In defence of doctrine

It would not be too far-fetched to claim that the idea of Christianity as a doctrinal faith has become deeply unfashionable. It is not so much that individual doctrines are under attack (though they are), but rather that the idea of Christian doctrine as a set of truths is under threat.

In the new emergent church movement, for example, doctrine has quite consciously been redefined and downgraded—in the name of mission. In the opening pages of A Generous Orthodoxy, emergent guru Brian McLaren protests that he “wholeheartedly affirm[s] the importance of orthodox doctrine”.1 But this is because he casts ‘doctrine’ in terms of right practices. Emphasis on doctrinal distinctives within the broad scope of Christian orthodoxy is, for him, of only secondary importance. As he puts it, “This book comes to celebrate orthodox doctrine-in-practice, and it comes not to bury doctrinal distinctives but rather to put them in their marginal place”.2

The trend is no different in more academic theology. Take, for example, A Short Course in Christian Doctrine by George Pattison, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, no less! ‘Doctrine’, as far as Pattison is concerned, is not to be understood as referring to set a of propositions about belief, but rather as a “dynamic teaching process”.3 ‘Doctrine’, it seems, is now more about the journey than the destination. Attempts at articulating theological truth are really, for Pattison and others, not ‘truths’ as such, but something else altogether—reflections on experiences of the divine, deeply conditioned by context and culture.

In addition, in this growing hostility towards doctrine, there is a growing scepticism about ‘truth’—a scepticism that goes hand in hand with a fear of rehearsing the heated and violent divisions of the past (which, if you are sceptical about truths anyhow, now seem trivial). However, while connecting right teaching to right practice seems an obvious thing that any Christian ought to endorse, reducing right teaching to right practice seems like a capitulation to irrationality, no matter how well-credentialled those who propose it are. What’s more, a fear of doctrinal distinctives simply misunderstands the nature of New Testament Christianity: from the very beginning, Christians were concerned not only to reflect upon the nature of their faith and to give it the clearest expression they could, they also sought to distinguish true teaching from false teaching. Right doctrine was not only a matter of identifying who belonged to the church by dint of their confession of the truth; it was also a means of excluding those who denied it or perverted it.4

However, evangelicals have no reason to be smug about this. Contemporary evangelicals are also prone to neglecting, downplaying and even despising the proper practice of Christian doctrine. It’s not that we don’t readily assent to the great truths of the faith—not at all! This we certainly do. But allowing doctrine to inform our practice of reading and teaching the Bible is something we are not, it seems to me, very good at.

Take for example, the resurrection: the traditional evangelical Easter Sunday sermon consists of a series of proofs demonstrating the historicity of the resurrection. Once that is proven, the resurrection is used as a further proof to establish Jesus’ authority. The theological implications of the resurrection, which the New Testament gives us a good deal of scope to explore, remain largely unconsidered.

A second example is perhaps more telling: the reason that ‘openness of God’ theology5 made so much ground among evangelicals in the 1990s is not because evangelicals weren’t sticking to the Bible enough; it was because they weren’t being theological enough in their reading of the Bible. Open theism claims that it is based on a reading of the Bible that clears away the terrible influence of Greek philosophy, thereby reading the Bible more on its own terms. After all, does not God give the appearance in Scripture—especially in the Old Testament—of changing his mind? Is he not responsive to the prayers of his people? To square this with the traditional and very abstract teaching that he is “without body, parts, or passions” (to use the language of the Thirty-nine Articles) demands a kind of theological thinking that is both derived from the Bible and useful in understanding the Bible.

Why do we neglect doctrine?

