Charles Wood on doctrine

Charles M. Wood on believing with doctrine

Concepts … are essentially capacities. To have been taught a concept and to have mastered it is to be capable of doing something one could not do…before. The wisdom that comes with the absorption of Christian teaching is in large part the possession and deployment of a distinctive set of concepts. Those concepts form the understanding of self, world, and God that permits the practice of Christian life. They are close to the heart of what was once called “piety.” …

A Christian who lacks a significant Christian doctrine — let us say, the doctrine of creation — is therefore not simply uninformed about that point of Christian teaching. She or he is, in a way, unformed as a Christian, lacking in a range of conceptual abilities germane to Christian existence and practice. She or he does not know what it is to understand oneself as a creature of God, or to understand the other inhabitants of the environment as fellow creatures, or to understand God as creator. One might well take this to be a fairly serious gap in Christian understanding, with correspondingly serious consequences in practice. … One substantial clue to the meaning as well as to the importance of any doctrine can be found by asking what, if anything, this doctrine equips its holders to do: How do the concepts pertaining to this doctrine enable those who have learned it to apprehend things differently, to reflect differently on their experience, or to conduct their lives differently? What would be the consequences of the doctrine’s disappearance from their lives? …

We speak of Christians and adherents of other faiths as people who believe the doctrines of their respective traditions. That is surely right. It might, however, be still more adequate to say that they believe with their doctrines. In the latter version, of course, “believe” is used in its fuller sense, to denote not mere assent but also the more existential dimension of faith. In the Christian community, doctrines achieve their proper function when the insights they carry and the concepts they contain help to enable that relationship of trust in and loyalty to God that “faith” in its complete sense normally conveys.

The believing associated with doctrine, then, is misunderstood if it is taken to be no more than a matter of believing the doctrines themselves. Doctrines help to shape a faith by providing concepts that give their adherents distinctive capacities for understanding “the setting of human life” and for conducting their lives accordingly. To believe a doctrine is more than to assent to its truth; it is to accept its resources for the shaping of one’s understanding and thus one’s faith.

from The Question of Providence (WJKP, 2008), 6-8.

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