Words of Faith: What is a Doctrinal Statement?

I am delighted to reprint a letter written by Gary Badcock, Peache Professor of Divinity Huron University College, in response to the question,Why do some people say that "A Song of Faith" and "A New Creed" are not doctrinal statements? What makes a doctrinal statement?  Gary's Response is careful, thorough, and precise. It may be a little difficult in some places, for those not familiar with serious Christian Theology, but please take the time to wrestle through to the clearer parts. Some contemporary references that may help you get the gist of what he is saying: Gary refers to "Byron" several times, meaning Byron United church in London, Ontario, which has produced a response to the United Church Remits on Doctrine. He also refers to "Words of Faith" by which he means the "official" United Church study document which promotes the three doctrinal changes. Gary's response to Greg's question follows:

 

Greg,

Thank you for this. It is a fair and important question that has come up a couple of times, so I will try to respond in a useful fashion. These are, of course, my thoughts as a Reformed, broadly Barthian, deeply Trinitarian and small "c" catholic/ smaller "e" evangelical theologian. They are not presented as the views of our committee on the remit at Byron, though there might well be a couple of "Amens" said if we took the trouble to ask the wider committee's views.

 

1. The word "doctrine" means, very simply, the teaching of the church.

It is, however, a massive theme, and it is necessary to parse this definition out. For instance, someone might want to argue that any teaching of any Christian church is therefore by definition Christian doctrine. Perhaps one might want to argue, with George Lindbeck, that church doctrine is primarily discourse that allows that church to regulate its common life. As a working definition of doctrine, this has some merit. It is, however, necessary to be more specific than this (as  Lindbeck, who was so heavily involved in ecumenism, plainly recognized): it is not just any one church, local or regional or national, that can define doctrine, whether "church" here is taken in the baleful modern, post-Enlightenment sense of a "denomination" (you all ought to read Lesslie Newbigin on this, by the way — what the denomination does is to affirm the idea that Christian faith is merely private, and of no public significance, and therefore to confirm that it has nothing to say to the world other than to confirm what  modernity already is), or in the ancient sense of the Church of Alexandria/ Egypt, or the Church of Antioch/ Syria, etc. If we are to avoid a purely sectarian outlook, then other churches, on either account of what "churches" are, have to be able to see in any one church's doctrine an echo of their own. In general, this means that there needs to be a sense of cross-cultural and historical continuity between statements of doctrine for them to be "operative," or for them to "work." Or, to put the same point another way, successful doctrine has to be able to sum up a tradition,  relate it to others in the context of the "catholicity" of the church, and say something clear in this context about the central claim of the Christian gospel. Thus a radical innovation that cannot be organically related either to what has gone before, in scripture and its interpretation in a lived tradition, or to what other Christians living elsewhere believe and do at our moment in time, will not function as successful doctrine. We have to be faithful to scripture, to our forebears, and to our living brothers and sisters. And this is all implicit in the idea of doctrine, just as it is also implicit in the (developed) idea of the church.

 

 

The trouble with the Song of Faith (to which I will restrict most of what follows) from this point of view is that it is too often (though admittedly not always) oblivious to what Christians in all ages and at this moment of time in other places say about the substance of the Christian faith. The Song in fact too often directly contradicts much of what is actually specified in these other settings; whether it does so from ignorance or by way of a form of progressivist theological mischief is a question for another day, but it surely cannot readily be seen to be a viable expression of doctrine on these terms in the long run. Will it destroy the UCC if accepted? No, it will not, though it will contribute to its death-spiral. Will it confuse the theological situation that we are in? Yes, it will. Will it assist or impede the UCC in ecumenical contexts? Well, it might clarify to ecumenical partners how theologically half-baked the UCC has become, and so serve as a warning not to "go there," but as everyone else knows this about the UCC already, the Song might be predicted merely to hammer that particular point home. Will it do damage in WARC settings? This, I think, is the clearer and more present danger, as it is difficult to see how the Reformed churches globally can take our process in this matter seriously, so ignorant of Reformed specifics are the documents in question. But, I suppose, our Reformed partners have long been shaking their heads about us, so the Song and the remit in general may simply add to their sense of ennui. It certainly adds magnificently to mine. Is anything in it theologically interesting? No, there is not.

 

2. Doctrine can be understood in a narrower and a wider sense. In the narrow sense, doctrine is definition, and definition which both prescribes and proscribes. When the Apostles' Creed speaks, for instance, of "God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth," it is prescribing the idea that the God whom Jesus called "Father" is the creator of the invisible and visible worlds that all ancient Christians believed they inhabited, along with the monotheistic implication that the stars are not gods, etc. (though many ancient Christians probably still thought the stars were somehow alive). But more importantly, it is also asserting the continuity between creation and the redemption, and fixing in Christian baptismal confession the idea that the material world is God's good creature which, as the Creed continues, is to be judged and saved by Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, the clauses in question had the effect of proscribing the Gnostic view that taught the contrary, namely, that the material world is not the Father's creature and that it is not to be saved, but rather, that can be "left behind."

