These posts (here and here) on the Methoblog invite us headlong into the question, “Why doctrine?”
Here are a couple of thoughts on the subject that I carry around with me:
1. Divine Revelation vs. Human Discovery: There is a difference between Divine revelation and human discovery. Often, in the name of humility, we back away from absolute declarations about the nature of God, etc out of a desire to be respectful of people of other faiths (not denominations, faiths). Humility is certainly a good thing when speaking of God. And yet, we should not dismiss the gift of God’s self-revelation and chalk up our beliefs as being essentially, like others, a common human desire to discover the divine. I do believe that there is a common human desire for the divine. With Augustine, I affirm that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. But we dare not refuse the gift of God’s having revealed himself to us through Christ by putting doctrine down as merely arrogant and passe, even though we all must avoid a spirit of arrogance in the way we hold and express the doctrines we adhere to.
2. Talking about the Same Person: Doctrine is essentially something like this. Two people enter a party (a Christmas party perhaps). In the midst of their conversation, they seem to discover that they have a mutual friend. At least, they think they do–he is called by the same name and seems to be about the same age. So, how to figure out if they are in fact talking about the same person? Well, describe them, of course:
Joe: The Josh I know is average height, dark eyes, dark hair, has a serious personality, but knows how to laugh with you too. His life really is for the sake of others.
Bill: I know a guy named Josh, but the one I know is tall and red-headed with blue eyes. He’s a little reserved and awkward around big groups, but he’s pretty nice once you get to know him.
Clearly, Joe and Bill have discovered they’re not talking about the same person after all. This is what doctrine does for us. It helps us know if we’re talking about the same Person or not. This is why I think it is critical to be sticklers about the essentials, but only about the essentials. Distintives of various theological traditions can be wonderful gifts if they are understood as non-essentials. Orthodoxy needs boundaries, but it also needs to be sufficiently generous too.
6 thoughts on “doctrine: what is it good for?”
i’ve been thinking about this the last couple of days too. i like the ideas you’ve already written above about the importance of doctrine. i think you’re right.
one person’s Jesus may hardly be recognizable to another person. we all love Jesus, but by our descriptions i wonder if all are talking about the same guy.
i’m trying to figure out if its the age of pluralism and tolerance that we’re in that makes us want to downplay doctrine in order to keep the pax romana, or if doctrine is of secondary importance. from reading jude, II Peter, I, II John, and some of Paul’s stuff, it seems like correct doctrine is of the utmost importance.
keep blogging about this until you get it figured out for me, would ya?
I’ll do my best on that.
Seems to me that this role of doctrine applies on a couple of levels. One level is the group of folks who would self-identify as “Christian.” This could include individual persons and denominations/churches as wholes.
The other level is people who believe in God or in divine power/reality generically speaking.
In both cases, much of our pluralistic culture says that all persons’ beliefs in God are equally true and valid and that no one’s version of the truth is better than anyone else’s.
I do think that we need to very carefully strike a balancing act between having doctrinal essentials that are absolutely not compromised, but not having a gazillion of them either. And being very careful that we’ve got the shortest list of the right ones.
Can you expand on your idea that doctrine is divinely revealed because Jesus is the Christ?
I am sure some of this has to do with what you consider doctrinal, but perhaps could you take a few central doctrines for you and explain how the person Jesus and his historical existence as the Christ reveal these doctrines.
Hi, Nate. Could you say a little more about your question? Thanks.
In your post I got the impression you were suggesting Doctrine was important because it was Divine Revelation instead of Human Discovery.
God’s self revelation in the incarnate Christ is something I am sure I can affirm with you … but I wonder what kinds of absolute declarations about the nature of God you would derive from Jesus is the Christ.
I only scratched the surface in my post, so I can see how you got that impression from the fact that I didn’t specify how I understand that relationship and b/c I offered them as #1 and #2 when sharing my thoughts. I would say that my understanding, properly, on the relationship between doctrine and divine revelation is that we have an authoritative and inspired witness to God’s self-revelation in history in speech and action. That reliable witness, Scripture, is the source of our doctrine. The Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds are not written in Scripture as we have them of course, but the doctrines found there are faithful theological reflection upon the biblical narrative. At least that is what orthodox folks typically think about those creeds.
So, I’m not saying that our doctrinal statements are divine revelation. But I am saying that they find their basis in divine revelation, which is to say that this is human thinking that is not rooted in human discovery (as if we could seek out God well enough to get those things right). Rather, it is human thinking rooted in careful, prayerful, communal, intelligent reflection upon divine revelation. Careful attention to Scripture has long (always?) been accepted as the test of whether a doctrine was acceptable or not. We readily admit that a systematic understanding of the Trinity is not to be found as such in the pages of Scripture. But we can see the canonical narrative as supportive of that doctrine.