The Job of Doctrine

[T]he job of doctrine is to hold us still before Jesus. When that slips out of view, we begin instead to use this language to defend ourselves, to denigrate others, to control and correct--and then it becomes a problem.

--Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial (p.37, emphasis in original)

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7 thoughts on “The Job of Doctrine”

  1. The first line of this small paragraph has to be the best definition of doctrine I have ever read or heard. Proof that real power, authentic loving power, can come in small containers.

  2. I've learned a lot about doctrine, the creeds and orthodoxy from Williams.

    A few weeks ago I was teaching the college bible class at church. The topic was Christology, the doctrines related to Christ. As a part of that class I made two points that I got from Williams:

    1. The purpose of doctrine is to make speech about God more and more difficult rather than less difficult.

    2. And eventually, if doctrine is doing its job correctly, speech about God becomes so difficult that you end up falling silent. Phrased differently, the goal of doctrine is doxology.

  3. To be honest, I had come to the point where I had no interest in discussing (church) doctrine. But with this understanding doctrine could become a brand new adventure for me.

  4. I think it's also helpful to connect doctrine to the analyses I give in The Authenticity of Faith and The Slavery of Death.

    As I describe in the The Authenticity of Faith a lot of doctrine is being deployed defensively, as a way to cope with or manage fear (see here my discussion of The Defensive Theology Scale in Authenticity). When doctrine is motivated by fear doctrine is bound to become violent, psychically if not physically.

    The other thing to note, related to The Slavery of Death, is how doctrine can become a part of our own hero system, a route toward self-justification and self-esteem. And again, when doctrine is being motivated by those neurotic impulses it's not going to be healthy.

  5. Excellent. Indeed Williams suggests that a "destructive longing for final clarity, totality of vision" is a mark of heresy, not orthodoxy, which is inherently disruptive, interrogative, and unfinished.

    I'd say that the whole purpose of doctrine is to facilitate (without guarantee, of course) an encounter with God. To adapt to purpose T.S. Eliot's lines in "The Dry Salvages":

    We had the experience but missed the meaning,
    And approach to the meaning restores the experience
    In a different form ...

    But lest you think the "experience" -- the encounter -- is a merry one, the verse continues:

    ... beyond any meaning
    We can assign to happiness...

    To pick up another image of Eliot: Faith is forged in fire, not sunshine.

  6. re: "holding us still"
    you and your readers might like the writing of 30-year professed anglican solitary maggie ross (who was coincidentally under the direction of rowan williams.

    you can find an extended excerpt (21 pg pdf) of her book "writing the icon of the heart; in silence beholding" at:

    an excerpt from the above relevant to being still:


    Silence and beholding coinhere, mutually informing one another.

    Beholding, also, is not in itself religious; the primordial silence we engage in beholding is unnamable and not an object. Beholding leaves traces in its context and bestows an energy that is likewise often expressed in religious metaphor.

    If the silence and the beholding that underlie these metaphors are not acknowledged and understood, we cannot interpret any of the texts that refer to the processes of the interior life, including Scripture. For example, in the Bible the imperative form of the word ‘behold’ has more than 1300 occurrences in Hebrew and Greek. After God has blessed the newly created humans, the first word he speaks to them directly is ‘Behold’ (Genesis 1:29). This is the first covenant, and the only one necessary; the later covenants are concessions to those who will not behold. In the NRSV the word ‘behold’ appears only 27 times in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, and not at all in the New Testament. [....]

    The word ‘behold’ is appropriate only to the invisible kingdom of heaven within you, and that kingdom is beholding. By extension, the kingdom of heaven cannot be manifest among you until it is manifest within you. Beholding entails all the moral and ethical outward behaviour that Jesus teaches. To put this more simply, ordinary seeing is analytical;it discriminates, grasps and controls. Beholding is organic, un-grasping and self-emptying.


    she has also just released a new book (last month or so) "silence: a user's guide"

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