W. Jackson Watts
Usually I manage to read a book or two during the holidays. Recently I read one I had wanted to read for years, but finally had an excuse to read it due to its pertinence to a current research project. It was Alister McGrath’s The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism. Though I had not read this book in time to be included in our Commission members’ recent post on our favorite books from 2017, I thought I would briefly comment on it since I found it incredibly stimulating and theologically significant.
McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. He has held numerous other notable professorships throughout the years, and has published voluminously in the fields of historical theology, and especially in the relationship between science and theology.
This volume is a project in “doctrinal criticism.” On its face this may sound threatening to some. But McGrath is not trying to pick apart Christian doctrine. He is not only a scholar, but a committed Anglican Christian. Doctrinal criticism here refers to an attempt to evaluate the nature of doctrine as a historical phenomenon. He wants to consider how doctrinal statements are developed, communicated, and what they presuppose. He is especially interested in how our understanding of the past and its authority comes to bear on contemporary views of doctrine.
To put McGrath’s project in his own words, “The discipline of doctrinal criticism seeks to evaluate the reliability and adequacy of the doctrinal formulations of the Christian tradition, by identifying what they purport to represent, clarifying the pressures and influences which led to their genesis, and suggesting criteria—historical and theological by which they may be evaluated, and if necessary, restated” (vii). Let me try to add my gloss to the background against which McGrath is working, then return to his argument.
When we consider the nature of the biblical text, we recognize that it does not present itself in the form of a contemporary systematic theology textbook. Instead it is divinely given in the form of poetry and prophecy, wisdom and narrative, oracle and history. There are no doubt places in the New Testament that appear to be part of early creedal formulations. However, by and large the theological heritage we have has come to us by way of post-canonical interaction with the apostolic doctrine, and believers formulating those teachings in a contextually appropriate way.
These claims in no way diminish the truthfulness of Christian doctrine. But they do put our treatment of key doctrines such as justification by faith or the Trinity in a historical perspective. We know that there were early church councils which contributed significantly to how doctrines have been formulated, and then transmitted by way of witnesses throughout the ages. We know that theological errors, in part, are what required the church to clarify particular doctrinal views. Recognizing the historical and social context of doctrinal development then gives us a better understanding of how our statements came to be what they are, and helps us evaluate them afresh and anew in light of the biblical text.
McGrath is motivated in part by a desire to avoid reductionist accounts of doctrine. One of the main examples he uses of such reductionism is George Lindbeck, the very influential Yale theologian. Lindbeck’s seminal book on the subject is The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984). McGrath appreciates some of Lindbeck’s aims and concerns, but he spends the early portion of his book showing where Lindbeck himself fails to understand the complexity of Christian doctrine.
Lindbeck chided propositionalists for focusing merely on the truth claims of doctrine, and experientialists for focusing solely on the emotional or experiential aspects of doctrine. Yet Lindbeck offered his own reductionist account with his “cultural-linguistic” model of doctrine. McGrath’s critique is fair, but pointed.
McGrath’s alternative, which is an effort to help readers appreciate the breadth of Christian doctrine, includes four theses about doctrine. First, doctrine functions as a social demarcator. Second, doctrine is generated by, and subsequently interprets the Christian narrative. Third, doctrine interprets experience. Fourth, doctrine makes truth claims (37).
Space does not permit me to explore or fully define each of these, but if one reads these theses carefully they can see that McGrath is trying to avoid reductionisms when it comes to defining what doctrine is and how it has functioned historically.
I suspect most Free Will Baptists will focus primarily on point number four. As important as this is, if we think carefully about the lived experience of the church today and in the past, we realize doctrine is even bigger and more significant than simply in what it affirms to be true or false.
What we believe does in fact set us apart from other groups (thesis 1). It helps distinguish our views from other, potentially harmful views, and provides social cohesion. We believe our doctrine does arise from the narrative of Scripture (thesis 2), yet it also enables us to reread Scripture in light of our doctrinal heritage (think here about the idea of “the hermeneutical spiral”). And we also believe that Christian doctrine makes sense of our experience. It gives us a language, concepts, and categories to make sense of what happens to us, and what is happening around us.
I can’t say enough about the depth and extent of McGrath’s work. I admit it is probably to be seen as more of a graduate-level treatment of doctrine, and so it probably isn’t the place to start for those looking to simply refresh themselves on Christian doctrine.
However, for those who may be wondering about how modern Christian thought has come to be what it is, and perhaps those interested in historical theology or philosophical hermeneutics, this may just be a book for you.