It’s fifty years since I first ‘caught’ theology. In 1972 I failed some university exams, dropped out of my biology course and began the journey that would lead to ordained ministry and a lifetime as a student and teacher of theology. I can still remember the buzz from first reading John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology. I settled on systematic theology and Christian doctrine as my main areas of study and teaching. In other words, I’ve been interested in reflecting on the main affirmations of Christian faith, the ways we hand these on from generation to generation and the connections we can make between different affirmations and the world we live in.
This means that I see things rather differently from Andrew Pratt (The illogicality of faith, March 28th). He worries that an over-emphasis on creeds and faith-as-affirmation has blunted Christianity as a way of living out the lordship of Christ in the world. I think I see what he means, but from my perspective, creeds and doctrines do matter, not least because they have a profound effect on the way we understand the world and act within it. Bad theology is one element in the perversion of human behaviour, prompting and underpinning evil deeds with divine sanction. By contrast, good theology, sound Christian doctrine, helps to underwrite a way of life that models itself on Christ. Two contemporary examples illustrate this.
The first is very close to home. In an essay in The Guardian[i], to mark the recent Netflix documentary on Jimmy Savile, Mark Lawson wrote about Savile’s distorted theology of salvation and its part in his horrendous catalogue of sexual abuse. Savile, a life-long committed Roman Catholic, believed in a God who judges us according to the balance of our behavioural accounts. We are admitted to heaven if our tally of good deeds is longer than our list of sins. His frantic charity work, fund-raising, sponsored runs and cycle rides, were all part of a desperate attempt to compensate for the abusive actions that he knew were wrong. He really seemed to believe that he could earn his place in heaven by – as it were – bribing God to ignore the many sins he had committed. Repentance, mercy and grace do not seem to have been part of his theological vocabulary.
The second example is even more current. Several observers have noted that Vladimir Putin’s hostility towards Ukraine is at least partly driven by a theology and spirituality that legitimises aggression. According to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine[ii], this theology combines a belief in the divine inspiration and vocation of the Russian nation with a Manichaean mindset, setting a virtuous, godly Russia in opposition to the dark and evil West. While there may be an element of political expediency in Putin’s religiosity, it does seem that this mystical nationalism is a genuine conviction. Once again, bad theology is linked in with disastrously immoral and destructive action.
Now, I don’t want to argue that believing in the traditional creeds will guarantee a life of righteousness and responsibility – there are far too many counter-examples for me to do that. But they are part of the story of faith, which is always a combination of belief and action. Last Saturday – Easter Eve – I joined the congregation in my local parish church for the Easter vigil. As part of the service we re-affirmed our baptismal vows, confessing our faith in the words of the historic creeds, and at the same time we renounced evil and promised to follow Christ.
Let me briefly mention two authors who can help us see the relevance of doctrinal affirmations. The first is the American theologian, Ellen Charry. In By the Renewing of Your Minds [iii](one of my all-time favourite books on doctrine) she takes examples of doctrinal controversy and developments in each stage of Christian history, from the New Testament to the present. In each case (for example, the trinitarian theology of St Augustine) she shows how doctrine is presented in order to promote a vision of the Christian life, not simply as a form of abstract speculation.
My other example is a contemporary British Methodist theologian, David Clough. Clough (a fellow contributor to Theology Everywhere) has made the focus of his work the Christian approach to non-human creation, particularly animals. In On Animals[iv], he takes some of the central affirmations of Christian doctrine, creation, reconciliation and redemption, and helps us see how they can direct our attitudes and behaviour towards animals.
So, let’s not abandon the creeds, or water down the key affirmation of Christian faith. Instead, let’s make sure that we don’t separate doctrine from discipleship. They really do belong together.
[i] The Guardian, April 1st, 2022.
[ii] https://risu.ua/en/russian-world-20-and-putins-spirituality_n126473 , accessed 16-04-22.
[iii] Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds, The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, New York, Oxford, 1997.
[iv] On Animals: Systematic Theology: Volume I: London, T&T Clark, 2012