In the past three decades, a number of Christian writers and theologians have registered their alarm over the worrying decline in doctrinal literacy among Christians today. Theologians such as Alister McGrath and David Wells and historians like Mark Noll have written anxiously about this disturbing erosion of theological astuteness.
The early evangelicals, like the Reformers of the sixteenth century, were profoundly concerned that the theology of the Church is firmly established in authority of the Bible. Although they acknowledged that there are cultural, historical and political aspects to the Reformation that must never be dismissed or trivialised, they nonetheless correctly insist that it was primarily about doctrine and theology.
But today’s evangelical churches that trace their roots to Luther, Calvin and Wesley have not taken seriously enough the Reformers’ emphasis on doctrinal and theological rigour and clarity.
In the contemporary church, there appears to be a shift from doctrine to life, from theology to spirituality. This shift itself in many ways reflects the modern malaise, the tendency to dichotomise and even polarise aspects of reality that in fact belong together, like faith and reason.
In similar vein, some modern evangelicals have become suspicious and even dismissive of the tradition of the church, justifying their position by a naïve interpretation of the Reformers’ privileging of Scriptural authority (Latin: sola scriptura). The sophistication of the Reformers’ understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition is often missed when evangelicals resort to simplistic slogans such as ‘Back to the Bible’ or ‘No Creed but the Bible’.
This has not only resulted in an anaemic fundamentalism that refuses to be nourished by the rich theological and spiritual heritage of the church. It has also opened the door to an idiosyncratic subjectivism, and a corrosive relativism and pragmatism, all of which will prove detrimental to the church’s self-understanding and mission.
Christians must take doctrine and theology seriously if they truly believe that God has revealed himself and that what is true about him is contained in the pages of Scripture.
Christians must take doctrine seriously because the Christian Faith is not a woolly collage of attitudes and responses to some vague notions of deity. Neither is it an amorphous and idiosyncratic assemblage of subjective spiritual experiences.
The Christian Faith is based on God’s self-disclosure, first through his dealings with Israel and finally and supremely in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.
At the heart of the Christian Faith therefore is not doctrine, but the person of Jesus Christ who is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6). Doctrine develops as the church reflects on the identity, meaning and significance of Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth as her illuminating Guide (John 16:13).
Christian doctrine is therefore firmly and deeply rooted in the testimony of Scripture about the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. It is the church’s speech about God, an endeavour that can only be undertaken because God has first spoken about himself through Scripture.
There is a complex and dialectical relationship between Scripture and Christian doctrine. As we have seen, the doctrines of the church must be faithful to the testimony of Scripture, which is the Noma Normans non Normata (Latin: ‘The norm of norms that is not normed’).
But doctrine as the church’s understanding of God in turn provides the framework and substance to guide the Christian’s reading and interpretation of Scripture. Put differently, the individual Christian cannot adequately understand Scripture apart from the tutelage of the church and her doctrines.
The Reformer John Calvin understood very well the essential role of doctrine in helping Christians interpret Scripture correctly. In fact, he wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (1454) for this very purpose.
Thus, in the preface of the Institutes Calvin writes: ‘Although the Holy Scriptures contain a perfect doctrine, to which nothing can be added – our Lord having been pleased therein to unfold the infinite treasures of his wisdom – still every person, not intimately acquainted with them, stands in need of some guidance and direction, as to what he ought to look for in them, that he may not wander up and down, but pursue a certain path, and so attain the end to which the Holy Spirit invites him.’
Thus the Institutes together with the Rule of Faith and creeds of the early church provide the hermeneutical and theological framework within which Scripture must be read and understood. In this way, Christian doctrine puts a check on the subjectivism and relativism that is endemic in the way in which some evangelical Christians (and churches) interpret Scripture.
In Matthew 7:15, Christ warns his disciples to ‘Beware of false prophets’. And in his letter to Timothy, Paul spoke about Christians who will abandon their faith in pursuit of heretical theologies: ‘The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons’ (1 Timothy 4:1).
Such warnings demonstrate the importance of sound doctrine.
It is in light of these dangers that Paul exhorted Titus to ‘teach what is in accord with sound doctrine’ (Titus 2:1). The church of today must take this injunction serious not only because the threat of heresies has not abated, but also because in our confused world, the villain has become the hero.
The inimitable G. K. Chesterton, with his characteristic perceptiveness, saw this quite clearly in the middle of the last century. ‘The word “heresy”’ not only means no longer being wrong’, he writes in Heretics, ‘it practically means being clear-headed and courageous’. Thirty years later, the American sociologist Peter Berger confirmed this in his book, The Heretical Imperative (1980) in which he points out that today it is in fact necessary for one to be ‘heretical’.
The need for the contemporary church to take doctrine seriously cannot be overstated. Sound doctrine will build up the people of God. It will enable Christians to be discerning, to be able to tell truth from error. And it will enable them to escape the corrosive acids of heresy that will eventually destroy their faith.