Posted by: rogermitchell | September 11, 2010

Healthy teaching

In his comment on the last post Dave concludes his helpful contribution with the following questions: “What is sound doctrine and who determines what is sound doctrine ? [see eg 1 Tim 1:9-11; 1 Tim 6:2-4; Titus 1:8-10; Titus 2:1-3] Also how does one extract sound doctrine from just narrative theology? Can one, and if so what is the process or what are the principles? Not necessarily looking for you to supply answers, rather just wished to pose the questions more publicly ….” Like he says, he is not asking me for answers but wanting to put the questions into the public forum. So over to you blog surfers and clickers with your thoughts and comments. But here’s a few considerations to prime the pump. The word translated ‘sound’ as in ‘sound doctrine’ is a Greek word meaning healthy, or in good health. Doctrine is simply teaching. The phrase sound doctrine for people with a somewhat legalistic Christian background like me is a heavy phrase carrying warnings of likely error. I suggest that this approach is essentially an example of unhealthy teaching. So in 1 Timothy Paul is encouraging him to supply people with the opposite of what the phrase connotes for many of us. Healthy teaching in the context of 1 Timothy 6 for example, is the kind that specifically avoids disputes and controversies about words (v4), encourages folk to find their contentment in the fruit of the kingdom (vv 6-8), and delivers from the love of money (v10) (cf Lk12:16-23). It is based on the narrative of Jesus’ way of life (v13). I can’t think of any problems with working from narrative to theology, but it means rethinking the Christian life as a collaborative journey with the Holy Spirit, the testimony of Jesus in the scriptures and the testimony of our fellow human beings. Dave asks who decides on what is healthy teaching. I think this points to the answer. You, the Holy Spirit and the testimony of Jesus reflected on in the context of the journey through life in creation with the rest of us. I’m not sure whether we need, or God means us to have any more certainty than this.



  1. I really ought to be writing other things right now but you’ve gone and sparked my interest again (thanks Dave and Rog).

    I suppose the likely riposte from those who care about being ‘right’, is that what we appear to be saying here is tantamount to relativism. What God says to you is fine and what God says to someone else is fine also, even if they are contradictory. I actually have no problem with that in principle, because the term ‘relativist’ is really just a way of saying ‘you don’t play by our rules of knowledge’. I don’t think there is any reason to play by those rules (I suspect this aligns to your mathesis motif, Rog).

    I think the key is, as you say, in the concept of the ‘collaborative journey’ (intersubjectivity, I would say if I were at my most pompous). We are not independent interpreters of the facts (as positivistic science usually assumes) but part of the story and, hence, part of the truth. Narrative works because it is who we are. The idea of “the greatest story ever told” is desperately misleading for the story is still being written and we all have authorship. The bits we write with God might just push us to the end of the chapter/book and the start of the next…

  2. Thanks Stephen, and I’m tracking with you. But I’m not sure why you suddenly (to me) made the comment about the greatest story ever told. I still think it is, firstly because of the quality of the many sources, not primarily from a historical and literary perspective but from its content and because of the integrity of the lives of those whose contemporary testimony I have received. Then because in my experience I have never been told a greater story. But of course this is all about relational not rational certainty in a theoretical sense.

  3. I am feeling confused. You all appear to be placing rationalistic, systematic theological interpretation against ‘story telling’. While I love a good story and find it easier and more interesting to understand than systematic theology – I’m not sure there is much difference. Isn’t it a matter of style rather than content? Both are human constructs, means of communication. If one, the story, communicates the Kingdom more effectively than the other, then that is what we should use. Yes?

    I think that we tend to get caught up in how modes of thought describe themselves even when that description is a deceit and a conceit. So to describe rationalistic, systematic approaches as somehow truly objective and not collective is wrong. Didn’t Donna Haraway prove that the scientific black box approach was nonsense? There is no true objectivity, ever, amongst human beings. And our own actions, even simple observation, change the reality (quantum physics demonstrates this well).

    So I am confused by this discussion. To tell a good story through rationalistic, systematic theology is perhaps, simply poor story telling. To imply anything is fixed and immutable, including our understanding of that good story, is always untrue. Someone is always putting forth a new interpretation of the good story as we can see in the ongoing production of books and other forms of media.

    Perhaps the real issue here is long-term dishonesty about what we are actually doing and achieving and the use of that dishonesty to harm others.

    • Cheryl and Roger,

      I suppose my answer to both of your comments is linked.

