The Life of Christian Doctrine – now published

The Life of Christian Doctrine is now out. The cheapest way of getting it at the moment (before a paperback version comes along) seems to be the eBook version available on the publishers’ website.

The book is both a discussion of the place of doctrinal thinking in the life of the church, and an exploration of the roles that it plays specifically in the Church of England.

To give you a flavour of the general argument, here are a few brief extracts.

From Chapter 1: What is Doctrine?

In the midst of things – in the midst of people gathering for worship, discovering how to follow Jesus at home and at work, saying their prayers and failing to say them, reading the bible and hearing it read, singing hymns and worship songs, sitting in silence, gathering for baptisms, celebrating weddings, crying at funerals, sinning and repenting, telling and hesitating to tell their friends about their faith, praying for the sick, sitting with the dying, visiting prisoners, helping out at foodbanks and refuges and credit unions, discovering God’s work among their neighbours, praying with icons, attending sung eucharists, speaking in tongues, praying for healing, arguing about money and about sex and about music and about candles, joining protest marches, struggling with the immigration system, crossing themselves, sitting through sermons quietly or noisily, going on retreats and to big Christian festivals, responding to evangelistic appeals, decorating churches and chapels, leading school assemblies, sneaking into the back pew hoping not to be noticed – in the midst of all this tangled and various life of the church, there are also people pursuing doctrinal theology.

When I say ‘doctrinal theology’, I have in mind a varied and changing collection of activities. I am thinking of activities of conversation, reflection, confession, teaching, proclamation, deliberation, argument, and apology, and all sorts of others. And I have these activities in mind insofar as they provide people with opportunities to express and explore claims about God and God’s ways with the world. Christian doctrinal theology takes place wherever Christians express claims about God to which they take themselves and their churches to be committed, and wherever they explore what that commitment demands of them. I am not thinking primarily of the activities of people identified as accredited ministers or professional theologians. I am, instead, thinking of activities that one can encounter among all sorts of people, in all sorts of forms, wherever the life of the church extends – and that are caught up in currents of influence and interaction that stretch far beyond the church.

These activities of doctrinal theology can be found, by an attentive observer, laced through all the activities of Christian life. They are there in the mix, as part of the untidy weave of threads that makes Christian life what it is. They might, at their best, be amongst the activities that help Christians grow together as followers of Jesus, in worship and witness and discipleship, and in the capacity to share that life with others. These activities of doctrinal theology are not the whole story, but they are one part of the story of Christian faith. Understanding the forms that these activities take, and the roles that they play – understanding, that is, the ‘nature of doctrine’ – is the purpose of this book.

This book is an attempt to answer two questions. First, there is the question of the relationship between doctrinal theology and ordinary Christian life. The practices of doctrinal theology are laced through the whole of Christian life, and all kinds of people are involved in them – but they are also practices that can be developed and refined to an extraordinary degree. People devote their lives to them; institutions are built to foster them; libraries are filled with writings that emerge from them – and doctrinal theology can appear to become detached from the life of ordinary belief. What is the connection between the community that sings ‘Jesus is Lord’, and the theological commission that pronounces that ‘Following the teaching of our common father Saint Cyril of Alexandria we can confess together that in the one incarnate nature of the Word of God, two different natures, distinguished in thought alone (τῇ θεωρίᾳ μόνη), continue to exist without separation, without division, without change, and without confusion’?[1]

I will be arguing that the kind of articulacy and sophistication displayed in the latter statement – and, more generally, all the forms of articulacy and sophistication of which doctrinal theology is capable – are no more and no less than forms of service undertaken for the sake of the church’s life, the life of ordinary belief. Doctrinal theologians who can explain the most recherché technicalities of doctrine do not thereby know God better than do ordinary believers. They may know something of the shape that ordinary lives of worship, witness and discipleship should take, if they are to be true to the ways in which God has given Godself to the world. They may help to hold those lives in shape. It is, however, those lives themselves in which God is known, insofar as they respond to and embody the love of God, and such lives will always and endlessly outstrip the diagrams that doctrinal theology draws of them.

The second question emerges from the first. Doctrinal theology, as I have just described it, is involved in the reproduction of the life of the church. Yet the life of the church is always broken, always distorted, always sinful. Whatever true knowledge of God is embodied in the life that any Christian community lives, it is always mixed with ignorance, with misunderstanding, and with the deliberate refusal of knowledge. The life of the church is a series of always failing experiments in the knowledge of God. If doctrinal theology helps to reproduce the life of the church, it will be helping to reproduce all of this failure – all of the exclusions and imbalances of power, all of the forms of harm that mar the church’s response to God’s love. Its work is no freer from these failings than is any other element of Christian life – and it can all too often be what Emilie Townes called ‘the doo-wop pom-pom squad for the cultural production of evil’.[2] My second question is, therefore, is about the role that doctrinal theology can play in the church’s learning – in the processes by which the church is taken deeper into God’s love, and taught both to repent of its failings and to discover new ways of inhabiting that love. I will argue that doctrinal theology can, at its best, help equip the church for this journey – a journey deeper into the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and at the same time a journey out into the world. These are not two journeys but one: the Spirit of God draws the church further in to the gift it has been given in Christ, by drawing it out into new encounters, engagements, and improvisations, and especially by turning it towards the cries of those who suffer, including the cries of those injured, marginalized, erased, ignored, or forced into passivity by the existing patterns of the church’s life.


