Pictures of Doctrine

Pictures of Doctrine

A picture held us captive. (Wittgenstein, PI §115)

  1. Doctrines as Propositions
A. Unrestricted.

Thesis: Doctrines explain reality. Doctrinal supply should meet explanatory demand.

Advocate: Alister McGrath

Within the context of a scientific theology, the Christian network of doctrines is conceived as a response to revelation, in the belief that such doctrines will possess explanatory potential. [136]

The point is that a scientific theology is impelled, by its vision of reality, to attempt to offer an account of the totality of all things, believing that the Christian tradition both encourages such an enterprise in the first place, and in the second, makes the necessary resources available through its understanding of the economy of salvation, particularly its doctrine of creation. … at this stage, our concern is to note that a theologically grounded compulsion to offer such explanations is to be seen as an integral component of the Christian view of reality. [194, Scientific Theology. Vol. 3, Theory. (New York: T&T Clark, 2003)]

B. Minimalist.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they should be kept to a minimum.

Advocate: Gordon Graham

True piety, we might say, does not require a degree in theology, and, conversely, a degree in theology can be obtained in the absence of piety. If we are to hold fast to this principle, we must be theological minimalists, forever seeking to keep to a minimum the theological content of the “truths necessary for salvation.” … Correspondingly, we will be keenly alive to the possibility, and the danger, of “theological overreach,” which is to say, claiming the status of “saving truth” for what is in fact no more than a theological construct. (Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, Oxford: Oxford UnivPr, 2014, 197-198.)

C. Eliminative.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they’re dispensable.

Advocate: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Is talking essential to religion? I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory. (Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, ed. Brian McGuinness. Oxford: Blackwell, 117)

  1. Doctrines as Questions.

Thesis: Doctrines are prompts to self-interrogation, generative of lines of theologically articulate suspicion.

Advocates: Rowan Williams, Peter Dula

dogma reflects a commitment to truth…at whose centre lies…not a theoretical construct, but the abiding stimulus to certain kinds of theoretical question. [80]

The theologian’s job may be less the speaking of truth…than the patient diagnosis of untruths. [196] (On Christian Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.)

According to Williams, we too readily treat dogmas and other theological propositions as answers to “the essential questions;” whereas true theological thinking seeks instead to be brought into the vicinity of truth by opening and re-opening these questions, by agitating the doubts and conflicts behind accepted answers. [from Robert Jenson’s review of On Christian Theology, in Pro Ecclesia (11.3), 367.]

  1. Doctrines as Rules

But what do they regulate? Or, what metaphorical vehicle do they employ?

A. Doctrine as Grammar

Advocate: George Lindbeck

For a rule theory, in short, doctrines qua doctrines are not first-order propositions, but are to be construed as second-order ones: they make…intrasystematic rather than ontological truth claims. (The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia: Westminster Presss, 1984, 80.)

B. Doctrine as Protocols against Idolatry

Advocate: Nicholas Lash

creedal confession is the declaration of identity-sustaining rules of discourse and behavior governing Christian uses of the word ‘God.’ (Three Ways of Believing in One God, London: SCM Press, 1992, 9.)

C. Doctrine as Stage Directions

Advocate: Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Doctrine…resembles “stage directions for the church’s performance of the gospel.” Doctrines are less propositional statements or static rules than they are life-shaping dramatic directions. (The Drama of Doctrine, Louisville: WJKP, 2005, 18.)

4. Doctrines as Capacities

Thesis: Concepts are skills, and doctrines are constellations of concepts. Indoctrination is formation in religious know-how.

Advocates: Paul L. Holmer, Charles M. Wood

Most concepts are “enabling”; and one learns a concept by getting in on some aspects of what it enables one to do. The richer the concept, the greater the enabling. Some concepts–e.g., that of the “round world”–mean so much because they enable one almost indefinitely. No limit can be drawn around the number of things that are sayable and thinkable with that concept. This is part of what is meant by saying that such a concept is open-textured, though this does not mean that it is ambiguous or vague. Instead, it is to say that the concept is very powerful and hence exceedingly meaningful. [141] … Again, it is the competencies, the abilities, the enabling for a variety of tasks, that is the complex of a concept. We do not read concepts from a printed page–we ordinarily acquire them as we would a skill or a technique. [142] … We are indebted to concepts for changed dispositions, for creating and sustaining emotions, for enlarging sympathy, for stimulating passion, and even for creating the virtues. [143] … Having the concept “God” is also to have a certain set of functions in one’s life. If one knows how to use the word God in prayer and worship, then one has the concept. One can do all sorts of things with that concept “God”– for example, one can explain, praise and curse. One can even attain peace of mind and forgiveness of sin. The concept is crucial to a way of life and a view of life. … “God,” as a concept, has a location and place in our lives. [152] (The Grammar of Faith, San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1978.)