Why is neglect of doctrine so much in evidence? Let me suggest four reasons. Firstly, I think there is a great fear among evangelicals of abusing grand theological systems. We may be right to be wary of letting a constructed theo­logical system or doctrinal tradition override the text. We have all seen biblical texts squeezed out of shape in order to make them fit a theological presupposition. Roman Catholic dogmas about Mary’s perpetual virginity are one example: the most likely meaning of the Gospels is that Jesus had brothers who were Mary’s other children, yet the Roman Catholic system, with a prior commitment to Mary’s perpetual virginity, will not allow this reading. Of course, there are Protestant versions of the same thing, Hyper-Calvinism being a case in point (it is felt).

Secondly, there is the related suspicion that theology is a device that allows theologians to sidestep the plain meaning of the text. Theology can be seen as a way of subduing or domesticating the text of Scripture—of putting it in its place under or alongside a more important source of doctrine, such as Reason, Tradition or Experience. Sometimes one text or theological idea is allowed to condition all the others; in current church debates about women’s ministry, for example, the principle of ‘gospel equality’ is frequently held to trump texts that ascribe different roles.

Thirdly, there is (rightly enough) a commitment to the epistemological empiricism of our Anglo-Saxon heritage. That is, we tend to see that the answer to any theological question can be found by listing the biblical data, perhaps leavened with some historical background. For example, I once heard a series of lectures by a prominent evangelical New Testament scholar that consisted entirely of lists of biblical verses. He never once sought to take a further integrative step with his material. On the other hand, without explicit references to verses, evangelicals become suspicious that systematic theologians are engaging in speculation, even if the biblical narrative is reflected faithfully. Is a Bible dictionary article all we need to do doctrine? Is theology really only lexicography? As Francis Watson, Professor of New Testament at Durham University, admits,

There is [among biblical scholars] an unwillingness to accept the existence and the significance of theology as a discipline in its own right. One of several roots of this unwillingness is, perversely, the popular Protestant insistence on sola scriptura. When one has the Bible [such scholars seem to be saying] what need is there for the subtleties and sophistries of theology?6

Watson is right: the Protestant Reform­ation was, after all, a response to a certain kind of theological method that had only succeeded in distorting biblical truth. A godly suspicion of theologizing is deep in the evangelical DNA.

Fourthly, evangelicals have always been at the cutting edge of mission, preferring know-how over know-what or why. Our great heroes have been preachers, pastors and church planters—people such as Whitefield, Spurgeon, Stott and Graham. JI Packer stands out as that rare evangelical leader who is self-consciously an academic theologian rather than a practitioner. To those busying themselves with the urgent task of winning souls from the precipice of hell, thinking hard about Christian doctrine falls down the list of priorities. It is certainly more convenient to think of doctrine as something the preacher had to learn to pass his college exams, and leave at that.

What is doctrine?

I don’t wish to caricature: each of these are good reasons for some mistrust of doctrine. But what, then, is doctrine, and why should we evangelicals care about it? ‘Christian doctrine’ is the name we give to that activity of the mind that seeks to give a coherent and intelligible articulation of the truth about God and his relationship to the world, drawn from the Scriptures and addressed to our contemporaries. As such, doctrine is an indispensable component in our Christian discipleship. While doctrine is not reducible to an activity, it is not merely a list of true teachings either; it is the business of receiving those teachings and applying them. Theological thinking—the practice of doctrine—is necessary if we are to give faithful attention to God’s word. Perhaps it is helpful to think of doctrine as both a noun and a verb: it is both a body of teaching (“the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”—Jude 3) and the actions of hearing, understanding and conveying that teaching.

Notice, firstly, that doctrine is a species of reason, subject to the word of God (“coherent and intelligible… drawn from the Scriptures”). Doctrine attempts to be coherent and intelligible—to make sense. It is a work of the mind, understanding that the mind is God-given and that every thought ought to be taken captive (2 Cor 10:5). But it is a special form of reason that acknowledges the moral limitations of the human mind, corrupted as it is by sin. As such, it follows the peculiar, distinctive and sometimes surprising shape of the word of God, and so it is understood properly as “exegetical reason”, as John Webster puts it.7

Secondly, Christian doctrine is a form of speech (the “articulation of the truth”). It is a verbal form, reliant on words, the instruments and stuff of communication. While Christian doctrine teaches us to be wary of the slipperiness of words, it also gives us heart: words are indeed capable of becoming the vehicle of God’s self-communication and the means by which we can communicate about God.

