Doctrine matters. It is the answer to the question ‘who?’, which one might ask of someone who says they ‘believe in Jesus’. The Nicene Creed has been, and continues to be, the Orthodox expression of what it means to believe in Jesus. I met someone recently who said, rather incredulously to me “You don’t really believe all that stuff, do you?” That he doesn’t may explain why he is an ex-monk; it doesn’t really explain why he still calls himself a Catholic, but then it is not my business to make windows into men’s souls. I can be responsible only for the heavy burden of my own sins, and I hope that in some way I have misunderstood what that man was about; if not, I can only pray for him – and do.
It is typical of modern man to propose a binary division where none has existed until he discovered it. Yes, and of course, if we are being transformed by God’s Grace then it matters what we do and how we live – the Christian life has to be one lived in God. But we do not live in God by ourself, we are brought into membership of a Christian community. God has touched not only me, but you, not only us, but them, and to suppose we can live as though Christianity is made new in us is at best to ignore the gifts of others, and at worst, a form of spiritual arrogance.
How have the people of God manifested his glory and his workings in the past? We are made a new creation in him, but we are not in some ground zero; we are inheritors of a tradition. Doctrine is embedded in that tradition, it is the background to how we manifest Christ in our lives. We might take it for granted, but we also take it as it was received by our Christian community. If we believe we are members of a fallen race, then we must be prepared to acknowledge how ready we are to deceive ourselves, because our passions so easily distort our judgement; history and community are the checks the Lord has provided us with to help remedy these effects of the Fall; we disregard them at our peril.
There is, to be sure, a danger in this, as there is in the more individidualistic and charismatic forms of worship. There is always the tendency to reductionism. That is to see the mysterious and the infinite world of faith reduced to something bound to the earthly and the material, to a realm of power in this world, presided over by a priestly caste who dole out God’s Grace as though it is a commodity to be purchased – as though it could be possessed by men as a source of earthly power. It was the sense that that had happened to the Catholic Church which prompted the reformers of the sixteenth century in Europe; the consequences of that are with us today. One might well doubt that Luther or Calvin meant to found different churches. One might well say that the reaction of the leaders of the Catholic Church to being challenged proved that the reformers had a point. One might say that the Catholic leaders were only seeking to save the souls of their flock from damnable heresy. It might even be that there is an element of truth in all of those statements – for men rarely calculate accurately the long results of their actions, and one reason for conservatism is that no man can see where rash acts might lead, but many men can tell you where such actions have led in the past.
The identification of the Church with a temporal power was deplored by the Reformers, but in one of those ironies by which history mocks the intentions of men, they most of them ended up dependant upon the power of a Prince. A move meant to free Christians from State control, led to wars of religion between States which, for thirty years in the seventeenth century devastated the heart of Europe and, after inclalculable losses and brutality beyond the telling, even the rulers of this world tired of the desert they had made and called it peace.
What the Reformers missed was that the Church was not unconscious of the need for reform in structures. No Church inspired by the Holy Spirit could ever be still, for it is always being led into deeper understanding of the infinite. The ambitions of the rulers of this world enlisted Christians on both side of a new divide to their own aims. It left a legacy of distrust and hate. The Church turned to defend its position and became more closed to reform that it had ever been because of the associations that word had come to have; the reformers rejected too much of tradition because of its assocations with Rome. The world was poorer for it.
But God chastises us – or allows the sins to which we are so prone to do so, until we learn what lesson it is we need to learn. The Catholic Church never stopped being the Catholic Church, the other Christians never stopped being Christians. In our own times we have, by God’s Grace, come to see that Structures and the Spirit are not separate, but part and parcel of how we live as Christians in God’s world. There are those who deplore this and long for the black and white divisions of the past; few there are in that number who have spent long studying the horrors that produced. It is not just idle hands for whom the devil finds work, strong passions and blind certainties are his constant allies as he seeks to keep the followers of Jesus from ‘being one.’