 

In fact, there is no statement made in any ancient Creed that is not intended to do BOTH of these things in the narrow sense of doctrine: to prescribe, and to proscribe — and in doing both, to teach and to bear accurate witness to the mystery of faith.

 

To put the same point in another, more jarring way, every clause of the ancient Creeds not only defines something, but it also excludes someone from the church, and the reason the clauses are there is in large part to do the latter. Christian doctrine always asks for a decision, and because of this it provokes a confrontation. Thus Bonhoeffer (as a visiting student at Union Seminary in New York) found the gospel preached only in Harlem, where at least something definite was said, something that went against the stream, even if its form was at times unfamiliar to him.

 

In the latter, wider sense, doctrine has the sense of "dogmatic theology," to use another technical term, which is the reflection of the church on its core teaching that can be seen in sermon, tract, commentary, treatise, etc. Such expression of church teaching is by nature much more flexible and "experimental" than is doctrine in the narrow sense. One could, however, coherently argue that the narrow sense of doctrine mentioned  is what generates the kind of  space within which this second, more adventurous kind of doctrine can be carried out without undue theological risk: Nicaea generates Augustine, if you like. Or, to give a more concrete example, the Christological definition of the Council of Chalcedon prescribes the view that the incarnate Son of God is to be understood as a single (divine) person (hypostasis) recognized in two natures (physeis), divine and human, and proscribes or excludes the view that the incarnate Son of God is a single hypostasis and physis, in which the human nature assumed by the Son has been swallowed up and divinized. The latter, alternative conceptuality in circulation at the time (Eutychianism) was excluded as a legitimate possibility in the doctrinal definition of Chalcedon. But what the Chelcedonian definition also did by prescribing the two natures doctrine in the narrow sense was to open up a countless series of possibilities for doctrinal reflection in the wider sense. The doctrinal definition is still doing so, 1500 years on, and while it was not won without cost, or failure, it was also remarkably successful. The  reflection it generated concerns, broadly speaking, what it means to acknowledge that the Son of God has assumed human nature without compromise either to deity or to that human nature. Thousands and thousands of books have been and are being written exploring these possibilities, so that the narrow definition has proved its fruitfulness in new vistas that it has opened up. Because the human nature assumed by the Son is authentic human nature, for instance, the Son of God becomes even on most ancient accounts capable of suffering death "in the flesh assumed"; or, on some of the more reflective accounts given of Christology in the wake of Chalcedon, it can be tentatively suggested that the incarnate Son of God, for instance, lived by faith and not by sight, and then this can be explored; or, the idea that he was genuinely tempted rather than merely seeming to be so can be treated as a massively important soteriological theme. Closer to varied nerves in churchland, the idea that the incarnate Son is truly human means that he has to be said to have had sexual desires — that Jesus experienced erections, as John Robinson memorably put it — is (now don't fall off your chair in Bible Study, Mrs. Murphy!) a possibility latent in orthodox Christology. None of these subtleties would have been possible had Eutyches won the day in the 450s, and had not the "narrow" definition of Chalcedon been made. Also, note how none of the later glosses on it are obligatory, but they do become possible, in the sense that "permission" is given by the extraordinary precision of Chalcedon to think through more fluid questions  in its wake.

 

In fact, it is difficult to speak of successful doctrine without also speaking of the possibilities for development and debate and further insight implicit within a single doctrinal affirmation. This is one of the fruits of doctrinal precision, the effect of which is not so much to narrow Christian thinking (which is the usual, highly inaccurate slur on it) but to  open it up to new light. And it must do so because of the breadth and height and depth of the subject matter.

 

One of the problems with the Song of Faith, from this point of view, is how small its central affirmation really is: essentially, it is that "we sing," but whether we sing this or that does not really matter; everything can be thrown into the great vat of faith, given three stirs, smiled at lovingly, and — presto! — we've got gumbo! What underlies this, it seems to me, is an impoverished view of the possibilities latent in the astonishing "teaching" of the church.

 

There is an analogy here with science. A biological discovery concerning the gene sequence constitutes a fixed finding that can perhaps be expressed in a mere handful of words. Something is thereby defined. Something is also clearly articulated; clarity is of the essence of science. For these very reasons, a small scientific finding can be pregnant with possibility. On the basis of such clarity, open to scrutiny and verification by others, new and often unexpected insights emerge -- the clue to unlocking the causes and treatment of a disease suddenly becomes available. One small point of clarity leads to  larger visions.

 

Now, ask yourself the question whether the Song as a whole or in any of its parts can really function in this way, hand on heart, hope to die. Maybe here or there? But I suggest that the Song will be mostly fruitless, for the simple reason that what it mainly does is confirm the prevailing sense that the specifics of doctrine do not really matter, that it is not necessary to be precise about anything —  so we "sing"  about things that we are very unclear about, but that we really, really like, and the we'd really like you to like to (though not enough to think them through). At this point, not only the membership of the church, but the culture we need to address, just goes off to sleep, because the upshot is that we have nothing to say that is specific enough to be used for anything specific,  to illuminate anything in particular, to contradict anything in the world, to be counter-cultural in our situation, or to be theologically interesting. Gumbo is served, and though there might be something in it, nobody is quite sure either what the bits are, or what the whole thing really tastes like.