Thirdly, Christian doctrine has a particular subject matter: it is about God and his deeds (“the truth about God and his relationship to the world”). That is, it is evangelical. The content of doctrine is merely a reiteration—an expanded reiteration—of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Theological thinking may provide us with a point of view on any number of subjects, but it will not be true to itself if it does not relate it to the promises of God declared to mankind and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

If it is evangelical, then, fourthly, it is also evangelistic (“the truth about God and his relationship to the world… addressed to our contemporaries”). That is to say, the purpose of Christian doctrine is to speak these words in the hearing of the world, inviting people near and far to submit to the Lordship of Jesus. Christian doctrine that is true to its task does not fold in on itself and relate itself endlessly to irresolvable speculations. Neither is it merely antiquarian: theology relates itself to today—to the here and now. Truly Christian doctrine serves as a call to repent and believe—a call to which a contemporary person may respond. This has to be the case because, as Christian theology (words about the God of Christian Scripture), it must share his concern for the lost and have in view his eternal purposes.

Why should we be committed to doctrine?

So why should we evangelicals be committed to thinking theologically? Well, firstly, it is worth saying that we all have a ‘theology’—a set of doctrinal assumptions—whether we like it or not. There is no reading of the Bible that does not already rest on theological assumptions. The practice of Christian doctrine enables us to test these assumptions honestly. Frankly, it is dishonest to claim that we can do without theological reflection. We have no option but to be theological as we engage with Scripture, and it is surely better to have an informed and disciplined theology than a sloppy and inadequate one. Fear of bad theology is not an excuse to practise no theology. Expository preaching uninformed by sound theological thinking does not understand its own source properly, and will, in the end, be unfaithful to the text.

Secondly, we ought to pursue the study of doctrine because it is an evangelical (and evangelistic) necessity: the ancient gospel is being preached in new situations, and so requires fresh and faithful re-articulation in every generation. Mission demands doctrine. Each generation poses new questions to Christian doctrine, or it poses them more forcefully than before. Just repeating the words that past generations used to articulate the truth may not be sufficient to convey the truth of the ideas adequately in a different era. Christian doctrine has to be faithful, but also fresh. Let us not underestimate how tricky this task is.

Recently I took my family to the Natural History Museum in London. It is a vast cathedral to the glory of science, with corridor after corridor and hall after hall filled with animal specimens—a tiger with jaws agape, a dolphin thrashing its tail, birds posed as if in flight. But they were all dead, glassy-eyed and thoroughly stuffed. Life itself was the missing ingredient. We could indeed engage in doctrine as if it were an exercise in the preservation of truths in formaldehyde. Merely repeat­ing now spirit-less words might give the impression of upholding the truth. But Christian doctrine cannot ever be faithfully passed on in this way. Kevin Vanhoozer, in his outstanding book The Drama of Doctrine, puts it this way:

Doctrine deals with energies and events that are as real and powerful as anything known in chemistry or physics, energies and events that can turn the world we know upside down…8

Thirdly, if we are pastors, we ought to pursue doctrine because it is a pastoral necessity. Doctrine enables us to address the teaching of Scripture about the reality of God to the questions, the trials and the sins of our flock (and, of course, to the circumstances of our own lives). Any young pastor will quickly realize that the questions that come up about, say, assurance, heaven, marriage or divorce need a perspective that integrates the teaching of the Scriptures and relates them both to the gospel and the trials of living the Christian life.

