Resource or Obstacle?
by John Watson
“Jesus immediately made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds…by this time the boat, battered by waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning Jesus came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the water they were terrified.” Matthew 14: 22, 24-26
‘Doctrine’ is one of those words that can cause an emotive response to many modern or even post-modern ears. In a liquid society that finds itself jettisoning many of the more solid aspects and values of modernity, doctrine can either appear to be an immoveable rock in the flow of this philosophical and sociological river or as something which can navigate the potentially hostile waters. It can seem to be either trying to stand firm in the relentless flow of ideas and questioning and suspicions of previously held and accepted norms and beliefs, holding out against a brief albeit uncomfortable phase; or it can be seen as a stern rock, even fossil like boulder, that will eventually be worn down by the eddies and currents of the age; for others it may seem that doctrine is a boat that can ride the flowing, and sometimes choppy water, trying to make sense of where society is going, but at the mercy of its flow. It may sometimes try to plot a course, it may get diverted if a course has been plotted, or it may even become overwhelmed by the storm.
In an interview with the Guardian about the future of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop John Sentamu is quoted as saying:
Christianity has become part of the furniture…like a grand piano nobody wants to play any longer. I want the dust to be taken off and people play the music. The Anglican Church will survive, but not for its own sake. Africa, Aids, and bad government are rampant. If the church concentrates on doctrine we will be in the minority. If Jesus were around he’d say to the church ‘Look after the poor.’
Here Sentamu displays a common reaction to doctrine within the Church and is perhaps why Wolfe writes as he does of the ‘strange disappearance of doctrine from the church.’ Doctrine can appear to be just about old, tired and dusty ideas – often in abstract language and disengaged with society. The marginalisation of Christianity in the West has often led to a loss of religious language in the public sphere and so concepts of judgement, atonement, justification and incarnation have had their religious imagery and significance depleted. The real task of the church is not to talk internally for ages to come, but to focus externally on the needs of those around us. Doctrine is seen to be a divisive issue and should and can be left alone. Hilary Wakeman wishes to go further than a simple nonchalant nod to doctrine and argues that many Christian doctrines drive people away from the churches, and that new ways of expressing old beliefs are therefore needed if Christianity is to capture again the imaginations of the contemporary world. So for some in the Church, doctrine is seen to be an obstacle, and one which should be removed, to faith being living and vibrant.
Vanhoozer on the other hand sees an alternative to the boulder, obstacle viewpoint. He is concerned that ‘bereft of sound doctrine, the church is blown about by cultural fads and intellectual trends’. He sees doctrine to be a far more lively and interactive process which leads him to say, with some qualification, that:
‘he [sic] who is tired of doctrine is tired of life, for doctrine is the stuff of life. Christian doctrine is necessary for human flourishing: only doctrine shows us who we are, why we are here, and what we are to do.’
His energetic style and passionate stance on doctrine leads to a refreshing approach in reappraising its role and function, but also its definition. For language has to be redefined or remembered, in order to overcome present misconceptions and abuse and open the way to the treasures therein. Vanhoozer continues:
‘Doctrine is suffering from confusion about its nature, from disagreement concerning the locus of its authority, and above all from its captivity to a debilitating dichotomy between theory and practice.’
In order to come to a conclusion as to doctrine’s potential to be a resource or its propensity to be an obstacle, doctrine must at first be defined. For it is easy to say that if doctrine was simply collections of hard-line, and indeed immovable statements, that in the face of post-modern questions about faith and belief, it could well become an obstacle. But if doctrine is seen as something more expressive and open, more free flowing, then it could become a resource. This of course all depends on where one is situated in the metaphorical image given at the beginning of this essay. For what is an obstacle of faith for one person can be seen to be a resource to faith for another. Is there any way round this conundrum? In the sections to follow, offering a definition and then working toward an understanding of the basis of its authority and finally examining the purpose of doctrine will offer an answer.
