Thursday, March 08, 2007

Answering Objections Concerning the Study of Doctrine

Millard Erickson mentions three objections to the study of doctrine early in his book "Does It Matter What I Believe?"[i] First, "the study of doctrine unduly complicates the Christian faith;" second, "doctrine divides Christians;" and third, "doctrine may distract us from other aspects of the Christian life." Erickson does not hold to these objections, but we are well served to answer them, for if these objections are not answered we might as well worship dust bunnies because nobody enjoys complications, everyone is persuant of unity and the last thing we really need are distractions from those thing that make us feel good. A happy home is one where everyone is able to sit and watch the same TV channel without bickering, right?

Doctrine is a strange word. I distinctly remember hearing it for the first time when I was small and how the sound of it stuck with me like grit does after falling on a hard cold tile floor. Not exactly a word many use every day, but we use a form of it religiously—if we are not visiting them for one reason or another, we are enjoying TV shows about them (one of which has become a regular House-hold name.) I speak of the good “doctor.”

Doctrine is simply “teaching,” “instruction,” or “dogma.” If one were to wax Calvinistic, he would speak of “institutes.” Doctrine is simply “something that is taught; or, a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief. In other applications the word would refer to a principle of law established through past decisions; or, a statement of fundamental government policy especially in international relations.[ii] Unless we were neo-pagan, we unfortunately cannot enjoy entertaining the idea of what life would look like sans doctrine in toto; therefore, we are left to focus our discussion to doctrine as it touches Christianity.

First: Does the study of doctrine complicate Christianity? When study becomes over-analysis, perhaps; however, it is not the doctrine that has become the complication but rather the mishandling of the lesson. Overthinking (to employ a Orwellianism) is the stick in the spokes here. This is easily demonstrated: form a circle with your finger and thumb, like you were making an “OK” sign. Now, poke your head through the hole. Did you do it?

Perhaps something easier. Let’s imagine I whacked you upside the head with a golf-club. Now I’m going to do it again. What will you do differently? What did you have to stop and think about? How long did it take to decide?

If you tried the first experiment, you should have simply placed your “circle” against your forehead and “poked” your head with your other hand. If you got whacked the first time with the club, you would either duck or move or grab my hand to keep from getting whacked again. Some of you may have wrestled the club from my grip at which point I would immediately (and without much thought) take off running. See the point? One does not simply sit and think about it—he acts. No complication.

Consider further: the rules of your workplace. You have a specific job to perform and a certain amount of time in which to do it. How did the training you receive make your job harder? What profit is there to say, “The acquisition of procedure unduly complicates my job?”

Since the main task of the disciple is to learn from the Master and apply what he has learned, what complication did they face by virtue of being disciples? Jesus makes it easy by teaching to walk away from everything else and obey Him out of love. Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, one must leave family, friends, even the City of Destruction and make his way to the cross (and bear his own) in order to be a disciple. Consider further, if the disciples had not learned the doctrine of prayer, would prayer have been easier for them, or were they asking for complication when they inquired of the Lord Jesus Christ to teach them to pray? Had they already mastered prayer and were looking for something else to do? Jesus made prayer easier, not harder by taking the focus off self and throwing it all on God.

I believe the real issue is that many who are at ease playing at Christianity do so by their own rules. They are uncomfortable with the demands that obedience brings, hence the complication lies within themselves, not the doctrine. If this objection made its point, what other doctrine is there to be learned and would it really be less complicated? In addition, given the demands of maintaining a lifestyle (idolatry) that is not congruent with Christianity, is there any wonder complication becomes an issue? Creating a god of convenience is the result of not learning about the true and living God, and that alone brings eternal complications.

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”[iii]

Second, it is said that “doctrine divides Christians.” Jesus prayed for His disciples “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”[iv] Either His prayer is ineffective as the objection implies (we will touch on this again in the third point), or something other than doctrine concerns Jesus that He would pray for unity.

Thinking through the objection, one should immediately seek to discover what is meant by “divide?” Obviously, Christians are divided geographically; hence, some are “over here” while others are “over there.” But I don’t believe this is the thrust of the objection.

I hear often, “why are there so many denominations?” Look for a moment at your loose change. If you have some in your pocket, dig it out. Do you find pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters? A wadded up bill? Out of all that is in your hand (or jar or purse), which ones of those are truly money? They are all money, right? What you are looking at is money divided into “denominations.” What difficulty is there for denominations to do their work when it comes to making a purchase? The only difficulty comes if that money comes from outside the country or is false, so there must be some clear parameters set for that denomination to function correctly. In this sense “doctrine” does not divide, but assists the division to work. Criteria are clearly established that prevents counterfeiting.

Consider further the example given from scripture. “For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”[v]

The Church is described as a body with weaker and stronger parts. God seems to have actually constructed the Church (made up of Christians) with an element of division, but not the division that leads to amputation; rather, a division that requires care for one another.

