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.

Commentary:

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.

Rowan Williams 2013 Gifford Lectures

I know I’m late to give notice to these, but I still think they’re worth sharing. Rowan Williams delivered the 2013 Gifford Lectures, a prestigious annual Scottish lectureship chartered to consider natural theology. The University of Edinburgh had the honor of hosting this installment. The series was entitled Making Representations: Religious Faith and the Habits of Language.

Its six lectures ran as follows:

  1. Representing Reality
  2. Can We Say What We Like? Language, Freedom and Determinism
  3. No Last Words: Language as Unfinished Business
  4. Material Words: Language as Materiality
  5. Extreme Language: Discovery Under Pressure
  6. Can Truth Be Spoken?

The first in the series can be viewed below:

The rest of the lectures are available for viewing HERE

Or if you’d prefer to read these lectures, they’re also available in an expanded form in Williams’ most recently released book:

The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language, (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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.

Rowan Williams on Christian Freedom

Rowan Williams on Christian Freedom

What does it mean to talk about the service of God being perfect freedom? It means that living with or in or from God provides the structure and shape that most frees us from distractedness and fragmentation of life and thought. As the Christian Platonists were always saying, this is a life in which we are “simplified”; the threads are drawn together, not in an intellectual synthesis of concepts, but in some kind of unity of heart and mind. We become sufficiently “at home” in ourselves-in-God to act and respond to others with clarity, without the bondage of our power-hungry, fantasy-ridden instincts clouding our vision. That is the kind of simplicity that can live with the terrible contradictions, the multiplicity and conflict, of Christian theology and Christian images, of the church itself and its relations with humanity at large. In the center of freedom is the language of compassion, prayer, self-offering, self-forgetting, crucifixion, and resurrection, the language whose “grammar” is the life and death of Jesus.

from A Ray of Darkness, 3rd Ed., (Cowley, 1995), 156.

Rowan Williams on the dark night of the soul

Rowan Williams on the dark night of the soul

The dark night is God’s attack on religion. If you genuinely desire union with the unspeakable love of God, then you must be prepared to have your “religious” world shattered. If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of a purchase on God, you are still playing games. On the other hand, if you can face and accept and even rejoice in the experience of darkness, if you can accept that God is more than an idea that keeps your religion or philosophy or politics tidy — then you may find a way back to religion, philosophy, or politics, to an engagement with them that is more creative because you are more aware of the oddity, the uncontrollable quality of the truth at the heart of all things. This is what “detachment” means — not being “above the battle,” but being involved in such a way that you can honestly confront whatever comes to you without fear of the unknown. It is a kind of readiness for the unexpected, if that is not too much of a paradox.

from A Ray of Darkness, (Cowley, 1995), 82.

Rowan Williams on Augustine

Rowan Williams writes to St Augustine

What everyone remembers, of course, is the things you got wrong – or the things we’re quite sure you got wrong.

How you painted yourself into a corner over predestination, God deciding before all time who was to go to heaven and who not. And women; we get very indignant that you had difficulty believing that women were really in God’s image as much as men. We forget that this is what you did believe, and how difficult it was for you to square this with what everyone else in your age thought.

And we blame you for messing up Christian attitudes to sex, because for you it was an area of humiliation and tragedy – forgetting, again, that you truly thought sex between husband and wife had something of heaven in it.

We look for a scapegoat to explain why Western Christianity and Western civilization are so much of a mess. You wrote such a lot and so powerfully that I’m afraid you’re a very good candidate for the position. But I think you would have turned around and challenged us: why the passion for a scapegoat? What are you refusing to look at in yourself?

In the City of God you explained the mechanisms: we’re not sure in ourselves what we really love and value; we invest all our expectations in people and solutions inside this world, and they let us down cruelly. We feel restless and insubstantial because we don’t know how and what to love. So we give ourselves a false solidity by pushing the darkness, the doubt and evil out there, projecting it onto some other person, some other group.

We get our solid identity from denying our own poverty and incompleteness. When I was teaching students about the City of God, I felt I really began to understand the Cold War.

So we can’t learn to love unless we let go of the longing for solid, fixed identity. We start to grow up not when we become independent, but when we recognize that we shall always need the words and actions of others to give us life – and when we face that fact without resentment or shame.

Behind it all is the recognition that the only reason there is anything at all is the pure act of generosity that creates the world – it doesn’t have to be there, God doesn’t have to make it, but he wants his joy shared. When we know that, we know ourselves – not by introspection, because I shall always lie to myself about my motives, but by looking to the love that made me and remakes me.

Not a scapegoat, then, but someone who’s taught me what I hope is the right kind of skepticism about myself and the world of power around me – and the right kind of trust in my maker.

Thank you.

The original is available online here.

On scripture’s role as theological authority

On scripture’s role as theological authority

A. Robert Jenson

There is no mandate to reproduce all apostolic theologoumena. Indeed, they are not guaranteed to be especially felicitous; we turn to the apostolic church not for the certainly best thought-out instances of gospel-speaking but for unchallengeable instances. … apostolic reflective activity — however profoundly or superficially done — must have been the right sort of thing to be doing.

from Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 The Triune God, (OUP, 1997), 32.

B. David Kelsey

As its “authority,” scripture is “normative” for a proposal’s Christian aptness, not for its origin.

from Proving Doctrine, (Bloomsbury, 1999), 193.

C. John Webster

Scripture is not so much a source or norm of theology as its idiom.

from “Authority of Scripture,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, (Baker, 2005), 724.

D. Rowan Williams

Revelation is addressed not so much to a will called upon to submit as to an imagination called upon to ‘open itself.’

from “Trinity and Revelation,” Modern Theology vol 2, no 3, (1986): 209.

The New Testament is less a set of theological conclusions than a set of generative models for how to do Christian thinking.

from On Christian Theology, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, 22.