Foreword by Pastor Brian Chilton
In our postmodern culture where everything has seemingly become relative, doctrine has become a byword for many Christians. The term doctrine is paralleled by the term “orthodoxy” which means “right belief.” The term “doctrine” itself is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief” (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/doctrine). So, why is doctrine important?
I would add that doctrine is important because right doctrine should teach “right truth.” Before a person could know right doctrine, the person would have to concede that there are absolute true things. When someone says, “There is no truth,” they are giving a self-defeating statement because they believe that it is true that there is no truth. So, truth is essential. Why is truth important for doctrine?
For doctrine to be valid, it must relate to truth, that which is in accordance to reality. If one holds that I have a Bradford Pear tree in my front yard and another holds that I have a Red Maple in my front yard, only one can be correct as I only possess one tree in my front yard. Those who hold that I have a Bradford Pear would have right doctrine because it is true that I have only a Bradford Pear tree in my front yard. The same is true of doctrine. If there is a God, then those who hold to an atheistic position cannot be correct. If Jesus can be shown to have literally raised from the dead and was the Messiah that the Hebrew Bible prophecies, then those who hold that Jesus was not the Messiah cannot be correct.
As you read the following article by Drew Payne on the importance of Christian doctrine, keep this in mind. Doctrine is important. With false doctrine, several problems can and will emerge. So now, we present for your reading pleasure “Christian Doctrine, Part 1” by Drew Payne.
CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE, Pt. 1
by J. Andrew Payne
We live in a time of doctrinal illiteracy throughout the western world. This was no sudden thing but rather something that came about over the last one hundred years. Perhaps it was simply cultural annoyance at what initially seemed to be the squabbling of eccentric scholars, endlessly debating things that no layperson would ever even consider. Perhaps it was just a byproduct of our culture’s failing public education system. Whatever the reason may be, it for the moment is irrelevant.
It has become a common sentiment amongst churchgoers today to say something along the lines of, “We’re not going to let petty squabbling about doctrine divide our church.” I’ve heard this expressed by countless Christians and, sadly, expressed in dozens of pulpits and by many popular figures in the Protestant Church in America. The debates over doctrine are seen as being over things that don’t matter and will only ultimately cause division. As unity is to be desired, they seem to be anathema to what should be pursued by Christendom. Now to be fair, those who typically express these sentiments rarely go so far as to dismiss all doctrine as being worthless. Obvious things like the death and resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, or even something as simple as the belief in the existence of a God are easily conceded as essential doctrines of the faith. All those other things don’t seem to matter as much and so we can afford to not be so dogmatic about them. At least this is the commonly held view.
And yet even these basic, elementary doctrines are now at stake. After years of Christians taking a rather derisive view of their own doctrines, expressing popular platitudes as “we don’t divide over doctrine,” the very identity of Christianity is all but lost. Being a Christian can mean anything from simply being a good person and holding to Jesus’ command to “Do unto others” (Mat. 7:12) regardless of a belief in God, to someone who believes there is a God, to someone who holds that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord, the promised Savior of mankind who sits know at the right hand of God the Father. So much has the identity of Christianity been lost, that many of the core doctrines that would seem to be undeniable to a Christian’s identity are denied. Not to be too biographical, but within this last week, I have been told of a pastor who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, who is openly an agnostic, leaning towards atheism. Further, it is not just Rob Bell who denies the existence of an eternal hell wherein those who are not called to the Father are damned for all of eternity. In fact, this author’s grandparents attend a Methodist church presided over by a pastor who does not believe in the existence of hell. She also openly supports homosexuality. Most Christian colleges (to say nothing of secular ones) are given to teaching that the Bible is not infallible, and that it in fact never claimed to be. One of my New Testament professors during my undergrad (and it is worth noting that I attended a college that called itself a “Christian college”) declared that it is an ignorant mistake to suppose that the Synoptic Gospels themselves were the inspired word of God. Further, none of them, according to this professor, even claimed that Christ was divine. That was said to not be an aspect of Christianity that even came about until the Apostle Paul’s writings. And finally, I know personally an ordained Lutheran minister who is an atheist. I could go on, but this list is already guilty of being self-indulgent.
The point of that rant was to establish that the importance of doctrine is no longer reserved for the things that are esoteric, but now engulfs that which would seem most obvious. Christianity, though it is something so simple that even a child can understand it, is also something so profound that even the most brilliant scholars known to history are lost to its majesty. What is essential, though, is that these two opposite poles are not opposed to each other. One end is not the antithesis of the other, but rather they are united, and it is in them that the Church must be reunited.
The Road to Orthodoxy
Dr. Robert George once said that “Law, far from being the enemy of freedom, was the condition of freedom.” If I may steal from him and modify his statement only slightly, for Christendom, far from being the enemy of unity, Christian doctrine is the condition of unity. Doctrines are simply the body of beliefs that the Church holds to. Now do not mistake what I am saying. I am not saying that doctrine usurps Christ Himself as that which should be at the center of our beliefs. What I am saying is that how it is that we as Christians come together to follow Christ as a unified body is through a unity of belief.