      Cheryl – I so very nearly made a practically identical comment when Roger started talking about this narrative thing. Firstly I find the word narrative unhelpful because, like you, I think that it’s just another construct that is open to controlling practices. But, it starts to get interesting for me when we abandon the attempt to have a uniform narrative, to have an authoritative story against which all others are measured (in the mode of history). That’s not really narrative, actually, but something else. I think I’m up for a more intersubjective mode of locating ourselves in the bigger picture. I suppose I was trying to avoid the more complex discussion for a bit because I have a big deadline this week and I have a ‘history’ of getting into protracted discussion here over this sort of thing.

      Roger – my issue is the words “ever told”, which implies a uniform telling of ‘the’ story. It implies that the incarnation is a stand alone event. In your language, I think it makes the scriptures (and each authoritative comment on them) a mathesis. In my language, any story which claims completeness when the to-come has not yet come is subject to deconstruction. The greatest story is what will have been told.

  4. I am sorry to be confusing, but while am not asserting that the incarnation is a stand alone event I am suggesting that narrative is necessary to it in a way that systematic theory is not. In the attempt to communicate more clearly what I think is important I offer the following.

    What I am saying is that the good news is that there is a collaborative relationship with God as a fellow person freely open and available to us. This life has been communicated through a story or narrative in a way that could not be communicated so fully through a theory or an equation. This life, which is the story of Jesus, is the door to a journey or way of life lived in creation with other people. It is not a metanarrative, which I understand to be a narrative that can make systematic sense out of everything. So it is not what I use the term mathesis to delineate. It is the story of the life of the person I now know increasingly intimately in the Holy Spirit and am now living my life with and commending to others. Along the way there are other stories and also systems, theories, structures, orgainisations and institutions to be discovered or configured but they should not [perhaps the only real should not] be allowed to replace or displace the story of that life. They may illuminate it, build on it, but always remain subsidiary to it and challenged by it. This is by reason of the collaborative relational choice I have made and wish to commend to others. I don’t pretend to know how it will all work out and agree with Stephen that “the bits we write with God might just push us to the end of the chapter/book and the start of the next” and “the greatest story is what will have been told.” I think I would go a step further and say that “the greatest story is what we will have lived out together, the ‘greater things than these’ that we do together as John recollects Jesus saying.

  5. All good stuff for sure, but I guess when I made the post that Roger referred to above I also had in mind the sort of teaching which might be covered in, say, a survey of Christian doctrine. In other words a systemisation of the major fundamental doctrines of Biblical Theology. Such a systematic presentation might include the:

    Doctrine of Revelation
    Doctrine of the Scriptures
    Doctrine of God – including creation!
    Doctrine of Christ
    Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
    Doctrine of Angels
    Doctrine of Man
    Doctrine of Sin
    Doctrine of the Atonement
    etc, etc

    God clearly did not systemise all these doctrines of the Bible in the manner in which they might be presented in a class on Basic Christian Doctrine in the setting of, say, a theological or Bible college and, I have to say, that it is not at all clear to me that this actually faithfully represents the Apostles teaching per se [Acts 2:42].

    Rather, it would seem to me that the Apostles Doctrine would have centred on all that Jesus himself taught [Matt 28:20] and perhaps one can easily imagine that this would in turn be centred on Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection.

    However, looking at Jesus’s teaching style it would also seem unlikely that the aforementioned doctrines would have been presented by Him in a systematic order simply to demonstrate that the truths contained in them are spread throughout the scriptures. After all the scriptures available to Jesus were just the OT ones!

    I deliberately quoted references from the NT in my previous post specifically because they used the word ‘doctrine’ in most translations. However most modern translations of verses such as Deut 32:2, Proverbs 4:2, Isaiah 29:24 almost always use the word ‘teaching or instruction’. NKJV uses doctrine in Isaiah 29:24 whereas KJV uses ‘doctrine’ in all three places!

    So, to wind the clock back slightly, where did the doctrine of God’s creation termed ‘creation ex nihilo’ really come from and what does it actually mean?

    As I understand it the doctrine actually meant that before God began to create the universe, nothing else existed except God himself. This, therefore, does not actually seem to me to preclude God creating ‘Out of Himself’ rather than out of nothing! Although some philosphers have argued that the use of the word ‘nothing’ does not imply some kind of existence.

    This is very topical, because as you are probably aware Stephen Hawking, with the help of Leonard Mlodinow, has written a new book entitled ‘The Grand design’. In the word’s of the Independent newspaper the ‘new book dumps divine design in favour of spontaneous creation’ [see Independent, Arts & Books Supplement, dated Fri 10 Sept 2010]. I have not read ‘The Grand Design’, but it would seem that Hawking answers many of what he calls the ‘ultimate questions of life’ purely within the realm of science and without resorting to God and it seems to me that the doctrine of ‘creation ex nihilo’ unwittingly supports Hawking’s position!