Is division by doctrine bad, or wrong? If “tolerance” is meant by “division,” then the answer is “No.” Doctrine clearly distinguishes the true Christian from the false. I have occasional conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses who claim Christianity and I’ve spoken with Mormons claim Christianity; but, I cannot help but notice how the Jehovah’s Witness does not claim Mormonism, nor does the Mormon identify with the Watchtower, and the Christian claims no relation with either. All the more intriguing is how that one cardinal doctrine that separates the Christian from the JW’s and Mormons concerns the Trinity; yet, the JW’s and Mormons maintain their distinctive on the Godhead and identity of Jesus. Consider the principle as given by Paul, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be!”[vi]

Now, my neo-pagan friends say the fault lies within Christianity and the lack of tolerance, that no person has THE doctrine nor the right to impose it on others. They claim unity despite their individual systems in the name of unity. This is like taking some jigsaw puzzles and throwing them together in a box, shaking it up and proclaiming, “now, I’ve completed the puzzle.” The pieces just don’t fit, and if any two pieces just happened to come together, the picture would not be near what it should!

“Just as the sponge lies in the water, and the water fills the sponge, but the water is not the sponge and the sponge is not the water, but they ever remain different things, so children abide in Me and I in them. This is not pantheism, but it is the kingdom of God, which is set up in the hearts of those who abide in this world; and just as the water in the sponge, I am in every place and in everything, but they are not I (Luke xvii.21).”[vii]

But what about doctrinal division within true Christianity, division between those who hold all the cardinal doctrines? The answer is not found in the doctrines themselves, but in those who practice them. This is why we can return to Jesus’ prayer and discover what is meant by unity. Oswald Chambers reminds first us that discipleship is not an isolated or individual experience; rather, discipleship is carried out relation to others. Second, this prayer of Jesus is not one we can answer as it is directed Godward. God’s purpose is to answer that prayer by having Jesus disciples learn the mind of God.[viii] If there is disunity or division then the disciples, not the teachings must be addressed. If Christians in one church are in two congregations, then those Christians are held accountable for how they handle doctrine.

There is a second part of this objection to must consider: If doctrines are divisive to Christians, one must discover “which doctrines?” Which teachings of the faith are more crucial than others: that God created everything or how much time it took to create? That a day will come when the Lord Jesus Christ will return personally, bodily and visibly; or, the exact time when he will come?

Rather than drive believers apart in fellowship, they must learn to walk together by faith in the light of God’s word, paying attention to the essentials as they are discovered from diligent study that produces sound Biblical and Systematic Theology. The central feature is that the Christian must be able to feed himself from God’s Word in personal study, not nibbling on crumbs and the opinions of men.

The third and final objection is that "doctrine may distract us from other aspects of the Christian life." I am curious to know: what other aspects are there? I propose this thinking is the proverbial foot in the door, allowing aberrant teaching to creep into our churches. I hear an underlying motive to question the efficiency of what God is doing. The encroachment of Eastern Mysticism on the church brings with it the assumption that we can be doing religion better than our stuffy grandfathers did. For example: Prayer is no longer tuning and retuning the heart, mind and soul to the glory of God, but a breath of conversation where one seeks to touch and experience God. “The instructions Jesus gave the disciples were just to get them started. Go beyond that and breathe the name of God until you feel His presence.” In more general sense, the attitude is “don’t get all caught up in ecclesiastical legalism, just go with the flow and contact God.”

On the other hand, I contend again that the problem does not lie with the doctrine, but with the Christian who is entrusted to handle that doctrine; that is, as Erickson describes, the problem is a failure to maintain balance. It is entirely possible to spend an unhealthy amount of time dwelling on just one facet of instruction while the others receive less attention. Here is where discipline (notice the close relationship of this word to “discipleship”) is necessary. We would like to think that mastering divinity is possible, so we will hang on until we know the subject by rote—and some certainly seem as if they are able to accomplish this. The truth of the matter is that we instead should be mastered by divinity and allow Him to be the teacher. This way all aspects of Christian life are covered and He is glorified by all that is done and said.

[i] Erickson, Millard. Does It Matter What I Believe? Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.
[ii]Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary., Includes Index., 10th ed. (Springfield, Mass., U.S.A.: Merriam-Webster, 1996, c1993).
[iii]New American Standard Bible : 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mt 7:13.
[iv]NASB, ibid. Jn 17:21.
[v]NASB, ibid. 1 Co 12:14.
[vi] NASB, ibid. 1 Co 6:15.
[vii] Singh, Sadhu Sundar. At The Master's Feet. London: Fleming H Revell Company, 1922.
[viii] Chamber, Oswald. May 22 “Now This Explains It.” My Utmost for His Highest.

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