Friday, March 9, 2012

A Rubric of Theological Authorities

Oliver Crisp, in the opening chapter of his book, God Incarnate, offers a very helpful rubric for distinguishing and evaluating theological authorities. While his ranking and evaluations are decidedly aligned with the Protestant Reformers, I think Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox would find his distinctions helpful when reevaluated to suit their respective differences.

"I take it that Holy Scripture is normative for all matters of faith and practice, and therefore, for all matter doctrinal. It is the norma normans, that is, the norm which stands behind and informs all the subordinate 'norms' of catholic creeds, or the confessional documents of particular ecclesial traditions" (9).

He defines Scripture by what he calls a "high view," all others being lower which deny that Scripture is either "(a) a divine revelation of what is otherwise uknown," and "(b) the particular place wherein God revealed himself and his message of salvation to his people through the work of the Holy Spirit" (10-11).

"Secondly, what follows assumes that the creeds of the ecumenical councils of the church have a special place in Christian thinking. They act as a sort of hermeneutical bridge between Scripture and the church. By this I mean the creeds of the ecumenical councils help us to understand what Scripture is, or is not, saying about a particular doctrine" (12).

He goes on to describe the functions of the ecumenical creeds, which, "bear witness to the gospel in Scripture, they tease out aspects of the doctrine of the gospel, and because they do this, they have served as a doxological and liturgical purpose in the life of the Church, as a means by which Christians may affirm what it is they believe, and what it is that holds the Church together" (13). He includes the first seven councils of the Church within those considered "truly ecumenical," recognizing that some communions reject one or more of these seven (e.g. the Coptic Church's non-reconciliation with the Council of Chalcedon of AD 451).

Confessions and Creeds of various communions rank below the ecumenical creeds and confessions, saying "All such creeds, confessions, and conciliar statements are of less importance than the ecumenical creeds, not least because only a proportion of the Church upholds them. But such confessions are not of negligible worth. They are important repositories of doctrinal reflection, and for my part I am persuaded that such confessions are of more significance than the teaching of any one particular theologian because they represent the 'mind', or collective wisdom of a conclave of theologians and church leaders seeking to make sense of the teaching of Scripture for the Christian community" (15).

"To sum up: creedal and confessional documents are norma normata, or standardized norms, in the life of the church. They do not have the same authority in matters touching dogma that Scripture has, as the principium theologicae
 that is, the collection of fundamental principles or sources for theology" (15).

Third is the "Doctors and theologians of the Church," of whom Crisp says, "Theologians of the past have their own blind spots, of course. Yet we can often see the motes in their theology much more clearly than the planks in our own. For this reason, we need to listen to the thinkers of the past. Theological forebears often help correct the blind spots we might not discover without them. Amongst these theologians are some who are clearly head and shoulders above the rest. I suggest that their thinking should be taken more seriously than, say, the latest theologically fashionable volume or school of thought because their teaching has been tried and tested over time, and granted a measure of authority through being used by large segments of the Church as sources of derivative theological authority in particular doctrinal disputes" (16).

He evaluates their relation to the other authorities, saying, "Nevertheless, the work of individual theologians, even the great Doctors of the Church like St Augustine or St Thomas, is not as important, for the purposes of systematic theology, as confessions or ecumenical creeds. Their views cannot command the same attention that, say, the Council of Chalcedon can, in part because their pronouncements do not have the same 'reach' as Chalcedon. This is not merely a matter of influence. Some theologians have been extremely influential on the shape of theology beyond their own ecclesiastical community. . . .The difference I have in mind depends upon the theological authority invested in what a given theologian says on one hand, and what a particular ecumenical symbol records, on the other. . . .Where those views are not matters of matters that have been defined by an ecumenical council like Chalcedon, and are not iterations on confessional statements of a particular tradition to which they belong, their statements are theologoumena. That is, what they are offering is an informed theological opinion on a particular matter of doctrine" (16).

Crisp then summarizes the whole rubric using the Latin designations:

"1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologicae. . . .This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
2. Catholic creeds, as defined by an ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine.
3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normal, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine.
4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church" (17).

While Crisp's rubric may not be particularly revolutionary, but nevertheless a succinct and helpful summary of the sort of theological authorities necessary in any thoughtful and responsible theological considerations.

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