Following the outline established by the 2005 Jesus Still Lead On study guide, we are sharing different aspects of The Ground of the Unity, one of the worldwide Moravian Church’s key doctrinal statement, in each 2016 issue of The Moravian. This month, we’ll discuss Continual Search for Sound Doctrine and Divine Mysteries. Thanks to Dr. Craig Atwood and the editors of Jesus Still Lead 0n for this material. —Mike Riess, editor, the Moravian magazine
Continual Search for Sound Doctrine
The Unitas Fratrum takes part in the continual search for sound doctrine. In interpreting Scripture and in the communication of doctrine in the Church, we look to two millennia of ecumenical Christian tradition and the wisdom of our Moravian forebears in the faith to guide us as we pray for fuller understanding and ever clearer proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Moravian Church traces its roots back to the reforming efforts of Jan Hus and Jakoubek of StrÌbro who challenged the dogmatism and scholastic tradition of the medieval Catholic Church. Rather than merely accepting what the Church defined as unchanging dogma, our ancestors shook the foundations of the institutional church by proclaiming the simple teaching of Scripture.
In the 1490s, converts to the early Moravian Church (the Unity of the Brethren), felt that our church had also become rigid and judgmental in its doctrine and practice. Luke of Prague led a doctrinal revolution within the Unity that attempted to restore the gospel message of forgiveness and salvation by grace rather than self-righteousness. Luke argued that no individual can define the doctrine of the Church for all time. Each generation must faithfully examine Scripture and the traditional teachings of the Church in the light of plain reason and their own historical setting. The search for sound doctrine never ends because the world is in a state of constant flux.
We make it a point of doctrine that we will not be intellectually static and spend our time buttressing ideas that have lost their relevance. Nor should we let important ideas become obscured through neglect. Instead, we maintain a vigorous and faithful on-going examination of our doctrines and practices in light of the revelation in Scripture and the witness of the entire Christian Church through the ages. Here again, though, we see that the Moravian Church does not see itself as separate from the rest of Christianity. We encourage our members to learn from the whole Christian tradition rather than just our part of it. Paradoxically, perhaps, the continual search for sound doctrine makes us more distinctly Moravian at the same time that we learn from other churches.
- Do you think it is important for the Church (and individuals in the Church) to study the long history of Christianity and the beliefs and practices of other churches? Isn’t the Bible all you need?
- In what ways do you think your congregation has been enriched by a fuller understanding of the Christian tradition and heritage?
- Under what circumstances should we adopt the practices and beliefs of other Christian churches?
- Do you have personal experience of other communities of faith? How does this affect your life as a Moravian?
But just as the Holy Scripture does not contain any doctrinal system, so the Unitas Fratrum also has not developed any of its own because it knows that the mystery of Jesus Christ, which is attested to in the Bible, cannot be comprehended completely by any human mind or expressed completely in any human statement. Also it is true that through the Holy Spirit the recognition of God’s will for salvation in the Bible is revealed completely and clearly.
One of the key insights in Moravian theology is the recognition that God is beyond human comprehension. To comprehend something is to encircle and contain it. Comprehension implies superiority to what is comprehended. Comprehension also means that there is nothing more to learn. We cannot grasp the phenomenal mysteries of the universe or the mystery of ourselves. How can we comprehend God? The doctrine of the Trinity should serve as a reminder that the reality of God is a mystery beyond our reasoning.
Mystery here does not mean ignorance. God is not a puzzle to solve. A sense of mystery comes from our experience. Think of the person that you know best in the world and to whom you are most attached. You know each other and you trust each other, but you still remain mysteries to each other, don’t you? As the years pass, aren’t there new depths of intimacy and trust? The same is true of God. This statement in the Ground of the Unity is a way to encourage us to ponder the divine mysteries of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Moravian doctrine is not as concerned with getting the right answers to a dogmatic examination as it is with bringing people into a life-giving and ever-growing relationship with their Creator and Savior.
Scripture lies at the heart of this effort. Moravians are Bible-reading people, but we encourage many ways to let the Bible speak to us. Our litanies and liturgies are taken primarily from the words of Scripture, and we read the Bible privately and in study groups. We recognize that the Bible was never intended to be a simple exposition of beliefs and laws. It is an inspired work that speaks to us in different ways at different points in our lives. We recognize that some portions of Scripture take years to appreciate while others provide the most essential truths for people of all ages.
As Bishop Kenneth Hamilton wrote in an unpublished commentary on the Ground of the Unity, ìthere are mysteries dealt with in the Bible which we can neither completely grasp nor satisfactorily formulate in our teaching. Moravians hold that God has spoken to man plainly enough for our needs, and that central in His Word stands the doctrine of the Saviour’s vicarious death.î In other words, Moravian doctrine is focused on what is essential and clear in Scripture, but we recognize that this does not exhaust the meaning of Scripture. Moravians are encouraged to study Scripture without hesitation and discuss what they see there without fear.
- What does it mean that our doctrine is based on Scripture and yet we state that Scripture does not have a doctrinal system?
- Why do we teach that Jesus is a mystery instead of offering a definition of his nature and work?
- Is there a contradiction between saying that God is beyond comprehension and saying that God’s will for salvation is revealed clearly and completely?
- What is God’s will for salvation and how does this affect how we live as followers of Christ?
- What is your understanding and experience of God?