How then can we decide what is the “doctrine of Christ” that first came to ancient Britain, and that is the foundation for the faith of all those who call themselves Christians and have received that faith because it first came there? Two answers, and two only, have been given to that question historically.
The first says we must “listen to the church.” The Church of Rome has codified this answer with a rigidity that excludes nearly all other churches from the name “church”, no matter how ancient, or theologically coherent, their claim. The Bishop of Rome, speaking through “the magisterium” of bishops in communion with him has uttered it. To not be in communion with the Bishop of Rome is to not be a true part of the catholic (universal) church. It is the Roman Catholic Church alone that can tell us what is the “doctrine of Christ.”
This answer was rejected by the Church of England in the16th century, and it must still be rejected today. No specifically Anglican version of this answer may be tolerated either. The church does have authority in matters of faith, but it does not invent that faith.
The second answer, anciently agreed, is that the New Testament is the only sure ground upon which the “doctrine of Christ” can be found. From the earliest surviving records we see all the godly leadership of the church appealing to what Jesus taught and the apostles explicated, as that is contained in the scripture. No holy leader dared to undermine what the apostles taught. There were disputes about details, to be sure, but gradually the whole church agreed that God himself had bequeathed the New Testament writings to the church as the revelation binding all believers in Christ. Rightly expounded these writings delineated the boundaries of true faith. This is what Cranmer meant by “the doctrine of Christ.”
This answer was that of the Church of England in the 16th century, and remains her stated claim, once all the manifold accretions to her faith and practice are stripped away. Every attempt to remove this central truth (and there have been and are many) has been resisted by a faithful remnant. Without this answer articulated, believed, and promulgated, the heritage of the Church of England becomes little more than a “mess of pottage.” The doctrine of the church is the apostolic teaching of Jesus found in the New Testament. Faithful leaders are to expound it and live it.
What then can give us detailed clarity for the new day we are facing? What will we say is the “doctrine” in our own time of trial and challenge? The answer is not simple, for the New Testament is a revelation containing manifold perspectives on the one central truth that the Son of God has come among us, and given his life for the sins of the world. Yet, our fathers dared to suggest what was essential by enunciating it in the baptismal liturgy, and the Eucharistic liturgy, of the church. There is found the “doctrine of Christ.”
Next Week: Cranmer’s Standard Examined (II)