From Chapter 4: The Emergence of Doctrine

The life of the church is the continuous and uneven unfolding of the word that God spoke to the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – the one who was, who is, and who is to come. This unfolding takes place in the lives of worship, witness and discipleship that Christians negotiate together in the midst of the world. It takes shape in the care they offer to the vulnerable, in the circulations of money around their communities, in the ways they share food together, in the attitudes they adopt to the political regimes that surround them, in the habits of worship that they foster, in the words that their teachers pass on, and in their readings of the scriptures. It always takes shape in the life that particular people are building and tending together in some specific place. The unfolding of God’s abundant gift takes the form of a polycentric collection of lived experiments in faithfulness.

The life of the church is not glorious. Every one of these experiments in faithfulness is a failure. Some of the experiments are luminous, some ignominious – but all of them are experiments conducted by people caught up in the circulations of harm that we call sin. All of these experiments both acknowledge and betray Christ’s lordship; all of them both help and harm the world.

As Christianity spread across the ancient world, its life was shaped for good and ill by the telling and retelling of God’s ways with the world. Christians pursued this telling and retelling in proclamation, confession, teaching, and controversy. For contingent reasons – reasons of habit, memory, effectiveness, and power – this telling and retelling coalesced into recognisable shapes, arranged around familiar loci. Practices arose in which those loci could be named and the flow of Christian storytelling around them discussed. The articulated statements of the faith became building blocks for argument, the means by which the faithfulness of Christian forms of living could be debated. Doctrinal theology emerged in the midst of Christian life, as one of the ingredients by which the church became what it was.

Doctrinal theology is no freer from ambiguity than any other ingredient in the life of the church. From the start, it has been entangled with the processes by which the story of Jesus is passed on, explored, and embodied. From the start, it has been no less entangled with the powerplays of Christian leaders, the forms of myopia and exclusion that have marred the church’s life, and the fractiousness that has split churches apart. Those engaged in its practices don’t stand at any safe distance from the church’s broken life.

The question I will be exploring over the remainder of this book is whether, and in what forms, doctrinal theology might be of service to the church in the midst of all this ambiguity. How, precisely, might it help Christians negotiate lives of worship, witness and discipleship together? How might it help them acknowledge the failures that in every situation mar their negotiations? How might it help the church explore and inhabit in the midst of the world the abundant word spoken to that world by God in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?


From Chapter 6: Doctrine and Belief:

Belief is social, and improvisatory. Christians discover together habitable settlements. They find ways of living together with each other and with their collective past, with their scriptures and with all the demands that they face. Every such settlement is an experiment in faithfulness, an essay in quest of the truth of the gospel in this particular place. Every such experiment is in part a failure, a betrayal of the love of God.

The Spirit can work in and through the processes of improvisation that form these experiments, leading people deeper into God’s truth. The Spirit’s characteristic work is to hold people fast to what they have already been given: the gift of God in Jesus Christ, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. The Spirit’s characteristic work is also to draw people forward, enabling them to uncover or receive more of the abundance of what they have been given, and challenging them to think again about what they thought they had received. The holding fast and the drawing forward are not two works, still less dynamics that stand in tension with one another. They are one work: the Spirit continually beckons people further up and further in to the gift already given to them, by beckoning them further out into the world.

It is because of this shape to the Spirit’s work – luring the church deeper into what it has already received by leading it out into the world – that the church cannot avoid asking: How does what we are discovering fit with what we have already been given? How does this work of the Spirit in the present relate to the work of the Spirit in Christ? How do the new possibilities we think we have seen relate to scripture, or to the apostolic tradition? These questions are asked in all sorts of ways, explicitly and implicitly. They are asked and answered by the whole church. There is no reason to think that it falls particularly to doctrinal theologians to provide answers to them. They are answered primarily by a practical wisdom that discovers, or is discovered by, fittingness. People find a way to live together with what they already know, and with what they are finding.

Nevertheless, doctrinal theologians can, by the grace of God, play a role in this. Theirs is only one ministry amongst others, but they can bring certain kinds of resources to the process (though one should be wary of their selectivity); they can warn of some of the ways in which it might go wrong (though one should be wary of their hastiness in judging, and of their misplaced certainties); and they can propose ways forward (though they have no special vantage point from which to do so). Their resources, warnings, and proposals need to be tested, challenged, and interrupted in conversation with the whole Body of Christ. There must not be a one-way process here, with doctrinal theologians engaged simply in delivery; that is a recipe for the reproduction of the church’s existing failures, and for the amplification of the theologians’ own sins.

