Bring back doctrine, all is forgiven

Anthony Thiselton’s hefty book (649 pages) The Hermeneutics of Doctrine is persuading me to reconsider my instinctive distrust of a mode of theological discourse that suffers from many of the intellectual shortcomings of modern rationalism and is very often at odds with biblical interpretation. My distrust is not without justification. Thiselton cites Richard Heyduck’s analysis of the current marginalization and neglect of doctrine in the church, agreeing that it is to be attributed to ‘the emergence of individualism and an individual-centred epistemology’ (xix).

But Thiselton, who served for 25 years on the Church of England Doctrine Commission, believes that biblical hermeneutics has the resources to ‘inject life into engagement with doctrine’ in the same way that it has resourced biblical reading (xxii). I am only a short way into the book, but two important presuppositions have emerged which have interesting implications for New Testament interpretation.

The distinction between ‘problems’ and ‘questions that arise’

Thiselton begins with the distinction that Gadamer makes between ‘problems’ and ‘questions that arise’.

‘Problems’ are ‘abstractions divorced from the situation that gave them birth’; they are ‘fixed, self-grounded, and unmoving’. They constitute a ‘paradigm of timeless, unhistorical rationalism’, which according to Gadamer cannot be sustained in the light of ‘hermeneutical experience’ (5).

‘Questions that arise’, on the other hand, are historically situated: they are the particular controversies and conflicts and quandaries which provoked the early church to formulate doctrine. The hermeneutical dialectic of question and answer ‘explores motivation, context, particularity, and effects in life’ (8).

So, for example, Thiselton draws attention to the argument of Justo L. González that ‘the Christian doctrine of creation, like most doctrines, did not emerge originally from intellectual puzzlement, but rather from the experience of worship’ (5).1

The distinction between ‘problems’ and ‘questions that arise’ can also be illustrated with reference to the New Testament’s understanding of sin. Modern theology has a tendency to treat sin as an existential abstraction, a theoretical condition of being human, for which the cross provides the metaphysical remedy. At least, that is the level at which much discussion of sin and salvation is conducted.

In the New Testament, however, ‘sin’ is in the first place Israel’s persistent, historically construed rebellion against YHWH. This is the question that has arisen – and it becomes acute not because sin is abstractly and invariably an offence against the holiness of God but because prophetic voices are warning of impending destruction. John the Baptist warns the Pharisees and Sadducees: ‘Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Matt. 3:10; Lk. 3:9). The ‘doctrine’ of salvation that emerges in the New Testament, therefore, is (again, I stress in the first place) a description of the no less historically situated response of God to the question of Israel’s sinfulness.

The dispositional account of belief

Thiselton then draws on philosophical accounts of belief (Wittgenstein and H.H. Price in particular) in order to make the point that the belief that eventually finds expression in creeds and confessions is at the outset not some sort of ‘mental occurrence’ but is a ‘disposition to respond to situations both by expressing and by “standing behind” belief-utterances in situations that challenge belief, or that demand action appropriate to belief’.

If a Christian believer nails his or her colors to the mast in situations of persecution, hostile criticism, pledging oneself in baptism, liturgical doxology and declaration, kerygmatic proclamation, or the need to correct error, these are precisely the moments when the disposition to respond becomes explicit, active, and public. (21)

In sum, belief does not belong in the realm of the theoretical or abstract; it is ‘action-oriented, situation-related, and embedded in the particularities and contingencies of everyday life’ – and it is these features which stand at the heart of a hermeneutic of doctrine.

Belief, therefore, is pragmatic and contextualized. Many of the examples that Thiselton provides from the early development of doctrine are instances where challenge and repudiation have led to the consolidation of belief ‘that had remained latent and implicit into explicit formulations and confessions of faith’ (29-30).

This seems to me relatively uninteresting. More instructive from the perspective of New Testament interpretation, at least, would be a consideration, say, of how ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ (pistis) arises essentially as an act of concrete trust under difficult and sometimes hostile conditions. It is an enacted trust – not merely belief as a ‘mental occurrence’ – that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will likewise not abandon the followers of Jesus when they take up their own cross, when they put their own lives on the line out of the conviction that the salvation of the people of God must be pursued down a narrow and difficult path of rejection and suffering. It is the ‘faith’ by which the righteous will survive under the extreme eschatological conditions of divine judgment (Rom. 1:17; cf. Hab. 2:4).

This dispositional belief is not devoid of intellectual content. It begins with a belief that – that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead. This was a proposition that the early church believed important enough to proclaim to the nations. But it entailed a degree of situational, embedded commitment that is barely comprehended in modern arguments – founded on an ‘individual-centred epistemology’ – about justification by faith or salvation through belief in Jesus.

But will doctrine promise to behave itself?

A hermeneutics of doctrine that recovers the initial dynamics and contextuality of belief must be a good thing. But then what happens? What happened to New Testament thought was that it soon became assimilated into a Hellenistic worldview. Thiselton rejects the old liberal argument that the church of the second and third centuries, having no idea what to do with the simple ethical or apocalyptic teaching of the Jewish Jesus, simply bulldozed it and replaced it with the newfangled metaphysical monstrosities of Patristic theology. He argues, rather:

An understanding of the dispositional nature of belief reveals an evident continuity between confessions of faith in the New Testament and formulations of belief in response to the later claims of “heretics”…. (37, italics removed)

Core doctrines regarding the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, creation, sin and the human condition, the person and work of the Holy Spirit remain pretty much unchanged from the New Testament period through to the end of the second century and beyond (40-42). Nevertheless, he concedes that at a later stage faith began to address ‘freestanding problems’ rather than ‘questions that arise’, at which point doctrine risked ‘losing its contingent, temporal, narrative, life-related, dispositional character’ (38-39). He also makes an exception for the doctrine of God ‘as immutable and absolute’, and for ‘certain related Christological and Trinitarian formulations’ (40).

So I wonder whether ‘doctrine’, as the rewriting of dispositional beliefs under later or even foreign intellectual conditions can ever really be trusted. Isn’t it always going to be just a matter of time before the original ‘questions that arise’ – whether exegetical, polemical or experiential – are forgotten and doctrine must construct for itself a set of abstract ‘freestanding problems’ in order to justify its existence and, supposedly, to safeguard the ‘biblical’ integrity of the community?

I have a long way to go with Thiselton’s book, but I will be looking out for an answer to the question of whether doctrine can be formulated in way that is consistently beneficial to the life of the community without obscuring the action-oriented, situation-related, particular and contingent circumstances, whether biblical or practical, that called forth the disposition of belief in the first place.

  • 1. J.L. González, A Concise History of Christian Doctrine (Abingdon, 2005).

Thanks for this insightful Post about Thiselton. I am just indulging myself in his earlier Hermeneutics and have to say: What I have read so far brings me to reconsider my understanding. What you summarize and describe here leads me even further toward the contextual "Sitz im Leben" of Dogmatics. Needed, but always to be rewritten and newly conceived in the light of present situation and the questions that arise.