Why Doctrine Still Matters
In the world of ministry and ministers, and also Christians in general, there can be a love/hate relationship with theology.
On the one hand, we love theology because it gives us an ordered, systematic, and storied picture of the sixty-six books of the Bible. We might say that theology packages the Bible—which can feel daunting to many—into a more digestible, less intimidating, easier to understand, and organized whole. At its best, theology gives us an interpretive lens through which to more clearly see God, the world, our neighbor, and ourselves. It anchors us and forms our most deeply held convictions. It give us greater certainty about things that are true and things that are not; about things that should be treated as lovely and things that should be treated as repulsive; about things that are healthy and that enhance life and things that are harmful and that diminish life. On the whole, and when handled with humility and care, theology can be a tremendous asset to our existence.
On the other hand, if handled poorly, theology can turn us into the worst versions of ourselves. As Paul was quick to warn the Corinthian saints, we can fathom all mysteries, but if we don’t have love, we have and we gain nothing. James says the same thing, perhaps even more bluntly, when he says that having the most sound, water-tight, correct system of doctrine by itself puts us in the same category as the devil of hell. “Even the demons believe,” James says, “and they shudder.”
I think that what both Paul and James were getting at is this: It is quite possible to memorize the whole Bible and to affirm and believe and even preach every single word that it says, and still not be even remotely submitted to it. To the degree that this is the case, we, like the demons, should begin to shudder. And then we should run to Jesus, immediately.
My predecessor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Dr. Charles McGowan, once shared a metaphor with me that I found both humorous and helpful. He said, and I paraphrase:
Scott, I believe that in the life of a Christian, theology should function like a skeleton. The skeleton is, of course, absolutely necessary for providing structure and strength to the rest of the body. But, like a skeleton with a body, if our theology is the only thing or even the main thing about our spirituality that is visible to others, it means that we are either spiritually sick or spiritually dead.
Ouch. And yet, so spot on. In his skeleton metaphor, Charles was in a way explaining why some people think of seminary, the place where many aspiring ministers go to become sound in their theology, as a “cemetery.” Those who think of seminary and the study of theology in this way are concerned about “devotion” becoming so much of an academic exercise, that the pursuit of God wanes into a dull, lifeless, and in many ways useless endeavor.
Positively, these are also people who have not forgotten that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with our whole selves, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Charles McGowan’s skeleton metaphor is especially relevant for those of us who come from a Reformed Presbyterian tradition. You see, we Reformed folks are known for priding ourselves on our sound doctrine (I don’t use the word “priding” lightly). Most of us would say that sound doctrine—that is, a biblically-grounded and water-tight theology—is the greatest strength of our particular tradition. And this may be true. However, when we fail to prioritize the life of the heart as a logical and necessary fruit of the life of the mind—manifest through things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control—we run the risk of missing the entire point. Deep knowledge of Scripture as the sword of the Spirit, and the sound doctrine that flows from it, must always lead to manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit.
So then, should we cease to study the Scriptures and engage with theology, for fear of our faith landing in the cemetery? Should we so fear a knowledge that “puffs up” that we downplay theology altogether? Shall we assume the popular stance that says, “Don’t give me doctrine, just give me Jesus,” forgetting that “Give me Jesus” is a statement that is itself loaded with doctrine?
Rather than relegate the pursuit of sound doctrine to the cemetery, I believe that we must instead redeem and restore the term to its original intent:
Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Wherever Scripture talks about sound doctrine, the Greek word that is translated “sound” was a common medical term meaning “healthy.” The skeleton is by no means an enemy to health, but is a friend and supporter of it.
When I was a first-year student at Covenant Theological Seminary, Dr. Dan Doriani taught us that the academic, intellectual pursuit of God does not have to lead us to the proverbial “cemetery.” Rather, to the degree that we come to love the Lord our God with our minds, we will be rightly equipped to healthily and rightly love Him with our hearts, souls and strength also. To love God fully, we must first hear from him clearly—not from culture or the latest religious trends or our feelings, but from him—precisely how it is that he wishes to be loved. Can a husband really love his wife if he fails to study her—what she loves, what makes her feel loved, what makes her tick? Similarly, when we limit our knowledge of God, when we limit our pursuit of theology and sound doctrine, we likewise limit our ability to love him rightly.
So what we are talking about here, then, is not the ceasing of all things doctrinal, but of all things doctrinaire. The New Testament Pharisees are our our portrait of this. To be doctrinaire is to be puffed up, prideful, spiritually bloated, and relationally intimidating and non-accessible. To be doctrinaire is to read our Bibles every day and be in three weekly Bible studies, while serving and actively loving no one. It is to think too highly of ourselves and too lowly of our neighbor, perhaps even thanking God “that we are not like other men” as the Pharisee in Luke 18.
For pastors especially, a richly developed, studied, sound, scripturally grounded, robust and healthy doctrine is therefore essential. As the pastor’s health (or lack thereof) goes, so goes the community that he serves. A puffed up pastor will attract and affirm a puffed up congregation. Similarly, a theologically shallow pastor will attract and affirm a theologically disinterested congregation. And we cannot be sure which one is worse. While the first will be experienced as distant and cold, the second will be experienced as squishy, and is at any given time susceptible to being “tossed about by every wind and wave of doctrine.” In either case there will be zeal, but the zeal will be misguided and unhealthy because it is not according to knowledge.
So, a chief reason why a commitment to sound doctrine should be preserved is that without it, we and those we serve put ourselves at risk of becoming disciples of (doctrinaire or doctrine-less) culture instead of Jesus. Staying rooted in Scripture-based, sound doctrine keeps us wise. That is, it keeps us rooted in God’s ways, which are higher than our ways, and in God’s thoughts, which are higher than our thoughts. Culture will shift, our feelings will shift, and human opinion will shift. But truth will not.
What makes the Bible, and healthy theology that proceeds from it, so relevant is this:
The Bible shows no interest in being relevant.
Instead, it enters and scrutinizes our human systems and politics and philosophies and theological constructs, both affirming that which is good and true, and correcting that which is not.
A second and chief reason why sound doctrine is important for ministers is that, as McCheyne once said, the most important thing that a minister can give to his people is his own holiness. We pastors can only lead our people as far as we ourselves have gone with God. We see this in the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “That which I first received from the Lord, I then delivered to you…” We also see it in the twelve disciples, who had become like Jesus as a result of being with Jesus, taking upon themselves his easy yoke and light burden of grace, learning from him, and through this finding rest for their souls. Then, and only then, were they prepared to carry his grace and truth to the world, plant and pastor churches, and do many good works in his name.
There is also a ripple effect when truth and theology get into us to such a degree that, as with Jonathan Edwards, it “catches fire.” According to Tim Keller, Edwards became so richly saturated with Scripture that, if you poked him with a fork, he would immediately begin to bleed Bible. And when we bleed Bible, that is, when our demeanors show that we are into the truth because the truth has gotten so in-to us, it becomes infectious and contagious. For us and for the people that we lead, the virtues of the Kingdom—of love and the fruit of the Spirit—are caught and not achieved.
Finally, this excerpt from Jonathan Edwards’ Personal Narrative gives a sample, and hopefully also some serious inspiration, for loving God as doctrinal people who are not doctrinaire, and as people who “bleed Bible” whenever we are poked:
Once, as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet, appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception … which continued as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve and follow him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity. I have, several other times, had views very much of the same nature, and which have had the same effects.
As with Jonathan Edwards, may our theological “skeletons” also be surrounded with such strong, and such healthy…
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