A Second Perspective

[1] In her book, Theology and the End of Doctrine, Christine Helmer diagnoses the current subject-matter crisis of academic theology.  Does theology belong in the contemporary secularized academy?  After evoking a couple of sharp dismissals of the idea that theology still deserves a place on university campuses (including one critic’s rather bloodthirsty suggestion that theologians are now “fair game” to religious theorists), Helmer insightfully points out that it is precisely theologians’ historic focus on doctrine that makes their less charitable colleagues want to hunt theologians down in the enlightened woods of the post-Enlightenment academy.  Doctrine - perceived by theology’s self-appointed outside judges as necessarily dogmatic, rigidly normative, and hostile to intellectual scrutiny - is the “mark of the beast” blemishing theology among other humanities.   At the same time, as chapter one rightfully notes, many academic theologians do not quite know what to do with doctrine, hence, the deepening of the divide between theology for church vis-a-vis academic use.  The confusion about doctrine’s nature and purposes has led to the end (that is, demise) of doctrine in academic theology.  The task at hand is to recover doctrine’s true end (that is, its purpose).  The title of the book keenly draws upon this duality of meaning of the “end of doctrine.”  The problem with doctrine is outlined in the first chapter of the book.


[2] To determine how this mess arose, Helmer embarks on a historical analysis of the development of the understanding of doctrine’s nature and purposes predominantly in the German modern context, from Luther, to Schleiermacher, to the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century neo-Kantian thinkers, to Karl Barth and then to the late twentieth-century American post-liberal school most prominently associated with George Lindbeck. In exploring the trajectory of theology through a close reading of selected works by these thinkers, Helmer points out what she labels as a “historicist shock” posed to theology by the early modern rise of awareness of the historicity of doctrinal development and the emergence of the historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation in modernity.  A major response to the challenges of historicity and historical-critical method came from Friedrich Schleiermacher with his famous emphasis on religious mystical experience. Schleiermacher is widely regarded as the father of modern theology, however, opinions differ as to whether his parenthood was indeed a responsible one. Rather than dismissing his contemporary academic developments, Schleiermacher also sought to take into account intellectual concerns of his day and secure a place for theology in a conversation with other disciplines guided by shared intellectual practices.  Schleiermacher has traditionally been blamed for leading theology away from the confessed external unity of truth to privileging metaphysics and subjective mysticism understood as a plethora of spiritual-esque subjective experiences. What Schleiermacher started, by shifting religious normativity from the outward to the inward and elevating the authoritative status of religious experience, soon evolved into skepticism, relativism and squishy (Protestant) theological liberalism.  However, Helmer argues that the problem did not lay with Schleiermacher per se but with a history of certain (mis)readings of Schleiermacher.   This argument is mainly developed in the second chapter of the book. 


[3] The second chapter traces the development of the concepts of the “word,” “nature,” and “spirit” by the late ninetieth – early twentieth-century neo-Kantian German theologians.  By probing select writings of Ritschl, Rischle, Fabricius, and finally Brunner (with particular attention to their expositions of the doctrine of justification), Helmer argues that by the early twentieth century, the theological categories of “spirit” and “word” (as applied to the divine) became united over and against the category of “nature” (as applied to the human), with mysticism as an experiential dimension of religion and metaphysics understood as its link to philosophy both becoming subsumed under “nature.”  Doctrine became increasingly understood in relation to its specific linguistic formulation.  This intellectual trajectory emerged partially as a reaction to some of Schleiermacher’s ideas which were taken by these neo-Kantian theologians as privileging subjectivism over and against biblical objectivity.  Helmer defends Schleiermacher against such criticism by underscoring his attempt to hold together, on the one hand, his understanding of theology in relation to the production of knowledge and thus its being in a relationship of dialogue with other academic disciplines and, on the other hand, Schleiermacher’s commitment to the truths of Christian faith.  Given his broader academic sensibilities and his confessional commitments, Schleiermacher needed metaphysics to explain theology’s distinct epistemology; theology needed mysticism or the valorization of human experience for its distinct foundation.


