.
Scripture itself requires interpretative principles – not just an interpretative community – for its own understanding. To speak of these things is to speak about how the church, in our reformed understanding and in critical continuity with our catholic heritage, places herself and stands under the authority of Scripture credally or doctrinally understood.
Without this understanding, we can neither say what the bible is nor what the Faith is. These questions belong together in the understanding of the purpose of God’s Revelation through the witness of the Scriptures; that we might be turned into what we read, that we might be transformed by what we see and hear, that we might be with him in whom we believe. As Cranmer so wonderfully puts it:
He that keepeth the words of Christ is promised the love and favour of God; and that he shall be the dwelling place or temple of the Blessed Trinity.
Doctrine in devotion, for Anglicanism, means to take the Divine and Eternal Word of God very seriously. No other church has ever provided so complete and so thorough a pattern of Scriptural and Doctrinal understanding than the Anglican Church. No other church, too, perhaps, has been so neglectful of its heritage and witness.
When Scripture and Doctrine become separated and are no longer seen in their necessary inter-relation, then we can no longer say what the Bible is nor what the Faith is. This difficulty may be illustrated from the side of biblical and historical studies by Robin Lane Fox, and from the side of literary studies by the late Northrop Frye.
Robin Lane Fox, the biblical scholar, in his Unauthorized Version, provides a useful summary of what may be taken as the generally accepted premises of much of modern biblical scholarship. He demonstrates that the Bible is not the Bible but a haphazard collection of religious writings. And given the great diversity of outlooks it presents, he rightly asks why would anyone suppose to base one’s life, particularly one’s moral life, upon it? For him it does not make sense to think of it as a whole, however much this collection of ancient religious bits and pieces has clearly fascinated him. He, perhaps, deceives himself in not seeing that he is entranced by a vision of its unifying principle, the God in whom he does not believe.
On the other side, Robin Lane Fox, the historian, effectively demonstrates, in his magisterial Pagans and Christians, that the remarkable ascendency of Christianity against the strong revival of pagan religion in the 2nd. and 3rd. centuries was owing to Christianity’s offering a real moral alternative to the pagan cultus. In place of the conflict between the various gods that could mess up your life, Christians accepted moral responsibility for their actions. They did so upon the metaphysical principle of their faith in the God/Man Jesus Christ, an understanding arrived at, in part, through the Scriptures,(at least of the Old Testament, and the wrtings which would eventually form the canon of the New Testament), and in part, from the rule of faith.
On the literary side, the Bible is simply about narrative or story. Story, however, is entirely distinguished from doctrine. Northrop Frye, in his last work, The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion, explains how the “emphasis on religious experience as distinct from doctrine” in his Methodist background helped to propel him “in the direction of a literary criticism that has kept revolving around the Bible”. But it is the Bible, he says, “not as a source of doctrine, but as a source of story and vision”. While there is much that is wonderful and illuminating in his works, I cannot but think that this separation between doctrine and story is not only unfortunate but impossible. Doctrine, it seems to me, is fundamentally the meaning of the story, particularly the story of stories, the Bible as containing the story of God.
The language of story divorced from doctrine quite easily becomes a matter of my story which may or may not have God in it, and, if it does, well, that’s just because it’s my story, the meaning which I project upon and give to the radical indifference and meaninglessness of the universe. There is only my story, the clearing I make within which Being presents itself as the authentication of myself. The story is a word without reason.
It was Hans Jonas – a student of Heidegger – who first pointed out the parallels between existentialism and gnosticism: the one, gnosticism, positing humanity in a dualistic and hostile world of opposing divine principles; the other, existentialism, seeing humanity as thrown into a world that is altogether indifferent and meaningless in its unending temporality, where there is no truth except what the “authentic self” creates for itself, where even my self-ness is but the act of a moment only to pass away.
To the contrary, it seems to me, doctrine is the story. It makes all the difference in the world whether God is found in my story or whether my story is found in God’s story. God’s story is written out for us to read in all its fulness in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures are the Word of God that bear witness to God’s Word. It makes all the difference, both for our story and the story of God, whether the story is Arian or Athanasian; in short, Trinitarian.
There is a need, then, for literary thinking and historical reasoning to be informed by a doctrinal understanding. The praying imagination, too, must be shaped by doctrinal understanding.
Ultimately, the principle of doctrine in devotion means that we find our story in the story of God written out for us to read in Jesus Christ. That story spread out in the Scriptures is sweetly distilled in the Creeds. The Creeds are the story of God – that is to say, the doctrine in which we find our place and our understanding, even our story.
