Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What is Christian Doctrine?

Recently I've been thinking about the doctrine of the Trinity and whether Christian doctrine can develop (as some say) like a seed to a tree, or whether Christian doctrine cannot (or at least has not).

But what exactly is Christian doctrine such that it might be able to develop in the first place?  I am not wondering about the extent of Christian doctrine (e.g. whether subordinationism is a Christian doctrine or a heresy) but what the nature of doctrine is.  What is it to be a doctrine?

What follows are a few undeveloped (very sketchy) thoughts on the matter:

It would seem (at first glance) that it can't consist of sentence tokens or sentence types since Christian doctrine transcends distinct languages (e.g. Christian doctrine might be expressed in Greek or Latin or English but the very same doctrine can be expressed with different sentences).

Perhaps, then, doctrine consists in a proposition or set of propositions.  A view of propositions wherein propositions are thought of as abstract objects would lend itself to thinking that doctrine does not and cannot develop because propositions are not the sorts of things that can change (like the number four, propositions cannot enter into causal relations, ergo they can only change in the Cambridge sense).  Dogma then might be thought of as sentences expressing unchanging doctrine.  Dogma can grow or change as the Church tries to more clearly articulate what the unchanging doctrine is (and always has been).

One odd result, though, of such a view is that there would've been Christian doctrine (Jewish doctrine, etc.) even before there were Christians.  For instance, the proposition that "God exists" or that "Jesus is born of a virgin" were true before there were Christians or even any humans (taking the "is" as atemporal in the latter sentence).  But was there Christian doctrine before there were Christians?  Was their Jewish doctrine before there were Jews?  An affirmative answer strikes me as odd. 

Perhaps, though, we might say that Christian doctrine consists in certain propositions, but those propositions should only be thought of as Christian doctrine when they are expressed in Christian writings (e.g. Scriptures,creeds, and the like).  Nothing about the propositions changes except extrinsically, they're now to be regarded as propositions to be believed by Christians qua Christians.  

Could doctrine develop or change on such a view?  Only if there are some propositions to be believed by Christians at some times but not others.  Could some individual doctrine develop on such a view?  (Again, I'm not asking whether some doctrine has developed but what it might look like if it could).

Maybe.  Let's say the doctrine of the Trinity consists at time t1 of a set of propositions p, q, and r.  At time t2 it consists of propositions p, q, r, s, and t.  At t1 and t2 there is a core set of propositions to be believed but at a later time two additional propositions (in some way intimately related to the other propositions such that we're still dealing with the same doctrine in some sense of "same") are also to be believed.  The doctrine of the Trinity, then, would consist in different sets of propositions at different times.  What then, is the doctrine of the Trinity?  It's that set of propositions to be believed by Christians over the totality of Christianity (I leave aside the epistemological question of how to identify that doctrine versus, say, the doctrine of the Incarnation).

Aquinas offers an alternative view.  In the first question of the Summa and in his commentary on Boethius's De Trinitate (among other places) he understands doctrine as a science and alternatively as a certain sort of wisdom.  Doctrine, then, is something that in its non-derivative or paradigmatic sense inhabits the mind.  What does it mean for the doctrine of the Trinity to be a bit of wisdom and would this have any bearing on the development of doctrine?  I'm not sure and don't have time to think more about Aquinas's view.

A similar view (one which perhaps squares with Aquinas's thoughts) is that doctrine is an interpretation of revelation (revelation construed broadly to include natural revelation); or, perhaps if there is more to doctrine than interpretation, we might think of doctrine as a type of judgment.  (Doctrine couldn't merely be interpretation since presumably Christ promulgated doctrine in revealing things to his apostles but was not himself interpreting that revelation).

This would fit well with a lot of talk in theological circles about doctrine which is implicit in the Scriptures which is rendered more explicit (say) in the Church Fathers.  Judgments are the sorts of things that can have a context and can have an explicit meaning as well as implicit.  Judgments can develop (though they need not).  Judgments can also be expressed in different languages.  Judgments are the sorts of things that can both be revealed by God as well as expressed and promulgated by a Church.

