Thursday, July 19, 2007

How should we organize doctrines?

The discussion following last week's post (concerning when to bring up the trinity) revealed that some might object to the premise of the question. The question seemed to presuppose that one should bring up doctrinal topics one-by-one. However, this is not the only way to think, write and teach theologically. So, let me step back and raise the prior question: how should organize doctrines?

Note that I am restricting this question to doctrinal theology, recognizing that there are many other aspects to the theological task (exegetical, historical, practical, etc.). However, I am narrowing our attention to the question of doctrinal organization not only for the sake of time and space but also because doctrinal theology is especially interested in the question of the organization of topics. This is one reason why doctrinal theology is also called "systematic" theology. This concern arises from the fact that organizational decisions can have material consequences. So this is not only an aesthetic or pedagogical question (though it includes these concerns).

A few organizational options come immediately to mind. Note that these may be overlapping, and so it is no surprise that some of the greatest minds in Christian history transcend the boundaries of these categories. But thinking about the basic alternatives is a good exercise.

(1) Topical. A long-standing way of organizing doctrines for teaching and writing is to move one-by-one through the main topics of doctrinal theology. This is also known as the Loci method (most likely traceable to Philip Melanchthon's Loci Communes). The strength of this approach is its clarity of presentation and balanced focus on numerous theological questions. The risk is that one may disconnect the various topics from one another and thereby fall short of a robustly systematic theology.

(2) Foundational. Another approach is to take either a specific doctrine or a particular perspective (philosophical, contextual, etc.) as one's starting point. This starting point might be located at the beginning of a theological text or course, and/or may be reiterated throughout. The point is that every doctrine is at least controlled by if not derived from this starting point. The strength of this approach is the consistency that tends to flow from it. The danger is that one may choose the starting point point poorly. In fact, even a good starting point can spoil doctrines by exercising tyrannical control over one's thought.

(3) Architectonic. One more way to organize doctrines is to interrelate them to one another in a larger superstructure. This could be done by means of broad categories which include doctrines, perhaps placing doctrinal topics in parallel sequences. Such an architectonic organization could perhaps be drawn by a diagram with major categories and sub-categories within each category. The advantage here is all the doctrines would be interrelated without one doctrine or perspective controlling every detail. The disadvantage is that some important topics might slip through the cracks because they do not fit neatly into the architecture. Furthermore, one might become intoxicated by the aesthetic appeal of certain organizational decisions to the point of distraction from the main task of expositing Christian doctrine.

Any thoughts?
Does organization matter? Why or why not?
Are there any options I have neglected?
What are some additional strengths and weaknesses of each approach?
Which approach appeals to you? Why?


Angie Van De Merwe said...

John, If you structure the Church after the Trinitarian model, as you have proposed...and Leadership is in the "Father's place", while the "community member" or "simple lay person" is in the "Son's place" (meaning that they are learning to submit to authority, as "ordered" by leadership), then the only "work of the Holy Spirit" is to bring unity...that does fall short of the understanding of individual communing with the Father through the son and diminishes the "priesthood of all believers" (which I do not believe should be absolutized, at all)...and it does tend to "make distinctions among ourselves"....and it does lead to everyone being "sure that everyone else knows" (a Pharisee???) how holy and worthy they are in getting a "leadership position" (which breeds competition and sectarianism)...And it limits the intiative(s) of individuals within community to intitiate change, a new proposal, etc. for fear of overstepping boundaries that are there but not defined...(surely we wouldn't want to define them on paper, would we???) Where do definitions limit "the spirit" and where do they maintain "order and structure"??? I am fearful for GOOD reason, which I addressed with your father when he wrote the book "There Is No I In Church"...these "problems" are many from the sociological, psychological, spiritual, economical, political, and communal aspect....We are to never dissolve our individual identity into a matter if that was the "way that is was in Paul's day"...that is dangerous..and is cultic...How many people were led down a primrose path toward destruction followind leaders who "heard God" for them...and submission was always the cost and demand of "true surrender", "total commitment"...etc...I have had too many encounters of this kind and it makes me "howl inside"...and I don't believe it is "rebellion"...We all are to "submit to one another' love...There is no hierarchy that is righteous that was why our form of government has a "balance of power" and checks and balances...etc...Blessings..

Scott Hendricks said...

I understand the first two, but not the last. If the "topical" approach will let me move according to history and/or "logical" sequence according to my teaching context, then I choose that. I agree, "foundational" could possibly stretch your hypothetical foundation too far, I think, if I understand it correctly.

At least in my head (and not enough in any writing), I have been trying to turn over the issue of establishing the authority of the preacher/teacher's message. To what do we appeal when teaching Christian faith? To scripture? If so, how do we argue for it as a source of historical and revelatory truth? Do we bypass this issue altogether and just answer those who ask the question? To what do we appeal? Or is it merely a "matter of faith" - "you just have to believe, man!"?

WTM said...

Good post, John.

Would you put a creedal order under 'topical' or 'architectonic'?

I find myself torn between a creedal structure (which is deeply Trinitarian) and a 'logical' or 'foundational' structure, only for me that means starting with Christology.

One thing that I appreciate about Moltmann's 'Contributions' is that he does his (explicit) prolegommena last.