Doctrine in Spiritual Growth

Spiritual growth, or sanctification, has suffered either feast or famine in many Wesleyan circles. In Wesley’s grandchildren, sanctification has suffered from a gluttonous feast, leaving no room for the intellectual holiness Wesley called for — while in more progressive circles, sanctification is arbitrarily cast aside or rebottled to become some form of forced control of mind but hedonism of the body. However, sanctification really is an important point of Wesleyanism — and it does in fact include doctrine, the topic of Rankin’s fifth chapter.

In his introduction, Rankin succinctly draws out the need for a sound Christology in the Christian’s life and how this contributes to proper ethics and spiritual growth; however, it is his fifth chapter I want to briefly highlight. Rankin writes,

Doctrine therefore teaches us what to care about. It influences us holistically, not just intellectually…For a variety of reasons, intellectual and social forces in modern culture have contributed to the unlinking of sound doctrine and the spiritual health to which Calvin’s comment above refers.

Rankin gives us two reasons for doctrine. The first is to teach us what to think about God. He’s right — right doctrine does matter in our relationship with God. Second, doctrine helps us to in group formation. To the chagrin of the Left and Right, Rankin is not in favor of doctrinal purity, rightly seeing this as against the actual purpose of doctrine. Remember, as Wesleyans, we stand in the line of those who believe in spiritual growth as a journey — growing, perfecting — which means we do not start as perfect, but grow towards a goal. Doctrine helps us to achieve that goal, because it states what the goal is, what it looks like when we get there, and even how to get there.

Spiritual Growth

From here, Rankin goes on to help define terms such as dogmascreed, and theology. This is a crucial process because often times, those who dismiss doctrine dogmatically do so as their own creedal statement. They simply do not understanding that they are teaching (doctrine) erroneous things and do so rather dogmatically. While many see doctrine as a form of thought police, Rankin contends that “sound….doctrine maintains and nourishes the deep connection between God’s nature and the purposes and the way we conduct our lives.” He qualifies “sound” with “true” and “life-giving.”

Thus far, we know what doctrine really is and why it matters, but why are people — specifically, Christians — opposed to it? Because, it “shine(s) the light on our true and deepest desires, which, in turn, become visible in our goals and behaviors.” Rankin spends the rest of the chapter generally speaking to this and to a point raised early in the book, about how such things affect our disposition. But, I want to reflect just a moment on that.

This is exactly right, in my opinion, which is why as I have come to know better (orthodox) Christian doctrine my views on other things have changed. Indeed, as my ecclesiology has been shaped by Orthodoxy and such Wesleyan scholars as ]], my expectations of The United Methodist Church have changed. As my views on social holiness have been enlightened by the likes of ]], my views on what is normally called social justice have changed. As my understanding of the Holy Trinity has come into full view — along with Bonhoeffer’s admonition that all doctrine has a social component — I better understand the need for a stricter adherence to the Trinity, to the Incarnation, and to a high Christology and this has changed the way I view my fellow traveler. Indeed, the more I study these ancient doctrines, the more I see the sad way we have treated each other — and the way we abuse logic, reason, and philosophy to do so. Finally, the more I study the ancient doctrines, the more I feel humbled by the myriad of voices in the Great Tradition’s even greater Cloud and realize that I belong to the Church, but the Church (and her teachings) do not belong to me.

I want to commend two things to you. The first is this book. The second is the study of doctrine and theology. By studying where we have come from, how we got there, we may actually be able to move on – or, you know, have some spiritual growth. And with this book, you’ll know why spiritual maturity is important and how to have spiritual growth.

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5 Replies to “Doctrine in Spiritual Growth”

  1. Excellent reflection. Part of my own take and return to doctrine (along with the creeds and confessions) has been how they preserve and apply the Great Narrative. Bonhoeffer insisted that doctrine has a social component precisely because he understood sound doctrine as constituting the communion of saints. It’s a dynamic relationship we inherit from the earliest Christian reflection on how Jesus fulfilled the Hebrew expectations (Torah and the Prophets), also called the New Testament.

  2. I think you’re right – doctrine is important, if for no other reason than it shows us where others have gone before, and what the important points are.
    Bu does doctrine evolve? Should it evolve? The early Christian Fathers kept working on it, with each Council a (seeming) improvement on the previous work. But who says it’s ‘done’?
    Some of the early work (Aquinas Natural Law) for example has to be looked at carefully because of the fairly rudimentary view of science he carried into his project. If the doctrine is completely sound, it will stand up to scrutiny over time. But if it is based on principles which are no longer considered ‘truth’, then we should modify it, amend it, or replace it with something better.

    1. Tom,

      I think I would categorize doctrine this way:

      Doctrine does not change, but is better understood. It is what the entire Church agrees on (following St. Vincent of Lerins).

      Theology does change and is what sectarians agree/disagree on. This is likewise where ethics comes in, etc…

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