Fragmentation and synthesis

[Chapter 4 of Catholicity: A Study in the Conflict of Christian Traditions in the West (Dacre Press, 1947), pp.42-48]


[42] Thus there has been, in and behind the external aspect of a divided Christendom, a deep division of the unity of Christian truth, and this division has deeply affected the working conception in men’s minds of the nature of Christianity itself. If we take, for instance, the main tenets of orthodox Protestantism, and those of Renaissance or Liberal religion, we find a series of opposed conceptions which can be represented in a table thus:

Salvation by faith Salvation by works
Grace Reason, morals, feeling
Revealed theology Natural theology
Christus pro nobis Christus in nobis
Justification Sanctification
Man as sinner Man as imago Dei
De servo arbitrio De libero arbitrio
Man in contradiction to God Man in continuity with God
Creator and creature incommensurable Creature and Creator mutually necessary
Christ as Saviour Christ as pattern
History as sin History as Divinely ordered progress
Political pessimism Politics as the coming of the Kingdom
God transcendent God immanent

This table shows that Reformation and Renaissance religion represent the splitting apart of two stresses in historic Catholicism. There can be no synthesis between a broken half and the original whole, but only a renewed unity between the parts which have been falsified by separation. This table represents not only two kinds of theological position, but also two kinds of religious attitude towards life amongst ordinary folk. We have seen also that modern Catholicism does not succeed in the task of re-integration of the truth, for modern Catholicism is itself a product of the long history of dissociation.

Besides the distortion of truths, there has also been the total omission of truths in different parts of Christendom. In some of our [42/43] familiar post-Reformation controversies, the debate has at times dwelt upon certain elements of Christian truth to the almost total neglect of other elements essential to the point at issue. In the Protestant West, there has been at times a total omission of the doctrine of Creation as the context of the doctrine of Redemption. Salvation has been viewed as the deliverance of mankind from out of the world, instead of as the transformation of mankind and the world in a new Creation. (In this connection the failure of the West to perceive the high significance attributed by the East to our Lord’s Transfiguration is significant.) Protestantism has not really come to terms with the reality of history as the scene of the continuous presence of Divine life that flows from the Incarnation. Partly through a belief that history is intrinsically sinful, partly through the doctrine of sola fide, partly through a distorted idea of ‘inwardness’, and partly through the identification of Rome with anti-Christ, classical Protestantism was unable to conceive of the Church as a Divine life in the context of an imperfect and sinful society. Hence there is in Protestantism an inherited inability to take the visible Church with due seriousness. Again and again the attempts of Protestants to work out a doctrine of the visible Church are hampered by an inevitable recourse to ‘invisibilist’ ideas.

No less serious have been the omissions in our modern versions of Catholicism. If others have failed to take the visible Church seriously, Catholics have too often slipped into an identification of the visible Church with the Kingdom of God, and have forgotten the Church’s ultimate subjection to the sovereignty and judgment of the Divine Word. If others have neglected the objectivity of the faith as a body of teaching handed down, Catholics have too often been unmindful of the meaning of faith in the Pauline sense. The authors of this Report are well aware of the share of their own school of thought in these sins of distortion and omission.

One result of our divisions has been that a number of theological conflicts have been fought with such faulty presuppositions as to become really battles in a fog. Thus there has been the conflict about the doctrine of Sacrifice in the Eucharist, in which the upholders of an inadequate conception of sacrifice in terms of immolation, have fought against those who, not without reason, were repelled by the idea of sacrifice in the Eucharist altogether. Another instance has been the conflict between a narrowly vicarious conception of priesthood, and an individualistic and unscriptural interpretation of a priesthood of all believers. Yet another instance has been the conflict between a forensic doctrine of the Atonement, and an exemplarist view of our Lord’s death which, in reaction, rejects the apostolic teaching that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures’. [43/44] Nor can we forget the conflict between a fundamentalist view of the authority of Scripture which belittles the human factor in the Bible, and a Liberal view which virtually ascribes inspiration only to those portions which the individual himself finds inspiring. In every case, the conflict has arisen from the loss of an original wholeness, and a resulting distortion of categories. There is a wholeness of Atonement which includes our Lord’s Life, Resurrection and Ascension, as well as His Death. There is a wholeness of sacrifice which includes far more than an act of immolation. There is a wholeness of priesthood which sets the priesthood of the ministry within the royal priesthood of the Church. And there is a wholeness of Scriptural authority, neither Fundamentalist nor Liberal, which sets Scripture in the context of Tradition. In none of these instances can a process of finding the Highest Common Factor of rival positions achieve the needed synthesis. In so far as progress has been made towards a synthesis in recent years, it has been made, not by exercises in Highest Common Factor, but by going behind the rival doctrines to something which they all, in various ways, mis-represent.

