Incurable case of infallibilism

Re-Thinking Christianity
June 1, 2007

Does the Christian faith regularly reinvent itself? Andrew Linzey is unconvinced

What a marvel Keith Ward is. Originally a teacher of logic and philosophy, he has held four major chairs in theology and written more than 30 monographs (including a massive four-volume comparative theology for Oxford University Press). There is hardly an area of theology and religion that he hasn't mastered, and there are very few theologians in the world who can hold a candle to his range, productivity and philosophical rigour. The theological community has yet to catch up with his corpus, let alone grasp its historical significance.

His latest offering is an assault on the notion that Christian faith is an unchanging monolith, lacking the interior resources to adapt to modern society's needs. The main argument is that Christianity has reinvented itself many times, and he supplies an analysis of six major slices of history to prove it.

These developments include how Christianity emerged from a Jewish Messianic sect into a Gentile universal church; how its early Gospel message was developed, if not transformed, by the adoption of Greek philosophical terminology, and by subsequent developments of the doctrines of atonement, purgatory and papal supremacy in the 12th to 14th centuries. These were followed by the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, which rejected the hierarchical teaching of the Church and reinterpreted faith as personal trust in God, and by the 18th and 19th-century liberal responses to the European Enlightenment, reconciling Christian faith to critical inquiry, and the acceptance of historical and scientific study of the Bible.

Now, according to Ward, we are in a post-20th-century rethinking of Christianity "in a global context, as one faith among many".

Ward's thesis is not just a history lesson; he welcomes the "general direction of development" towards "a more pluralistic and critical faith, committed to the cause of human flourishing and centred on liberating apprehensions of Transcendence". In other words, Christianity has been made better by these reinventions, and saved (well, mostly) from obscurantism, cruelty and intolerance as a result.

The sting in Ward's argument consists in his doctrinal extrapolations: "There is no one unchanging 'correct' teaching handed down from Jesus himself and preserved by some group." Again: "The reason there is not one unchanging core is that no perspective will ever exhaust the personal reality of Christ, and there will always be new perspectives, as Christ is seen from new historical contexts. The mystery of Christ transcends every human, biblical and ecclesial perspective."

The tone is glycerine, but the content is nitro. No correct teaching? No unchangeable core?

There was a time when such sentiments would have been regarded as unexceptional in the history of, at least, post 19th-century Christianity. That they are now controversial is itself an indication of how Christianity has changed, but not in the direction that Ward would welcome. The conundrum is how a faith that has shown itself capable of revivifying reinventions, now seems in the grip of "". Witness how Ward's former colleague at Oxford University now appears - as Archbishop of Canterbury - unable even to state his own mildly progressive views. And who would have dared to imagine that a medieval view of sexuality would become the cornerstone of Anglican orthodoxy, a Communion once famed for its untidy diversity?

But it is not only Anglicans who are experiencing this counter-reformation. Eastern Orthodox churches have long prided themselves on not engaging with modernity, and within Catholicism, after just two Popes, it looks as if the gains of Vatican II were just a historical blip. Worldwide Protestantism - once a haven for individual conscience under God - increasingly shows that it has replaced an infallible Pope with an infallible book.

The problem with Ward's thesis is that it seems too good to be true, and turns, if not a blind eye, certainly a blinking eye, to religious fundamentalism, let alone pathology. "One of the most terrible mistakes in religion is to confuse our limited understanding of revelation with the objective revelation itself," he writes.

Quite so, but that mistake - what might be termed "infallibilism" - still characterises religious discourse in almost all denominations. Perhaps Christianity is showing us how it is capable of defying, as well as facilitating, change.

The pessimist in me fears that Ward's book may turn out to be of historical significance in signposting a Christianity that never quite made it.

Andrew Linzey is a member of the faculty of theology at Oxford University and director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics ( www.oxfordanimalethics.com ).

Re-Thinking Christianity

Author - Keith Ward
Publisher - One World
Pages - 231
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 9781851685066

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