Fourthly and finally, evangelicals ought to love Christian doctrine because it helps inoculate the church against false teaching. Doctrine, to borrow terms from Harry Potter, is our ‘Defence Against the Dark Arts’. After all, the Jehovah’s Witnesses also claim the principle of Scripture alone. We need an understanding of doctrine in order to tell what is truly Christian; just applying superior Greek grammar won’t protect us at this point.

What makes good doctrine?

So what makes for good doctrine? Firstly, doctrine or theology must be rooted prayerfully and repentantly in the Bible if it is to serve God’s people. Otherwise it delights easily in its own cleverness and becomes arrogant. Moreover, it loses any contact with the truth it claims to speak. However, as we have already said, merely listing relevant verses of the Bible is not enough; what theology tries to do is extrapolate and explain the structures of thought implicit in Scripture. After carefully reading the Bible in its literary and historical context—after comparing Scripture with Scripture, and nuancing Scripture with Scripture—Christian doctrine attempts to make statements that reflect truly what is taught in Scripture. A friend of mine put it this way: “Doctrine is more than the sum of its biblical parts, but it can never be less”.

Secondly, in seeking to be scripturally grounded, good theology gives due attention to the history of Christian thought and an appropriate, but not uncritical deference to tradition. This was certainly the attitude of the Reformers: they did not mean the slogan ‘Scripture alone’ to indicate that tradition was completely bunk. Scripture was the final authority, but it wasn’t the only one. Studying the thought of great theologians is an act of humility. It recognizes that we are not the first Christians and that we share with other Christians across time and distance the business of attending to the words of God. We can learn from these others as they, in their own contexts, turned to the Scriptures. We can also learn from their mistakes, of course!99. I am very much impressed by how much English evangelicals know and love the works of their forebears—John Owen, Richard Baxter, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and so on.]

Thirdly, Christian theology has always had a testy relationship with philosophy, as 1 Corinthians 1-3 reveals. However, a knowledge of the questions and themes of ancient and contemporary philosophy is always valuable in the study of Christian doctrine. Philosophy, at its best, provides good categories of thinking. At its worst, it claims a whole system to rival that of theology. Evangelical theology is distinct from liberal theology in that it rejects the primacy of philosophy and tries to pursue its own thought forms. However, it then has a problem: how can it address its message to intelligent people of its time in ways that might convince them? Ought it even try? Herein lies the story of theology in every age. For our time, the pressing issue is this: how can we present a sharp, persuasive and contextually aware exposition of the truth of the gospel in terms that postmodern people understand without either capitulating to postmodernism or endorsing a previous era’s modernism?

Fourthly, well-practised Christian doctrine reads the signs of the times without being faddish. As it tries to communicate to its contemporaries, it seeks first to listen to the concerns of the contemporary world. Effective theology is savvy to the cultural forms and thought waves in which it is done. It must always be done with an eye on the world outside lest it become merely a form of traditionalism or an intellectual curio. Of course, it must not be driven by an agenda that is not its own; a good deal of contemporary evangelical theology has lost the ability to critique the culture because it has become utterly beholden to that culture—whether in a conservative or progressive form.


Christianity is and always has been a controversial faith—meaning that it has always been the concern of Christians to establish and contend for the truth. But Christian doctrine itself teaches that it is an activity of missionaries—an essential activity because it is demanded both by the Lord they serve and the gospel they preach.

  1. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, Zondervan, 2004, Grand Rapids, p. 32.
  2. ibid.
  3. George Pattison, A Short Course in Christian Doctrine, SCM, London, 2005, back cover matter.
  4. See Frances Young, The Making of the Creeds, for an excellent account of how truth came to be so important in Christianity (SCM, London, 2007, pp. 1-16).
  5. ‘The Openness of God’ or ‘Open theism’ are labels for the movement among US evangelical theologians such as Clark Pinnock who teach that God is ‘open’ to the future and therefore open to be influenced by the prayers, decisions and actions of human beings.
  6. Francis Watson, Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1997, p. 4.
  7. John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p. 86.
  8. Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, p. xiii.

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