Inner ecumenism and the place of doctrine

Is there a place for doctrine in the church? How much of a place, and where? If it is, as Lindbeck says, a cultural-linguistic phenomenon, what does that imply for the inner life of a community? For our community?

One of the limitations of The Nature of Doctrine is that it is a synchronic description. Keep in mind while reading that I understand Lindbeck through Saussure, and that this is intentional, since I feel that Saussure does better than Wittgenstein in describing the limitations of a language system. Of course, it isn't strictly synchronic; Lindbeck does, after all, follow Wittgenstein, who doesn't care about cleanly separating developmental history from the state of a system at a given point in time. However, the only extent to which The Nature of Doctrine is concerned with the diachronic is as the development of doctrines demonstrates what they are as phenomena. It is, you might say, a phenomenal theory. Or at least, a phenomenological one. Synchrony with recourse to explanatory diachrony.

Consider religion to be an element of the sociological complex that makes human culture. Since we're considering religious communities, it is reasonable to suggest it as the primary element, even though we know that this is not actually the case in life. You think of space as three-dimensional, don't you? We play with toy problems in the laboratory because full n-variable systems don't play well with the scientific method. Lindbeck describes the communal religious aspect in terms of its linguistic nature. This is nice, because while they come out of very different enunciative modalities, the analogy of linguistic and religious systems as discursive formations proves edifying. (Assuming, of course, that you are familiar with both.) Religion, as a language, varies over communities. Like linguistic phenomena, it is inherited and learned as superior to the individual, external and static. It lives inside the speaker. To the same extent, the religious belief of a community is superior to the community, and lives inside of it. Changes in religious belief happen naturally and slowly, for the most part unconsciously. Attempts to change the religious belief of a community are much like attempts to change the social contract -- on the whole, they fail. This is true because of the fundamental Saussurean understanding that signifiers are arbitrary. The dance of signification never stops. A living language uses signification as a tool with which to describe the world. Here we get to the reality of linguistic change, and an insight into religious change. You cannot fix a signification relationship because a) the signifier is arbitrary, and does not natively mean anything, and b) what it signifies in the system is an object as understood -- and this is also arbitrary. This is not, of course, to suggest any form of unreality. In point of fact, the signification is far more real because of its arbitrary and shifting nature, more real than any secondary attempt to codify the association on both sides. The signification moves, and what Barth says of the church is true of the codification: it is left guarding an empty riverbed. The codification is always a statement of the form: this signifier meant this signified object, in this place and time, under these circumstances, for these people -- on average. There is hybris involved in any attempt to state that this signifier has a lasting meaning, and to assign it out of the linguistic past, and the same hybris is involved in attempting to state that this signifier means some new thing.

Doctrine, quoth Lindbeck, is just such a secondary codification. It signifies a state of signification, of meaning. That signification has its reality in the life of the community that believes. Even though it may be simpler to model it as a propositional system, the reality of all such models is that X = Y where X and Y have equivalent values. The proposition is false when the world disproves it. Of course, it's far cheaper to carry a set of rules describing the synchronic state than to have to derive them every time. In sociological formations of high regularity and broad scope, such as Western Christianity developed under, it becomes very easy to discard the context information and assume that the rules are universal. Not true, but a convenient approximation. One of the things Lindbeck does with this, charitably enough, is to define doctrines as conditional statements, true when their conditions are true, and to posit certain arrangements of necessity in their application. We grant that your doctrines are true, within their contexts, and we hope that you will grant that ours are true within theirs. From there, we can discuss our underlying commonalities of faith. Enforcement of doctrines stops at the boundary of the community for whom they are valid codifications. Ecumenical dialogue, once this threat of enforcement is out of the way, proceeds upon the basis of faith common to the participants.


In the ELCA of late we've been proceeding along the assumption that we can enforce doctrines within the community upon those who disagree. Up until the social statement on sexuality and the expression of the churchwide assembly, and probably still after it in many places, "respect for bound conscience" has been a one-way street going in one direction or another. The ELCA cannot accept and roster practicing LGBTQI people and respect the bound consciences of those for whom hetero-abnormality is a moral wrong backed by religious doctrinal prohibitions. On the other hand, the ELCA cannot fail to accept and roster practicing LGBTQI people and respect the bound consciences of those whose sexualities are "hetero-abnormal" and as essential to their existential being as those of the "hetero-normal". Which is why Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust attempts to focus on real sexual sins: "violation, discrimination and injustice," signs of broken trust in relationships. (HS:GT final, 4) The church is bound by its own conscience to love and respect all of its members. And this is not gospel, lest anyone should call it reductionism, but the strictest legal standard we have given to us under the words of Christ. We know through Christ that salvation is not at issue here. Any who confess salvation to be at issue because of human behavior have a questionable place within Lutheran theology because of our firm belief in justification by faith alone. Here stands or falls the church. Since God makes it stand, posterior to salvation and separate from it we are bound as Christians to obey two commandments and through them all of the rest: love God and neighbor with your entire self.

