Magazine article The Christian Century

Doctrine's Many Lives

Magazine article The Christian Century

Doctrine's Many Lives

Article excerpt

Theology and the End of Doctrine

By Christine Helmer

Westminster John Knox, 248 pp., $35.00 paperback

Christine Helmer's important book has an unusual literary feature. Its titular character, Christian doctrine, is killed off not once, but twice. Or at least the death of doctrine is "twice pronounced," with each supposed death attracting a different set of coroners who ascribe its demise to very different causes.

Helmer chronicles two historical moments when it was declared that a theological strategy had sold Christian faith down the river and made doctrine impossible. But Helmer also argues persuasively for a different end to doctrine--end in the sense of "purpose." As long as its proper end is kept in sight, Helmer maintains, Christian doctrine will turn out to be resuscitatable, even vital.

The discussion of doctrine's purpose occupies the second part of the book. Prior to that, Helmer chronicles the two moments in Christian theology when doctrine's death was declared. The first time it was said to be Friedrich Schleiermacher's fault, and anyone who has spent time in Barthian or postliberal theology will be familiar with that particular postmortem account. Schleiermacher, we are meant to believe, put an end to Christian doctrine by turning it into a function of the individual's prelinguistic interiority, rather than of the biblical text. Theologians like Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, and George Lindbeck signed the arrest warrant and have duly held Schleiermacher's work in maximum-security confinement ever since.

Helmer, thankfully, is not content simply to rehearse the charges. With precision and charity, she questions the evidence against Schleiermacher, in the process relating a fascinating back-story about how so many theologians came to blame him for doctrine's demise. The situation turns out to have been far more complex than Schleiermacher single-handedly selling the Christian faith down the river.

To give a far too brief account of a complicated story that is better told by Helmer herself, it begins with Martin Luther's understanding of righteousness, which was repositioned by 17th- and 18th-century Lutheran theologians in a way that weakened Luther's own connection between righteousness and justification. That development, in turn, facilitated Immanuel Kant's grounding of religion in ethics, which in turn sparked Albrecht Ritschl's insistence that, to the contrary, Christian ethics must be grounded in justification. Ritschl's disparaging use of the word mysticism--intended as a foil for his own account of justification--then was taken up by Brunner, who turned it into a category with which to discredit Schleiermacher. But Brunner's aspersions were based on a misreading: he mistakenly understood Schleiermacher's theory of consciousness as flat subjectivism--an attempt to ground religion in the individual subject's prelinguistic experience of his or her own interiority. In reality, Helmer reminds us, Schleiermacher made specific ontological claims, about which she has much to say in the second portion of the book.

Unfortunately, Brunner's reductive reading of Schleiermacher was so successfully established that Schleiermacher became the fall guy for subsequent generations of theologians who yearned for a God who stood unassailably outside all human constructs and cultures. Over time this outsideness came to be identified with the divine word--with God having spoken in a way that is prior to and unconditioned by any human speech, even as it also makes such speech possible. …

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