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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Doctrine vs. God's Word

The New Testament uses the word "doctrine" or "doctrines" over 50 times. Sometimes it refers specifically to the "doctrines of men." Sometimes it refers to false or perverse doctrine. And sometimes it refers to religious truth.

The word simply means "teaching." Just as there are false teachings and harmful teachings and dangerous teachings, there are also true, wholesome and beneficial teachings.

Doctrine gets a totally bad rap nowadays. If I say I am going to indoctrinate the children, people assume that's a bad thing when in fact, I plan to instruct them in the teachings of Holy Scripture.

It's similar with the word "Creed." A creed is simply a statement of one's beliefs. When someone says "no creed but the bible," they are being overly simplistic. If you say, "Jesus Christ is Lord." That is more than a bible quote. It is your creed, your belief. It's a doctrine.

Even worse is when someone says, "Deeds, not creeds." That's like saying, "deeds, not beliefs." Is Christianity really just about deeds? About improving your behavior? About what you do?

I realize that Christianity is more than a set of correct propositions and more than just true information. It is a relationship with the true and living God accessed through faith in Jesus Christ. But to have a relationship with Christ, one must KNOW him.

It matters WHAT you believe, friends. You can't just say, "I love Jesus." Nearly everyone says that from Mormons to Muslims. "Who do men say I am?" WHO is Jesus? WHAT did he do?

If you say that God is not going to judge you according to your doctrine, be careful because it sounds like you are suggesting that your relationship to God is not related to what you believe.

According to St. Paul:

If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. (1Timothy 6)

In this passage, the apostle equates the word "doctrine" with "godly teaching." Who is the arrogant party, the one who teaches falsely or the one who condemns the one who teaches falsely?

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (1Timothy 4).
And here Paul suggests that false doctrine (as much as immoral living) will harm the teacher as well as his hearers. How many in the church today can be said to be watching their doctrine closely?

I realize that for a lot of Christians today, this is horrifying. Doctrinal indifference is equated with love. But according to St. Paul, if you want to save people, correct doctrine is necessary. Those who dismiss doctrinal purity are like those who go to sow seed but pay no attention to the health or condition of the seeds themselves.

P.S. Friends, I do also realize that it is possible for the pendulum to swing too far the other direction. I'm not in favor of a Doctrine Gestapo. But it just seems to me that the majority of contemporary American Christianity is plagued with indifference to correct teaching. Flannery O'Conner once said that to the hard of hearing, you shout. So forgive me if my tone seems too intense. I'm actually a pretty wonderful guy.

Re-reading my post here, I want to also point out that faith is not a mere rational enterprise. Scripture shows that infants (even unborn) can have faith. Like John the Baptist leaping "for joy" when he overheard the voice of his Savior's mother. And an infant's faith is not based on cognitive data. This remains a mystery. Ultimately, faith is the product of the Holy Spirit's work. It is not something we drum up inside ourselves. To a rationalist I will emphasize the mystery of faith (fides qua creditur). But to someone who goes to the other extreme, I will emphasize the propositional nature of the faith (fides quae creditur).

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The Beast said...

Excellent post. As a Baptist, we tend to overlook the importance of doctrine. The reason is a good natured one, but still is a problem. Typically, Baptists are fearful of falling into what we call "creedalism," that is to say holding a statement of belief with the same authority as scripture. Obviously, I don't believe that is a healthy thing. Baptists tend to prefer the word "confession", nevertheless we are creedal in that we hold to a set of beliefs and stand behind them. I only wish I was hearing the word "doctrine" more from the pulpit and Sunday School.

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

Hi Beast. Sadly, modern Lutheranism worldwide is in doctrinal chaos. The Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod, of which I am a member is less so.

Like our Baptist friends, traditional Lutherans are opposed to granting a human document the same basic authority as Scripture. In fact, one of the great rallying cries of the Lutheran Reformation was "Sola Scriptura!" That is, "Scripture Alone." Luther pointed out quite rightly that popes and church councils can err and have contradicted one another.

Scripture is unique. It is divinely inspired. We speak of "verbal inspiration," meaning that every word is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is infallible and inerrant. Our 2.5 million member Lutheran denomination is one of the few within Lutheranism who still hold to biblical inerrancy.

We also use the word "confession" as in "make a confession of faith." In fact, a collection of texts gathered in 1580 called The Book of Concord are our Lutheran Confessions. In other words, at the time of the Reformation, it was deemed useful to have statements of where we stand on particular questions, especially in distinction to Rome. Nearly everyone in the Christian tent claims to believe the Bible, so these confessions can help clarify where people differ.

I will adopt a creed or confession only if it conforms to Scripture. As it just happens, I believe that the ancient ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran Confessions do accurately reflect God's Word. If I hold to them, it is only because that is so. I don't think these documents are reliable because they were composed by bishops or doctors of theology or because the church endorses them. I believe them because I am convinced they do accurately represent the teachings of God's Word. Scripture stands in judgment of these human confessions. The human confessions do not stand in judgment of Scripture.

So what I'm saying is that I think you and I are on the same page here. We might have disagreements about the meaning of this passage of scripture or that one. And we might adhere to somewhat different confessions. But it is very important common ground - in my view - that we do agree that the content of one's confession matters. These are not trivial pursuits. And we agree that Scripture Alone is the source and norm of doctrine and morals.

Darrell said...

You knocked this one out of the park, Pastor. I think this is one of your best posts.