Is there an advantage to the judgment view over the propositional view?


  1. Hi Tully,
    Here are a couple of my thoughts. First, is there an advantage to the judgment view over the propositional view? Well, this may not be an explicit answer to your question, but it seems to me that the judgment view is another proposition view, distinct from what you call the proposition view. The judgments, in the proposition view, will have content, and this content will be propositions. No?

    My view is that doctrines are sets of propositions believed by a religious institution. So, this view is a lot like the view you consider according to which doctrine is a set of propositions the content of which is expressed in Christian writings. I don't think doctrine should be tied to written words on a page though. What if all the Christian documents were destroyed? Would their not be anymore Christian doctrine? Obviously, there would still be doctrine. Thus, I would rather tie doctrine to belief than writing.

    Doctrine can develop on this view in the same way as you display above in your Trinity example. The trouble for this view though, is saying what a religious institution is. I don't have a rigorous analysis of "religious institution," but intuitively, we'd want that to capture things like the Catholic Church, the baptist churches, the United Methodist Church, Shiite Islam, Reformed Judaism ect., and exclude things like the United States of America, Carrollton High School, and the Cato Institute. There would probably be vague cases like Focus on the Family, and the progressive wing of the Democrat party :).

    A second feature of my view that one might find strange is that religious organizations have beliefs. If you think that only individuals can have beliefs, then you won't like my view. I'm inclined to think that certain religious organizations can have beliefs though, so this feature doesn't bother me.

  2. JS,

    So one question I have is, is it better to think of doctrines as propositions or judgments/beliefs which have those propositions as their content. Any reason for thinking of the doctrines as propositions rather than the latter? Why think of doctrine as sets of propositions believed rather than as beliefs? (Or judgments. To my mind judgments have a more voluntary aspect than beliefs and perhaps fit better theologically with doctrine. Dunno).

    I'm OK with religious organizations having beliefs just as long as we say that the institutions beliefs hold solely in virtue of the beliefs of the members.

  3. I think I understand. I'm wondering if it's six one way, half a dozen the other. Suppose judgments or beliefs have propositions as their content. Isn't the set of of propositions that is the content of the beliefs going to be the the set of propositions believed?

    Maybe that's not the point. I think those sets would be the same, but I guess you are wondering whether doctrines are propositions or beliefs. Beliefs are not just a subset of all the propositions. Beliefs are things that have propositions as their content, but they also have other characteristics, such being dependent on a mind for existence. Most propositions do not have that dependency (unless they are dependent on God, but I think that's different enough that I want to ignore it for now). Okay, having said all that, I think I'm seeing what you are asking all the more clearly.
    It seems to me that doctrine is dependent on man and his beliefs. Imagine creation without mankind. Would their be doctrine? I guess I don't think so. There still might be sets of propositions that would be believed by religious institutions if they did exist, but I guess I don't that would be doctrine. Is that how you feel too?

  4. JS,

    I don't know if it matters either, or the extent to which it does if it does (i.e. whether doctrine is the content of beliefs/judgments/mental dispositions/etc. OR it is those beliefs/judgments/etc.)

    I'm just asking. Aquinas and I'm sure a lot of other medievals seem to understand doctrine as something mind-dependent in a robust sense of mind-dependent. Perhaps thinking of it as propositions vs. the other stuff will just come down to how one thinks about very basic ontology and, as such, has no immediate bearing on theology.

    Regarding your last few sentences, you seem to be reiterating some things I asked about in the main body (e.g. it doesn't seem like the proposition that "God exists" was doctrine before there were humans.

    However, you could just say that the this proposition is doctrine, but it only becomes doctrine when it's believed/held in such and such a manner. Doctrine then would be a proposition with such and such a relation maybe. And one could hold that without thinking that doctrine IS a belief/judgment/what have you, even though it's related to a belief/judgment/etc.

    Again, what got me thinking about this was another question, can a doctrine develop. Is the propositional view better than the mental stuff view on this score? I don't know. So far I can't see that one view has any advantages.