Rhyne Putman on the Development of Doctrine

Rhyne Putman on the Development of Doctrine June 20, 2014

Rhyne Putman (NOBTS) has a volume coming out on the development of doctrine from a distinctly evangelical perspective. It is called In Defense of Doctrine: Postdoctrinal Doctrinal Developments and Hermeneutical Phenomenon (Minneapolis: Fortress, forthcoming). This book is great with an important contribution and let me tell you why. On some accounts, the Bible contains “doctrine” and it is the task of the interpreter to extract “doctrine” from the messy morass of narratives, poetry, metaphors, similies, prophecy, and epistles contained in Scripture.  In which case, the task of theology is the cognitive ordering of biblical propositions into a coherent system. The problem with this view – revelation as doctrinal propositions (cognitive-linguistics) – is that it fails to explain how doctrines developed, doctrines like the Trinity which did go through a process of dispute, debate, consolidation, and finalization. The best one could say is that the doctrine was always “there” in scripture, but it took a while to get the verses rightly interpreted and put into the right order in order to find the doctrine. The Yale post-liberal folks like Hans Frei and George Lindbeck had a field day with this position and developed in counter-point their own narrative approach to doctrine that was, on the one had, internally consistent, but referentially vacuous as doctrine was reduced to a language game with no external referent.

In light of this debate (and guys like Kevin Vanhoozer with their canonical-linguistic model) Rhyne Putman has tried to give an evangelical account of doctrine and hermeneutics that explains how it is that revealed doctrines can actually develop. In his conclusion he writes:

Doctrinal development can be described in hermeneutical terms and as the result of hermeneutical processes. Thus evangelicals can be said to live by biblical texts and always be reforming (semper reformanda). As engagement with Thiselton, Vanhoozer, and other hermeneutics specialists has shown, the formation and growth of Christian doctrine are akin to the development of literary knowledge, as texts can present new, deeper understandings and applications in changing settings. Theological understanding, like the understanding of texts, is historical in nature. Much like a classicist who seeks to understand the epic or a dramatist concerned with the most appropriate way to stage Shakespeare, the Christian theologian works to appropriate the communicative activity of God preserved in scripture for a new setting. How one understands interpretive authority, the relationship between language and reality, and the nature of identity has considerable consequence for understanding developing ideas such as Christian doctrines. Christianity is not a static, stagnant tradition but a living and active one. In some sense, Christian doctrine is settled and in another sense it is always being established. Christian beliefs must be defended anew in every successive generation. On occasion, this means revising or replacing previous metaphors or conceptual frameworks that are no longer germane to the contemporary context, or in other cases, rejecting those that are no longer considered consistent with the best knowledge contemporary readers have about the biblical text.

Every successive generation of Christian believers has a responsibility to the generation that went before it and the generation that lies ahead of it. They must be good stewards of the living tradition they have received, seeking always to be faithful to the authority of God revealed through Scripture. The development of doctrine is their attempt to “enrich” the discussion of  Christian belief for present and future generations, to leave a legacy of  thoughtfulness and devotion. In their best moments, the people of God share in a vibrant, dynamic relationship with him, learning new things about him, and, as a result, love him more deeply. God has been incredibly gracious in preserving his self-disclosure for us in scripture. This gracious self disclosure, mediated through human speech acts, towers over all other human literary efforts. It is clear enough to change the lives of first-time readers and challenging enough to keep its lifelong interpreters busy with the task of discovering its ongoing meaning and significance. This hermeneutical task goes hand-in-hand with the ongoing practice of doctrinal development.

Along the way Putman engages folks like Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible and he leans heavily on Kevin Vanhoozer and Anthony Thiselton to give a robustly biblical and hermeneutically sensitive account of the formation of Christian doctrine. Its a great looking book about the development of doctrine by an up and coming southern baptist theologian.

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