Just as it was not enough for an Anglican self-understanding simply to place the principle of the primacy of Scripture in formularies and semi-confessional and authoritative documents, so, too, with the Creeds. Along with the post-Tridentine Catholic church and the churches of the Magisterial Reformation, the Anglican church acknowledges the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. They are named in the Articles of Religion (Art.viii).
But to a far greater extent than any other church, those Creeds are fully incorporated into the structure and pattern of the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. They are a signal witness to the principle of doctrine in devotion. They are there, moreover, not just as formal statements, but as formative principles, shaping us in what they state.
The three Creeds are understood as fundamentally related. Bramhall, referring to the various Councils in which the Creeds appear, states: “The Nicene, Constantinopolitan, Ephesian, Chalcedonian and Athanasian Creeds, are but explications of the Creed of the Apostles, and are still called the Apostles’ Creed”. (Vol.II,p.478).
The Creeds have their distinctive place in the liturgy of The Book of Common Prayer. The Apostles’ Creed is an integral part of the structure of the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer – calling our faith to mind as in a mirror in which we might behold ourselves in Christ. The Athanasian Creed, more awkward for liturgical use, perhaps, was nonetheless directed to be used thirteen times a year at Morning Prayer in the 17th. century. It remains in our Prayer Book with permissive status to be used “upon any day of the year”. The Nicene Creed, of course, is appointed for use at the Holy Communion upon every Sunday and every major feast day, at the very least. Permission is granted for its omission only on a week-day that is not an Holy-day.
The Creeds have to be present in the liturgy in the substance of their teaching and in their formative role as imparting a way of understanding. Dean Comber(1645-1699) provides an explanation of their status and devotional use in the liturgy.
First, he argues the inter-relation of Scripture and Creed in the way that is so characteristic of this pattern of doctrine in devotion.
The holy Scriptures being a perfect Revelation of all Divine Truth, may in a larger sense be called our Creed; yet since the fundamental Doctrines contained therein are dispersed, and not easily distinguished from those of lesser moment by all such as ought to understand them; it was very fit, if not necessary, for the blessed Apostles to leave us one brief Compendium of what was to be believed in order to our Salvation, which might be soon learned, easily understood, and unanimously retained by all true Christians.
The Creed, he says, is “a Compendium of the Gospel”, “the Epitome of Holy Scripture”. In the liturgy, it functions both with respect to what goes before and what follows. In the Offices, what goes before are the “Lessons taken out of the Word of God, for faith cometh by hearing” and “therefore when we have heard it, it is fit we should profess our belief thereof, thereby setting (as it were) our Seal to the Truth of God”. We hear the Word and then make the Confession of our Faith. What follows are prayers. Our prayers are and must be grounded on Faith confessed. “The reciting our Creed before we pray is the laying a foundation whereupon to build our requests”.
The same understanding is at work in the order of the Eucharist, both with respect to what goes before and what follows:
As the Apostles Creed is placed immediately after the daily lesson, so is [the Nicene Creed placed] after the Epistle and Gospel; since it is founded on the Doctrine of Christ and his Apostles.
Our going to Communion stands upon this credal understanding:
You may remember that this Sacrament doth necessarily presuppose a firm and affectionate belief of every one of these Principles; and is a superstructure raised upon this Foundation.
The Eucharist is our sacramental participation in the faith credally expressed:
Let us then devoutly say over this our Creed, before the Sacrament especially, and as we go along entertain every Article not only with an assent of the understanding, but with the consent of our Will, and the compliance of our Affections.
in short; our whole being.
The Athanasian Creed, he notes, “fully asserts” the two fundamental Articles of the Christian Faith; “the doctrine of the Trinity and our Saviours Incarnation”. It is appointed by the English Church to be used Òonce every Month besides Trinity Sunday (for which it is most proper)”. It is used as an Orthodox Confession of Faith, “the very Quintessence of the ancient Divinity”. Quoting Luther, he says, it is “a Bulwark to the Creed of the Apostles”, once again underscoring the interrelation of the Creeds themselves.
The readings from Scripture in the Liturgy at any given service cannot express the fulness of the Faith; hence the importance of the Creeds as the full summary of what we believe. They also shape our understanding of what we pray and of what we participate in sacramentally. They function formatively beyond themselves, as it were, because of their strong clarity about the Trinity. Prayer and praise are rooted in the Trinity.
Hooker makes the connection between the Athanasian Creed and the Gloria, for instance: “the very creed of Athanasius and that sacred Hymn of Glory, than which nothing doth sound more heavenly in the ears of faithful men”. When we say “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost”, we reach out through the Creeds to make the psalms our Christian prayers and praises to the Blessed Trinity; we place the psalms in that credal understanding. And the Litany, too, one might say, is about praying the Creed with respect to our petitions to God for his mercy and for our needs. And so on.
