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The Delicate Relationship Between Faith, Doctrine

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The recently concluded Vatican Synod on the Family offered hints of some significant concessions on long-standing policies regarding the church’s sacramental ministry to divorced persons.

Reports pointed to support for those measures by “progressive” bishops and cardinals, following the encouragement of Pope Francis to embrace mercy as a guiding principle.

Those who opposed such changes appealed to the authority of “church doctrine” as a basis for denying Communion to persons heretofore excluded.

This movement to modify policy and practice, and the opposition to it, illustrate the delicate relationship between faith and doctrine within an ecclesiastical community.

It has led to some reflection on how doctrine develops and how it functions in the faith journey.

When the meaning of an experience of faith is described and interpreted among its adherents, patterns of interpretation emerge and find collective acceptance as “standard” expressions of its meaning.

These common understandings then serve as a basis for sharing the experience and for nurturing a growing understanding of it.

When that accepted interpretation becomes an “official” way of thinking about some aspect of the faith experience, “doctrine” is born.

For example, a doctrine of the Trinity provides an accepted, official in most settings, understanding of the way God has been experienced in the Christian faith encounter/relationship.

Certain doctrines of atonement offer explanations of the meaning of the life and death of Jesus.

Christologies, high and low, seek to describe the divine-human nature of God’s self-disclosure in Christ.

Ecclesiology provides a doctrinal expression of the answer to the question, “Who/what is the church?”

Doctrines provide content for education, guidance for thinking, and standards for measuring consistency of thought and practice from one generation to the next.

It is difficult to imagine any relationship, let alone a faith relationship, without some answer to the question, “What does this mean and how should it be expressed?”

Doctrines at their best grow out of a community’s effort to provide specific expressions of the meaning of their common faith experience, in order to preserve its integrity and point to its implications for thought and practice.

With time and an evolving need to maintain control of thought and practice, doctrines tend to move in the direction of becoming “dogma” – a term that suggests more rigid and enforceable authority.

What emerges from and serves the need for a “description” of some aspect of a faith experience becomes a “definition” of that experience, and the maintenance and preservation of the definition can become more important than the purpose which its ideas and concepts were originally designed to serve.

This seems to be a natural process, not limited to any particular time, place or faith tradition.

We see it in the encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees. We see it in the 16th century church and the Reformers. We see it in many expressions of theological tension within denominations.

And we see it in a modern Roman Catholic Church when some of its leaders see a need for grace and mercy as a guide for ministry and others see “church doctrine” as a basis for withholding it.

The tension and creativity that are inherent in this process keep a living and growing faith from becoming rigid and brittle.

We can remember Jesus’ image of what happens when new wine is put into old wineskins, as he was attempting to pull the covenant faith beyond the forms that had come to define it (see Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37).

The recent synod gives us a glimpse of the stretching that new wine is doing to time-honored church doctrine, and we can watch with hope and understanding as the tension does its work in keeping faith on course.

Perhaps Pope Francis said it best in his closing remarks to the gathering. “The synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness.”

His words sound like good guidance for those who seek to maintain the delicate partnership of faith and doctrine in a world of expanding need.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.