Pelikan writes that doctrine is easier to describe than define and thus opens a door onto the post-modern landscape. Yet helpfully through the process of describing what doctrine is and why it is there, we may come to a definition. Vanhoozer prefers to see doctrine as a process and response to that which has been seen and heard. That which is seen and heard is the story of Jesus. McGrath concurs as he writes that ‘the precipitating cause of Christian faith and Christian doctrine was and is a man named Jesus.’ Doctrinal statements are a response to the process of reflecting on who this figure of Nazareth was and what the significance of his life and death and life again is. Yet they are also more than that, for they are not simply statements that reveal one reflection, but many reflections. McGrath continues ‘Christian doctrine is not primarily concerned with the insights of Jesus of Nazareth but with the insights of the community of faith concerning him.’ Doctrine reveals the process of thought, and exhibits the language and ideas current to the development of them. The study of doctrine necessitates historical awareness and cultural sensitivity, much as the discipline of missiology or ecclesiology demands. The movement away from sharp kerygmatic formulas common in the early expressions of the Church, as witnessed to in the Canon, to the complex and sophisticated statements of faith as expressed in the historical Creeds, reveal the community of faith’s response to the culture, language and ideas they suddenly found themselves having to engage with. Doctrinal statements became more like apologetic proclamations that engaged with the surrounding communities in an attempt to give an account for what the Church believed in. In this regard they acted as missiological tools. ‘The mere repetition of New Testament formulae had to give way to something more difficult, something more threatening and challenging’ in the context of a ‘deliberate reworking of the Christian tradition’. To make this activity of doctrinal formation more complicated, philosophical language and cultural ideas were drawn upon to capture theological insights.
This is more than what is suggested by George Lindbeck in his book The Nature of Doctrine. Culturally influenced by Weber and Marx and linguistically by Wittgenstein it has the philosophical influences of Clifford Geertz and William Christian. He displays quite early on his reticence to particular ways of reading or interpreting when he states that Kant had helped prepare the ground for the ‘cultural-linguistic’ position ‘by demolishing the metaphysical and epistemological foundations of the earlier regnant cognitive-propositional views.’ The context of his writing is the challenge of ecumenism in unity and diversity and so approaches the questions of doctrine as a rule of regulative theory.
This context of ecumenical dialogue is important to Lindbeck’s argument, as he quite clearly states that doctrine is:
Not primarily an array of beliefs about the true and the good (although it may involve these) or a symbolism expressive of basic attitudes, feelings or sentiments…it comprises a vocabulary of discursive and nondiscursive symbols together with a distinctive logic or grammar in terms of which this vocabulary can be meaningfully deployed.
For Lindbeck, doctrine is the language of the Christian community and helps bring internal consistency and relates more to regulating the language of God within the Christian community. So in place of any ontological truth claims within the Creeds for instance, they become more of ‘expressing second order guidelines for Christian discourse rather than first order affirmations about the inner-being of God or of Jesus Christ.’
Rowan Williams in his collection of essays On Christian Theology engages with the ideas presented by Lindbeck and is uncomfortable with the ‘picture’ Lindbeck is painting, particularly the work of a Church that is ’heavily’ confined to the ‘refinement and deepening of a scriptural speech and culture within its own territory.’ The locus operandi of Lindbeck’s position is clearly the Church, yet there is the problem of how this language is developed and how it is then appropriated. Lindbeck, argues McGrath, is ‘using history as a source book for illustrations’ to his theory of the nature of doctrine and thus ‘reduces doctrine to little more than a grammar of an ahistorical language…a language which has no origins’. For McGrath it is important to identify the historical roots of language in order to access its points of reference. In this regard Williams shares the same concern as the ‘world of scripture’, the text from where Christian language can be traced, is ‘an historical world in which meanings are discovered and recovered in action and encounter.’ This is even more so in the period of the formation of the Creeds. When it comes to defining what doctrine is, its historical development cannot be ignored, as well as its historical conditions. And the basis of Christian doctrine is the life and history of Jesus of Nazareth. There are Christological references to any doctrinal statement; so for instance the Christian may declare that God is Love – but this is not based on some abstract theory, or a statement of allegiance to a shared community value; or indeed a personal preference. The Christian declares that God is love ‘to be an authentic and valid insight into the character of God, and this belief is grounded in the history of Jesus of Nazareth.’
This comes close to opening up the grand vista of the whole activity of the Quest for the Historical Jesus, which certainly lay outside the concerns of this essay. Yet there are implications on how we read history or interpret it, according to the culture and language in which we find ourselves immersed (I will consider the methods of reading and interpreting the narrative and what basis we give it authority in determining our doctrine in the second section of this essay). This is where Lindbeck is weakest. He does not see the potential of doctrine to critique the prevailing culture and ask questions of it in terms of its own understanding. If the language used and ideas expressed is determined only by the culture we find ourselves in we come close to what McGrath calls ‘ideological fatalism’ or as Lash writes:
In the self-assured world of modernity people seek to make sense of the scriptures, instead of hoping, with the aid of the Scriptures, to make sense of themselves.