The Creeds have a formative function for our lives. Not only is the Apostles Creed “the sum of those Principles by which we are to make our prayers”; it is also “the Rule of our lives”. “By this Creed”, Comber says, “we must conduct the affairs of our lives; on these Principles we must venture our Souls at our death; and if need be, for these eternal Truths we must pour out our blood.”
The Creeds are the understanding of the essentials of the Faith. Essentials is a philosophical and theological idea. But I hope that we have seen that it is an idea intrinsic and necessary to Christianity itself, and not something extraneous and superfluous. The doctrine they embody is not something imposed upon the Revelation of God in the Scriptures from without, but emerges from within as the understanding of the images of Salvation themselves.
The emergence and the character of the Creeds themselves belong to Christian Neo-Platonism – to that form of philosophical and theological thought which would bring everything under and within the activity of God in his perfect self-relation. In short; the way of understanding expressed in the Creeds is Trinitarian.
We cannot make these Creeds – this way of understanding – our own without serious and prayerful attention to the understanding they contain and convey. We have to learn to appreciate the force and the necessity of such terms as substance, person and nature. Or in the Athanasian Creed, we need to be able to see the way of negation and the way of affirmation – apophatic and cataphatic theology – held together in the greater affirmation of the Trinity. “He who would be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity” – think of the Trinity in this way. There are, of course, various doctrines of the Trinity, various schools of approach and understanding, but they have to be seen as within this more comprehensive framework of understanding.
For in the Creed we see God in himself – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; we see the going forth and return of God for us in Creation, Redemption and Sanctification. We find ourselves through the Church as within the understanding of God’s Revelation. As Comber teaches:
We believe in One Almighty God, who is distinguished into Three Persons, the Father our Creator, the Son our Redeemer, the Holy Ghost our Sanctifier, by whom we and the whole Church may have Remission of Sins, and the hope of a blessed Resurrection to Eternal Life; whereof we may reasonably pray to God the Father, in the name of the Son, by the assistance of the Spirit, in fellowship with the Saints, for the Forgiveness of our Sins, and a joyful Resurrection.
As with the Lord’s Prayer, we have failed to take doctrinal devotion, and specifically the Creeds, seriously. We deny this way of understanding when the Creed is disparaged and dismissed from its formative role in the Liturgy and in our lives. For when the Creed is allowed to be substituted by things that are not and cannot be its equal, such as “liturgical affirmations of the Faith” (as in the New Zealand Prayer Book) which fail to identify God the Father and God the Son, avoid all mention of sin and redemption, and fudge the economic activity of God as creator, redeemer and sanctifier, or such as the “Hear, O Israel” claimed for as an alternative to the Apostles’ Creed, which it cannot be (as in the Canadian BAS), or when so-called credal Hymns are sung which are no creeds at all – for where Father-God is invoked, not only is Mother-God not far behind, but also a whole nursery of baby-gods, begotten out of the vanity of our minds and not out of the understanding of God’s Revelation – then prayer can no longer be something understood. To the contrary, the Creeds must be properly and fully in our liturgy – there in the substance of their understanding.
It will not do to replace doctrinal understanding with the studied ambiguity or spiritual wiftiness of diocesan, national or international Doctrine & Worship Committees, Anglican Consultative Councils or Primates’ Meetings – these invented magisteriums of our day. Doctrine must be fully and integrally present in the devotional life of the Anglican church. Doctrine cannot be reduced to a checklist of items which may or may not be present in a plethora of liturgies and where a whole host of other things quite contrary or altogether inadequate to the understanding of the Creeds is also present, without qualification. For then we have nothing to proclaim and therefore no way to engage the contemporary world.
To engage the contemporary world does not mean embracing its every whim, nor does it mean confronting or countering its every desire. It means placing them in the story of God, bringing them into the pageant of Revelation, setting them in the place of redemption; in short, bringing them to Christ as to the One who understands us better than we do ourselves.
In a world desperate to access some meaning through the theurgies of human invention, looking for something beyond ourselves, whether to be touched by an angel or to find angels in the ballpark, the church must be there to point out Jesus as the one whom they are seeking. For Jesus would have us understand what he wants for us, but it means bringing “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ”.
Everything is to be gathered into the understanding which God has created in us. Everything finds its place in the understanding which he has revealed. To enter into his understanding means prayer. Prayer is “something understood”, opening us out to the greater understanding of the Revelation and truth of God. The praying imagination of George Herbert is shaped by doctrinal understanding and so must we. Praying, he says, is the end of preaching. Let us take him at his word and make his poem Prayer(I) our prayer, “something understood”.
Prayer(I)Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’Almightie, sinners towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.