[4] In chapters three and four, Helmer continues her analysis of the complicated development of the intellectually construed connection between the word and reality, or between language and doctrine.  The story starts with Martin Luther’s theology of the Word.  Luther prominently brought the category of God’s Word to the front and center of Christian doctrine.  For Luther, the Word was God’s gracious word of forgiveness spoken to a sinful humanity. After discussing the problem with certain readings of Schleiermacher and neo-Kantian separation of the word and spirit over and against nature and mystical experience in chapter two (which I mentioned earlier), Helmer dedicates chapter three to the discussion of the place of the word in the respective theologies of Karl Barth and Bruce Marshall.  In the twentieth century, between these thinkers, the mode of understanding theology as a “Trinitarian representation” gives way to the emergence of what Helmer labels an epistemic-advantage model of theology.  According to this model proposed by the Yale school, doctrine is understood as an epistemic norm of faith construed as a worldview.  The reality evoked by the Christian faith is constructed by a particular use of language of which doctrine functions as a “grammar.”  This understanding of doctrine as “grammar of the faith” was coined by George Lindbeck in his classic Nature and Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age.  One thing which was arguably at stake for Lindbeck, a confessional Lutheran deeply engaged in efforts towards an ecumenical dialogue with Rome, was to move past splitting hairs of theological differences between different traditions and confessions within Christianity, towards a more unifying view of the Christian faith.  Lindbeck’s own work was significantly influenced by that of cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz who interpreted “religion” as a symbol-constituted order into which a practitioner is initiated and through the symbols of which she perceives reality.  Lindbeck’s model also re-asserted the connection between church and theology by portraying the church’s activities as discursive practices that make individual Christians more fluent interpreters, experience-bearers, and articulators of the Christian worldview. Lindbeck’s student Bruce Marshall continued this trajectory of seeing Christianity as a worldview epistemically centered on the gospel and the one of which Jesus Christ is the epistemic center.  One is converted to this worldview through the work of the Holy Spirit. The worldview is epistemically regulated by core normative understandings of doctrine.  Although such a construal of doctrine has been advantageous for resolving some of the ecumenical and confessional-related concerns that Lindbeck and Marshall had in mind, Helmer argues that the understanding of doctrine as “the grammar of the faith” ultimately lost both the acknowledgment of the historicity of doctrine and its openness to the reality of the living God.  Helmer charges the epistemic-advantage model of theology with widening the gap between religious experience and doctrinal normativity strongly tied to the doctrine’s linguistic formulation.  This understanding of doctrine as an “epistemic norm” signifies for Helmer the end (or demise) of doctrine in late twentieth-century academic theology.  According to Helmer, the end of doctrine occurs when doctrine is not allowed by definition to say anything new.  


[5] Chapter four outlines theological grounds for the book’s constructive proposal for academic theology’s re-engagement with transcendent reality as well as its call for doctrinal production (vis-à-vis reception) based on doctrine’s newly owned openness to mystical religious experience.  The chapter draws on Schleiermacher’s logic of predication reconstructed from some of his New Testament commentaries in order to restore his theological epistemology, particularly with the goal of elucidating the ways in which Schleiermacher links language and experience.  What emerges is the concept of “plural predications” of the same subject term in the history of theology.  The acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of plural predications of the same subject term in doctrine’s past and present would open up new understanding of Christian doctrine, especially for its manifestations in global non-Western contexts.  If theology acknowledges the challenge of plural predication, it would make progress in both its intersubjective and global directions.  Helmer further uses Schleiermacher to argue for a theological epistemology that would take a greater account of religious experience, while underscoring the doctrine’s referential posture towards the divine reality.  This argument is brought to completion in chapter five. 