It is not unity or doctrine, but unity through doctrine. If not, what else is there wherein we are unified? Merely proclaiming that we are unified in Christ is meaningless unless there is some doctrine to explain the meaning of such a statement. So how is one to know what is most important to the Christian faith; that which is so essential that the very identity of ‘Christian’ could not be ascribed of it if it was lacking? Before the question can be properly answered, one comes to find that it is philosophy as much as theology which answers this question. For example, the infallibility of scripture can still lose its power if one does not hold to the objectivity of meaning in the text. But that is a philosophical issue, namely that of semiotics. However, if the objectivity of meaning is not firmly held to, then any passage can be made to mean anything, wherein infallibility gains us nothing. This point itself, though, is not held to by the vast majority of contemporary Christian Biblical scholars (again, to say nothing of the secular ones). In Christendom today, it is common for the subjectivity of Christian experience to outweigh the objectivity of the text. Postmodern thought has so permeated the culture that even in Church held Bible studies, proper etiquette demands that one begin with the prefix, “What this means to me is…”, ensuring that we eliminate all possible dogmatism.
Such a problem is nothing new. In the preface of his most excellent work, Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine wrote:
To those who talk vauntingly of Divine Grace, and boast that they understand and can explain Scripture without the aid of such directions as those I now propose to lay down, and who think, therefore, that what I have undertaken to write is entirely superfluous. I would such persons could calm themselves so far as to remember that, however justly they may rejoice in God’s great gift, yet it was from human teachers that they themselves learnt to read.
What Augustine is pointing out is that we are merely fallible human beings. If all Christians were divinely bequeathed a perfect understanding of the scriptures, there would be no need for this essay as there would be no disagreements in the Church over what the Bible teaches. The objectivity, however, is most certainly not lost in the fact that humans are fallible. After all, just because a runner stumbles and falls while running a race, does not mean that he cannot get back up and finish the race. It is the same with objective meaning. Just because we can err, does not mean that the final goal of obtaining an objective meaning is lost. It just takes a lot of dedication and hard work, and when truth is found, it is to be held ardently.
What follows out of this commitment to objective truth, is that the truths with which we pursue must exist apart from us. This is the very reason why we pursue them. Such a commitment alone is necessary if one is to begin the journey down the right path which leads them to orthodox doctrine. This journey will be filled with no shortage of discoveries which are likely to jolt the believer, perhaps causing them some insecurity, but will ultimately lead them to their ultimate goal, which is truth. This is antithetical to the popular beliefs that hold to an elevation of man and his insight. G.K. Chesterton once pointed out that, “Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert – himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.”
In Christendom, it has become that man pursues the truths man desires, and will achieve them after finagling with the truth, warping it until it conforms to his will. It is no new phenomenon. Early Church father Irenæus spoke of the bewitching nature of false doctrines, writing, “Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.” The road to true, orthodox Christian doctrine is one that requires that the pilgrim cast aside his selfish desires, and rather turn to seek after God with unadulterated abandon. The road to God demands purification, and the Christian gospel was not meant to be light as a feather to the backs of those who embrace it. It is no easy task, that of being a Christian, for it is of necessity that at some point the gospel of Jesus Christ breaks the believer. It is for this reason that Augustine says early in his Christian Doctrine, “Let us look upon this purification as a kind of journey or voyage to our native land. For it is not by change of place that we can come nearer to Him who is in every place, but by the cultivation of pure desires and virtuous habits.”
There are two important ways that one can fall into heresy which I wish to address here. The first was chronicled above with ones approach to the scriptures, and the second is found in a warped view man takes in his relation to God, predominately in relation to soteriology and the direct doctrines of God. Concerning the second way, let us turn again to St. Irenæus, whose place as an Early Church father was won out of his persistent intellectual assault against the voluminous heresies that had arisen in his day.
The word ‘heresy’ is one that is uncommon to hear bandied about in casual conversation today. However, with the complacency towards Christian doctrine that has won out, a cacophony of heretical ideas has begun to ring out with ever growing persistency. Repeatedly it is that we seek to remake God in our own image to make Him something more easily digestible. Sometimes this is due to good intentions; sometimes it is merely human pride. With regard to pride, it was reported to me by a pastor that a North Carolina preacher had recently stated that Jesus was wrong on the stance He took regarding homosexuality. The preacher went on to claim that had Jesus been living now, He would have seen the error of His ways and changed His views. In order to believe this, one has to begin with the belief that God is Himself fallible. This is a common teaching that has arisen out of Neotheism and is consistent with it. If you begin with a mutable God, it is not hard to derive a fallible God as many Neotheists do.
The doctrines of God are what separate Christianity from all other religions. And it is a delicate and narrow path that must be traveled. St. Irenæus wrote, “For almost all the different sects of heretics admit that there is one God; but then, by their pernicious doctrines, they change [this truth into error], even as the Gentiles do through idolatry.” Irenæus did not teach this above and beyond the examples provided for us in the scriptures. The moment one deviates from what is outlined in the scriptures, their worship is credited as idolatry.
