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Does doctrine have a future in Christianity?

Why did Christianity develop doctrines in the first four centuries of its existence? After all, no other religion or worldview of late classical antiquity felt the need to do this. A school of philosophy might focus on propagating the teachings of its founders, yet Christianity seemed more concerned with clarifying the identity of Jesus Christ, before affirming his moral and spiritual vision. And what about the contemporary significance of these doctrines? Since these emerged in the culture of late classical antiquity, can they be disregarded today?

These questions have fascinated me since I began studying theology at Oxford in the 1970s. I was a late arrival in this field, having initially studied chemistry and earned my doctorate in Oxford’s Department of Biochemistry under the supervision of Professor Sir George Radda. I could not help but wonder whether there might be some interesting parallels between the development of scientific theories on the one hand, and Christian doctrine on the other. Reflecting on these questions took me the best part of fifty years. In The Nature of Christian Doctrine, I present a constructive and innovative account of the origins, development, and enduring significance of Christian doctrine, explaining why it remains essential to the life of Christian communities.

My original hunch that there might be some significant commonalities between the development of scientific theories and Christian doctrine is more plausible today than it was back in the 1970s. Since 2010, an increasing number of scholars of early Christian thought have explored the idea of early Christianity as a “theological laboratory,” which proposed and assessed various ways of conceptualizing its vision of reality. I suggest that doctrinal formulations are best seen as proposals submitted for testing across the Christian world, rather than as static accounts of orthodoxy. This approach aligns with the available evidence much better than Walter Bauer’s famous theory of suppressed early orthodoxies.

I argue that we can use Thomas Kuhn’s concept of a “paradigm shift” as a lens for understanding early Christian doctrinal development. Existing modes of thinking are found to be inadequate in explaining a diverse array of observations, leading to a “tipping point” in which new frameworks of interpretation are needed. There is an interesting parallel here with Christ’s remark that old wineskins are incapable of containing new wine. Furthermore, early Christian writers, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, seem to have employed something very similar to the modern scientific notion of “inference to the best explanation” in developing their accounts of the identity and significance of Christ.

While these may be the most original and interesting aspects of this volume, I also explore many other facets of Christian doctrines. I provide a robust critique of George Lindbeck’s still-influential Nature of Doctrine (1984), raising significant concerns about his crude reduction of doctrine to a single function. I point out that there are multiple functions of doctrine that we need to weave together into a cohesive whole, rather than limiting ourselves to a single preferred option. Drawing on the philosopher Mary Midgley’s concept of “mapping” as a means of coordinating the multiple aspects of complex phenomena, and Karl Popper’s “three worlds” theory, I explore how the theoretical, objective, and subjective aspects of doctrine can be seen as essential and interconnected. Christian doctrine both allows us to grasp the deep structures of reality, while at the same time creating a coordinating framework that ensures its various aspects are perceived as interconnected parts of a greater whole. Doctrine provides a framework that allows theological reality to be seen and experienced in a new manner.

So what difference does doctrine make? Why not simply embrace Christianity’s moral and spiritual vision and consider its doctrinal aspects as optional? I explore this question by considering some important connections between Christian doctrine and the Platonic idea of theoria—a new way of perceiving reality that encourages participation rather than mere observation. Doctrines provide a framework that alters our perception and experience of reality, influencing how we feel about the world and ourselves. Although many older accounts of Christian doctrine treat it somewhat rationalistically, I emphasize its imaginative and affective dimensions. It is not simply something that we understand; it is something that gives us a new vision of reality.

So does doctrine have a future? If the arguments presented in this book hold any merit, doctrine is crucial to the future of Christianity. It safeguards the core vision of reality that is essential for the proper functioning and future flourishing of Christian communities. It articulates the life-giving and life-changing realities that lie at the heart of the Christian community of faith. If Christianity has a future, then doctrine will be an important part of that future. In fact, I think the evidence allows me to go further: if Christianity has a future, it is because of doctrine.

Featured image credit: First Council of Nicaea (Damaskinos). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Robert Landbeck

    Does Christianity have a future? Probably not! And ‘it is because of doctrine’. While theology may hold value within the institutional elements of the church, In general, it is quite meaningless to the laity and without the lality there is no church. One only has to look at the decline of the church in Italy to understand how little vision the church is able to project and that theology has no means of realizing any of it. For a world on the edge of chaos, the moral impotence of theoloigcal posturing is just chasing after wind. I would even go so far as questioning if theology is even a valid human intellecutal endeavor or just the extreme of both spiritual and intellecutal vantiy?

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