Their work is better thought of as a venue in which certain kinds of conversation can be staged – conversation between the life of ordinary belief in the present and the articulate tradition, conversation between local belief and the belief of the wider church, conversation between the scriptures and the whole history of the church’s believing. There are no guarantees of insight, no guarantees of progress or growth in such conversations, but in them a church may learn to see its present life differently in the light of its inheritance, and its inheritance differently in the light of its present life. And through such conversation and discovery, by the grace of God, the Spirit might at times work upon our life together.


From Chapter 8: Doctrine and Disagreement

Doctrinal theology can … be thought of as suspended between two forms of the passion for truth. On the one hand, there is a passion to hold fast to what we have been shown, both to the features of the truth that have become visible to us and the forms of error that we have learnt to identify and to avoid.

Yet as doctrinal theologians in a polycentric church and a divided church, none of us stands in or speaks on behalf of the centre. We each stand in one peripheral, diasporic territory, one failed experiment amongst others. We stand within particular Christian communities, each shaped by what it has truly received of God’s gift in Christ, but each also shaped by what we have missed, and what we have misunderstood. On the other hand, therefore, doctrinal theology is properly marked by a hunger oriented towards the abundance of God’s gift, its infinite exceeding of our grasp. And that abundance is, in part, reflected or exhibited in the diversity of the church – for all its many failings and errors. It is echoed in the diverse church’s capacity to surprise, unsettle, disturb, challenge, and excite. Each of our traditions stands in need of the rest of this Body, and of the gifts that our fellow members bear. We witness to the truth that exceeds us, the truth of the Word to which we are all accountable, by holding together, searching for the gifts that we might have to receive from one another. In always contingent and ramshackle configurations, the product of happenstance, self-protection, and the limitations of our resources as much as of any carefully planned engagement, we hold on to one another as a way of waiting upon the Spirit, holding on for a blessing.

There is therefore a proper curiosity to doctrinal theology, a pleasure in encounter and discovery, which will and should always be looking beyond the boundaries erected by our doctrinal decisions, with a magpie’s eye for the glint of something bright that has not yet been grasped. In the conditions of confusion in which we all live, it might even be that my neighbours’ error – a real error, one that does real harm – anchors their capacity to see something in the Word that I have missed, or to see the error in my own way of seeing. We should not so hold on to what we believe we have already been shown as to defend ourselves from all possibility of seeing more.

This is the deeper reality pointed to by Vincent of Lérins, when he declared that Christian truth is that which is taught ubique semper, et ab omnibus; everywhere, always, and by everyone.[3] For Vincent, this meant that, as Thomas Guarino puts it, that we will not find the truth by looking to teachings ‘confined to one geographical area, to one time period, or to a small group of believers’; heresy is characteristically innovative, and local.[4] The thoroughly non-Vincentian recognition that, in fact, all Christian teaching is innovative and local need not lead us to abandon his insight altogether. It really is the whole Body constituted by this polycentric diversity – everyone, everywhere, always – that is the form taken in the world by the imperfect, error-riddled, and fissile but rich, complex, and beautiful apprehension of God’s abundant gift in Christ.


From Chapter 9: Doctrine and Change

Doctrinal theologians are not the heroes of the church’s story. They are not virtuosos of the faith, from whose sheer intellectual creativity we can expect reformation, nor is their work unusually dangerous, always courting damnation. Forget the chiaroscuro. Doctrinal theology is one ordinary ministry amongst others in the life of the church, and – to the very limited extent that such distinctions are at all meaningful – it is not the most important. Doctrinal theologians are not those in whom the mind of the church specially resides – which is to say, we are not the head of this body. Instead, we are people with a particular set of roles to play in the life of the body, roles that matter, and that it is worth trying to play well. At our best, we can assist with some of the processes by which the church holds fast to what it has already seen, heard or tasted of the gift that God has given to the world. We can assist with some of the processes by which the church grubs out the distortions and restrictions that mar its reception of that gift. We can assist with some of the processes by which the church in deep engagement with the world discovers just how much more it has yet to know, as it journeys deeper into the abundant love that God has opened for the world in Jesus of Nazareth. And that is more than enough.


[1] Anglican–Oriental Orthodox International Commission, Christology: Agreed Statement (2014), §1. Available online: www.anglicancommunion.org/media/103502/anglican-oriental-orthodox-agreed-statement-on-christology-cairo-2014.pdf (accessed 29 Nov 2019).

[2] Emilie Townes used this phrase in ‘Thin Human Imagination: Searching for Grace on the Rim Bones of Nothingness’, a paper delivered at the Society for the Study of Theology in 2019. Such scholarship, she said, helps to reproduce ‘an evil matrix of ableism, racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, militarism, ageism, and more’.

[3] Vincent of Lérins, Commonitorium 2.5, cited in Thomas C. Guarino, Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 4.

[4] Guarino, Vincent, 5, 11.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Post Navigation