The feeling of dissatisfaction at our theological disunity, and the desire to find a theological synthesis, are stronger today than in the past, and many illustrations could be given of the readiness of theologians to criticise their own traditions and to learn from the traditions of others. But the danger is that we should drift into false methods of theological synthesis which contain within themselves the seeds of fresh disunity.

(i) It is misleading to seek a synthesis by way of fastening broken pieces together. For when the unity of truth is broken it often happens that the result is not a number of fragments of truth, but a number of conceptions which are misleading, erroneous and heretical. We do not arrive at truth by fitting errors together.

(ii) It is widely assumed that a synthesis can be reached by taking the agreed elements in ‘our common Christianity’, and by omitting the matters upon which there has been deep disagreement. But to do this is to accept our common distorted versions of Christianity as a basis, without attempting to cure us all of our distortions. From the Highest Common Factor of several erroneous quotients, we get, not a true solution, but a result more erroneous still.

(iii) Another popular method is to separate matters of faith and matters of order, and to treat the latter as secondary. But its weakness is that a sharp division between faith and order is itself the product of a disintegrated theology and was unknown to the primitive Church. To build upon an antithesis between faith and order is therefore to promote not unity but further dissociation. Indeed, every attempt at synthesis must watch lest it take as its basis some [44/45] misleading presuppositions which belong to some passing phase of Christian thought, and in consequence make confusion worse confounded.

The true way of synthesis is not to take our contemporary systems or ‘isms’ or Church traditions and try to piece them together, either as a whole or in selected items, but rather to go behind our contemporary systems and strive for the recovery of the fulness of Tradition within the thought and worship and order and life of each of the sundered portions of Christendom.

In this task the ‘Faith and Order’ movement has tried to play its part. It has brought together theologians from many traditions and enabled them to learn from one another. Its danger is to accept faulty presuppositions and to try to fit together Confessional positions; and its best work is done whenever it avoids this danger and explores the fundamentals behind.


So far it is of theological synthesis that we have been speaking, and indeed our Terms of Reference bade us do so. But we hope it will already have been apparent that we are not unmindful of the close connection between theology and life, and of the many non-theological factors which enter into the problem. The divisions in Christendom are bound up with cleavages in social and religious habit, and in politics and culture, as well as in theology, and the hope is often expressed in discussions on re-union that, while theology has its clarifying effects upon life, life may have its clarifying effects upon theology, so that the bringing together of Christians in a common organisation may help the solution of theological differences.

These aspects of the problem have often been before us in the writing of this Report, and we would mention some considerations which are often overlooked and seem to us to have great importance.

The Church is everywhere faced by the decline, not only of religion and theology, but also of that Christian pattern of life which has in the past been bound up with religion and theology. There has been a gradual landslide into a mass-made pattern of life in which Christian sanctions and presuppositions and disciplines are far to seek, and their place is filled by a purely secular culture. Over against the aggressively secularist ‘conformism’ there stands not a single united Christian pattern, but a variety of patterns representing diverse Christian traditions. In our own country, for instance, there is the pattern of religious habit represented by the Church of England (with significant varieties within it), and there are the patterns that belong to the older Nonconformity, and to the newer Methodism. [45/46] Each of these types has its historic characteristics. In the first case, there is the great importance of Confirmation as an event in the Christian life in home and parish, and there is the regular reception of the Holy Communion as the constant stay of that life. Or there is the attendance at the chapel on Sunday evenings, loyal support of the social fellowship of the chapel at other times, and the family habit of singing hymns at home. Every one of the patterns has its roots in the past, its unlikeness to the other patterns, and its impression not only upon piety but upon life as a whole. And today these patterns are facing the sweeping tide of secularism, and too often they have yielded to the pressure and suffered secularist influence to infect them with its disintegrating virus.

