The Sacraments and the Handbook of Doctrine

I recently sent this to the President and Vice-President of the International Doctrine Council. I have received a response (which I won't publish because it's not my place to). Rather, I publish my letter here to continue the discussion with others who may be interested.

___________________

The issue of the sacraments and sacramentality in The Salvation Army is one that has interested me for a number of years. When given the opportunity to choose a topic for my honours dissertation in 2007 it was a relatively easy choice to make. At the time I wanted to consider the often asked question “Why don’t we practise that?” alongside its rarely asked correlate “But why do we practise this?”  The conclusion of my research was that we are indeed a sacramental people, something that was affirmed well in Salvation Story,[1] but our expression of this sacramentality was new in terms of church history. I used the term “neosacramentality” to describe this.[2] Whilst I would suggest we employ new sacraments of our own creation, the question of the validity of such a decision remains unanswered.


This is why I continue to reflect upon our position regarding the sacraments. At the outset my considered position is that our theological understanding of the sacramental principal is sound and worth emphasising. That is, that all of life has the potential to be sacramental; a mysterious point of encounter in time and space between the God of the universe and his creation. The primary foundation for this theology is the incarnation; the ultimate moment in time and space where the uncreated joined in inseparable union with the created and began a depth of relationship between the two that is more intimate than anything else in all of creation. Ultimately, all other sacraments point to and simultaneously participate in the union of Divine and human natures found in Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that brings about this participation because of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity (perechoresis). 

Our decision to see the sacramental potential beyond these two specific rites is, I would suggest, biblically and theologically sound, and indeed consistent with other traditions. What is not, though, is the ban that exists (whether that is currently implicit or explicit) on the two specific rites that the church has employed for 2000 years. The position we are in now is that Salvationists, and in particular those of us who prepare and lead worship, are allowed to do almost anything to point to Christ and participate, by the Spirit, in his life, death and resurrection. We can use candle lighting, covenant signing, invest symbolic meaning in rocks, lights, bookmarks and cards, or find that “a meal shared with those we care about, or a meal for strangers, water for washing, a flag to stand under, a joining of hands” [3] becomes a moment when we “set aside intellectual caution and rationalisation and… allow God’s incomprehensible grace to enter and transform… ordinary life.”[4] All of these moments can be sacramental, except the Lord’s Supper and baptism; these are banned. In very simple terms our position is, as it stands, a complete reversal of the words attributed to Christ; “Don’t do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:24).

Whilst for a number of years this has troubled me until this point I have chosen to accept that it is one of the peculiar parts of who we are as The Salvation Army. However I now find that I can no longer remain silent on this topic. 

Whilst the conversation around the sacraments is one I'm interested in, and in continual dialogue with people about, we now find ourselves in a position where the foundation for such a discussion has been seriously undermined with the publication of the Handbook of Doctrine. In particular through a small, but theologically questionable, decision to change some of the wording.

The 2010 edition of the Handbook of Doctrine was not a new publication, per se, but rather an updated edition of Salvation Story. Such a publication naturally requires an additional level of critical interpretation. The content is not only interpreted on its own terms, it is also interpreted in comparison to its predecessor.

In his Foreword General Shaw Clifton suggests that the “2010 Handbook of Doctrine retains the wording of the 1998 edition except for minor clarifications and stylistic changes.”[5] One such change is far more than a minor clarification or stylistic change, though. This change completely undermines Doctrine One, our theological method and our understanding of the source of authority in the Church. 

The change I am referring to is this;
Salvation Story
Early in our history, The Salvation Army chose not to observe specific sacraments as prescribed rituals.[6]
Handbook of DoctrineEarly in our history, The Salvation Army was led of God not to observe specific sacraments, that is baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, as prescribed rituals.[7]
The change here is small but highly significant. The decision itself has been shifted out of the hands of the early leaders of The Salvation Army into those of God. As a result, any who would want to question our practices are no longer questioning Army leadership, but God himself. If you want to suggest that change is needed then it is God’s mind that needs changing.

