The spirituality of doctrine?

Posted on November 28, 2011

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Renovaré, the organisation founded by Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline, et al.), have recently published a book entitled 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Definitive Spiritual Classics. The list can be seen here (you’ll need to scroll down a little). I’ve read most of them, and at least some of almost all of them (as it happens, the only one I’ve never opened is Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son; I know it’s wonderful; there’s even a copy in the house, as Heather’s homegroup worked through it a few years back; other things just keep getting in the way). The title is, I take it, deliberately provocative; such lists always generate argument, and an argument that leads to people being exposed to previously-unencountered classics of Christian spirituality is surely a good thing?

I don’t particularly want to start that argument here; the list is a good one. It contains, however, three texts that would not often be included in the genre of ‘spirituality': Athanasius On the Incarnation; Calvin’s Institutes; and Lewis on Mere Christianity. These are texts in doctrine (or perhaps apologetics for Lewis); the study of doctrine is not generally considered to be an aid to prayer in those parts of the church in which I move, at least. (And academic theological conferences do not often feel like powerhouses of prayer…) When John Rackley was BUGB President, he ran a survey asking (British Baptist) ministers what fed them devotionally, and commented in writing it up that almost none of them (two, from memory) mentioned reading doctrine.

As it happens, reading Calvin does inspire me to devotion from time to time; the same is true of Barth, and one or two others in the dogmatic tradition. But if devotional inspiration is my aim, Brother Lawrence or Mother Julian are far, far more reliable options for me (and much lighter to carry around than Calvin or Barth!).

This is, of course, a modern problem. The connection between doctrine and piety was routinely assumed in the tradition, whether in arguments that only the true contemplative could even try to do theology (Gregory of Nazianzus, First Theological Oration), or arguments that any right understanding of doctrine will inevitably lead to heartfelt worship and devotion (Calvin, Inst. 1:1-2). Less happily, heretics are routinely accused of the grossest acts, because it is assumed that their wrong doctrine must make them morally incompetent. This connection is, one way or another, traceable down to the beginning of the nineteenth century (it’s there in Coleridge (‘They must become better before they can become wiser’) and, in a way, in Schleiermacher), but had begun to fall apart a century, perhaps more, before that. By the time we get to the middle of the twentieth century, there is something of a prevailing assumption that theological scholarship will destroy piety and that practiced piety is at least an impediment to proper theological scholarship, and assumption that has begun to be overcome in the decades since, but that is still sometimes visible. What happened?

I can think of various explanations. Perhaps St Bernard’s fulminations over Peter Abelard’s Sic et Non were well-directed, and the founding of the European university system was all a catastrophic mistake? (I don’t think this, by the way, but any academic theologian needs to reflect on it from time to time.) Perhaps theology should be done only within the local church (memorably, the Black Rock Address on ‘theological schools': ‘In every age, from the school of Alexandria down to this day, they have been a real pest to the church of Christ’)? (I don’t think this either, but the authors were Baptists, and I accept that the challenge is as much mine to prove them wrong, as theirs to carry the point.) I have an alternative explanation, not quite so easy, which relies on some genealogical reflections.

Doctrine, we should remember more often, is – or at least used to be, and should still be – the science of reading Scripture well. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation is a contribution to an ongoing exegetical debate. (I assume we all know by now that the whole debate over the Trinity in the fourth century was exegetical? The ontological schemes and logical distinctions that Athanasius and others worked out were proposed to offer ways of reading certain disputed texts that made better sense of the whole of Scripture than other proposals.) Calvin’s Institutes are written as a simple and easy textbook to give his readers the crucial concepts and distinctions they will need to make sense of Scripture when they read it for themselves.

At some point (Hegel? Schleiermacher? Around then, anyway) we lost sight of the idea that doctrine is, or should be, nothing more than an aid to the right reading of Scripture, and made it some weird end in itself. This is not a ‘conservative’ lament over ‘liberal’ practices: Hodge’s Systematics are proposed as the result of Bible reading, not as an aid thereto: ‘the Bible contains the truths which the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange, and exhibit in their internal relation to each other’ ch.1 §1. (So is Grudem’s Systematic Theology; Hodge at least had some idea what theology looks like.) As a result, devotional reading of Scripture was allowed to fly free of doctrinal guides, and so doctrine ceased to be experienced, even by dogmaticians, as spiritually nourishing.

Let us be clear: this is not a positive development, and if the good folks of Renovaré have discovered how to reverse it, we need their help urgently. I am here sketching history to explain a curious reversal, which can sometimes be the first step to recovering that which was lost.

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