Who Needs Doctrine?

Jonathan R. Wilson
Pioneer McDonald Professor of Theology
Carey Theological College

In a book that Stan Grenz and Roger Olson wrote, one of them describes the warning that he received just before heading off to graduate study in theology: “Don’t let that theology professor destroy your faith!” (Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson, Who Needs Theology? p. 50) This concern may be found throughout the church, including the tradition in which I grew up. It’s in the church because there is some element of truth in it. Indeed, from the beginning of God’s people, ideas about God and life before God have gone wrong. Think of the many condemnations of idolatry among Israel in the Old Testament. Isn’t idolatry an expression of “bad theology”? Think also of the church in the New Testament and Paul’s many warnings about false teachers. So the warning that we should guard against theology that destroys faith is an important one.

But then think about how God’s people in the OT and NT met the challenges of idolatry and false teaching: not by giving up on theology but by making theology faithful to God and to God’s work of revelation and redemption. Israel’s idolatry was confronted and corrected by those theologians whom we call “prophets.” Paul’s answer to false teaching was not “no teaching” but “sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God . . . .” (1Timothy 1:10-11) So the answer to false teaching is faithful teaching.

In the NT the term for teaching in the church is the word that we translate “doctrine.” So although “doctrine” may sometimes sound harsh to our ears and to our culture (we’ll come back to this), it is a useful reminder that the church has a long heritage of teaching the good news of Jesus Christ. And that’s the order that we should observe: the gospel comes first, then doctrine follows and conforms to it.

So the immediate answer to the question, “Who needs doctrine?” is “All those who believe the gospel and seek to be faithful to it.” But this question and answer really only serve to bring us to a more significant question: “What is doctrine?”

WHAT IS DOCTRINE?

For some, doctrines are a list of statements that followers of Jesus Christ assent to. For others, doctrines are a set a symbols that represent our experience. Both of these views have their place in the teaching of the church, but they must be subordinated to another understanding of doctrines. The best way to understand doctrines is to understand them as the means by which we learn to see the work of Christ in the world, bear witness to Christ’s work, and enter into its reality. In this view doctrines do not draw us away from faith; rather, they help us to enter in and grow in faith. A doctrine may be as simple as “Jesus is Lord and Saviour.”

This understanding of doctrine has been present throughout the history of the church, though many different words have been used to represent this understanding. We can find this approach to doctrine in Augustine of Hippo, whose views contributed significantly to the Protestant Reformation. We can find this approach in the teaching of reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Menno Simons. It is present in the imaginative work of John Bunyan and the sermons of John Wesley. More recently Baptist theologians such as James Wm. McClendon, Jr., and Stanley Grenz make use of this understanding of doctrine.

SEE AND HEAR

This understanding of doctrine that I am endorsing may be summarized as “teaching the vision of God’s work in the world as revealed in the gospel so that we may become participants in it.” More succinctly, we may call this the “visionary-practical” approach to doctrine.

This description brings doctrine into faithfulness to Scripture. The words of Scripture, brought to life by the Holy Spirit, teach us to see and hear. To see means having our eyes trained to see God’s work continuing today. To hear means to obey God’s word, to practice it.

This “visionary-practical” approach enables us to incorporate the two views that I briefly named earlier. The notion that doctrines are a list of statements to which Christians give their assent is right in thinking that doctrines have propositional significance. The word “propositional” simply means that a statement makes a claim to truth. It is not a meaningless statement or merely an expression of feeling. So this approach to doctrine is right in representing Christian doctrines as claims about reality.

The problem with a propositional approach to doctrine is not in what it claims but in what it neglects. It fails to say clearly that doctrine is not just truth for thinking but also truth for living. Doctrine is not just about how to think, it is also about how to live. Since we Christians believe that truth is found ultimately in Jesus Christ and in following him (John 8:31-32), we cannot be content merely with ideas.

DOCTRINE AND TRUTH

Now, it is important not to separate Jesus as the truth from statements about Jesus as the truth. Sometimes, teachers in the church have made the mistake of setting the truth of the person of Jesus over against propositional truth. Some have fallen into the trap of arguing that relationships are more important than truth, or vice-versa. That’s an unfortunate over-reaction to the separation of truth from the person of Jesus. If our doctrine submits to the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we cannot separate truth from the person of Christ, his teaching and his work.

The visionary-practical understanding of doctrine recognizes that to learn to see the gospel continuing to work in the world, we must make true statements about that work so others can see it, believe, and enter into new life. For example, to teach that “Jesus Christ is Lord” makes a claim about the identity of Jesus Christ but it also commits us to living in a certain way.

