On Christian Beliefs

In my last post I discussed the scientific nature of theology. I briefly discussed the nature of science and how one can understand theology as the science of God, such as theologians Wolfhart Pannenberg and Alister McGrath do. I concluded that post by discussing why it’s important to understand theology as a science and the implications of beliefs. I highlighted that all beliefs take on the form of propositions and that propositions, by definition, have a truth-value: they either correspond to the data of reality or they do not. As such, beliefs have consequences. This idea that beliefs and ideas have consequences is not a new one. This was a central concept in the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, whom many consider to be the greatest American philosopher. In his famous essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Peirce articulates his pragmatic maxim as a theory of meaning. Quickly, I need to make an important note: when many hear the term pragmatism they have a tendency to associate it with a particular theory of truth in epistemology (the study of knowledge, i.e. what knowledge is and how we know things). According to the pragmatic theory of truth, a statement, i.e. a proposition, is true if it works. There are a number of problems with this understanding of truth, which will not be discussed in this post. Suffice it to say, when Peirce, who is heralded as the father of pragmatism, expounds the pragmatic maxim he is not discussing a theory of truth; rather, he is discussing a theory of meaning as it pertains to clear ideas. If one has an idea but she does not know the consequences of her idea then she cannot claim it as a clear idea. A clear idea is one in which the consequences, or significance, of the idea are realized. Peirce wrote, “To develop its [an idea’s] meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a habit depends on how much it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be” (CP 5.400). He further stated, “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (CP 5.402). In other words, the consequences of a belief are part of its meaning. There is no distinction between the meaning of a belief, or idea, and the implications it has; the immediate content as well as the consequential content of a belief make up its meaning.

You might be pondering the point of this. I stated in my last post that our beliefs, including our beliefs about God, have consequences. One of the major consequences of beliefs is that they play a determining role in how we live our lives. Our beliefs, to some degree or another, determine our patterns of behavior, or habits. Consider the following belief: “There is such a thing as gravity.” One will notice, as discussed previously, that this belief is a proposition; it therefore has a truth-value. There is such a thing as gravity either corresponds to the way things are, i.e. reality, or it does not. Obviously, I affirm that this statement is true. Consequently, I do not jump off of sky scrapers because I believe that there is such a thing as gravity to be true. This habit, or pattern of behavior, is also part of the meaning of there is such a thing as gravity. The meaning of this belief is a determining factor in how I make decisions and live my life. The same is the case with theological and doctrinal beliefs such as Jesus is Lord.

I want to chase a rabbit for a bit, and yes, it is an important rabbit to chase. I am aware of the attacks levied against propositional approaches to Christian belief, or Christian doctrine. No one has popularized these attacks more than the late George Lindbeck, who wrote one of the most important books on theological method to date: The Nature of Doctrine. In this short but important monograph, Lindbeck critiqued what he referred to as the cognitive-propositional theory of doctrine. According to him, this theory reduced the function of doctrine only to the propositional level. In other words, the role of doctrine was reduced to only making truth-claims about God and then evaluating whether or not these claims were true. He claimed that the weakness of this approach is that it does not seem to be concerned adequately with Christian behavior. He proposed a new theory of doctrine which he called the cultural-linquistic approach. According to this theory, doctrine serves as the grammar of Christian faith rather than the content. Being a type of grammar, the primary role of doctrine was to structure the faith of the church as well as instruct the church on how to speak and behave (doctrinally). Lindbeck’s assertion is not completely wrong. Doctrine and theology do seek to do more than make truth-claims about God and test whether or not these truth-claims are true. Doctrine does serve a regulative role in the life of the church. The problem with Lindbeck’s theory, however, is that his beliefs, or ideas, about propositions are not clear (in Peirce’s sense of the term). In other words, he does not have an adequate understanding of what propositions are and what they do.