I'm particularly sensitive to phrases like "No creed but Christ," I suppose, because I'm a new Catholic and I interpret that phrase as sort of an implied slam against Catholicism. Of course, the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed aren't unique to Catholicism, I'm aware that other churches avow them.

I like the word "Confession" in both of it's "Christian" senses, and I believe that both are necessary to the Christian life. Every translation I've seen of my favorite Bible passage, Hebrews 4:14-16, uses Confession in the sense of making a confession of Christ.

Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide are two of the Protestant doctrines that made the Protestant denominations unfulfilling for me, and I think they're probably the biggest difference between the way that we Catholics approach worship and the way that many Protestants approach worship. I'm a lay-Catholic, and my apologetic abilities are amateurish at best, so please don't think that I see myself as an authority... but my perspective is that Catholics see the Bible as holy, inspired, inerrant scripture, revealed to man by the Holy Spirit... but we also see it as a product, if you will, of our long Church tradition. Catholic Bishops canonized the books that make up the Bible and disavowed the ones that didn't. Protestant's seem to see scripture as something outside the Church; as a guide and a standard that came from God directly, as though the men who wrote the individual letters and gospels were somehow channeling God. They seem to have somehow forgotten that it's a document that originated from within a human institution. I believe that this fundamental difference in our separate understandings of the place of scripture is one of the deciding factors that draws each of us to either one Church or another.

It's interesting to me that many of the Protestants I know who are the most adamant about Sola Scriptura are also Dispensationalists who believe strongly in ideas about the "Rapture." Many of the most devout and wonderful Protestants I know ascribe to an Eschatology that strikes me as outright science-fiction. They're super people... but I often wonder how they can interpret certain Biblical passages so rigidly and yet firmly hold another set of beliefs that have no scriptural basis whatsoever.

Anyway, just had to throw my two cents in. Your blog has been outstanding lately. Well, I mean, it always is... ahem... but lately you've been at the top of the game.

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

Hi Darrell, thanks for reading. And thanks, especially, for commenting. One of the potential dangers of carrying on such discussions via a blog is to over-simplify the positions of others. I am deeply appreciative of the Roman Catholic point of view here on this discussion.

It may surprise you that I essentially agree with you. You do accurately point out one of the potential problems with Sola Scriptura. As I have said many times myself, the bible did not fall out of heaven shrink wrapped, gold-leafed, red-letter with a leather cover.

I am not scholarly enough to call myself a historian. Instead I prefer to say that I enjoy reading church history. I think modern Christians, possibly Americans in particular, suffer from a historical amnesia. Quite honestly, we wouldn't be having to answer this whole Da Vinci code baloney if more people understood ancient history.

Be that as it may, I agree that the Scriptures, and the development of the New Testament canon, arise from the church which Jesus Christ founded by the direction of the Holy Spirit.

In my understanding, the issue is apostolicity. The ancient fathers did not arbitrarily pick and choose and simply decide my majority vote. The legitimate historical question was whether a specific book has apostolic credentials (either written by an apostle or a close assoc of an apostle). While that wasn't always easy to determine, it is important to point out that never did one man or one group of men simply sit down and decide "what do WE accept?" It was always, what has the church received as genuinely apostolic? Some books, as you know, were completely rejected. Others received unanimous attestation. And still others, what we call antilegoumena, were largely accepted and so included but failed to receive unanimous acceptance.

My understanding is that the Reformers of the 16th century concluded that over centuries, the medieval church had obscured the clear teachings of the Bible with human traditions, superstitions and false or misleading interpretations. Their intent was not to break off and start a new church, but to reform. Nor to destroy tradition, but to remove whatsoever had accumulated which contradicted biblical testimony as they understood it.

By the way, traditional Lutherans and Calvinists are amillenialists just as the Church of Rome. Church history is littered with all sorts of theories of the end times. Different versions of dispensationalism and millenialism have been around since the very beginning of Christianity. The modern version of premillenial dispensationalism is really only around a hundred years old.

Tim Kuehn said...

The "mission vs doctrine" debate seems to be missing one critical point - namely that "doctrine" or God's word, is a matter of power, not getting people to "agree" to something which is something that's a watered-down version of what it really is.

As scriptures tells us - "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." 1 Cor. 1:17-19 (ESV)


"And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." 1 Cor. 2:1-5 (ESV)

True faith is a working of the Spirit to make a new creation in people:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
2 Cor. 5:17-19 (ESV

Proper mission efforts must recognize that God uses people as a means to make His appeal to people, and that those who receive Christ as their Lord and Savior do so because of the working of the Spirit within them to bring them to faith, not because that which was represented to them was "entertaining" or "fun".

You cannot have "missions" without the working of the Spirit. You cannot have the Spirit without the Cross which is a stumbling block to those who are perishing.

This is a danger for those who pursue a "mission to the exclusion of doctrine" path today - in the pursuit of "numbers", the full truth of who and what Christ is is being watered down in the pursuit of numbers over faithfulness. Does this kind of "mission" work produce real believers? Is it possible to make real converts outside of the Word (and hence power) of God?

Or are such people risking more dire consequences?

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.' Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)

Bob Waters said...

Darrell, at the risk of being accused of self-promotion ;) I have an entry on my blog at which the issues of canonicity and the solas arose. It had to do originally with the failure of most Catholic apologists I've seen to understand what the Reformation even meant by "sola Scriptura."

The entry is here:

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