Theology = Worldview? Christine Helmer on the Problem with Contemporary Approaches to Doctrine

I picked up a copy of Christine Helmer’s book, Theology and the End of Doctrine at AAR because . . . deep sales on books are terrible things to waste. Anyway, a colleague had told me about the book a few months before and I was curious. I’ve been reading it here and there since then, and I have really enjoyed it. It is a tight piece of argumentation and tackles the important issue of how doctrine functions in theology. The broad structure of Helmer’s argument moves in two parts: first, demonstrate that doctrine has become disconnected from the reality of God; second, advance a constructive proposal for how to reconceive doctrine’s connection to the reality of God. In this post I want to highlight a culminating moment in the first part of her argument.

This material comes at the end of Helmer’s discussion of the way that Bruce Marshall conceives of doctrine. She takes him to be paradigmatic of a trend in late 20th century and early 21st century theology, which she labels more precisely as the “epistemic-advantage model” of doctrine. But I’ll let her make the point herself. As usual, italics are original and bold is mine.

Within the epistemic-advantage model, doctrine has lost its dialectical relation to Scripture and proclamation. Instead, it has turned into the dogmatism of a regula fidei by virtue of asserting its production in the analytic relation between church and creed. There is no other church, no other interpretation. There is only the one Scripture, read through the regula fidei that the church has produced. This is what grounds the church’s identity as a Bible-reading community with a distinct doctrinal hermeneutic. Once the church has garnered the prerogative of the truth of a worldview, however, it is cut off from the living possibility of being open to God’s word. God’s word has been rendered in human words from the past – assertions and doctrines – so that they function as predictable norms for any future theological articulation. The Deus dixit is framed as doctrine that constitutes a Christian worldview authorizing itself. All the Holy Spirit may now do is convert people to it (or not). Theology as system grounded in God’s reality is replaced by Christianity as a worldview, with theology’s function restricted to pointing to doctrines in their epistemic function with that worldview. (104–105)

The payoff?

At this point, doctrine has come to an end. Doctrine without dialectic, theology without discovery, church without history, and language without meaning – this is what is left when doctrine loses its transcendent reality and becomes the norm of its own truth, a self-enclosed system incapable of communicating to others on the outside.



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