Propositions are not merely truth-claims; they do more than describe how reality is. When someone makes a statement, they do make a truth-claim, but they also do something else: they perform an action. The philosopher of language J. L. Austin referred to these actions as speech acts in his work How to Do Things with Words. When someone makes a proposition she performs a speech act. Speech acts have two primary dynamics: descriptive and performative. A descriptive speech act describes reality: it tries to get the words match the world. A performative speech act, on the other hand, performs an action: it tries to make the world match its words. A type of performative speech act that we are all familiar with is a promise. When someone makes a promise she commits herself to certain patterns of behavior and not others. If I promise to buy you a cup of coffee the next time I see you then I have committed myself to doing just that. If I did not buy you that cup of coffee the next time I saw you then you would be warranted in feeling let down or that I had neglected my promise. In order to make a promise, however, there are certain states of affairs that must obtain before I am in a place to make the performative speech act. In order to make a promise to buy you a cup of coffee, there are other propositions that I presuppose. For example, I presuppose that I have the financial means necessary to make the purchase, and I presuppose that you would want a cup of coffee. In other words, performative speech acts, such as promises, presuppose other descriptive speech acts, or propositions, in order for them to be legitimate (Austin called legitimate performatives happy speech acts). Promises are not the only types of performatives, however. We make performative speech acts all the time: promising, naming, warning, etc. When we state what our beliefs about God or our faith are, we make confessions of faith.

All doctrinal propositions function as both descriptive and performative speech acts. Take, for example, the most foundational belief of the Christian religion: Jesus is Lord. This belief is a doctrinal proposition, and it is both a descriptive and a performative speech act. When we state, Jesus is Lord, we make a truth-claim (the descriptive dynamic) and we commit ourselves to certain patterns of behavior and not others (the performative dynamic). When we confess, or state, Jesus is Lord, we commit ourselves to habits and behaviors that are consistent with the reality of his being Lord. As Anthony Thiselton says in his wonderful monograph The Hermeneutics of Doctrine, we nail our colors to the mast. To believe that Jesus is Lord is also to believe that other authority figures, such as presidents, kings, czars, and emperors, are not. But in order for the confession of faith to be a happy, or legitimate, performative speech act, certain states of affairs must be the case, namely, Jesus indeed must be Lord! If we confess that he is Lord, thus committing ourselves to that reality, but he, in reality, is not Lord, then it is an unhappy performative speech act. This would be like me promising to buy you coffee the next time I saw you but not having the money to actually do so; this is also an unhappy speech act. All of our doctrinal beliefs function like this. Beliefs are propositions, and propositions are speech acts. All speech acts have a descriptive and a performative dynamic. All speech acts, either explicitly or implicitly, make some type of truth-claim (the descriptive dynamic) and they perform some type of action. Oversimplified: all of our beliefs, since all beliefs are propositions, have consequences.

I’ve thrown out several dense philosophical concepts in this post, and I hope they have not scared you off! But this is a topic that I cannot stress enough: our theology, what we believe about God, matters! Our beliefs matter because, first, they are either true or false; they correspond to reality or they do not. Second, our beliefs are types of performances, namely some sort of confession of belief (or faith). If we hold false beliefs and commit ourselves to them then we have committed ourselves to untruths. Reconsider my example above about the belief There is such a thing as gravity. If I believed that this belief was false, that there was not such a thing as gravity, and thus committed myself to the patterns of behavior that were consistent with gravity not existing, then I would have many failed attempts at flying and levitation. I would not go about my life properly. If what we believe about God is false then we will not go about our lives properly. When we genuinely believe something to be true we commit ourselves to that belief. This is why I believe theology to be of such importance for the church. If the church does not have true beliefs about God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth then she will not be the church as she ought. Yes, I am aware that theologizing can be difficult. I’m even aware that a lot of the material I have discussed in this blog is difficult, but that is why I am here. The Lord has blessed me with the ability to study these things formally, and he has called me to teach his church. I hope this post is beneficial for you and provides some sustaining food for thought. If you have not considered your theology, your beliefs about God, to be that important prior to reading this then I hope I have either changed your mind or given you something useful to consider. What you believe about God matters because these beliefs play an important role in informing you on how to go about your life. Our beliefs about God have consequences.

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