The Four Dimensions of Doctrine
Four main sources for Christian doctrine have been identified within the Church: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Outline briefly what you understand by each of these, and why they have been considered authoritative. In an age when all kinds of authority are under challenge, do you still find them all central in deciding which teachings are distinctively Christian?
Discussions of the foundations of Christian doctrine (McGrath 1999, Parsons 2001) suggest that there are four sources—what I have called the four dimensions of doctrine. Each has a distinctive role to play, both in the formation of doctrine and also in the Christian life of every believer.
The four dimensions are ontologically diverse, though they all have epistemological implications. One way to look at them is to see them as a systemic set, each being affected by the others. Another perspective might view them as the four independent dimensions of a state space. I will look briefly at each of these ideas after first considering the nature of the four on their own.
Finally, I will consider the extent to which they are all still central in deciding distinctively Christian doctrine and also which makes the most appropriate starting point for mission in today’s Western society.
It seems to me that the four dimensions can be usefully thought about as having some epistemological aspects and in trying to make a bit more sense of this I have had recourse to John Heron’s extended epistemology. He argues that there are four different kinds of knowledge:
Heron’s scheme seems to offer an idealised trajectory for the development of faith:
Although this is an overly-simplistic account, I find it useful and will refer to Heron’s scheme from time to time as I explore the four dimensions of doctrine.
Most Christians would make some kind of claim for the priority of scripture, that is to say the canon of Old and New Testament books (see below for more on this), no matter how loosely their own tradition works out this priority in practice. I was brought up in a ‘middle of the road’ Anglican church which gave little more than lip service to scripture. About twenty years ago I moved to a more evangelical church, as a result of which I am currently disposed to take quite a ‘high’ view of the place of scripture—certainly closer than I used to be to semper scriptura though still a long way from sola scriptura. Nevertheless, it seems to me that even the most liberal Christian is bound to acknowledge the primacy of scripture however much he or she might want to interpret or discard it because it is only in scripture that we find what is distinctively Christian.
Experience and reason are common to all human beings. Tradition will arise within any group and can be thought of as the creation of social order. But what makes the belief set of a particular group distinctive is the theme itself. In the case of Christianity the theme is, or comes from, scripture.
As an example, consider the doctrines of reincarnation and karma. There is something reasonable about them, a satisfying sense of poetic justice, a tit-for-tat which, being impersonal, avoids uncomfortable notions of vengeance and judgement. But since there is nothing in scripture to support them they do not have a place within Christian doctrine.
This is not to say that scripture must be considered normative in a naďve way. Nevertheless even the most radical doctrinal reinterpretations remain just that—interpretations. Once they go further and become creations de novo doctrine is at least in danger of becoming non-Christian.
Jesus’ own example may be relevant here. “You have heard…but I say to you…” is a refrain he used several times (Matt 5:21ff). Scripture, the Torah in this case, is taken as the theme; Jesus weaves some truly radical variations on that theme. But he is explicit that what he is doing is not de novo but simply the right way to understand the true meaning of the scripture (Matt 5:17). Thus scripture is not simplistically definitive for Christian doctrine but it provides both the vision and the parameters within which doctrine can develop and remain vital.
Christianity is a grounded religion, rooted in the past. It is also a living religion, constantly renewing its ways of expressing its core values and beliefs. Doctrine, therefore, is constantly being formed and transformed in the emerging present. Therein lies a challenge and a threat. If doctrine is not re-presented each generation it will become stale and wither away; but if it is so transformed that it has effectively become new doctrine the historical roots of the faith will be lost and the doctrine will no longer be authentically Christian.
One solution to this dilemma lies in the notion of tradition. Tradition claims to oversee a continuity of expression between the present and the past. It offers a set of tools or lenses for interpreting scripture and previous formulations of doctrine which ensure that the deposit of faith is not devalued or defiled. There are many strands within the development of tradition—two are worth briefly noting here, which I will label grand and folk.