Doctrine therefore is not just about internal cohesion, but also about reflecting on the ideas and concepts of our day, in seeking understanding of our faith. For, as Williams writes:
Good doctrine teaches silence, watchfulness, and the expectation of the Spirit’s drastic appearance in judgement, recognition, conversion, for us and for the whole world.
Lindbeck’s analysis of doctrine, which has been criticised as reductionist in nature, seeks to define it as simply an attempt to bring a sense of unity to something that really is unavoidably polyvalent. For as soon as we try to define doctrines to be one thing or another we quickly encounter the historical reality that many have disagreed! Patterns of interpretation exist in the New Testament canon and as McGrath is keen to point out early on in his book ‘The tradition concerning Jesus itself mediates conflicts of interpretation thus [adding] significantly to the difficulties facing those concerned with doctrinal formulation.’
Williams offers an insight here that refers to the Church as relational to the world in the case of ‘judging’ – yet this act of judgement is not one way, for ‘by its confrontation of the world with its own dramatic script, the Church also judges itself’.
The Authority of Doctrine
If doctrine can be so defined, on what basis does it have authority as a claim to truth? Philosopher Diogenes Allen tells of someone coming to him and asking ‘why should I go the church when I have no religious needs?’ To which Allen replied ‘Because Christianity is True’. The Christian faith does present a claim to truth – truth about the figure of Jesus, which claims to be a truth about God. Doctrine helps reveal that truth and explain it in other concepts or metaphors. For it to be a resource and to remove any objection to it of being an obstacle, doctrine’s case for truth and its claim for authority must be examined.
Initially however, the obvious question that needs to be asked is what kind of truth does it present? Does it offer a universal claim or just a particular one? This question endangers this excursion into the positive and/or negative aspects of doctrine, in being caught up in the swirling waters, eddies and currents of relativism, realism, and so on. For doctrine to be a resource not an obstacle it must be able to offer some direction to encourage faith, perhaps like the rudder steering the boat riding the stormy waters of the post-modern landscape. There has to be some element of propositional nature to the claims, otherwise there can be no claim to the notion of ‘revealed religion’ which Christianity purports to be. Yet it is not found just in propositional statements or static rules but in what Vanhoozer enticingly offers as ‘life shaping dramatic directions’. They provide ‘imaginative lenses through which to view the world.’
The key documents and founding authority to any Christian doctrinal declaration is the canon of Scripture, which reveals the life and teaching of Jesus. It is here the waters get more choppy on our journey over the sociological and philosophical seas. For how one approaches these texts will determine how much reliability one gives to them and how much authority is vested in them. On the one hand we have a text which itself provides insight and knowledge into the realm of the period Jesus lived and which claims to be the ‘Gospel’; and on the other we have bodies of interpretation of those texts all calling for an equal hearing, and some claiming exclusivity. Vanhoozer illustrates this by writing that ‘those who view the Bible as a book of factual propositions tend to see doctrines as statement of fact too...those who view the Bible as an expression of religious experience tend to see doctrines as focal expressions of religious experience.’ For some the interpretation of scripture becomes the authority itself, not Scripture. This sounds close to becoming an oxymoron, yet a statement like this seeks to locate truth not according to what I see or interpret only, but that truth is located outside of my own perceptions too.
To say that truth is something outside of us is not to say that we simply project onto truth about God all that we cannot achieve – what Williams calls a ‘deferred confidence’ and which represents a theism that stands precariously over a chasm on which one side God is:
the completion of the process of historical dialectic (in which case he cannot strictly provide a locus standi outside it for us now, as there is no alternative to living through that dialectic)
and on the other side he is simply another object, albeit a rather unusual one, standing in seemingly opposition to the rest of the objects that are. ‘If God is neither a quasi-Hegelian organizing principle, nor an abstract postulate, nor yet an agent among many other agents, what is to be said of him?’
Nicean debate over the homoousion attempted to cross this chasm for in speaking about Christ it declared that ‘God is what is constitutive of the particular identity of Jesus’ otherwise we can only say that Christ is like God. What we say about Christ we say about God, otherwise we can only say that Jesus is a bit like God in some respect, and not in others: which then opens the ground to defining God to my interpretation of him only. In extending the metaphor and embracing the image contained in the verse at the beginning of this essay, doctrinal authority does not depend on how the boat is steered or kept afloat, but on Christology. This Christology comes to judge as well as guide.
