Practice Precedes Doctrine

Practice Precedes Doctrine May 9, 2011

I’m in heavy prep mode for the first year of the Doctor of Ministry cohort that I am leading for Fuller Seminary.  The cohort begins in one month, and I’m thrilled to report that a full contingent of students have been admitted.

The cohort is focusing on Christian spirituality, which is, of course, a very broad subject.  I’m reading several books to prep right now, among them the beautiful tome, The Story of Christian Spirituality, which traces the way that followers of Jesus have practiced their spirituality through the centuries.

One thing that’s intriguing to note, and easy to lose sight of two millennia later, is that in the very earliest church, practice begat doctrine.  That is, the early church didn’t convene theological conferences to debate the nature of the godhead and then spin out a practice of prayer.

Instead, it’s clear in the earliest Christian documents that the people prayed, and out of their experience of God’s nearness did they develop doctrinal beliefs regarding who God is and how God acts.  That all changed, of course, by the dawn of the fourth century: as the Christian religion was afforded more freedom, church leaders rose up to fight heresies.  Thereafter, the formation of doctrine seems to have had as much impact on the evolution of Christian practice as it had happened conversely in the earliest years.

These days, it seems that most of our fights are about doctrine, with not so much thought about Christian practice.  But in re-reading the earliest Christian documents (the Didache, the letters of Clement of Rome, the Shepherd of Hermas), they were concerned not about the right beliefs of Christians, but the purity of the church — a purity that was only achieved by the practices of prayer, fasting, and other lifestyle commitments.

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  • Johnboy

    And ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny? For, in most traditions, as a formative developmental trajectory, it seems to be generally true that belonging (orthocommunio) will precede desiring (orthopathy) which will precede practice (orthopraxy), all enjoying a primacy over belief (orthodoxy). This is not to say that primacy entails autonomy but it does seem to indicate that ours is an axiological epistemology, that there are many values to be realized from a more broadly conceived notion of epistemic virtue.

  • Doxa means opinion and so yeah, orthodoxy is right opinion. But the same word, doxa, means praise or glory. You don’t even need a second word. So I don’t think establishing a primacy of worship over doctrine is as helpful as acknowledging the reciprocal relationship between them and the near (if not actual) indistinguishability between right praise and right opinion.

  • I know I commented on your Facebook, but I’ll say the same thing here.

    I think this swings the pendulum too far in the other direction. Modern Christians like to be intellectual and have all the right answers, but don’t really care much for living the life. So I get what you’re doing, but I think we can swing too far to the other side. Both are needed, both arrived at the same time, and neither comes before the other. That’s the summary of my response (

  • Can’t we say that this is a both/and rather than either/or. Practice begets doctrine, but doctrine also begets practice, and on and on. Our understanding of God influences practice, even as our practice/experience influences our understanding of God. So, I think I’m in agreement with Joel on this!

  • “In fact, I don’t think that ecclesial practices tell us much, if anything, about God.”
    –from the post Where is God Revealed?

    Isn’t this what you’re saying the practices did for the early church? Fasting and praying begot doctrine about God, right?

  • that’s right, Matt. I, myself, seem to be in an incommensurable bind. I need to iron out my thinking on this matter, which is why I’m reading and blogging about it.

  • Johnboy

    In philosophical jargon, we could say that the normative (practice: logical, practical & moral) mediates between the descriptive (belief, empirical, evidential) and interpretive (community, hermeneutical) to effect the evaluative (existential, liturgical). Each asks a distinctly different question of reality: Descriptively -What’s that? Evaluatively – What’s that to us? Normatively – What’s the best way to acquire or avoid that? Interpretively – How might we tie all this together (re-ligate)?

    Methodologically, these are distinctions that make a difference. If we do not understand them, we will conflate science and religion. Or even religion and morality. Axiologically, for every value-realization, all are necessary, none are alone sufficient. So, we might say that they are methodologically-autonomous but axiologically-integral. This is why we say that primacy does not entail autonomy.

    We might still ask whether primacy is a distinction that makes a difference? And that answer might depend on the context. I think it matters greatly, for example, in catechesis and formative spirituality, as we consider what may be, as they say, developmentally-appropriate. Early on the journey, the existential and liturgical should be emphasized over the evidential. Later, the propositional will be essential in fostering an advance toward a second naivete.

    At the same time, one lesson we might take away is that the life of faith, at all stages, will much more involve our participatory imaginations and much less require our conceptual map-making ability, if only because that is the very essence of faith. It is an interpretive stance and neither a descriptive nor a normative science. It goes beyond these methods but should not embark without them. In what other contexts might primacy suggest a change in emphasis? or not?

  • Johnboy

    “In fact, I don’t think that ecclesial practices tell us much, if anything, about God.”

    If we draw the classic distinction between knowledge OF and knowledge ABOUT God, then we can affirm this as spot-on?