It is an expression of God's profound love for us that we have these words through Christ, but they fall with as much force upon the theological practitioner today as they did upon the Pharisaical Judaism of their time. It is precisely us for whom they are intended, as commands to the powerful in religious communities. God saves, first and foremost, and then God covenants with the saved. It is through these words of Christ that our consciences as Christians are captive to God. So what becomes of doctrine? I guess it depends on the doctrine. The leadership of our community, the ELCA, has determined through a long collective process with high levels of community participation that it does not hold hetero-normativity to be Christian doctrine. We have far higher priorities when it comes to sexual morality than the gender or orientation of the participants. We want love and trust. To that end, we accept LGBTQI people as full members of the body of Christ and the priesthood of all believers. But of course, I am obliged to insert that qualification that must be attached to every codification: in this place and time, under these circumstances, for this group of people -- on average. Because it is clear that this may be the majority opinion of the church, but it is not an opinion held equally by all participants in the community. And it may be a social statement, but it does what Lindbeck says doctrines do, which is approximate the actual grammar of the community. As a doctrine, it also does what doctrines have historically done within communities: determine right and wrong behavior by conformance. And it is backed by the majority approval of practical steps to implement this acceptability stance by opening the rostered ministry of Word and Sacrament to practicing LGBTQI people. However nicely phrased, the church means this to be a real part of its doctrine as a community, and has developed it out of the best parts of its own prior doctrinal heritage. HS:GT is explicitly the ELCA following its legal covenant obligation of love for the neighbor.

So what does this do as doctrine? When it divides the community, because it is a choice among possible doctrinal options -- everything is a hairesis, especially orthodoxy -- what happens to those who are heretics under this new rule? HS:GT has done well by making the church's burden of love for the entire community and all sides part of this doctrine. It does not tolerate intolerance. It demands love and pushes the boundaries of neighbor wider. We failed under the old boundaries! And many more will fail under the new boundaries, which has always been the problem with law. Every law, for good or ill, condemns disobedience. We have said that we will not allow these sins against these people any longer, but it will be a while before that is true. More immanently, a vocal portion of the ELCA threatens to leave the ELCA because of this doctrinal statement and its implementation. They feel excluded from community because this community includes certain others in ways with which they disagree. And this, too, is what doctrines do. They are rules “regarding beliefs and practices that are considered essential to the identity or welfare of the group in question,” and “they indicate what constitutes faithful adherence to a community.” (ND, 74) Members that now feel excluded used other doctrinal understandings to exclude LGBTQI persons from full membership in the community, and do not desire to change these doctrines. If sin does not exclude from the community, on which many of us agree with Augustine, some at least disagree to the extent that it should exclude from leadership and ministry, and proceed to define sins, in this case including being L, G, B, T, Q and/or I.

Ah, but sin does not exclude from the community. Doctrine does, now as always. So however the Lutheran church divides again, perhaps we should take a page from Lindbeck and be internally ecumenical. We cannot make our brothers and sisters agree, and we should not. We have defined what the ELCA will do, what love of neighbor means for this community as it signifies the body of Christ without respect to gender, sex and sexuality. Whether or not our brothers and sisters in Christ respect the operational rules of this community, they are welcome to walk with us, and we will do our best to walk with them, which is what love of neighbor means when applied to the disagreement. Official community boundaries inevitably follow the shifting of meaning, and intervene between disagreements. It is the same within language. But we should never forget that we are dialects of Christianity, itself a dialect of the faith in the God who chose Abraham. If we lose our commonalities in other things, this is still life. If we lose our commonalities in God, it is death. However communities stay together or separate, nothing can separate us from the love of God or God's gift of salvation in Christ. This above all things must be remembered, and especially by the doctrinal theologian. Whatever else may be true in our sundered communities, this is our ground for dialogue and the only permanent unity of our faith and life.


  1. Also, Doctrines, like everything else, exist in a context. As the contexts change, the Doctrines must be re-negotiated. Really love your work!

  2. You're right, Adam. (And thanks!) I missed a trick in this post, which is to explain the interaction of dogmatic codifications and diachronic change in signification. I was headed toward why we can have traditionally claimed one doctrinal position and presently claim another, which is precisely the point that contextual change necessitates propositional (i.e. doctrinal) change. Instead, I stayed synchronic, which is the weakness of Lindbeck's approach. When he takes doctrinal change off the table as a present reality, he solves some ecumenical nightmares, but creates others when it comes to understanding the actual development of doctrines as an ongoing process. Considering the "semper eadem" attitudes of both Lutherans and Catholics in dialogue, it was an understandable choice.


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