The Christian Mind, Part 2: Doctrinal Formation and Christian Unity

In his Confessions, Augustine famously prayed, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

There is such profound truth in this prayer. I believe it with every fiber of my being. And yet, as we think through what this prayer might mean, there are certain questions that we must answer. Who is this God to whom Augustine prayed? What does it mean to say that this same God has “made us,” and, moreover, made us for himself? Why do we desire so greatly to rest in this God, and why are we restless until we do so?


Augustine is presuming in this statement a set of beliefs shared widely by people of faith across the Christian world. In other words, the statement depends for its meaning upon certain doctrines, beliefs that have been handed on to us by those who have gone before us in the faith, and which have sustained the Church through the centuries.

My first post in this series had to do with the need for greater intellectual rigor and the role of the “renewed mind” in the Christian life. In this post, I want to talk about how greater intellectual rigor, particularly with regard to our foundational faith claims, would help us in a variety of ways, including in the resolution of some of our internecine debates.

Belief Matters

It has been the tendency of mainline Protestants to downplay the significance of Christian doctrine. Among the common reasons for this tendency are that these doctrines are outdated and unbelievable, that doctrine itself is divisive, and that we should focus on what unites us. I’ve never been convinced by these or other claims downplaying the significance of Christian doctrine. In fact, I think rigorous engagement with the faith of the ages is as important now as it ever was. Just as in the Greco-Roman world, we in Western culture now live in a world full of gods. If we don’t know who it is we worship and why we do so, we will soon be lost in a metaphysical and ethical labyrinth, perhaps never to return.

The Christian mind is necessarily doctrinal. Without an understanding of proper teaching about God and what this God has done for us in Jesus Christ, it makes no sense to talk about a Christian mind at all. We may claim to love God, but who is this God whom we love? Why do we love God? Why should other people do so? How do we know any of these things? The answers to these questions don’t just shape what we believe, but how we live.

The Wisdom of the Ages

Fortunately, we are not alone as we seek God with our minds. Through the centuries the fathers and mothers of our faith have passed down a great treasury of Christian teaching that helps us to comprehend something of God, ourselves, and other people according to the witness of our faith. The need to learn from and engage those who have gone before us is an idea that developed very early in Christian history. Take, for example, this passage from Hebrews (2:1, 3-4):

Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it…. It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.

We build upon the beliefs of those who came before us. We honor their work, their lives, and sometimes their martyrdom. Though many have succumbed to the temptation to try to reinvent the Church’s faith based upon foundations more palatable to the modern or postmodern mind, these attempts have been unable to sustain the Church. They have neglected the wisdom of the ages.

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The end of such revisionism can only be division. If each culture, each era, each philosophical movement reinvents the faith on its own terms, Christian unity is impossible. True Christian unity can only come about when we share common beliefs about the nature of God, human life, and salvation. If we continue to de-emphasize doctrine in our faith communities, we will continue on the painful road of denominational fragmentation. As my colleague Justus Hunter has written, doctrine unites us. The neglect of it inevitably leads to division.

A Few Examples from the UMC

In The United Methodist Church, we have begun over time to develop a clearer set of teachings on a few issues. This Holy Mystery and By Water and the Spirit helped us to clarify our church’s teachings on the two sacraments that we recognize, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. We now have a teaching document on ecclesiology (our doctrine of the church): Wonder, Love, and Praise. It is set for approval at the 2020 General Conference. I haven’t read this yet, so I won’t comment on it. I hope to read it in the next couple of weeks and then offer some reflections.

I’m glad we’ve produced these documents. I just wish we had done this decades ago, particularly with regard 222b7-crossflameto ecclesiology. At this moment we find ourselves in a serious ecclesiological crisis. We have both pastors and bishops, ordained by and through the church, acting in contradiction to the church’s teachings. The resulting crisis has led us to the brink of division. While developing a teaching document on ecclesiology is in and of itself a noble undertaking, the fact is that it may simply be too late for it to do any good. We are set to receive and act on the report from the Bishop’s Commission on a Way Forward in 2019. The commission will have to make recommendations absent a ratified ecclesiological document, and its recommendations may render this document irrelevant. The way we envision ourselves as a church–if we remain one church–will likely be quite different after the commission does its work.


Nevertheless, while it would likely have helped, an agreed-upon ecclesiology would not have allowed us to Bibleavert the present crisis. Part of the problem is that we think we are arguing about “homosexual practice,” to use the language of the Book of Discipline. In truth, our disagreements are much deeper than this. For one thing, we disagree in serious ways about the nature and function of Scripture. Traditionalists claim that the Bible prohibits homosexual behavior, while progressives have undertaken a campaign they call “biblical obedience” in defiance of the denomination’s teachings on sexual ethics. In other words, both groups are using the Bible to make ethical claims that are exactly the opposite of one another. There is yet another group, those who self-identify as “centrists,” who want to claim that the biblical teachings on the unity of the Church supersede our disagreements about other biblical passages. Without clearer guiding principles on the nature and function of Scripture, it is hard to see how we might resolve this disagreement.


We do not agree on the nature or goal of human life. This includes topics such as marriage and celibacy, the purpose of sexual intimacy, and procreation. For those who wish to claim that we simply disagree over “one issue,” remember that after the 2016 General Conference, in which the UMC withdrew from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, five annual conferences re-affiliated with it. At one level this is an ecclesiological issue. Do these annual conferences even have the right to do this within the structures of our church governance? At another level, it expresses the fact that we have very serious disagreements about matters such as the nature of human life and abortion. As a church, we lack a serious body of theological teaching that could help us to navigate these sensitive and emotional matters of disagreement.

Here’s another way of putting it: we can’t resolve these issues because we don’t share a common starting point. We talk past one another, often using the same words to mean different things. We inhabit vastly different worldviews, and we do not share a common theological grammar. Thus our unity must remain at the superficial level, if it is to remain at all.

Ordering our Disordered Minds

The Christian mind requires doctrinal formation, and in mainline Protestantism, we have most often avoided this. We have chosen to focus on forming our congregations into socially just people who will live in socially just ways, but without teaching them how we might reach conclusions as to what constitutes just behavior. We are supposed simply to know right and wrong intuitively. If the 20th century shows us anything, however, it is that right and wrong are not things that human beings know intuitively. Nonstop war, multiple genocides, the destruction of the environment, the rise of domestic and foreign terrorism…. No, we do not simply intuit what is right as humans. Sin wields tremendous power over our minds. In other words, there are epistemic consequences to sin. We don’t think in the right way. Our thoughts are disordered, and we need guidance. Teaching the faith once and for all handed on to the saints is a step toward the proper ordering of our minds.

Do we Christians really want unity? If so, we have to be willing to work for it. Real unity won’t involve our finding the least common denominators within our communities of faith. We can’t manufacture it on the cheap. No, real unity will require deep and sustained engagement with the faith that has sustained the Church through the centuries. Doctrinal formation is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the oneness and catholicity of the Church.

3 thoughts on “The Christian Mind, Part 2: Doctrinal Formation and Christian Unity

  1. The “vital factors ” attempts by the Bishops, Agencies and their consultants have missed the mark in sidelining and ignoring the main cause of the decline and division in the UMC: lack of theological and doctrinal standards. As an old engineer turned pastor, this is like tuning up a car engine when the gas tank is empty, and being shocked when the car won’t run.

  2. As a habitue of a conference that flaunts its Disciplinary and doctrinal divagations like hip new clothes, the heart of the matter is true versus false belief. The New Testament writers lambasted false belief, made war against it, warned the church about it, and encouraged separation from it. Our hard struggle is coming.

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