Consider the example of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12 – 14. Jeroboam was selected by God and given largely the same set of promises that David was given. God came to him and told him, “If you obey all I command you, walk in My ways, and do what is right in My sight in order to keep My statutes and My commandments as My servant David did, I will be with you. I will build you a lasting dynasty just as I built for David, and I will give you Israel.” (1 Kings 11:38) Initially Jeroboam did as God commanded. After some time, though, he began to grow insecure in the truth of God and began to reason that if the people continued to worship God as God had commanded that they do – that is, journey to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices there – they would grow more attached to his enemy Rehoboam than he. To prevent this from happening, Jeroboam set up two separate places of worship within his own kingdom so that his people would not have to travel to Jerusalem. What is striking is his dedication to the two alters. He states of them, “Going to Jerusalem is too difficult for you. Israel, here is your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28) He did not declare that this was a new God, but that it was one and the same God as they had been worshiping. What is explicitly stated, however, is that this new method of worship was expedient – both for Jeroboam and the Israelites. They worshiped the same God in name, but in their own way, in effect denigrating God to be what they wanted Him to be. Though 2 Chronicles does not record the account in as much detail, the majority of Jeroboam’s perversion is summed up in just a few verses. “The priests and Levites from all their regions throughout Israel took their stand with Rehoboam, for the Levites left their pasturelands and their possessions and went to Judah and Jerusalem, because Jeroboam and his sons refused to let them serve as priests of the Lord. Jeroboam appointed his own priests for the high places, the goat-demons, and the gold calves he had made.” (2 Chronicles 11:13-15)
What must be recognized as unmistakable from this example is that when approaching God, He does not conform for us into what we want Him to be. Rather we must conform to Him, putting his ways truly above our own. Still further along these lines, consider that Jesus states that the greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Mat. 22:37) What is first, and most important in a Christian’s life is that they pursue God above all else. Seeking anything else above God is idolatry. Orthodoxy must begin with this: the pursuit of God above all else. Not the pursuit of what is expedient, not the pursuit of what we want God to be, and certainly not the pursuit of a God who is in line with the times, but purely God as He is.
Just because one starts at the right point, however, does not guarantee that he will finish at the right place. The Early Church father Tertullian is a good example of this. Nevertheless, this point of origin will doubtlessly help evitate many needless, petty arguments that arise from the insertion of self-interests, and refocus the debate back on what matters most, namely the pursuit of rightly knowing God. This is not a debate of competing human interests, but one born out of the proper pursuit of God.
Often it is the case that with Neotheists, they approach the scriptures and their corresponding philosophy, if one can stomach calling it that, with a particular set of agendas that are desired: the freedom of man, the sinlessness of God, and the idea that the love of God conforms to the understanding humans ascribe to it. From that point, no matter the cost, they attempt to bring about a systematic synthesis of these ideas and before they are through, many have denied the Simplicity of God, the Immutability of God, and in Infinity of God, as well as most every other essential doctrine of God, and God comes to be judged by man, not the other way around. God’s justice is reduced and man’s freedom is increased. God is merely an all loving being who simply wants us to be happy, and will do whatever it takes to make it so we can be. Thus things as blatantly denied as homosexuality are blithely shrugged off in this inane pursuit of happiness, and the things of God are exchanged for the whimsical desires of man.
How to Respond/Conclusion
Christianity requires that one whole heartedly follow Christ. As Spurgeon put it, “to be Christian is to be an imitator of Christ.” That is precisely what we find in Acts 11:26 when the name “Christian” was first used. Thus if our doctrine is not rooted in our dedication to the infallible word of God, through our dedication to Christ, it is simply not Christian doctrine. Anything else is a waste. As Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard once put it, “How the truth is accepted is as important as the truth itself, even more so. It does no good to convince millions of the truth if the way they accept it turns it into falsehood.”
If one does not conform to the objective truth of the Bible and seeks after a plethora of other things above and beyond God, then such a view as they possess is not rightly known as Christian. This may seem harsh to the mind of one who has grown up in our contemporary times, and truly it would deny a large portion (perhaps even the majority) of those who claim the name of Christ. Regardless of how it may appear, the reality is that the Church must be reformed from within, and that reformation entails a substantial pruning, or rather, refining.
There is an undeniable problem with regard to the state of the Church in the west. Christians behave in horrendously immoral ways, blatantly acting against everything that they ought to stand for. Still worse, it has become common and acceptable to reject certain things that the Bible clearly teaches, should one feel so inclined. Doctrine has become optional, and in that state, Christianity has lost its identity. But why has all this happened? I can answer no better than to paraphrase Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and say, “men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
 Perhaps the best book available on the subject is Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation by Dr. Thomas Howe.
 St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, vol. 2 of The Church Fathers – Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1887), 519.
 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 37.
 St. Irenæus, Against Heresies, vol. 1 of The Church Fathers – Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1887), 315.
 All passages taken from the HCSB.