Those who wish to see their interpretation become the only way of seeing Christian truth are guilty of reducing the truth to the way they see it, and thus open to the charge of objectivism and fall into the trap as outlined by Williams above.
There is an alternative way of seeing truth, not simply founded on propositional statements. Williams prefers to see Jesus a ‘paradox’ rather than as an answer – he comes to us as a question provoking and indeed challenging our own understandings, rather than cementing our own views. This cognitive way of seeing our own faith and understanding truth contrasts to Lindbeck’s criticism and misunderstanding of anything that seeks to be ‘informative propositions or truth claims about objective realities’. Lindbeck’s suspicions about anything that claims to have public or eternal truth reflect his own assumptions and fears about fundamentalism and literalism. This allows him to miss many of the aspects and rich vocabulary of scripture and indeed traditions of the past, being more than just attempts at achieving internal cohesion, which he sees as belonging to a ‘cognitive propositional’ stance.
Lindbeck is right however to stress that words can not adequately capture experience or summarize truth claims for these words are culturally bound and limited in some degree, yet he is guilty of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. For McGrath writes, ‘words are on the borderlands of such experience, intimating and signposting the reality which they can not capture’. Words act as signs to the reality behind them – in similarity to the ideas presented in Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana where he discusses the act of interpretation under a set of variations on a single theme, the relationship between res (thing) and signum (sign). ‘We live in a world of restless fluidities in meaning: all terms and all objects they name are capable of opening out beyond themselves, coming to speak of a wider context.’ The reading and interpretation of Scripture is a process, not one which ends in a moment of eureka, ‘but an extended play of invitation and exploration’ which itself mirrors the Christian life, which although is in ‘constant danger of premature closure’, actually is an engagement with the world, never satisfied with arriving but restless in discovering the life of God around it. This refreshing alternative approach to knowing and understanding, interpreting and seeing involves the cognitive but moves beyond it as well – for we do not simply come to understand things or know them simply through the cognitive level. We experience them too.
Subjectivism, for which Schleiermacher is the opening candidate, leads doctrine to become ‘an account of Christian feelings set forth in speech’. The basis for its authority according to Astley and Christie is ‘primarily at the level of affect (feelings)…rather than cognitive (doctrinal) responses.’ Although they betray their misunderstanding of doctrine to be simply cognitive and theoretical, ‘ordinary theology’ is the predominant way of understanding and seeing truth and is probably the key informant of many people in our churches today. We learn by experience, we are shaped by experience, we learn what works by experience. When it comes to interpreting, we can base it on experience too. But herein lays a danger. The subtle tendency to read the parts which only ‘mean’ things to me, or to take from Scripture only what we need; so whereas a limited view of God comes if we limit God to our own understanding or language, so too if we limit God to our own experiences. For doctrine to be more than just head knowledge, it has to be lived and experienced, but to limit it only to experience is also weak. For example, simply speaking, I could argue that I firmly believe that the world is flat and square, based on my limited experience of travel, and geographical location, basing the understanding on metaphors like ‘the four corners of the world’, but my experience and knowledge would grow and my belief would change if I saw more, read more, engaged more – the knowledge and experience of something more would change my perceptions and move me into a deeper understanding of what the world is truly like. Yet to say that the locus of authority is my mind and my experience, would reduce ‘truth’ to how it is received. For ‘truth’ to be seen as something outside my experiences and my understandings requires an openness to living on the borders and boundaries of what I see and think. It calls for an attitude of humility and hospitality. McGrath helpfully combines both the cognitive and existential in his four theses.
The Purpose of Doctrine
For truth to mean anything it must be appropriated. This undeniably involves an individual assent and an expression of faith. To limit truth only to the individual however misses the underlying purpose of Christian doctrine – which is not simply to achieve internal cohesion amongst a small community of faith, or express conceptual niceties; it is however about transformation of the world.
Before I move to explore what that may involve and how it may be achieved through doctrine, the misconception of doctrine as the tight walls of a damn, trying to stop any flow of question, growth, or difference must be addressed. If the purpose of doctrine is seen to be a wall, then it quickly becomes an obstacle to many. Anyone who has tried to build a damn on the beach against a flowing outlet, however, will learn that the flow may be held for a while, but the stream will either break through or find another way round. Vanhoozer writes:
The canon is a complex simplex …between various genres that sometimes complement, sometimes contrast with one another, rather than one stable and static monologue that endorses a single system of propositions…just as we need the four Gospels to articulate the truth of Jesus Christ.
