Doctrine as Translation

A 2003 Australian production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot caused controversy when it deviated from the strict conditions set by the Beckett estate. Ruth Skilbeck reports in the Irish Times on 17 January 2003, that director Neil Armfield, added percussion to the play in an attempt to make it more “accessible” to local audiences. On its opening night, the Beckett estate demanded that the production remove the percussion in any further performances, believing the addition to be “a direct and aggressive attack on the Beckett estate”. At the accompanying Beckett symposium Armfield shared his frustrations: "In coming here with its narrow prescriptions, its dead controlling hand, its list of 'not alloweds', the Beckett estate seems to me to be the enemy of art," he continued, “I feel when a work is as great as Godot, it belongs to the world. No one is going to bother spending the time, energy and love on a work if they want to destroy the work. They might screw it up, but it's only through the process of works being produced that works get renewed and reborn.”

This story parallels much of the tension surrounding doctrinal debates in a post-Christendom, global church. As the church grows and centres of authority shift, are classic doctrines to be preserved or translated? Armfield’s desire to relate the greatness of Godot to the masses was, in his mind, a creative and loving gesture. It seems to demonstrate that while the original text matters; the responsibility of a later interpreter to ensure that the text is felt and understood trumps their responsibility to preserve. In the contemporary, global church, the role of doctrine should not be the preservation of past forms, but translation of the experience of God, both recorded in Scripture and presently manifest, in a manner that is communally resonant, fostering praxis consistent with proclamation.

This post develops a proposal for a role of doctrine in a post-Christendom, global church. It begins by exploring writings by George Lindbeck and Kevin Vanhoozer, arguing their contributions restrict the potential for translation through calls to unity. To move forward I engage the function of doctrine, drawing on James H Cone and Ellen T Charry. They show doctrine needs to be transformative, meeting people in their contexts and drawing them into the mission of God. Finally I examine the potential of the role of doctrine as translation; a process empowering both the renewing and rebirth of past expressions of doctrine, and the emergence of entirely new forms built on the endless array of communal and individual experiences of God.      

Lindbeck and Vanhoozer

George Lindbeck conceived of religion as a “cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought”.[1] This means that religion shapes more than is shaped. The “objectivities of religion, its language, doctrines, liturgies, and modes of action” precede religious experience and expression.[2] The cultural/linguistic view of religion means that doctrine becomes a skill to be learnt to assist the Christian belong to the community. Doctrinal truth is known “by learning how to use ordinary Christian language correctly and effectively in prayer, praise, admonition and teaching”.[3] Because of this, the role of doctrine is about forming Christian disciples who witness to the “single gigantic proposition”[4] that is the religion.

Critiques of Lindbeck point out that his framework brings the culture of the church into conflict with all other cultures. David Congdon shows, “Doctrine makes sense within a specific ‘cultural-linguistic’ context and is ‘incommensurable’ with other contexts”.[5] For Lindbeck, the text “absorbs the world, rather than the world the text”.[6] This leads to a prioritising of the church, and preservation of the church’s historic structures[7] (which is ostensibly the church in its Western form).

Clearly these are issues for a post-Christendom, global church. Congdon states the danger, “Christianity within Lindbeck’s theological framework is an untranslatable worldview that seeks to circumscribe everything within the bounds of the church. The end of this path lies in the return of Christendom and the establishment of the church as the arbiter of social and political power”.[8] Importantly, as John Flett has pointed out, Lindbeck’s ecumenical commitments mean that he couches this cultural preservation in language of unity.[9] In the landscape of world Christianity, unity, while a virtuous goal, is often a loaded term employed to limit embrace of divergent doctrinal or structural expression. For this reason, Lindbeck’s view of religion as a “single gigantic proposition” can marginalise the experience and expression of Christianity that emerges outside of these historic structures.

Kevin Vanhoozer acknowledges the need for translation to meet changing contexts. Theology itself, Vanhoozer writes, “is the attempt to ‘translate’ what we read on the sacred page into sacred doctrine to restate teaching from God about God in concepts and categories that speak coherently and compellingly to people today”.[10] Vanhoozer’s commitment to emerging voices in the global church indicates that his conception of doctrine might be suitable in the current age. However, Vanhoozer pulls back at important points, evidenced in his defence of the Chalcedonian Christology of two natures in one person. He makes a distinction between the judgment of Chalcedon (as “theologically binding” and necessary for the unity of the church) and the concepts (which are particular to the Greek/Hellenistic context and so non-binding or normative). While this is a positive step in allowing for contextual language, it is restrictive in mandating the “ontological presuppositions” of the Christian faith. Vanhoozer holds that “global Christians need to express the same judgment in some way in order to rightly respond to the prime theological imperative (known as the First Commandment)”.[11] Not only does this fix the end point of theological and doctrinal development in the past, it assumes that the questions asked, the experience seeking expression, is necessarily ontological. However, as a Western question, this may not warrant a universal and hierarchical place in global Christian discourse.

