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A New Spirituality: Shaping Doctrine at the Grass Roots

by Frederick Herzog

Dr. Herzog was professor of systematic theology at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina, at the time this article was written. This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 30-August 6, 1986, pp. 680-681. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

A new process of forming and teaching Christian doctrine has recently emerged in the church. Theology is no longer in the driver's seat, nor do creeds and confessions play the decisive role in the new process. Nevertheless, it does contain an emphasis on sound teaching -- which is teaching that occurs when Christians join minds and hands to help each other understand the core of their witness.

Under this new pattern, doctrine arises from discipleship--God-walk rather than God-talk. Just as the civil rights struggle, born in the God-walk of the black church, helped shape Christian doctrine (as became clear in the work of James Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore, among others), so today the battle against apartheid in South Africa is affecting doctrine, as is the women's movement and other similar struggles.

At the core of this process is a new spirituality, not a new dogma. It is a spirituality that leads Christians closer to each other and to all humankind. The ecumenical movement is one expression of this spirituality, but more important is the perception of Jesus' presence in situations of dire need throughout the world. The base communities in the Third World are one dimension of this encounter. The development and transmission of Christian faith in these situations is no longer a hierarchical matter, moving from the top down, but a corporate one, moving from the bottom up.

One sign of this development in the North American church is a recent issue of New Conversations, a journal of the United Church of Christ's Board for Homeland Ministries, which is titled "Toward Theological Self-Understanding in the United Church of Christ." The journal contains an intense conversation among conservative, liberation and confessional groups within the UCC. The point of the conversation is for people to teach and learn from each other. As theologian Gabriel Fackre observes, "There is a vast, reservoir of insight in the rank and file UCC pastoral and laity leadership."

We presuppose a new form of spiritual formation whenever we give account to each other of the diverse thoughts that emerge from our varied forms of Christian life and practice. This is distinctly different from the way the church has developed and taught doctrine in the past. Medieval doctrinal teaching, for example, climaxed in synods or ecumenical councils -- with the emperor at times imposing a heavy hand. In the Reformation, individual theologians usually determined the formation of confessions. But today we work with a keener sense of corporateness, and a greater emphasis on the mutual accountability of Christians to each other. Some liberation theologians have suggested that instead of focusing our attention on orthodoxy, we had better first concentrate on orthopraxy. Yet the point is to concentrate on God's own praxis, not ours.

The emphasis on God-walk might, among other things, turn around the old issue of theodicy. The old question of theodicy was, Si deus, unde malum ? -- If there be God, where does evil come from? People tried to debate from an abstract notion of god the meaning and place of evil. Today the question might be put this way:

Si malum, unde deus? -- If this be evil, where does God enter the picture? For the most basic contemporary reflection on and teaching of doctrine begins with the struggle against injustice.

In this struggle we might not find any answer to questions of theodicy, but we are nonetheless enveloped by the real presence of Christ in history. The burden of the justice struggle does not lie on our shoulders, as the Eucharist makes clear to us time and again. We sense that Jesus offers us help as God's right hand in the struggle. While we see that Jesus does not always mitigate evil, we realize that he always litigates evil.

If first world theologians have difficulty coming to grips with the new process of forming doctrine, it is because of their inability to work with the spirituality of God's justice struggle in Jesus. God's justice struggle has always involved God's solidarity with those treated as "nonpersons." But "nonpersons" have not been a crucial feature in the formation of European or North American theology. Of course, an almsgiving type of generosity to the poor has been emphasized, as has a Social Gospel passion for the underdog. But the "nonpersons" have had no place in dogmatics. Nicea and Chalcedon did not let Jesus the refugee, the homeless one, the "nonperson," through their lofty christological grid. In the dogmatic tradition, Jesus hardly appears as a particular human being, but rather as an impersonal being (as in the old doctrinal notion of enhypostasia). Nicea and Chalcedon dealt with the divinity of Jesus, but not with the "humanity of God" in the streets -- God in solidarity with the poor, wretched human being.

Being compelled to hear the word of God in the "nonperson" has evoked a new phase in Christian thought. It has not only changed theology, it has relegated theology to a secondary position. Of first importance is no longer our Christology but our Christopraxis: it is Jesus' justice struggle that first engages us. We do not have the leisure to reflect abstractly on the suffering of God, for Jesus leads the caravan of the despised into struggle with evil.

In some respects, we are very much where we were at the beginning of the 20th century when Albert Schweitzer announced in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) that the dogma about Jesus "had first to be shattered" before we "could once more go out in quest of the historical Jesus." Since then, there have been several gigantic attempts to reconstruct the dogma, yet we still have the nagging feeling that we have not yet achieved a workable meshing of history and dogma. What is more (to use Schweitzer's words):

We have not yet arrived at any reconciliation between history and modern thought -- only between half-way history and half-way thought. What the ultimate goal towards which we are moving will be, what this something is which shall bring new life and new regulative principles to coming centuries, we do not know.

We have, however, at least a glimpse of what will bring new life and new regulative principles -- God's solidarity with the awesome poverty that stares us in the face everywhere on our globe. The new quest of the historical Jesus has not helped us very much in coming to grips with this situation, but in Christopraxis (God-walk, discipleship) we are learning new christological thought. It is from here that the question of God's suffering becomes acute. God's deprivation in Jesus, God's impoverishment, is a correlate of God's solidarity with the poor and oppressed in the justice struggle. As the divine person enters human deprivation in the "nonperson," the deprived ''nonperson," Jesus, also constitutes God. So God as person is constituted also by the homeless, the faceless. Only on these grounds does it make sense to puzzle about the suffering of God.

This understanding also illumines the doctrine of the unity of Jesus' person. His unity lies in the oneness of the divine deprivation and the "nonperson's" deprivation. This fact assures the worth of the worthless. We are not allowed to reject even the most ragged shred of the human, for we do not so much hear the Word of God through "nonpersons" as we meet the "very God" in the "nonperson" who struggles for justice. God became not merely "man," but a despised refugee, a child who fled into exile with his parents.

The main task of the church now is to grasp the new spirituality that is changing the shape of doctrine. We need to listen to what is going on in our own denominations in this regard. No longer can conservative, confessional and liberation groups treat each other as "nonpersons." We need to listen to and learn from each other and we need to hear the pain of the Third World, mediated, for example, through books like Gustavo Gutiérrez's We Drink from Our Own Wells (1984). The mutual shaping and teaching of Christian doctrine is possible only where the new spirituality prevails. For, as we are beginning to learn, in God's justice struggle, at the grass roots, dogmatics and ethics are fused.


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