Theology literally means something to the effect of “words about God.”
In a lot of sense doctrines are essentially a cluster of words about God that we get together to discuss and outline how we understand God’s nature, actions or words.
Some have also comes to understand that where dogma outlines something about a belief structure that is unquestionable and necessary; doctrines do not carry this same weight – we can diverge and disagree on them. Doctrines in and of themselves are thought to be open to various alternative readings that produce numerous ways of approaching the words about God grouped together.
i.e. Calvinism or Arminianism; Annihilation or Eternal Conscious Torment or Universalism; Traditional Reformed Perspective on Paul or New Perspective or Progressive Reformed Perspective or Deification Perspective; Consubstantiation or Transubstantiation; Christus Victor or Penal Substitution or Ransom Theory or Satisfaction; Complimentarian or Egalitarian.
The list could keep going. There are a lot of different ways of thinking about our doctrines.
I recently read Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell the full way through. (There is a possibility I may have reread it – I’m not 100% sure, the details are a bit fuzzy.)
One of the images he uses to talk about doctrine is a spring. Bell pushes against the commonly used imagery of a brick.
I quite like this; though of course you can never and should never push images and metaphors too far – they have a tendency of breaking down.
The problem with bricks is that they are used to build stuff, walls, palaces, castles, forts, houses or schools of thought. The problem with constructing buildings for our doctrines is that lots of different castles are going to get made. The problems may get worse whenever we find ourselves in a palace with lots of like minded people and all the people not like us are somewhere else. Maybe we get comfy on the inside of our palace, maybe we get ready to make “war” against those heretics over there.
This is what can happen with our solid, static, no-disputing it, brick-like doctrines.
Against this Bell suggests we consider the imagery of springs, perhaps springs in a trampoline, for our doctrines.
Springs stretch, flex, bend and move. We can take our many different doctrine-springs out from the frame to look at and discuss what they are saying about God.
This is more difficult with our doctrine-buildings. It’s hard to take out what has been put in a wall without the rest being affected. We should be careful of figuring out what we think, when it comes to doctrine. There will always be an air of provisionality, of incompleteness. God is not a brick or the sum total of our bricks.
In fact the real power of the spring image is in understanding what the springs allow us to do. They allow us to jump. They allow us to live and have an experience. The doctrine-springs are not God; they put some words to God. The doctrine-springs help us bounce into an experience of the living God.
The point of justification is not that we get every detail worked out but that we realize, in the act we name justification, God frees us to live.
“Springs only work when they serve the greater cause: us finding our lives in God.”
I find this a very helpful way of thinking about doctrine. Yes, let’s try and get things right. Yes, let’s try and have conversations about what we think this all means. Let’s try and figure out what we think. But let’s not be dogmatic about our doctrines. Let’s not be final. Let us not fight and argue. Let us learn to live and discover the God who invites us to live and love and jump with him and others – our doctrines are only doing their job if they enables this.
“I am far more interested in jumping than I am in arguing about whose trampoline is better. You rarely defend the things you love. You enjoy them and tell others about them and invite others to enjoy them with you.”
Doctrines are words about God, doctrines are our words about God, our words about who God is and what God has done and said. Let us, ultimately, remember God is not our words.