Vanhoozer also leans on unity when insisting on the importance of Chalcedon (and other early catholic consensus). This view of unity calls the non-Western Christianity not to become Western, but “stay authentically Christian”.[12] The distinction is never made entirely clear. Vanhoozer’s need to protect the judgments of the early councils seems tied to his view of doctrine as “direction for our participation in the drama” of God’s word/act.[13] That drama preserves the “unified action”[14] that unfolds in the narrative of Scripture. Heresy, then, is the making of “judgments that go against the canonical grain”.[15] ‘Judgments’ is the language Vanhoozer uses to preserve the decisions of Chalcedon, suggesting that the unified action of the narrative of God’s word/act continues through these early councils. The problem with this unified action narrative is that it does not exist in Scripture or the early centuries of Christianity. Scripture contains contested narratives (for example views of the monarchy throughout the Old Testament) and the church of Asia in the early centuries had a “unique diversity”, assisted by the migration of those Christians forced out of Rome by the unified narrative.[16]  Going deeper, Scott Sunquist shows, early Syriac “theology was not concerned with christological or trinitarian formulations, but with defending the universality and missionary nature of this new Asian religion”.[17] The Syriac context meant “most of the early Asian Christian writings were more biblical and allegorical and less philosophical than what developed in the Hellenistic world”.[18] This different narrative in Christian development problematises Vanhoozer’s view of doctrine in the same way a post-Christendom global church does. His flattening of the tradition (and Scripture) and his determination that certain judgments are universal, demanding adherence for the sake of unity, does not allow for doctrinal developments that, while in conflict with Vanhoozer’s narrative, draw faithfully from marginalised voices in Scripture and tradition.

Both Lindbeck and Vanhoozer’s articulations of doctrine risk being performed in the manner of the Beckett estate, prioritising preservation over the possibility of the new. While there are seeds in Vanhoozer’s work on translation, translation needs to be freer if it is to be positively construed as the role of doctrine in a post-Christendom, global church.

The Function of Doctrine

Before proposing a more suitable role of doctrine, it is worth asking what is its function? To answer this I want to draw on two conversation partners: Ellen T Charry and James H Cone.

Charry argues secularisation shifted the function of doctrine: “the dominant goal became laying out the pattern of Christian doctrines so that Christians would assent to correct propositions”.[19] Though they are perhaps more nuanced than some of the examples Charry has in mind, Lindbeck and Vanhoozer risk falling into this pattern (Lindbeck for the preservation of the church’s culture, Vanhoozer for the preservation of the unified narrative). What was lost, according to Charry, was the “sapiential” nature of truth (and truth seeking), where knowing the truth “implied loving it, wanting it, and being transformed by it”.[20] Doctrine needs to recapture this deeper sense of knowing. To do this, doctrine needs more gumption, extending beyond description to make a claim as to what the ‘excellent life’ looks like, and then helping to form identity and character.[21] Importantly, the excellent life in Christ is realised in the service of “the children, the elderly, the poor, the sick, and those in prison”.[22] That is, the excellent, transformed life that doctrine seeks to form is found outside of the self, indeed, outside of the church.

Before addressing his view on the function of doctrine, it is helpful to pay attention to Cone’s reminder that “we should never separate the doctrine of the church from specific local congregations”.[23] This means that understanding a church through social analysis “must precede a doctrine of the church”.[24] Already, we identify divergence from views explored in the previous section. Moving now to function, Cone’s articulation of doctrine is missional, judged entirely through the lens of liberation:

“Black Theology is not prepared to accept any doctrine of God, man[sic], Christ, or Scripture which contradicts the black demand for freedom now. It believes that any religious idea which exalts black dignity and creates a restless drive for freedom must be affirmed”.[25]

Doctrine should do something. It should compel the Christian, drawing them into, or sustaining them through, the struggle for liberation and freedom for the oppressed. Cone’s view thrusts the believer into the world on behalf of its oppressed. The focus is shifted from preserving unity with the tradition and toward how it can bolster those working for liberation: “If the doctrine is compatible with or enhances the drive for black freedom, then it is the gospel of Jesus Christ”.[26] Doctrine is to be praxis oriented, spurring the community into the work of liberation, which is the mission of God.

The role of doctrine needs to fulfil this function. Theories of doctrine that are content with the description and affirmation of historic statements removed from present contexts miss the sapiential nature of doctrine and the need for social analysis. Similarly, a view of doctrine that finds its end in the cultivation and preservation of a particular church culture diminishes the missional demand of the Christian life. Finally, the essentialising of historic judgments as necessary for contemporary doctrinal development may stifle the ability of doctrine to be what it needs to be to enhance the drive for freedom. To fulfil the functions set forth by Charry and Cone, the role of doctrine needs to express the encounter with God in a communally resonant way, demanding praxis matching proclamation.