In the face of the conflict, Christians of diverse traditions are often urged to ‘sink their differences’ and to ‘close their ranks’ on the basis of their common Christianity; but this plausible counsel often blinds them to some of the realities. For where the patterns of Christian Tradition are barely holding their own, to ‘sink the differences’ is to tear up the remaining roots and to provide no new single root in their place. The notion that ‘differences do not matter’ leads church-people to think it is unimportant whether they are confirmed or not, and whether they go to a jolly Civic Service or a P.S.A., or to the Holy Communion. Equally, it leads Nonconformists to desert the discipline and sacrifice that belonged to their old chapel loyalty and to prefer the easy way of mixed and bright services that make no demand upon the will. ‘Sinking our differences’ lightly means tearing up the roots; and ‘closing our ranks’ too readily means abandoning the elements of dogma which remain imbedded in the various traditions, and substituting a vague and undogmatic faith which is at the mercy of those very secular notions which Christians are uniting to combat. For where the elements of dogma, and the patterns of life moulded by it, have become weakened, the way is opened for pragmatist, nationalistic and man-centred ideas of religion to worm their way in. And they do. The idea of unity in the truth of the Gospel is displaced by the idea of a unity, Christian in name, but nationalist-secularist in its motive and its assumptions.

The old patterns of Christian Tradition are things too precious to be lightly destroyed; and hasty ‘re-union’ in terms of ‘common Christianity’ means the giving up of the more difficult and exacting things in each of them. The hard and challenging features of religious practice, alike in Church and chapel, are lost: the weaker and vaguer elements in each, because they are the common elements, remain. Yet the old patterns in isolation do not suffice, for they do not represent the unity for which our Lord prayed. And that unity, which must be reborn, will include something of all the patterns, not in [46/47] their falsities and their negations, but in those elements of devotion and conviction, of dogma and discipline, which they contain. As the strength of these traditions in their isolation has lain in their convictions, so the only motive that can truly unite them is a common conviction about the truth of the Gospel and the Church. Unity that is sought because our divisions are wasteful, or because our differences do not matter, or because it will make a better impression if we show a united front–such is not the unity in the truth. ‘Sanctify them in the truth: Thy word is truth.’ The fulfilment of the prayer of our Lord comes by the recovery, within every portion of our sundered Christendom, of the sanctification of His people in the truth.


Yet there have also been movements towards synthesis which have been truly constructive, and in which no little progress has already been made towards overcoming the inner fragmentation of Christendom. The spiritual process has long since begun which will one day have visible unity as its fruit.

These movements have been completely different in character from those which we have just criticised. Abhorring the superficial platitudes about our ‘common Christianity’, they have been impelled by a sense of defect and need, by the dim perception of vital truths which other Christian Communions appear to possess, and by the desire to appropriate the fuller wholeness of which these particular truths stand as a symbol. Since, therefore, these movements consist of gropings after things as yet imperfectly apprehended, they cannot be called into being by directions from official Church authority.

Instances can be given from many different sides. Protestants are seen endeavouring to regain full contact with the Christian ascetical tradition, in studying the ways of prayer and holding retreats. In Scotland and in France, religious communities have appeared within the reformed Churches. In the last few years in this country, certain Protestants of the most orthodox type have been turning their attention to Natural Law. Within the Church of England a drastic theological reconstruction is taking place, and the study of the Bible and of early Christianity is leading to the correction of many familiar presuppositions, including those which have been held by our own school of thought. In the Roman Church, the liturgical movement has led to a sustained effort to recover the insights of the period in which the historic liturgies took shape; and since the liturgy consists mainly of Biblical material, this is leading in turn to a Biblical theology which shows great promise.

[48] All these movements, springing out of a sense of defect and need, represent a penitence of a thoroughly practical kind. Those who share in them do not put up a controversial defence of those things for which they respectively stand: rather, they are holding fast to those principles by living by them, and are at the same time learning to advance from a narrow outlook to a wider, and thus in some real measure fulfil the ideal to which we have repeatedly referred of ‘sanctification in the truth’, according to the prayer of our Lord.

[ Next: Chapter 5: The Anglican Communion ]