Thinking about Doctrine

I have been thinking deeply about doctrine since the 1980s. I wrote my PhD dissertation (revised and published in 2002) on doctrine, specifically with the United Methodist Church in mind. From what I saw then (and now), our official doctrine – if by such we mean “published statements and propositional content” – has not changed and is very difficult to change. I don’t anticipate the official doctrine of the United Methodist Church changing any time in the near future even if a majority of “traditionalists” leave the denomination. What I have seen all these years is a variety of ways that official doctrine is understood.

One common way to understand doctrine is as a set of propositions or truth claims about God, God’s activity, humans, the church, the world, etc. The first of our Articles of Religion says, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” When we understand doctrine in this first way, we take this claim to be a claim about God. We’re saying, “These are true things about God.” When we hold or adhere to doctrine in this understanding, we are believing that these truth claims are accurate. Because doctrine in this understanding is primarily about reality external to ourselves, there are ways in which doctrinal claims and statements can be wrong: they can fail to correspond to or cohere with divine reality.

A couple hundred years ago, another way of understanding arose. This view takes doctrinal statements to be drawn from our human experience. The Bible is a record of human religious experience (and reflection on that religious experience), and as we consider our own religious experience in light of that record of human religious experience, we find ways to put our relationship with God into words. We express our religious experience. With this understanding of the nature of doctrine, it is less common to think of doctrinal claims or statements as being wrong. Though they use the language of assertion about reality external to us, they are always significantly shaped by human experience. Since we only have direct access to our own experience, not to the experience of others, we have no grounds to say that others are wrong in their statements or interpretations. This approach to doctrine can accompany preaching and teaching that is orthodox in form and content, but it need not.

My own understanding of doctrine is different than both of these, though there is probably more overlap with the first. When it comes to the nature of truth, I believe that some things are the way they are whether I like it or not, whether I believe it or not, and whether I have any perception of it or not. But before the claim that Christian doctrine is true, I am committed to substantive Christian claims. God is the Creator. God has acted in history, calling Abraham and his family and covenanting with them to be a blessing to all people on earth. The Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus, his life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension was the climax of that covenant. At Pentecost Jesus poured out the promised Holy Spirit on the church. The work of God that flowed out of that continues to this day. When we hear the call to “repent and believe,” we hear God calling us to set aside the other claims on our lives (the claims exercised by the world, the flesh, and the devil), inviting us to become willing participants in what He is doing. Given this background, I understand doctrine as that which equips and enables us to do this. Like some others, I use the metaphor of a play. Doctrine tells us who the characters are in the play (God, Father, Son, and Spirit; humans; the devil; the world), the plotline to this point, and the setting (God’s good creation, marred by sin, but on a trajectory toward glory through the grace and power of God).

Given this understanding of doctrine, doctrines are things we believe, but, more importantly, they are things that shape our action. If we assent to the truth of all the right assertions, if we say all the right words, but that assent and that saying doesn’t bring us to the point of joining God in what he’s doing, then we are not “doing” doctrine rightly.

Maybe you’re noticing in my account some elements of the second understanding of doctrine that I mentioned above. If we are “doing” doctrine rightly, it will shape our experience: our actions and perceptions and feelings.

Our acts of believing (orthodoxy) are shaped by and shape our actions (orthopraxy) so that we may rightly love God and our neighbor (orthopathy). Doing doctrine rightly is not just a matter of orthodoxy, but brings together both orthopathy and orthopathy.

It’s in this context that I find myself feeling uneasy with the claims of those defending the “Stay UMC” position. Yes, it’s true, the official doctrine won’t change. I appreciate the rejection of a wooden propositionalism. But how will that official doctrine function in the church? What is the relationship between our doctrine and the way we read and interpret the Bible? Will a rejection of a propositionalist account of doctrine make doctrinal accountability unimaginable?

I’m also uneasy with the claims of those saying, “Go GMC!” I appreciate the impetus toward accountability in the area of doctrine and the express desire to take it seriously. But again, how will doctrine function within the church? I’m uncomfortable with an approach that levels all doctrines into the category of “essential” – that’s the way of fundamentalism, and I’m not a fundamentalist. As they react against the poisonous normative doctrinal pluralism of the UMC, will they go the opposite direction into poisonous doctrinal rigidity? Again, how will doctrine function in the church?

In a future post I’ll make comments about the problem of reaction. It’s normal for humans and human institutions to react against things and happenings in their environment. I’ll be exploring better and words ways to do that. In the meantime, I continue to pray for our discernment efforts, here in our congregation and across the connection.

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