IN THIS thoughtful and challenging study, Geoff Thompson, a teacher at the (Uniting Church) Pilgrim Theological College, in Australia, explores the nature and purpose of Christian doctrine, which he defines as “communally recognised authoritative teaching”: an activity for the whole Church as it seeks to speak truthfully of God, the world, Christ, and salvation.
Eschewing unhelpful polarities, Thompson seeks to take seriously, on the one hand, the importance of revelation and its ability to speak truthfully about Christ and, on the other, the contingent, historical milieu in which such truth is sought and taught. Theology “seeks simultaneously to acknowledge the givenness of the truth that God is, and the properly human actions of thinking and writing about this truth”.
Thompson ranges widely through a series of exemplary figures from Augustine to Sarah Coakley, exploring themes such as the challenges and opportunities presented by the Enlightenment and subsequently by feminist and global perspectives. He gives particular attention in the modern period to George Lindbeck, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Christine Helmer, for whom, respectively, doctrine is a rule that guides us through Christian revelation rather as grammar guides us through a language; a prompt to fitting performance of Christian life; and a catalyst that sparks creativity and novelty whilst itself remaining unchanged.
In Thompson’s own proposal, he conceives of the Church as a “social imaginary”: a term drawn from the philosopher Charles Taylor, meaning a shared way of understanding ourselves, reflected in a set of collective practices. Within this social imaginary, doctrine is the map, and while, as on a map, some elements can be revised, such as the perspective or the colouring of countries, it none the less has a basic stability and continuity. The Bible is the compass that does not change but resolutely points to the reality beyond itself: the living God. To negotiate the terrain successfully, we need both map and compass.
As a study of Christian doctrine, this scholarly, balanced, and well-argued work would amply repay the attention of theological students or parish study groups operating at a fairly high level. My own hesitation about it — which could be extended to much similar scholarship from the Anglosphere — is that there is little apparent place for gateways into Christian doctrine through, for example, liturgy, contemplation, music, or poetry. There is much to admire, perhaps less to find amazing or fall in love with.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.
Christian Doctrine: A guide for the perplexed
T & T Clark £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18