The Rev Professor Maurice Wiles

Church of England theologian who struggled to reconcile faith with reason
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The Independent Online

Maurice Frank Wiles, theologian: born London 17 October 1923; ordained deacon 1950, priest 1951; Curate, St George's, Stockport 1950-52; Chaplain, Ridley Hall, Cambridge 1952-55; Lecturer in New Testament Studies, Ibadan 1955-59; Lecturer in Divinity, Cambridge University 1959-67; Dean, Clare College, Cambridge 1959-67; Professor of Christian Doctrine, King's College, London 1967-70, Fellow 1972; Regius Professor of Divinity, Oxford University 1970-91 (Emeritus); Canon, Christ Church, Oxford 1970-91; FBA 1981; married 1950 Patricia Mowll (two sons, one daughter); died Oxford 3 June 2005.

Maurice Wiles, Regius Professor Emeritus of Divinity at Oxford University, was one of the leading theologians of the Church of England and his work was known and studied throughout the English-speaking world.

Wiles's work was characterised above all by conscientiousness and intellectual honesty. He believed that faith cannot dispense with reason or go against reason, and his constant struggle was to reconcile the two. The best place to get an insight into his thinking is his last book, entitled Scholarship and Faith (2003). In an autobiographical chapter, he tells how he first embraced Christian faith in a zealous Moody-and-Sankey type of evangelicalism, and contemporaries tell us that this was still his state of mind when he was an undergraduate at Christ's College, Cambridge.

Only gradually did he develop more critical attitudes. Like many others, he was helped in this development by the study of philosophy, though the dominant philosophy of that time was the logical positivism of A.J. Ayer and company, with its complete dismissal of religious belief. Wiles's faith stood up to this gruelling test and matured as a result of it. At that time, he was greatly helped by Ian Ramsey, his college chaplain and later Bishop of Durham.

So Wiles came to believe that a critical, questioning attitude is not incompatible with a deep religious faith. But he also came to believe that there is much in Christian faith that needs radical criticism, and that without such criticism and reinterpretation, it must seem incredible in the modern world. To quote his own words:

I have tried to develop a theology which stands in continuity with the Scriptures and subsequent Christian tradition, but which is also consistent with what modern advances in knowledge have taught us about the world.

These words express a noble and important ideal, one shared with many other theologians. How Wiles proposed to pursue it can be seen in two of his books, The Making of Christian Doctrine (1967) and The Remaking of Christian Doctrine (1974). Even if a doctrine has its origin in some revelatory experience, it has to be constantly re-expressed in the light of new historical periods, new understandings of the past, scientific developments, new knowledge of human nature and much else. The first major development was from the New Testament to patristic theology, in which Wiles was himself an authority of the first rank.

The first of the two books concerns the formation of that patristic theology which became normative for everything that followed. The book is what nowadays we might call a "deconstruction" of patristic theology. The various factors, social, cultural, political, even personal, as well as theological that went into the formation of the various doctrines are sought out and considered, likewise the fact that patristic theology is not unitary but shows wide variations according to the backgrounds and linguistic differences among its authors.

In the 19th century, although not without a struggle, historical criticism of the Bible had established itself. Wiles urged that a similar critical method be now applied in the doctrinal field. Let us take one particular doctrine as an illustration, the doctrine of the person of Christ. The classic creeds, still recited in our churches and claiming to be based on the New Testament but inevitably introducing ideas borrowed from Hellenistic culture, have become unintelligible in the modern age and distort rather than illuminate who Christ is believed to be. What does the average churchgoer today understand when he or she repeats the phrase, "being of one substance with the Father"?

Already in 1952 Wiles had aroused controversy over an article provocatively entitled "In Defence of Arius" (republished in 1976 in Working Papers in Doctrine). The said Arius had long been regarded as an arch-heretic who denied the divinity of Christ. Wiles attempted to show that Arius's views had possibly as much justification in the tradition as had those of his orthodox opponent, Athanasius. However, Wiles at this point may have overlooked the fact that it was Athanasius, not Arius, who got a sympathetic response from the Church at large and whose views seemed to coincide with the consensus fidelium, the consensus of the faithful.

This is surprising, for Wiles often argued that theology is a collective study, not to be left to individuals. Richard Hanson and Rowan Williams, both experts in this period of Christian thought, describe Arius as an isolated individual. But Wiles was right to defend him for his emphasis on the true humanity of Christ, without which the doctrine of incarnation would be false.

Moving on to modern times, Wiles was one of the contributors to a book with another provocative title, The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), a sustained criticism of the doctrine of incarnation. No one would deny that the traditional language is virtually unintelligible, and obscures the true humanity of Christ. But it should be noted that Wiles's contribution to this book was very tentative. More than once can be found in his writings the very positive assertion that "Christ embodied and expressed God's character in the world". There is surely not much difference between "embodiment" and "incarnation", and what Wiles says here is well within the parameters of Christian orthodoxy, and expressed in language that can be readily understood at the present day.

Maurice Wiles was born in 1923, the son of Sir Harold Wiles, a senior civil servant, and Lady Wiles, and was educated at Tonbridge School, in Kent and Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took a Second in the Moral Sciences tripos and a First in Theology. Ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1951, he served as a curate in the north of England, at St George's, Stockport, before returning to Cambridge in 1952 as Chaplain of the theological college Ridley Hall. He taught in the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, for four years, was Dean of Divinity in Clare College, 1959-67, and then became Professor of Christian Doctrine at King's College London. From 1970 Wiles was Regius Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, until his retirement in 1991.

Among Wiles's distinctions were a Cambridge DD, election to Fellowship of the British Academy in 1981, the Harper-Collins Religious Book Prize in 1983 (for Faith and the Mystery of God) and the Bampton Lectureship in 1986.

John Macquarrie