From time to time the church feels it right and necessary to amend, clarify or add to doctrine in an explicit manner. Ecumenical councils and ex cathedra statements are typical examples. Those who are directly involved in such promulgations are usually powerful within the church and believe themselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, there is a school of thought, especially associated with the Council of Trent, which believes that tradition can be thought of as a special kind of revelation, equal to and parallel with scripture—this would then be a kind of experiential knowledge, jumping directly to propositional knowing.
Whatever the role of the Spirit and special revelation, there often seem to be socio-economic or political reasons for these explicit codifications; an example being the Council of Nicea, called by Constantine in order to provide doctrinal unity across his new empire. The Council of Trent itself can be seen as a political response to te spreading threat of Protestantism across Europe.
There is another way in which tradition develops, which comes through the presentational knowledge gained in the performance of worship. This folk tradition can become very powerful, influencing the outcome of doctrine in subtle and often unconsidered ways. A trivial example may suffice:
Many folk still turn to the east end for certain parts of the liturgy (especially apparent if the service is being said on the chancel when everyone is facing either north or south). If anyone asks why, there will be no coherent answer. In a church with reserved sacrament you may be told that it is to pay reverence to the body of Christ at appropriate moments in the liturgy. Yet the same practice can be found in churches where reservation has not been practiced for years, if at all and other theories would perhaps be offered.
In a sense the action requires no justification and should be judged on purely ćsthetic grounds. Tradition is often self-justifying: we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way. Yet if pushed, a propositional view may develop to explain and rationalise it which could, in time, become part of the grand tradition.
Reason is the universal human ability to be able to draw conclusions from premises or observations by processes of logical or pseudo-logical thought. St Paul in Romans 1:19-21 argues that the existence of God is self-evident, accessible to reason. Without reason we would be unable to communicate our own individual experience of the numinous; without reason we would be unable to ‘make sense’ of the world.
The role of reason in the development of doctrine has had different emphases at different times. Some, such as Tertullian have wanted to minimise its role while the Deists wanted to exalt it. Reason alone leads to the spiritual sterility of the enlightenment, reason denied will leave us without the equipment even to read scripture.
The Age of Reason is over but its echoes still resonate in our institutions and our lives. Much of modern science still believes that it has the power to fulfil the enlightenment dream and it persuades many that answers are to be found in reason or not at all. Yet, like Sartre in his last days, we rebel against nihilism because no matter what reason may say, experience offers glimpses of something more.
Experience is primary. The awareness of existence and the ability to be aware of that awareness are the primary stuff of humanness. Religious experience is about the extension of that primary, solipsistic, awareness into an awareness of the other, the connectedness of the universe and the purposefulness of the universe. The object of that experience—to the extent that it is perceived as having an object—may be given the name of ‘God’.
I have sometimes wondered whether there are two kinds of religious experience, active and receptive. The first would correspond more closely with heron’s experiential knowledge. The subject would seek after the divine, meditating on some aspect of creation or on scripture, reaching out to become aware of and interact with the connectivity of the divine nature.
In the other, the subject is either overwhelmed by a revelation of the numinous or deliberately empties herself so that there is space for God to self-reveal—Be still and know that I am God (Ps 46:10). For a time I thought this might constitute a distinct type of knowledge (fiduciary or pistic) but extensive correspondence with John Heron prompted me to accept that this, too, is a form of experiential knowing.
The dimensions as a system
Each dimension of doctrine is affected and illumined by the others—there is a systemic nature to the set of four. The following exercise will illustrate this briefly in the case of scripture. The same could be done with each of the other three dimensions.
Scripture comes out of experience. Without the experience of Jesus, of Easter, of the Spirit within the burgeoning community of the church there would have been no motivation for the recording and crystallisation which has ended up as scripture.
Furthermore, experience is intimately involved in our reading of scripture, especially when we meditate on it but whenever we encounter God’s living word through the inherently lifeless medium of ink on paper (or even electrons on a phosphorescent screen).