 

It is, of course, also difficult to speak of doctrine without speaking also of heresy — and this point is a problem. It is a problem at one level because liberal Protestantism does not have the concept of heresy, except perhaps in the form of a proxy that goes unacknowledged, by which those who insist on doctrinal precision rather than (say) free metaphorical constructivism are seen as dangerous wingnuts to be shunned and avoided. Undoubtedly, some of them/ us are wingnuts, but all of them/ us are not. I think it is useful to remember this. Paradoxically, the "orthodox" in this context become the operative "heretics," and it is partly because the Song chimes in so readily with this attitude and expectation that the "orthodox" need to tread carefully. A further erosion of their position that will prove painful is likely, and this will be even less beneficial to the church than it will be to them.

 

3. A small point: The McGrath reference is interesting in this context. I am not a big fan of McGrath, but what he argues is actually by way of riposte to Lindbeck. McGrath, as an Anglican evangelical, holds out for the value of clear definition and for a certain minimal conceptual precision in doctrine, which he understands in a broadly critical-realist sense as actually referring, to God and to humanity and to salvation and to such things, rather than in Lindbeck's  more "communitarian" sense as regulating social experience and action. No doubt both of these views of doctrine, and more besides, might have their place in the great scheme of things, but the basic point made is the same as the basic thrust of the Byron document responding to the remit, which was that doctrine at its best aims to say something definite, to clarify rather than to cloud. The Song, by contrast, wallows in religious subjectivity, and if anyone thinks that religious subjectivity is likely to prove a fruitful basis for generating anything theologically interesting — well, as they say, good luck with that.

 

4. Now, I want to make another, final suggestion which I think is relevant, one that is alluded to in the Byron report, but not developed. It is more a thesis than something that I can evidence as fact, not having enough spare hours to go looking, but the point is very simple and maybe someone reading will know more, and comment.

 

"Gumbo," as I have put it, is what the UCC was serving rather too much of in the 1930s, in which, let us hear and heed the words, it was pretty standard in the soothing, uncontroversial teaching of churchland that poverty and conflict are bad, that peace and economic justice are good, that Jesus wants us to "be nice," and so on, but with the implication that Hitler must therefore be left alone, or even, and this was actually said, "given a chance." If you read around, you find that such was the standard teaching of the churches of Europe, too. Then, not only creeping Fascism, but violent anti-Judaism and war and unspeakable things came. After the war, the gumbo was all swept under the rug, as Christians congratulated themselves on how faithful they had been during those difficult years, on how they had stood up against evil, how they had really been good to the Jews all along, etc. (they were rarely any of these things in the 30s).

 

I would like to state for all to hear a small hypothesis: that out of little London, Ontario, a group of UCC clergy c. the dawn of WWII initiated a fine theological response to the crisis of the time, which insisted that the church needs nothing more or less than above all and in all to "confess" the substance of Christian faith in clear doctrinal terms. It has to stop peddling gumbo. What is interesting to me is a) that they saw it as necessary to do so in their situation; and b) that the UCC today has not bothered to remember why.

 

The package distributed to sessions and presbyteries, I think,  misrepresents the 1940 Statement of Faith as a progressive updating of doctrine of a piece with the rest. What it really was, I suggest, was something very different: an attempt to try to call the church to remember the great mystery of faith, and to re-ground the church in that mystery. If you look at the document with this in view, you will see that there is a notable absence of gumbo in and about and around it. It was a document that paralleled in some ways the things happening at Barmen and Finkenwald five or six years earlier, and in the mind and practice of the likes of the great churchman George Bell in England. It was part of the main; the 1940 Statement was that rare bird, an interesting theology.

 

So I submit that the "Statement of Faith" of 1940 contained for these reasons a revolutionary insistence that clarity in the present about the substance of Christian faith is necessary, and that in a sense this clarity is, for the church, "the one thing needful," since otherwise, the church has nothing worthwhile to say.

 

Does this mean that the 1940 Statement should be incorporated in the Basis of Union, as suggested in the remit? We recommended, at Byron, and as a practical legal strategy, reference to the tertiary category of commentary rather than resort to the more technical, Reformed  category of Subordinate Standard (a massive subject in itself!). I, for one, would stick with the ancillary, tertiary category of commentary. Best to let sleeping dogs lie....

 

Gary D. Badcock

Peache Professor of Divinity

Huron University College

(formerly Meldrum Lecturer in Dogmatic Theology, University of Edinburgh)

Cf. Gary D. Badcock, _The House where God Lives: Renewing the Doctrine of the Church for Today_ (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008).