EXPERIENCE CONFORMED TO GOSPEL?

The other major approach views doctrines as symbols that represent our experience. This view is right in recognizing the connection between experience and doctrine. But its limitation is that it almost always elevates experience over doctrine. The “symbols” of the faith that we express in doctrine are the product of our experience. This means, then, that we are free to discard the doctrines when they no longer have symbolic value for us. In other words, our experience interprets doctrine.

But this is precisely the error that Paul often warns against—the error of conforming doctrine to what we want to hear. To correct this, the visionary-practical approach to doctrine recognizes that doctrine cannot be separated from our experience if we are to be faithful to the gospel. But in visionary-practical teaching, the order of authority between doctrine and experience is reversed. In the visionary-practical approach, doctrine guides and interprets our experience. Certainly we may come to faith in Jesus Christ before we know much doctrine. And for many our doctrine may never become very well developed. But we must have people in the church who do know how to interpret our experiences in light of Christian doctrine.

In our experience-centered culture, we have to work hard to grasp this biblical truth. Yes, experience of Jesus Christ and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit are inseparable from the gospel. Therefore, teaching that conforms to the gospel must be concerned with our experience. But our experience does not have authority over the gospel and doctrine. It is, rather, the opposite. If my experience seems to teach me something contrary to the gospel, then I need to rethink how I have interpreted my experience. For example, if I think that I have found “liberation” in an experience that the Bible identifies as sin, I am not free to reinterpret Scripture. Instead, I must be willing to reinterpret my “experience.”

CLARIFYING VISION

The gospel teaches us that one aspect of Christian faith is “the way.” This way is, of course, found in Jesus Christ. In its inclusion of the practical as an integral part of doctrine, the visionary-practical approach incorporates this central biblical truth—that Christianity is the way.

Thus, Christian doctrine teaches us the truth of the gospel so that we can see it at work in the world and enter that work by faith, which incorporates us into Christ and his body. This work is “visionary” because it teaches us how to see God at work in the world and how to see the world as the place where God is at work. This is hard work—learning to see in this way—because we are constantly being taught lies about how to see the world. We are taught these lies by our own sin as well as by the world that is in rebellion against God. Daily, hourly, often by the minute, we are being taught to see the world through distorted lenses that twist and cloud our vision of God’s holiness and love at work to redeem this world.

Teaching and learning Christian doctrine is also hard work because the distorted vision of the world also distorts our lives in the world. We have ingrained habits of sin that are not only patterns of thinking and feeling but also patterns of living. So, to learn to practice the gospel requires a lot of discipline and commitment. All of this is possible only because God is gracious. We cannot see or live truthfully in our own power, but only by God’s Spirit who brings us to life in Christ.

If we understand doctrine as the teaching of the church that helps us to see through the lies and illusions of sin to the truth and reality of the gospel, then we must acknowledge that we all need doctrine. If we recognize that Christian doctrine teaches us how to practice the way that is Jesus himself and not the way of the world, then once again we will acknowledge that we all need doctrine.

IS DOCTRINE INTOLERANT?

Such recognition of our own need and our submission to another authority runs directly against the way we are taught to see the world and live today. To contemporary ears, “doctrine” sounds like the imposition of one person’s opinion on another, or one community’s imposition on another.

So to complete our exploration of our need for doctrine and what it is, we must take one more step. That step is to realize that we do not have life within ourselves or within our own reach as human beings. To be left without the teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be left to die. Our condition is not that of a people choosing from among many different ways to live. Rather, we humans are a dying people whose one opportunity for life is found in Jesus Christ. It is not kind, nice, or loving to withhold the message of life from those who are dying. Christian doctrine teaches us the life that is made possible by the good news of Jesus Christ. The message of the gospel has always been foolishness to those captive to human wisdom and a stumbling block to those longing for human power. But to those who believe, it is life abundant: in the midst of sin and death, the God of goodness and life has come to us. When it is faithful to gospel, doctrine is not an imposition that suppresses life; rather, it teaches us the good news that invites us to life found only in Jesus Christ.

A VISION FOR LIFE

Visionary-practical doctrine seeks to be faithful to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. Such teaching has been woefully lacking in the church. Many in the church know more about national history, a favorite sport, or passionate hobby than they do about the teaching of Christian faith. My own passion is to correct that failing in future posts as we turn directly to the teaching about Jesus Christ and the Triune God.

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