The whole question of the canon of scripture is dependent on tradition. Until Marcion collected together a set of writings in about 140 AD which seemed to support his cause—and, more importantly, rejected those which did not—there was little consensus about what constituted scripture. Marcion’s canon of authentic scripture, which excluded anything which referred to Law or YHWH, who Marcion saw as little better than a deimurge, had no books from the Old Testament and expunged everything which Marcion felt had been added by ‘Judaisers’. He took Luke’s gospel as primary, thinking it had been written by Paul and then altered by the Judaisers.
Other writers advocated the inclusion or exclusion of certain books (some rejected John’s gospel, others anything non-apostolic like the Shepherd of Hermas). Iranaeus was the first to advocate something very close to the present canon, which was not finally fixed until 367 when Athanasius circulated his thirty-ninth festal letter identifying the twenty-seven books of the current New Testament. (Indeed, the question of the canon is still controversial, with most Protestant churches regarding those writings which appear in the Septuagint but not in the Masoretic text as deutero-canonical while Catholic churches regard them as canonical.)
Without reason, scripture cannot be read sensibly. Not only do we need understanding and scholarship to help us comprehend the more obscure passages but our whole attitude to the Bible is conditioned by reason. Even the most literalist of fundamentalists would, I believe, use reason in the interpretation of a passage such as 1 Kings 7:23: “Now he made the sea of cast metal ten cubits from brim to brim, circular in form, and its height was five cubits, and thirty cubits in circumference.” which, if taken literally, clearly indicates that the value of pi was exactly 3.0 when the Temple was made. I’ve never come across anyone who would not use reason to argue that these are to be taken as approximate values rather than the literal alternative with its implication that the actual metric of the space-time continuum was miraculously altered in that place and time.
The dimensions defining a space
A common concept in modern physics is that of a state space—a fictional space whose dimensions are not the actual physical dimensions of height, length and breadth. Well-known examples are graphs such as the rise and fall of the stock market over a period of years—this is a two-dimensional state space whose dimensions are value of shares (in pounds or dollars) and time (in years).
It is possible to imagine (though with some difficulty) a four-dimensional finite state space where the dimensions are adherence to scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Suppose that the strength of attachment to any of the four can have any value between 0 and 9, where 9 is total commitment and 0 is total repudiation. We could then plot any group of individuals (movement, denomination, sect, cult, etc) within this space by assigning four co-ordinates to them.
Thus deists would be located somewhere near (0,0,9,3) since they repudiate scripture and tradition, commit totally to reason and give some credence to experience (even though they might deny this). Other groups might be located thus:
The model could also be used to consider whether some areas of the space are inherently non-Christian. I have argued that anything with a zero on the scripture dimension will be non-Christian. Others may argue that too much or too little of the others will disqualify some from being ‘proper’ Christians at the very least.
Finally we could plot the trajectory (movement through the space) of an individual believer as they learn, grow, doubt, mature in the faith. Each of us will have our own journey; if we are spending too much time in one region of the space we may need some help to move on and deepen our understanding. I probably started my Christian life (in my first twenty years) as something like (3,8,8,3). Today it would be closer to (8,5,4,6).
Scripture, tradition, reason and experience—all are necessary, none are sufficient. Of the four, scripture has to take primacy because it provides the specifically Christ-centred content without which Christian doctrine would be just ‘religious’.
Different ages and different kinds of people may use any of the four as their starting point to faith. It doesn’t matter, as long as the other three are brought into play at a sufficiently early stage to prevent heresy or falling away. In a postmodern age most people will probably start from experience, especially experience of relationship and connectedness. The challenge for the church is to recognise this, work with it, reinforce it and then devise ways of helping those who have experienced to move to encompass scripture, reason and tradition (probably in that order).
Chadwick, Henry 1967, The Early Church, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Heron, John 1992, Feeling and Personhood: Psychology in Another Key. London: Sage.
McGrath, Alister E. 2001, Christian Theology: An Introduction, (3rd ed), Oxford, Blackwell.
Parsons, Charles 2001, Christian Doctrine, Norwich: Diocesan Training Team.
Richard Seel July 2002.