    You see the article in the Independent states that ‘Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing; why the universe exists, why we exist.’ However, if the doctrine of God’s creation were that God ‘created out of himself’ then Hawking would be placed in a much more difficult position and could not go on to say that ‘God is surplus to [Hawkings] requirements.

    However, I have to say that it appears that we, and in particular Christian Physicists, are now only in this mess simply because we have strayed too far from focusing on the Apostle’s doctrine and an intimate, relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

  6. Wow, this is becoming kind of fun. However, I am in the middle of multiple crises and teaching an intense architectural summer school at the moment so I am too busy to think it all through.

    However, I do think the idea of God creating out of nothing or out of Himself is even at the bottom of how we design cities and urban life. So, in light of the failure of the abstract systematic, reductionist way of thinking (this has failed in planning and urban design as well) how do we go forward? How do we tell a rip roaring good story? c.

  7. Okay. So, it seems to me that what we are really talking about is (i) the tension between Jesus who continues to write his story with us and the Bible and (ii) the tension between using a body of churchteaching/theology as key reference points versus using Jesus/the Holy Spirit as reference points. I think we probably all agree that these tensions exist.
    If I had to choose to be on a particular side of that fence, I’d plump for engagement directly with the person of God over any received understanding every time! The problem is that that’s not really satisfactory as it’s individualistic and God is trying to have a much bigger conversation with the whole of creation. This bigger conversation is great and I don’t think it is a metanarrative either. Unless, that is, we think we have it sussed. Then it absolutely is a more or less fixed narrative against which we attempt to judge other things. (Technical jargon: this really is a debate of epistemology and I am post-positivist in that regard)
    This is where I begin to have a problem actually with both the words ‘teaching’ and ‘doctrine’ (both of which imply a certain fixedness and control to the postmodern ear at least). I’m not sure that the Apostles’ ‘doctrine’ referred to in Acts is really speaking about a statement of what we believe… we do well to note that creeds came a bit later. But this is where I can connect much better with story or ‘narrative’ – if, by that, we mean saying ‘this is our experience of God, what he is like, what he has done and what he has to say about the world in which we live and putting it to rights.’ Such a story is continually revised and updated as we go along. This is the kind of interactive, intersubjective conception of truth that I think is good and helpful. I’m not junking the Bible here but I am divesting it its ‘transcendent’ authority.
    All of this is a slightly verbose way of saying that I agree with Roger but am less sold on referring to ‘narrative’ (which implies a single narrator) or ‘teaching’ and more keen to refer to their more open relatives, ‘story’ and ‘learning’. I’m not 100% sure about this, but then I don’t trust 100% certainty 🙂

  8. Thanks for this helpful and clarifying comment. I’m not sure that narrative implies a single narrator. I’m certainly not using it that way. I tend to use story and narrative interchangeably. I guess my use of ‘teaching’ as an alternative to ‘doctrine’ was because Dave was quoting Paul specifically and teaching seems to me a less fixed and heavy. And I’m not sure that ‘learning’ works as a direct translation from Paul’s Greek. The question over how we use the bible is a big one of course. We might need to return to it. I’m not sure that Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s relationship to it can exactly be said to divest it of transcendence. The question of what transcendence or even authority mean is the central point for me. They are not about posivitivist fixed or closed matters but open and collaborative relationship as i read the story!

  9. Well, indeed. Difficult to respond to so many things all thrown in at once! Though the fact that I see no reason to stick to Paul’s language merely because it’s in the bible is kind my point, no? I am saying I have a difficulty with it as part of my intersubjective engagement with the bigger story. An appeal to Paul’s vocabulary without weighing the broader ‘narrative’ is precisely what I’m seeking to avoid! Perhaps for another time, though, as you say.

  10. Wow-you all have so many words when it sounds like you agree generally with the idea that the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer is key to understanding the narrative as well as the theological import of the gospel however systematic or not it is. I simply thank God for His Spirit that testifies to my spirit that I am His and that His story in my subjective experience is truth – truth that has been helped and challenged through intense hermeneutics by giving me layers of understanding as well as language to use in sharing my experience. So keep talking because you all help me with developing this language of faith!

    It has been my grief to experience the “church” unable to free itself from the economy of hierarchical thinking in order to embrace a narrative that doesn’t require ultimate theological positions and doctrines to protect itself and its significance. I understand why it is so – it is easier for sure. All that Roger and the rest of you are believing for is I pray going to inspire the courage necessary to leave the carnal way of empire behind. Because once it is exposed through Roger’s and other’s “systematic” research those with ears to hear will be ruined for ever going back. Yea to the crisis that will come to all the dear hearts that dare to embrace the Kingdom with this kind of faith, especially the leaders of the church as we know it.

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