What is the Value of Doctrine?2015 Feb 5
Theology is the study by humans of things relating to God, and doctrine is the accepted beliefs that we hold in this topic. So, first we need to talk about theology.
Some parts of theology come from rich and clear information from our primary sources (the Bible and related historical documents). However other parts of theology come from very sparse sketches of information. The theology that we need for living a good Christian life is only a part of this panorama. What is the purpose of the rest of the body of theological teaching, that which is beyond what we need to know for living?
(See Part 1 : Can We Know Theology?)
Christianity assumes a God of integrity and consistency. (If this was not true, we could not know theology with any reliability.) On the other hand, Christianity also assumes a transcendent God, a being without the limits that humans experience. Therefore, whatever we know about God cannot be complete; we can only imagine his fullness.
Theologians are interested to know all truth about the things of God: What is the nature of God? What does God do? What is the nature of man with respect to God? What are the options for man in relation to God? What does God require of man?
God tells us about himself through what he has made, through what he has done, and through his direct communications to humans. (Christians accept that the primary record of what God has revealed of himself is in the Bible.) These sources provide facts that we interpret and work to structure into a cohesive picture.
Theologians are interested to know all truth correctly, but sometimes the original source data is very limited. As humans, we tend to fill out the picture with plausible ideas. This is not wrong as long as we remember where we have filled things in, and if we remember to not depend on the correctness of those invented details for life and living.
For example, if you study carefully what the Bible actually teaches us about angels, it turns out to give very few details. If you compare this with the traditional understanding of angels, you can see that a lot of it must have come from non-Biblical sources. (What ideas about angels might have come to us from old paintings?) All this tradition is no problem if we hold it loosely, remembering that we could be wrong about these ideas.
Theology then encompasses reliable truth revealed by God, human theories (that fill in details), and various alternate views (some of which are likely wrong). The study of theology even includes heresies (because we need to record the things that we have discovered are errors - so that we can avoid them).
One result of deep study is that we organize our ideas. So, theology organizes our knowledge about the things of God. And it provides us mental structures for understanding these things.
We choose to believe only some parts of the large panorama of theology. This results in our doctrines, our beliefs. If we are personally diligent in our studies and/or have put our trust in theologians that are reliable, our doctrine can also be trustworthy.
Doctrine helps explain the why and the how of spiritual things. For example: why are we in our present state, and how does God work his love toward us. It teaches us our spiritual options and their consequences, and it helps us decide what we will do.
There are essential parts of doctrine that matter the most. These parts are pragmatic; they establish our standing with God, and affect the way we live. Defined this way, the other parts of doctrine don't make a difference in practice, but they bring value for our understanding of things.
The set of essential doctrines is actually pretty small. The rest of our doctrines give us context around these essentials. The essential parts of doctrine teach us what it is to be a Christian. The good thing is that these essentials are pretty easy to communicate. note And they do not require extensive study like might be needed to cover the rest of doctrine.
"There is a part you believe, and a part you do”, etc
The essential parts of doctrine are clear and easy to understand. note The rest of our doctrine must always be consistent with these essentials. Jesus taught these doctrine essentials; the New Testament writers taught the same essentials. Jesus and Paul both called it the Gospel: the good news. It is good news because it is the way that we can get right with God.
All through time, people have been saved by trusting in a merciful God. They have been brought into right relationship with him by trusting in this (mercy) aspect of his love.
The genuine love of God never tricks or confuses us about his expectations of us. The expectation has always been to love (or at least respect) him, and to treat others well. (e.g. Micah 6:8, Mark 12:29-31) This is because God wants us to become like him in character; and he loves us and treats us well.
Through time God certainly has hidden, then revealed mysteries. But these were mysteries about how he was going to accomplish what he said he would do (the mysteries of Christ and the gospel). God has never brought about salvation through hidden knowledge, and what God has wanted from us has never been mysterious.
The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is God's plan for restoring people to relationship with him. Central to the plan is transforming people to become like God in their hearts and thinking. It is God putting his own motivating value system into humans: sacrificial love for the benefit of others. note And clearly, living this morally excellent value system will also promote great interpersonal relationships.
We know God loves us with a sacrificial love because he tells us that he does (John 3:16), and because he demonstrated his love to us by dying for us on the cross. We know this type of love is central to the gospel because Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23, Matt 16:24), and because Jesus has given us a new commandment that we must love each other as part of the new covenant with us (John 15:9-17).
So doctrine is what we believe to be the truthful and correct theology. It contains pragmatically essential parts (particularly the gospel). And it contains more parts that give us context and explanations. The amazing thing is that we could be mistaken about these latter parts, but if we get the gospel right, everything is OK.
Uncertainties about doctrine increase away from the gospel core. note Therefore the value of our doctrine beyond the essential gospel has limitations.
We cannot ignore this truth of uncertainty about some parts of doctrine and also claim to honestly seek truth. The wise view is to have humility in areas of doctrine where our confidence is limited. Then when we come into additional genuine truth at a later time, we will be ready to learn.
Humility does not put us at a disadvantage to distinguish truth. Every doctrinal truth will always be consistent with gospel. Also, the powerful principle of Christ's new commandment of love can give us great discernment.
Too much of the Christian world chooses instead to turn doctrine into dogma because they are uncomfortable with uncertainty. To the degree they have the gospel right, they won't miss out on their relationship to God. But they may miss Jesus' vision of his body the church. By their dogma they may exclude some of God's people, cutting themselves off from those that have difference in doctrine only at parts that don't matter.
So then, what is the value of doctrine? Doctrine brings value for the understanding it gives about the gospel.
Part 3: Doctrine and Maturity