I’ve posted previously on Wood’s conception of doctrine — here.


This scheme doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive of all options. The representatives highlighted may fit into multiple categories, but I have tried to gesture to their respective centers of gravity. Option 2 I think is easily subsumable into Option 4, as would be expressivist accounts of doctrine. A standing question for me is how to correlate options 1, 3, and 4; all presumably have some contribution to offer, but what are they?

When it comes to my citation of Wittgenstein, I think this is an example where he’s less helpful on religious matters. A religion in which there’s no talking … really? Here’s my gripe: though Wittgenstein does well to undermine intellectualist pictures of religion, the alternative picture many of his explicit remarks on religion tends to conjure strikes me as more Jamesian and, ironically, not Wittgensteinian enough, not consistent with where you’d think the thrust of his Investigations would lead him. His last clause, “when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory,” is closer to the mark, but exceptional. More representative is, “faith…is what Kierkegaard calls a passion” (CV 53e, emphasis original). Wittgenstein more often than not roots religion in human passion, not action and reaction. This is despite his own more characteristic efforts on other fronts to remind us of “our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (PI 25), that is, as fundamentally acting beings, animals, not thinking or feeling beings first. To follow up on this, do see Graham, Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, 95, 121-24.

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.

Readings on the Nature of Doctrine

Ever wondered what a doctrine is? The term’s definition is fairly straightforward. A doctrine is a teaching. As fair as this answer is, however, for the pedagogically minded among us, it really only invites further inquiry. For instance, if doctrines are teachings, how are they meant? What sense do they make? Let’s run through some options. Are doctrines statements of facts? Are they expressions of experiences? Are they rules of identity formation? Can they be a combination of these options? Might they be something else entirely? How do these matters bring to view what authority doctrines exercise relative to other theological norms? If questions like these are of interest to you, consider consulting some of the following works. They can introduce you to a live conversation in theology that’s got some far-reaching implications.

(listed chronologically – since the Yale School)

  • Paul L. Holmer, (1978) The Grammar of Faith.
  • George Lindbeck, (1984) The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age.
  • William Christian, (1988) Doctrines of Religious Communities.
  • Eds. Phillips and Okholm, (1996) The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals & Postliberals in Conversation
  • Kathryn Tanner, (1997) Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology.
  • Ellen Charry, (1999) By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine.
  • Reinhard Hutter, (1999) Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice.
  • Alister McGrath, (2003) Scientific Theology. Vol. 3, Theory.
  • Kevin Vanhoozer, (2005) The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine.
  • Daniel Treier, (2006) Virtue and the Voice of God: Toward Theology as Wisdom
  • Medi Ann Volpe, (2013) Rethinking Christian Identity: Doctrine and Discipleship.
  • Christine Helmer, (2014) The End of Christian Doctrine.
  • Kevin Vanhoozer, (2014) Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine.
  • Rhyme Putman, (2015) In Defense of Doctrine: Evangelicalism, Theology, and Scripture 
  • Eds. Crisp and Sanders, (2017) The Task of Dogmatics

Rowan Williams on the work of doctrine

Rowan Williams on the work of doctrine

the job of doctrine is to hold us still before Jesus. When that slips out of view, we begin instead to use this language to defend ourselves, to denigrate others, to control and correct — and then it becomes a problem.

A recognition of this inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great challenge to ‘religious’ language in the meditation he wrote for his godson from prison in May 1944.

Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship — all these things are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them. In the traditional words and acts we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary, though we cannot as yet grasp or express it. That is our own fault. […]

It is not that the words are mistaken, or that they are — in the glib modern sense — irrelevant, so that we need clearer and simpler ideas. Far from it. The problem lies in the speakers. There is not enough depth in us for the words to emerge as credible; they have become external to us, tokens we use while forgetting what profound and frightening differences in the human world they actually refer to. If the point of traditional doctrinal forms is to hold us still, it is also, we could say, to create a depth in us, a space for radical change in how we think of ourselves and how we act.

from Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgment, (Eerdmans, 2000),  37-38.