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Religious doctrines: more than shared intellectual commitments?

By Geoff Thompson - posted Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Last month, in “Telling the Story of God”, Peter Catt tells the good news of people – including young people – finding a spiritual home in his Cathedral. They are coming and staying, he tells us, because they encounter in the Cathedral community an open and generous form of Christianity. Good news indeed.

Genuine alternatives to the high-profile moralistic and obscurantist versions of contemporary Christianity can only be welcomed.

In describing the theological foundations of this open and generous form of the church he draws attention to narrative theology. In doing so, however, he indicates a deep unease about systematic theology. Indeed, systematic theology is something of the villain of the story. In Peter’s representation of it, systematic theology represents the authoritarian, doctrinaire style of Christianity from which narrative theology heroically rescues us.


This is quite odd. Any history of twentieth century theology would quickly reveal that systematic theologians were prominent in the development of narrative theology. Many of the seminal texts of narrative theology were penned by people who, if not self-described systematic theologians, were and are deeply committed to the systematic aspects of Christian theology. Think of Hans Frei and his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, George Lindbeck’s, The Nature of Doctrine, David Ford’s Barth and God’s Story, Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom or George Stroup’s The Promise of Narrative Theology. All these theologians, committed though they are to the Christian narrative, recognise that there is a systematic structure to the Christian faith. They’re interested in the way different elements of Christian belief relate to others.

And, as for systematic theology necessarily being a contrast to openness and intellectual generosity, one has only to think of the contemporary Cambridge theologian, Sarah Coakley. Precisely for the sake of such issues of gender, sexuality, prayer and evolutionary theory Coakley has embraced the systematic task – albeit in a novel way.

And, to make a technical point, academic theological interest has probably moved from the category of narrative to the category of drama. Invoking narrative implies we are fundamentally readers and writers of stories. (This might be one reason why it resonated so strongly with academics who spend so much of their time reading and writing.)  Drama, on the other hand, construes us as living and breathing actors caught up in the performance of life. Think here of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theodrama and, on a smaller scale, of Kevin Vanhoozer’s relatively recent The Drama of Doctrine. The potential fruitfulness of this category has barely begun, I suspect, to impact on the church’s self-understanding, let alone its public discourse.

Yet Peter’s essay raises a question that is at the heart of the church’s attempts to speak into a public mood suspicious of absolutes. This task is all the more difficult when much of that suspicion is specifically directed at Christianity and its truth claims. To pre-empt this suspicion Peter develops a discourse that emphasises ‘discovery’, ‘journey’, ‘experience’ and ‘evolving expressions of faith’. These are contrasted with ‘doctrine’ and are presented as taking people ‘beyond doctrinal conundrums’.

Now, it is right to be suspicious of being doctrinaire; right to be suspicious of those forms of Christianity which satisfy themselves with their doctrinal beliefs, draw sharp boundaries with the world, and ignore the practical demands of the faith.

But is doctrine really avoidable? After all, a commitment to being an open, inclusive community is just that – a commitment, and one held on the basis of quite particular intellectual convictions. It functions as a doctrine among those who are committed to such communities.


True, the word doctrine carries an awful lot of baggage. But, really, doctrines are nothing more than the shared intellectual commitments, which sustain and legitimate certain practices of particular communities. Often they are articulated as the explicit teachings of a particular community; more likely they are implicit.

Indeed, we live and breathe doctrines all the time: in corporations, political parties, sporting clubs, men’s sheds, and organic food collectives. Whether spoken or not, critically articulated or not, they are there, functioning as the protocols which shape how we behave in that particular community and giving that community its particular identity. And religious communities have no monopoly on being doctrinaire.

I suspect that the critique of doctrine in much contemporary church discourse is not really a critique of doctrine or even of being doctrinaire, but a critique of certain doctrines and their replacement by others.

In fact, it is actually quite dangerous to pretend that we don’t have doctrines or to try to avoid them. Once we recognise what they are and how they function they can become open to scrutiny, critique and development.

The Catholic theologian, Nicholas Lash, speaks about the multiple and overlapping doctrines of the Christian faith as ‘protocols against idolatry’. Attending to them – rather than denying them – allows us to bounce them off each other. This prevents any one of them from being isolated and thereby frozen as an absolute definition of God. Working through those annoying ‘doctrinal conundrums’ can actually force the church to be clearer about the way it tells and understands its own story, or better, the way it performs the drama which circles the particular life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Let me give two examples. Firstly, take the Jewish and Christian doctrine of all humanity bearing the image of God. It is deeply embedded in the vision of life that animates those faiths. Historically, it’s probably one of the most politically fruitful dimensions of Christian belief. It has been a key factor in developing the West’s understanding of humanity and provided a key impulse towards egalitarianism. But the church itself has often enough suppressed this belief and denied it in practice. Rather than highlight and practice this doctrine, the church capitulated to the narratives of racism, patriarchy, nationalism and cultural imperialism. It has taken the prophets of the church – William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu – to retrieve this doctrine and correct the church’s story and its practice. In this case doctrine has served as a corrective, a spur, or a prompt, which calls the church to a better performance of its script.

Secondly, consider the doctrine of the resurrection. In his article, Peter speaks of honouring the diversity of the New Testament resurrection narratives instead of ‘harmonising them into a tidy doctrine’. Agreed. But does that mean that there can be no doctrine of the resurrection, even an untidy one? And can it really be claimed, as Peter did, that for all their unevenness and diversity, those narratives had no interest in the nature of Jesus’ risen body? True, the resurrection narratives function at many levels. But surely one of them is precisely the nature of Jesus’ body.

These narratives played a role in early Christianity’s explanation of its new and strange hope. The first Christians did not hope for immortality of the soul, or some new path to heaven, or for some esoteric spiritual experience. Authentic Christian hope was and is quite different from these escapist ideologies. Rather, it was and is about God’s investment in the material stuff of this creation.

That is why the language of ‘new creation’ is an important theme in the New Testament. The early Christians developed this theme only because of what they believed – and had experienced – of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Developing a doctrine of the resurrection did not amount to tidily harmonising the biblical narratives. But those narratives did feed a Christian doctrine of the resurrection, which marked out a novel understanding of hope. Indeed, attending to that doctrine will help, not hinder, Christians to tell God’s story and to perform the Christian drama.

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About the Author

Geoff Thompson is Principal of Trinity Theological College, Brisbane. He holds a PhD in systematic theology from the University of Cambridge. Prior to his work in theological education he worked as an Agronomist in Pakistan and then as a parish minister in Melbourne. He was a visiting scholar at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, for the Michaelmas term in 2012.

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