Dogmatics, centering and the Synoptics.

September 13th, 2016
by Chris

I found a link in my fb feed to an article arguing the need for dogmatics in the church. Dogmatics is “the systematic critique of the message of the church… to avoid deviation, weakness and heresy”. In the Reformed tradition, the masterwork on the subject is Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics”, which runs to 14 volumes…

My immediate reaction was to dismiss this argument as clear rubbish (as you might expect from someone who wrote a blogpost titled “The Heresy of all Doctrines”¬†some while ago. And yet, I started thinking – about (for instance) Arnaud Amalric, bishop of Citeaux and papal legate saying (probably in at least some accordance with the doctrine of the time) “kill all, God will know his own”. I think of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel (and he is not by any means the only culprit). I think of the identification of Christianity with empire, which the Romans, Germans, Austrians, Russians, Spanish, Portuguese and British have done, and the Americans are now doing. And I shudder. These are all positions which I would dearly like to label false, deviant and yes, heretical.

Then again, I think of Barth’s 14 volumes (which I haven’t read, and don’t intend to – I’m not trying to be part of the Reformed tradition anyhow, although elements of it are definitely present in Anglicanism) and wonder whether with that level of specification anyone can avoid heresy on at least some point. Actually, though, I strongly suspect that the vast bulk of people in the pews are technically heretics on some point even in respect of a much more relaxed dogmatic structure than Barth’s – Jason Michaeli’s recent series on heresies¬†should be enough to convince most of us. What good is doctrine which no-one actually follows in its totality? Is the only function to convince us that we are all sinners – simul justus et peccator?

No, as I suggested in the “Heresy of all Doctrines” post, I think the problem is not in having some principles, some basics, it’s in having too many of them and trying to specify them incredibly closely. However, bearing in mind that every basic principle or assertion is going to exclude someone if we are thinking in terms of a requirement for belonging to a group, I am very attracted to the concept of the centered set (as contrasted with the bounded set, which is defined by what characteristics you have to have to be within it, and by implication the lack of any or which sets you definitively outside it).

Using the language of centered set, you would be located within the normal spectrum of atheist-to-theist not as an “in or out” affair but on the basis of how close you were to centering your life on God (where “God” could possibly be interpreted as widely as you wished, at least initially – it certainly is in one group I belong to, and this seems to work just fine for them). Similarly “Christian” could indicate degrees – of adherence to the principle of following Jesus, but without demanding a particular conception of Jesus. Also, distance from the centre of the set would be less important, in this conception, than the direction of ones attention.

There could well be an objection that my insistence that we should not attempt to specify what-it-is-that-is-God or who exactly Jesus was means that the location of the centre is unknown, so we could not adequately orient ourselves. In the case of God, I would counter that God is essentially beyond adequate human comprehension in the first place and that humanity is unlikely ever to be so close to the centre that some slight difference in orientation matters; so long as God is (as Paul Tillich puts it) our ultimate concern, we are correctly oriented.

In the case of Jesus, I have previously argued that he has to be regarded primarily as showing us the (or at least a) correct direction to God rather than as a hurdle or obstacle in the way of communion with the divine, or (for those who consider direct communion with the divine impossible) a necessary intermediary beyond whom we cannot go. This is treating him as the paradigmatic example of a man living oriented on God and held out by God as such, which is very much the picture obtained from the Synoptic Gospels and illuminated in depth by Daniel Kirk’s new book “A Man Attested by God”; although further argument would be needed to demonstrate that this is also in reasonable accordance with Paul and with John (although possibly not with all of the deutero-Pauline or the Catholic epistles). This is, of course, not Kirk’s thesis; he has a personal high Christology and is merely speaking to the content of the Synoptics.


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