    We already suspect that natural theology and metaphysics and the god(s) of the philosophers reveal only that we have articulated some very good questions and experienced some profound existential longings in the very framing of various arguments but don’t really get us anywhere with the ensuing argumentation. We do learn that there are some realities that we cannot successfully describe but that this does not necessarily mean that our references to them are not successful. We proceed at least knowing that, while our faith transcends reason, it is not unreasonable.

    So, with very little conceptual map-making going on, whether via metaphysics or ecclesial practices, there is a great deal of participatory imagination engaged that has profound existential import and much practical significance. This participatory imagination is where we get our “hometown knowledge” or our ability to successfully navigate our way from our home to school to the store and back home even though we may very well be unable to impart this knowledge to an out of town visitor, descriptively or via conceptual map-making. We might successfully refer to that which we cannot otherwise successfully describe. This is how believers experience God’s “determinate nature” as generally revealed in creation and specifically revealed in the Incarnation. This tells us nothing about God’s essential nature, ad intra reality or indeterminate nature, of course.

    It gets even more involved in devotional worship as a more fitting analogy would involve the intimacy of parent and child or spouse and spouse, where the depth dimension of our love encounters will defy all attempts at tendering an account of a knowledge OF the beloved, which makes any knowledge ABOUT the beloved rather sterile and academic.

    Our best kataphatic affirmations tend to be devotional and relational and require poetry and song and koans and myths to convey the deep truth, beauty and goodness of our participatory knowledge OF creation and Creator. Our best apophatic negations qualify our conceptual knowledge ABOUT God as beyond positivist methodologies, for all practical purposes, and some say even in-principle.

  • Curtis

    Lex orandi, lex credendi

  • Tony,
    Matt Harris stole my question. But in one sense it need not be an inconsistency depending on how you bring together the terms of practice, doctrine, and event. The Event of Christ produces (or “gives rise to” if people are offended by the capitalist term) practices, which then redouble in doctrine, all held together (hopefully) along a trajectory of faithfulness to the Event. I don’t see this as that difficult to hold together.

    The main question for me, which could be a significant difference, is whether practices still “continue” or “participate” in the Event or whether they just represent/echo/signify the Event, but is ultimately separated from it.

    This I think is the true difference between those who emphasize practices and those who don’t as much.

    (but a do agree with Tony in that previous post that practices have become ‘over-determined’ these days.)

  • I’m not sure I can totally agree. On one hand I can totally empathize with the distaste for those who are so focused on the intellectual matters of doctrine that they skip the practical sides. But as I read through the N.T. I see a pattern as I read through the teachings of Christ and especially the epistles. The theme goes: Here’s the truth – and here’s how it should effect your lives. Consider Romans. Paul spends 11 chapters laying forth doctrinal material and then in chapter 12 begins showing what it means practically.

    But if you are correct about the major councils not showing up to fight heresies until Christianity was “legal” (though the book of Acts and the Epistles show that the fight against heresy was already going strong before that) it is somewhat easy to understand why. When Christianity not only becomes legal, but “hip” (as it were) and a way to obtain prestige or power people will do whatever they can to be associated with it while at the same time gutting it of it’s truth/doctrine. And so as the heresies exploded with the legalization of Christianity thus the need for an effective counter-measure.

  • *quick edit – sorry for the spam*

    “while at the same time gutting it of any truth/doctrine they don’t like or are personally uncomfortable with.” (example: Thomas Jefferson)

  • Stephen Hood

    ‘Lex orandi, lex credendi.’ As we worship (pray), so we will live (believe).

  • Johnboy

    per Geoff: The main question for me, which could be a significant difference, is whether practices still “continue” or “participate” in the Event or whether they just represent/echo/signify the Event, but is ultimately separated from it.<<<

    Good point. Don Gelpi (RIP 06 May 2011) expanding on Lonergan offers some criteria suggesting we ask whether or not any given approach fosters intellectual, affective, moral, socio-political and/or religious conversions, akin to the fourfold Gospel approach. And he takes an essentially pragmatic stance in saying that orthopraxis thus authenticates orthodoxy. Looking back to the Lukan narrative and Christology/Pneumatology, this perhaps makes more concrete the theological questions of whether and how we are still be oriented, empowered, sanctified, healed and saved. At least, that's one rather pentecostal stance. Gelpi defined grace as "transmuted experience." As semiotic realists, we might also point out that it is the very nature of signs (which don't sign/ify "merely") to be somehow efficacious.

    [I suppose this bridges, axiologically, any strict epistemic/ontological divide or separation (between events and practices) – but not so much by addressing the question/distinction directly, rather – by prescinding to a more vague perspective, which pretty much lets the question beg re: HOW efficacies ensue even while affirming THAT they do, i.e. values are realized]

  • This is certainly the insights of folk as divergent as anaBaptist James McClendon, that out of autobiography comes theology; or Cambridge Anglican, Sarah Coakley, that faith starts with mysticism, that Trinity emerges from Spirit-ed God encounter.