Rule Theory of Doctrine

(This is a continuation of a Cultural-Linguistic Approach to Religion)


What is doctrine?

Doctrines are rules to guide Christian life and speech.

They are not, sildenafil Lindbeck argues, view primarily propositional truth claims, nor universal symbols. This does not mean that there isn’t objective truth in doctrine, just that that is not the primary function of doctrine. Same with religious feeling or ‘experience’. It is part of the Christian faith and doctrine, but it is not the core of doctrine.

In chapter four Lindbeck lays out six categories, rules or types of doctrines:

unconditionally necessary
conditionally necessary
permanent
temporary
reversible
irreversible

In chapter five, Lindbeck sets out to test his rule theory using these six categories. The goal – to show that a Rule Theory of Doctrine “provides a nonreductive framework for discussion among those who genuinely disagree.” (pg 77)

Case #1 – The Christological Creeds (Nicaea and Chalcedon) – Unconditonally necessary//permanent

Lindbeck suggests that there is a distinction between doctrines and terminology. He reminds us that creedal terms like substance ‘ousia’ and person ‘hypostasis’ are ‘post-biblical novelties.’ (pg. 78) These terms are not essential because if they were than the creeds themselves would be temporary (rather than permanent) and conditional on a Hellenistic culture.

Christianity “has been committed to the possibility of expressing the same faith, the same teaching and the same doctrines in diverse ways.” (pg. 78)

First and second order propositions “are separable from the forms in which they are articulated.” (pg. 79).
e.g. Amanda has jaundice. We can describe this using Galen’s four humours (inbalance of the humours) or science (viral infection). Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that Amanda has jaundice (even if one explanation is more correct than the other).

What Lindbeck says we have to do is show that the doctrine of Nicaea and Chalcedon “are distinguishable from the concepts in which they are formulated” and we do this by stating, “these doctrines in different terms that have equivalent consequences.” (pg. 79)

To do this we have to see Nicaea and Chalcedon as second order ‘guidelines’ not first order ‘affirmations.’

So, Lindbeck argues that Athanasius (opponent of Arius) used Greek logic rules to describe the relationship of Christ to the Father. Athanasius expressed it with the rule ‘whatever is said of the Father is said of the Son, except the Son is not the Father.’ (pg 80). This is a rule of speech, not a first order proposition. Lindbeck argues that later scholarship imported (read in) metaphysical first order meaning into Athanasius’ statement.

Creeds are primarily regulative; not propositional.

3 regulative principles or rules behind the original creeds
1. Monotheistic principle
2. Principle of historical specificity (Jesus was really a person)
3. Principle of Christological Maximalism

The major heresies (Docetism, Arianism, Nestorianism etc) were all rejected because they violated “the limits of what was acceptable as defined by the interaction of these three criteria.” (pg. 81) Therefore, creeds are paradigms of doctrinal truth/rules. They are “permanently authoritative paradigms, not formulas to be slavishly repeated.” (pg. 82)

Practical Question – Does this mean that creeds should be re-written for a post-modern culture?
Lindbeck says ‘no.’ His reasons:
1. rare to achieve a creed that is accepted by the whole Church.
2. The creeds have “acquired liturgical and expressive functions.”
3. the recitation of the creeds is “a mighty symbol of the Church’s unity in space and time.”
4. “An updated version of the creed is less likely to invite believers to worship, proclaim and confess the faith in their language rather than in its own.” (pg. 81)

Case #2 Marian Dogmas (Immaculate Conception) – Reversibility//Irreversibility

Lindbeck argues that these two doctrines could not exist until other doctrines (i.e., Marian devotion and the doctrine of original sin) were well developed. After this long process, “Christians [Catholics] discovered that the grammar of faith required them to speak of the Mother of our Lord as sinless in a way concealed from the first generations.” (pg. 83).

A Catholic affirmation of the Immaculate Conception is necessary in order to ‘maintain her God-given and God-dependent freedom in saying ‘yes”.

So, if Marian dogma is built on a specific understanding of the theology of sin, what would happen if that understanding of the doctrine of sin changes? What if the theology of sin is temporary (culturally specific for a specific era only)? That would make it possible that the Marian dogma is reversible.

Hypothetical Ecumenical Discussion:
Evangelicals and Catholics get together to talk about Marian Dogmas. Using the ‘rule theory’ of irreversibility/reversibility how would this ecumenical dialogue proceed?
Rule Theory allows evangelicals to understand why the doctrine of IC is so important to the RC faith. It allows evangelicals to explore how to re-appropriate and appreciate the role of Mary in the biblical narrative without having to necessarily adopt the long standing traditions that led to the official IC doctrine.

But what does it do on the other side of the discussion? How would Catholics feel being told that this core doctrine is ‘reversible’, contingent on a theological tradition that may or may not continue to be accurate?

The Usefulness of Rule Theory:
So how useful is the rule theory, taxonomy of doctrine?

Positive: It ‘could make an important contribution if it encouraged the ecumenical dialogues to consider the status of doctrine in the respective churches, and also the status of particular doctrines.” (Wainwright, 130)

Negative: In reality “churches will continue to believe that doctrines make truth claims in a stronger sense than Lindbeck wants to allow. As Luther put it against Erasmus: ‘take away assertions, and you take away Christianity.” (Wainwright, 130).

  • The questions are helpful even if the categories aren’t perfect. Somehow we need to take doctrine both more seriously and less seriously at the same time.