Re: Human origins and doctrine (was Definition of "Species")

From: george murphy (
Date: Wed Feb 27 2002 - 07:53:04 EST

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    "Howard J. Van Till" wrote:

    > >From: george murphy <>
    > > Thus there is not simply one "doctrine of original sin" or
    > > "doctrine of the Trinity," but various forms of doctrine developed by
    > > different theologians or communities. But there are some basic
    > > _dogmas_ - that the universe is God's creation, that the man Jesus is
    > > Lord in the full sense, &c.
    > And are those _dogmas_ any less humanly crafted propositions?

            Of course. They are expressed in human language & require
    interpretation. The fundamental claim _Kyrios Iesous_ needs translation into
    "Jesus is Lord" &c. We can interpret & draw out implications of _Kyrios Iesous_
    in various language- & culture-dependent ways but there is a sense in which we
    can't get behind it. It claims to be the apostolic witness and response to
    revelation by people who were in a position to be witnesses of that revelation.
    This is an experience that we can reproduce as we can (in principle) reproduce
    scientific observations.
            & to anticipate - no, we cannot "get behind" the apostolic witness by
    studies of the historical Jesus, the culture of 1st century Palestine, &c. We may
    find out more about what Jesus did & said but we cannot test the claim that he is
    Lord in that way.
            Later christological statements such as those of Nicea and Chalcedon have
    been attempts to state the significance of this claim in particular cultural and
    historical situations, in response to particular ways of trying to understand the
    significance of Jesus. All of these statements are, of course, in "human
    language." What one has to ask about them is,
            a) in the situations in which these statements were made, were they - as
    far as they went - faithful expressions of the apostolic claim, &
            b) how can we express the intent of those claims in our cultural context?

    > > The formulation of doctrines is not a
    > > matter of "anything goes".
    > I agree, of course (and I don't recall arguing for an "anything goes"
    > approach). I would prefer to say that doctrines are, in their highest form,
    > "best human efforts" to formalize the authentic human experience of God's
    > presence (the Sacred, if you prefer) within a particular cultural tradition.
    > That's a very long way from "anything goes."

            OK, but how does one actually set any boundaries in order to say what
    doesn't "go"?
            Within the Christian community what is of concern is not generalities
    about human experience of the Sacred but the apostolic witness to God's revelation
    in Christ. Rejection of the idea that anything goes then means that what is
    preached and taught must be faithful to the apostolic witness. The purpose of
    creedal and confessional statements is to try (N.B.) to maintain that
    faithfulness. Perhaps confessional subscription isn't the best way to do that,
    but if not, what is? Is there any way to distinguish between what is faithful
    Christian proclamation & what isn't?

    > > Doctrines must preserve the integrity of
    > > those dogmas, though they may be expressed in very different languages,
    > > philosophical frameworks, &c.
    > But if the dogmas are also "best human efforts" in the sense noted above,
    > then the goal to preserve them must, I believe, take second place to the
    > goal of crafting ever more adequate formulations of both grand "dogmas" and
    > the particular doctrines within each dogmatic category. In science we make a
    > similar distinction between meta-scientific principles and particular
    > scientific theories. Both must remain open to reconsideration.

            As I said earlier, the parallel between science and theology isn't exact.

    > > I anticipate, of course, somebody saying, "But those dogmas are
    > > just human statements." Yes, they are statements of human beings about
    > > their experience of God's revelation in Jesus. & if that is challenged
    > > then I simply have to say, as Luther did at Marburg, "We are of a
    > > different spirit."
    > The "just" in the above reference seems to serve mostly as a substitute for
    > "mere," which is only a stone's throw from "worthless." Not so for dogmas
    > (in the sense George uses the term). Recognizing something as a humanly
    > crafted proposition does not at all put it in the category of "mere" or
    > "worthless." It does, however, remind us of the need for humility and
    > openness to modification or correction in place of dogmatic insistence on
    > uncontested preservation.

            I make no apology for saying "just", with no implication that that is the
    intent of anybody in this conversation. Rigid insistence on traditional
    theological statements is one danger. The other danger is a willingness to
    abandon or relativize claims to historic claims of revelation in favor of one's
    own supposed experience of the divine or discovery of God through study of the
    world. Modern science-religion work provides plenty of examples of people
    succumbing to the latter temptation. Humility is needed to guard against both

    >Recall what my original statement was:

    Once we recognize these "fundamental doctrines of the faith" as "human best
    efforts" offered by historical communities of faith at varying times and in
    varying cultural, political and sociological circumstances, they can then be
    appreciated, valued, examined, adopted, modified, rejected, or replaced, but never
    idolized as the final word or used as a club to beat other good persons away from
    the community of those who declare themselves followers of Christ (Christians).

            There is some loaded language here. I am not interested in "beating away"
    "good people" but in trying to maintain the faithfulness of the church's
    proclamation and teaching.

            One way of getting at this question is to use relativity theory as an
    analogy. There are absolutes in relativity, but these can be expressed in
    different coordinate systems. I developed this idea in an article in _Currents in
    Theology and Mission" some years ago & would be gald to send a copy to anyone
    who's interested.


    George L. Murphy
    "The Science-Theology Interface"

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