Doctrine is not about setting up a damn to prevent any other ideas, questions or concepts to ‘protect’ the truth, for the truth is as multifaceted as the Gospels we have. Yet to say that truth is anything is also clearly not acceptable. Jesus said he is the Way and the Truth (John 14.6) but there are ‘various ways’ of speaking about him.
In order to transform the world something needs to be seen in a different light, in order for that which is already present to be revealed as inadequate or in need of transforming. The role of doctrine is to open a possibility of something different. This vision of something different cannot be packaged into nice neat concepts, which is tempting when faced with a messy world, for the Kingdom of God is not neat nor a concept. Doctrine serves to do this at various levels.
Psychosocial models of identity suggest that the ‘inner’ world of an individual dynamically connects to the ‘outer’ world of society, which is in contrast to some psychologists who see the ‘self’ to be a form of ‘ideal’. McFadyen writes that a ‘self is not so much something one has so much as something one does, which is learned in social interaction’. Doctrine generates a community of faith, it solidifies its identity and differentiates it from its social and intellectual alternatives and on the basis of commitments and identifications, whereby commitment involves an active process and passive moment of allowing oneself to be shaped and moulded by them.
The role of the imagination should not be seen as alien to the purpose of doctrine as it helps to ignite the thought of something else. If doctrine is simply a dry analysis of beliefs and an attempt at a systemised catalogue of concepts, neatly packaged and squared, then it may well become an obstacle. If however it provides a language that kindles the fire of the Spirit and sows the seeds of imagination, offering the possibility of something different, new and alternative, then it most certainly becomes a resource.
This sense of imagination is a ‘pulling into the future’ in order the save the present. Cauchon, the French Archbishop in Bernard Shaws Saint Joan (1924) in discussion with the English clergyman de Stogumber castigates him, for his inability to relate his faith until he sees real suffering in front of him:
Cauchon: Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?
When human beings behave cruelly or fail to act on the behalf of the suffering it can suggest a catastrophic failure of imagination has occurred – the inability to see things from another’s experience. Doctrine enables this to be challenged and corrected for as Brueggemann writes ‘numbness robs us of our capability for humanity’. Doctrine restores the potential for it by engaging our imaginations to what can be.
How is this possible? How can this happen? Imagination is not used here in the sense of pretending things don’t exist, or pretending they exist when they really don’t, but in the very real sense that imagination plays a crucial role in revelation – encouraging, remembering, exploring, experiencing. W T Cavanaugh wrote from his experience of torture and abuse under the Pinochet regime in Chile. He writes about the states desire to eliminate alternatives, to destroy community. At first the Roman Catholic Church did not respond to the brutal regime, but after a certain point it reflected that the Eucharist was a practical instrument and vehicle for God to encourage community and resistance. He quotes the writer Lawrence Thornton’s novel Imagining Argentina, where the main character Carlos Rueda speaks of two types of imagination one ‘of the generals and that of their opponents’. Escaping from one and living in the other means that people can be free, even if their bodies are brutalised. Cavanaugh writes ‘To participate in the Eucharist is to live inside God’s imagination’. To say that God has an ‘imagination’ is to enter into some form of dialogue, to enter into the possibility that he has a dream of what can be as defined to what currently is. Doctrine is useful here in understanding that dream – not as a system of beliefs and statements, but what happens as a result of those beliefs. For doctrine that does not lead to action and a change of behaviour is most certainly dry and like driftwood in the end, will disappear into irrelevance, or perhaps rescued and adored as an odd relic.
Being open to the questioning aspect of Christ, the challenging view of Christ as paradox, does not limit God to how we see him or understand him, bound though we are to language and concept. It pushes us into the relational aspects of faith, not simply, or indeed only, the cognitive. It opens the possibility of the role of the Spirit in shaping our identities and seeking understanding for our faith. It is the figure of Christ that comes to us over the waters of post-modernity, to whom we are not to be fearful but embracing.
The figure of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, is offered to us not to console, but to provoke.
John Watson is the Team Vicar of The Ascension and Holy Trinity, Ravensbourne and is on the Fulcrum Leadership Team
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John is the Vicar of St Paul’s, Tupsley and St Andrews, Hampton Bishop in Hereford Diocese. He’s also currently doing Doctoral Studies at Kings College London.