[6] Chapter five, which is the book’s final chapter, proposes a two-fold understanding of doctrine.  The first mode is attentive to the particularities of doctrine’s production and its producers.  In this way, Helmer characterizes doctrine as a historical construction “all the way down.”  The emphasis on “all the way down” characteristic of doctrine’s social constructedness is crucial for Helmer’s argument. And yet academic theologians must not stay on the level of deconstruction.  Advancing beyond historicizing and contextualizing doctrinal formulations, doctrine must own its role in pointing to the transcendent reality of the living God.  As doctrine became lost in the discursive structures of theology as a worldview, it also lost its connectedness to the transcendent.  It needs to be redeemed from being subsumed under language “as a grammar of the faith” through the recovery of the role of religious experience in doctrinal production.  In addition to the study of theology, the recovery of the category of religious experience is similarly needed in the study of religion more broadly.  Scholars of religion need to reengage with this as well as other “metaphysical” categories if they want to preserve their distinct scholarly identity as distinguishable from that of historians, anthropologists, and cultural critics.  Helmer critiques what she sees as a church-creed normativity “stifling” novel doctrinal production; the personal experience of Jesus Christ must be the foundation of the practice of theology.  Chapter five emphasizes that the reality of God’s word as a living word, in turn, creates a human possibility or even imperative to say something new.  With regard to, in particular, the last chapter of the book, I would like to pose two questions to continue the conversation. 


[7] My first question - perhaps shockingly simple - would be what does and does not count as doctrine?  As I was reading the book, I could not escape the feeling that at least occasionally, Lindbeck, Marshall, and the author of the book were drawing the boundaries of doctrine in different places. “Jesus is Israel’s promised messiah” is a doctrine.  “Baptism is to be administered exclusively to believers” is a doctrine.  “The office of ecclesial authority is reserved to males” is a doctrine, or is it?  What about fasting on Good Friday?  It seems that folks like Marshall would not include all of the above statements (all normative at some point in certain theological settings) under the category of epistemically normative “grammar of the faith.”  If we define more precisely what does and what does not count as doctrine for the Yale school thinkers, along the way we might be able to resolve some disagreements between the figures presented in the book and its author.  The good old notion of “adiaphora” or secondary issues with the bounds of orthodoxy comes to mind, but would the idea of religious (in this case, Christian) orthodoxy, even in a limited form, survive the book’s call to theological novelty?  In other words, is all Christian doctrine a “fair game” for theological re-production?   


[8] Second, as discussed above, the book defines doctrine as a social construction “all the way down.”  And yet, the author holds that this social construction points to a transcendental referent, the spiritual reality towards which the doctrinal discourse is oriented.  Keeping in tension both of these points must underscore constructive recovery of the nature and purpose of doctrine.  Academic theological inquiry needs not be so shy as to neglect owning its transcendent subject matter even if it is pursued in the halls of non-confessional campuses.  My question in this respect would be if the transcendent subject matter would in return own deliberations of academic theologians.  Is there room to talk about divine guiding, forming, or creating ideas born out of human theological reflection?  Or is there an unbridgeable epistemic gap separating our doctrines concerning the Christian God from the God Godself?  If indeed God is concerned with what is said about Godself, then the production of doctrine may be directed in some way by its own divine Subject Matter.  That might potentially pose a problem to the enterprise of academic theology: a pillar academic idea of free and critical inquiry may be (using Barth’s expression) encroached upon by divine action, if not exclusively, but most obviously so when it comes to theology.  Furthermore, if God is indeed concerned with human God-talk and becomes a participant in the human enterprise of theology, an academic theologian would have to acknowledge the presence of the (invisible) divine interlocutor, which would complicate the translation of traditional methodologies and intellectual practices employed by other humanities into theological inquiry.


[9] If, on the contrary, the divine reality chooses to leave the human practice of inquiry into Godself up to humans’ own means (even mystically inspired human means), then academic theologians might encounter a crisis of authority.  How will one discriminate between the plausibility of two newly produced sets of doctrine which contradict one another?  If the religious experience of Jesus Christ is indeed the foundation of doctrine, to which shared source do we turn to find the common ground if our experiences of Christ differ from one another? In this case, one would seem to need an agreed-upon set of criteria, an authoritative point of reference based upon which the community of theologians will judge the plausibility of new doctrinal expression in the academic marketplace of doctrine-production.  That would likely bring one back full circle to the authority of Scripture, church decrees, confessions of faith, and the list goes on, as the normative doctrinal super-structure with regard to the production of new doctrine.  However, such epistemic normativity is precisely what the book rejects in its critiquing the “church-creedal” normativity and encouraging production of new doctrines that may potentially provide deeper theological insights than competing biblical narratives.    


Ekaterina Lomperis is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a co-author of Medicine and Religion: A Collection of Readings, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.

© July/August 2015

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 15, Issue 7