Doctrine as Translation

Translation is not a novel concept for the Christian faith. As Andrew Walls points out, the “Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation: ‘the word became flesh and walked among us’ (John 1:14)”.[27] Lamin Sanneh also makes clear, “Christianity is a translatable religion, compatible with all cultures”.[28] In our proposal, translation exists between two encounters: those recorded in Scripture, and those experienced in the present community. To understand the first, Scripture needs to be reframed away from single narrative. It is better conceived as a series of encounters, faithfully, if not uniformly, expressed. It is the ground guiding translation. The encounter of the contemporary community, on the other hand, allows the question of culture to be introduced without threat. Concrete existence and encounter shapes the language and needs of doctrinal development, ensuring its communal resonance. It is the future leading translation.

This proposal fosters an unapologetic engagement with the cultural and religious heritage of a community. An example of this can be found in the doctrine of sin developed by Minjung theologians. Western views of sin were unfruitful and could not answer the questions of the community, nor resonate with their more optimistic views of humanity.[29] In this context, Minjung theologians were able to draw on the concept of Han, not as a straight translation of sin, but a full concept that bridged the encounters recorded in Scripture and felt in Korea. It drew and sustained the marginalised Minjung community in the struggle for freedom.

Exorcisms are another area where this model of translation bears fruit. With the prevalence of exorcism accounts in the New Testament and in the lived experience of many communities in Africa (to take a broad example), the Western doctrinal tradition is insufficient. By focusing on the two encounters, rather than the unified narrative or cultural form, doctrines of baptism, ecclesiology, sanctification, and salvation can take the African and New Testament encounter of demonic oppression and cruciform liberation and express it in new ways that maintain transformational power and communal resonance.[30] 

It is important to observe that this proposal also holds room for the church’s doctrinal tradition. For example, the work of Chalcedon is a faithful attempt to translate the encounter recorded in Scripture (which witnessed to the worship of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit) and the encounter/context of the early Roman church (steeped in Hellenism and Greek Philosophy), in a way that resonated with their community and surroundings - helping to form their identity and hold off that which would jeopardise the mission of God. Certainly, current doctrinal attempts can draw on the various translations (doctrinal traditions/expressions) through history, but they are not held by their language or judgments.    

Doctrine as translation is a configuration that makes possible the functions articulated by Charry and Cone. Its duty is to achieve community resonance by expressing a faithful translation of the community’s experience and the Biblical encounters, meaning that the truth it proclaims will, necessarily, be sapiential. Its responsibility to be led by the concrete existence of the community ensures its praxis focus, requiring doctrine to identify what oppresses the community and their path to freedom. Finally, doctrine’s grounding in the Biblical encounters, as diverse as they may be, answers the unity question without appealing to cultural form or mediation.

 

Returning to our opening story, Armfield is right to suggest that great art belongs to the world. So does the development of doctrine. Neither is beholden to preserving past forms or judgments. Their allegiance is to present an expression of doctrine that is accessible, meaningful, and transformational. Expressed alternatively, translation is directed towards the future. Doctrine is intended to transform life and draw the community into the mission of God. In a post-Christendom, global church, this will only be fulfilled if a community’s present context and past tradition is allowed to shape doctrine with nothing to bind it, and only the plurality of Biblical encounters serving as guide. All too briefly, this post proposes that the role of doctrine is the translation of the encounter of God recorded in the Biblical witness and felt in the present community into an expression that is communally resonant and praxis focused.

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[1] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 33.

[2] Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 39.

[3] In, Mike Higton “Lindbeck and the Christological Nature of Doctrine”, Criswell Theological Review 13 no 1 (2015): 49.

[4] Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 51.

[5] David Congdon, The God Who Saves (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016), 173.

[6] Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 104.

[7] John G. Flett, Apostolicity (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), 49.

[8] Condon, The God Who Saves, 174.

[9] Flett, Apostolicity, 50.

[10] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Christology in the West”, in Jesus Without Borders, ed. Gene L. Green et al (Cumbria: Langham Global Library, 2015), 12.

[11] Vanhoozer, “Christology in the West”, 31.

[12] Vanhoozer, “Christology in the West”, 33.

[13] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: a Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: WJKP, 2005), 237.

[14] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine”, 101

[15] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 424.

[16] Scott W. Sunquist, Explorations in Asian Christianity: History, Theology, Mission (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2017), 28.

[17] Sunquist, Explorations in Asian Christianity, 30-31.

[18] Sunquist, Explorations in Asian Christianity, 31-32.

[19] Ellen T. Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 237.

[20] Charry, By the Renewing of Your Mind, 236.

[21] Charry, By the Renewing of Your Mind, 239-240.

[22] Charry, By the Renewing of Your Mind, 241.

[23] James H Cone, Speaking the Truth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 112.

[24] Cone, Speaking the Truth, 114.

[25] James H Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1969), 120.

[26] Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 121.

[27] Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996), 26.

[28] Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2009) 56.

[29] Alexander Chow, “The East Asian Recover of Sin”. Studies in World Christianity 19.2 (2013), 128.

[30] For detailed examples, Henning Wrogemann, Intercultural Hermeneutics, trans. Karl E. Bohmer (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), 337-343. Or Amos Yong, Renewing Systematic Theology (Waco, Texas: Balor University Press, 2014) 145-160.