More Christian teaching than ever before is available today in books, on the internet and via special events, but many evangelicals and churches seem strangely indifferent to doctrine.
The doctrinal indifference of evangelicals is only bettered by the flabbiness found in liberal churches. This doctrinal downgrade has been going on for a long time.
Doctrine is viewed with suspicion because of some common shibboleths: doctrine is thought to divide, whereas activities unite; intellectualism is dangerous and discourages evangelism; doctrine is dry and uninteresting, not conducive to worship; and young people need entertaining not indoctrinating.
Some evangelicals seem to live with three assumptions: doctrine is for the head, feelings for the psyche, but only ‘spiritual’ experiences really matter.
There is another more subtle misconception. Doctrine is equated with theology, so Jane and Joe Bloggs leave ‘theology’ to the specialists to argue among themselves. However, doctrine is not theology. Doctrine is biblical teaching about what it means to believe in God. As such, it is fundamental, essential and necessary to Christian faith and life. Theology, on the other hand, is unpacking biblical teaching in different situations.
God teaches us by revealing his truth in a way we can understand. Theology is the application of that teaching to different people at different times. It’s useful if it is backed up by biblical doctrine, and hot air when it’s not. This is the reason why we distinguish between the biblical norm, which is final, and confessions of faith that depend on that norm and aim at faithfulness to it.
Of course, there is a kind of unfolding theology on the surface of Scripture, but it’s not academic or scientific. The inspired writers have their place in revelation as does their understanding, both individual and collective. I prefer to call this understanding ‘biblical doctrine’, because God is involved, communicating his own truth via the inspired writers.
‘Biblical doctrine’ is self-authenticating, because Scripture is. It depends on the Holy Spirit for its value, whereas other theology does not. It is expressed in biblical propositional truths received and understood, as Calvin said, through the illumination of the same Spirit. The doctrine of Scripture is a unity and allows us to make coherent theological statements and constructions.
Two more things need to be added about biblical doctrine, because misunderstandings often arise. From a Christian perspective, doctrine should be qualified as apostolic. The unity of the church is based on the unity of apostolic truth and not the contrary.
In John 17 (vv. 17-21) Jesus prayed that his disciples be sanctified by the Word of God and by its truth. The Father sent his Son into the world to bring that truth and the Son sent his disciples out with the same truth. The word of the twelve will be received by ‘those who will believe’. This will make all believers one in the truth.
Secondly, the apostles are present in the church today through the truth they received from the Master and transmitted to us as believers. They are our apostles and we don’t need any others. We have their truth — the apostolic doctrine of the New Testament. There is no other. We can know it and believe it. We can also, with the help of the Spirit, distinguish between truth and error.
So, revealed truth comes down a communication-line from God and biblical doctrine is more than a human witness. It is divinely sanctioned spiritual truth, unknown to man and incomprehensible apart from the witness of the Holy Spirit.
It is part of the new-world reality into which Christians enter through the new birth. Biblical doctrine is spiritual, because it alone can tell us what a Christian is — something that no human reasoning can do. Without it we cannot see the kingdom of God. So doctrine is vital, dynamic and living, because this doctrine is life-giving.
What is doctrine then? The New Testament uses many expressions for it: the gospel, wisdom from on high, teaching, message, witness, the truth or word of truth, the faith, instruction, sound words, as well as doctrine itself. So it is a very broad notion.
Negatively, Romans 16:17, Ephesians 4:14, 1 Timothy 1:10 and 6:3 all warn us to beware of perversions of biblical truth that dumb it down by vain human wisdom. Positively, 1 Timothy 4:6, Titus 1:9 and 2:1, 7 and 10 speak about following ‘the faith of good doctrine’ and about being ‘sound’ in the truth. 2 John 9 exhorts us to ‘abide in the teaching of Christ’. When we do that, we ‘have the Father and the Son’. Apostolic doctrine is the rule of faith for the church.
Christian doctrine is life-defining. The good news re-aligns us spiritually with God, according to his criteria. It allows us to see things the way God sees them. It is the most treasured possession we have in this life, where everything is passing away. It is the one thing we shall take from time to eternity.
We should do all we can to make more of it, and use it to build up ourselves and others in the one faith.
The author is emeritus professor at the John Calvin seminary in Aix-en-Provence, France, editor of La revue réformée and lives in Eastbourne. He recently published Taking the Bible at its Word (Christian Focus, 2012).