The decision to make this shift does have theological consequences, though; namely, on the basis of what authority is this theological shift made? Earlier in the Handbook of Doctrine, the sources of authority in the church are named as “Scripture, Spirit and Church. Each authority confirms and sanctions the other two.”[8] Importantly, though;
The Bible remains the primary authority. The Spirit will make plain the biblical truth which, when properly understood, will resonate with the authentic witness of the historic Church, but history teaches that both the claimed illumination of the Spirit and the traditions of the Church, when unchallenged, can be open to abuse. Historically, the teaching of the Church has sometimes been distorted by corrupt institutional structures. At times the guidance of the Spirit has been misunderstood, misapprehended, wrongly interpreted or falsely claimed… 
Scripture as a whole provides the final court of appeal for the Christian. Its authority supersedes all other claims, and its teaching authenticates all other spiritual truth. It is the underlying foundation upon which Christian consensus must rest, and it is the measure by which claimed illumination by the Spirit must be tested. To be accounted Christian, all other sources must conform to its essential central teaching.[9]
If this is correct, if this is to be our theological method, if we are to continue to remain committed to the principal of sola Scriptura and state that “the Scriptures only constitute the divine rule of Christian faith and practice” (Doctrine One), then the editorial change stated above must accord with Scriptures. I have to say that it does not. There is no Scriptural basis for the suggestion that the decision made to discontinue the sacraments was “led of God”. I would emphasise the point that this is more than a minor publishing error or faux pas. Someone has made the conscious decision to take the sentence as it was found in Salvation Story and alter it in this subtle but significant way. The seriousness of such a change cannot be underestimated.

In considering my response to this change I have to admit that I have wondered whether it is worth pressing the point here. It is only a few words difference, does it really matter that much? I am reminded, though, that the church has defended orthodox belief over much less; one word on one occasion (filioque) and one letter on another (homoousios/homoiousios). Given the way this change undermines critical aspects of our theology, theological method and understanding of authority in the church I am convinced of the need for change. As Kevin Vanhoozer suggests;
…claims to authority must be made with great care: “To make exclusive claim to the authority of Christ is the oldest temptation of Christianity.”[10] There is no higher authority than “because God says so.” The question remains: Whose “says so” speaks for God?...
Divine authority is too powerful a notion to be left to the whim, or the manipulation, of the individual.[11]
This is the reason I would suggest the following needs to occur.
  1. The change made to this specific sentence needs to be reversed.
  2. A much larger project of analysis needs to be conducted to determine exactly what other editorial changes that have been made. James Pedlar has conducted some initial comparison work specifically on the changes that were made to Appendix 9 of Salvation Story in the Handbook of Doctrine.This small amount revealed a stark contrast between the two texts which confirms just how “major” some of these “minor” changes really were. This is the sort of work that needs to be conducted throughout the entire text.
  3. From the results of 2 careful consideration should be given to the future of the Handbook of Doctrine. Major (Dr) Dean Pallant referred to the Handbook of Doctrine recently as one of “our primary sources of authoritative theology.”[13] If this is the case then I’m sure we would want to ensure it was, indeed, authoritative. This may require more changes. It may require a “revised edition”. It may, indeed, require that an entirely new project be commenced.

I do not underestimate, nor truly comprehend, the significance of what I have suggested nor the cost and effort involved. The practical implications of this, though, remain outside my sphere of influence. However small this editorial change is the difference it makes to the way we theologise is too significant for me to ignore any longer.

May God bless your ministry.





[1] The Salvation Army, Salvation Story - Salvationist Handbook of Doctrine  (London: The Salvation Army International Headquarters, 1998), 113-14.
[2] I am happy to provide a copy of my dissertation upon request.
[3] The Salvation Army, The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine  (London: Salvation Books, 2010), 270.
[4] Ibid., 269.
[5] Ibid., xiii.
[6] Salvation Story: 114.
[7] Handbook of Doctrine: 271.
[8] Ibid., 7.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Augustine, De civitate Dei 11.
[11] K.J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-linguistic Approach to Christian Theology  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 122.
[12] See attachment.
[13] Dean Pallant, "What is The Salvation Army's theology as we serve suffering humanity?," The Officer September-October(2014): 23.

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