How Important Is Doctrine? – Part 1
by Jonathan Hamilton
Matt Chandler recently tweeted: “If you’re not confident in the authority of the Scriptures, you’ll be a slave to what sounds right.”
That is a true statement. But I would add this: If you don’t know what’s in the Scriptures, you’ll be a slave to things that shouldn’t even sound right. And you’ll spread the poison to others. Too many Christians find themselves in this position for no other reason than pure neglect of the Word of God. And real harm is done, temporal and eternal, both to the doctrinally infantile and to those in their sphere of influence.
We’ve now brought the key word for this article into the mix: Doctrine. In one of three definitions it offers, Dictionary.com defines doctrine as: “As our doctrine accords with Scripture, it is pure. As it deviates from Scripture, it becomes polluted at best and apostate at worst.
We live in an age where every idea and topic imaginable is being bantered about by someone, somewhere, and their discussion is readily available on the internet. The area of Christian doctrine is no different. As with any topic, you can find some folks faithfully handling the topic, and a whole lot more folks who shouldn’t be talking at all. There are a few pearls out there, and a whole lot more bilge.
On the bilge side of the aisle, you can find as many professing Christians as you want who will openly deny fundamental doctrines of the faith like the Trinity, or the virgin birth, or the deity of Christ, or salvation by faith alone. Many of these people are well-educated and can sound very convincing.
But then you have another category of people who are actually trying to make the case that doctrine itself is not important. All we need is “love.” We need to make sure we are “following the example of Jesus” and the doctrinal stuff really doesn’t matter much. For the life of me this is one I don’t understand. It would seem self-evident that in order to practice a system of faith, you have to have some sort of doctrinal content in order to map out for you what that living and what those loves actually look like. Otherwise, where are you getting your marching orders? From your own head? What happens if my marching orders conflict with yours and we both claim to be Christians? Whose opinion do we go with? Does every man do what is right in his own eyes? (That phrase sounds familiar. See: “Judges”). Even in the chaos of such a system, you’d still be following some doctrine: the doctrine of you.
The false dichotomy that many erect between doctrine and practice, or doctrine and love, is devastating. It strips the Christian faith of its Christ. If you do not have doctrine, you do not have Christianity. Period. As D.A. Carson has famously said, “Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.” And the very first example he lists of a false antithesis? Experience vs. truth (Read: practice vs. doctrine). This is exactly the type of false dichotomy that theological liberals and other wolves posing as sheep set up in order to pull a modern-day Thomas Jefferson on the Holy Scriptures: stripping away all that they find objectionable and clinging only to that which pleases them. This is the road to hell itself. It is a serious error and is not to be tolerated, let alone cosied up to by the true people of God.
A recent example of this convinced me to write this series of articles. In a poorly-written piece, this professing believer (I assume?) basically mocks the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the quoting of Scripture in defense of faith, and having any form of creed. Instead, he implies, we ought to rely on “common sense, reason, human dignity, and our best intuitive sense of what is good, right, just, fair, and of most value.” Apparently the author’s gut trumps Christ’s Word. The icing on the cake is the thoroughly heterodox, “True religion is not about believing doctrines. It’s about falling in love with God and learning how to love everyone and everything the way God loves everyone and everything.” This sentence doesn’t even make sense. How are you supposed to learn those things without doctrine? Doctrine is precisely what teaches us how to love God and others! This author gives evidence of apostasy, and a little more digging on the host blog at which he wrote, called “Unfundamentalist Christians,” reveals as much more Word-denying false teaching as you could hope to find (affirms homosexuality; denies the doctrine of Scripture; denies complementarianism; denies hell; affirms universalism; and more).
The church has denied this destructive way of thinking for 2,000 years, yet Christians today are passing this material around and praising it. That engenders outrage in my heart and sickness in my stomach. The content of this article calls into question the status of the author’s soul, and yet we find brothers in Christ applauding. The reason? Because he attacks “fundamentalism.” Are we now willing to abandon Christian orthodoxy and throw our lot in with apostates in order to distance ourselves from fundamentalist brothers in Christ? That is an immensely high price to pay to slap the face of those who, for many of us (including myself), are precisely the ones who have handed down the true faith to us whether they always got the practice part right or not (no one does, by the way).
Are fundamentalists sinful? Yes. Do they make mistakes? Yes. In doctrine and in practice. And so do you. And so do I. Are they Christ-deniers? I’m sure we could name some whose practice is so egregious that it undermines their claim to true doctrine. But false teaching is certainly not something that is a mark of true fundamentalism, let alone a badge of honor as it is for this author and his sponsors. In contrast, a fundamentalist is someone who not only adheres to, but is willing to fight for the core doctrines of the faith and to separate at varying levels from those who will not do the same.
As a thought experiment, let me offer two options. Option 1: Cast aside the orthodox Christian, who you don’t like, while embracing the apostate who you do. Or, Option 2: Cast aside the apostate, who you appeals to your flesh, and embrace the fundamentalist, who loves God’s Word but his mistakes really get under your skin. I really hope it doesn’t take very long for you to choose. I appreciate what Dr. Kevin Bauder had to say along similar lines when he taught a systematic theology course last November: “one of the least ethical ways of arguing theology is to blacklist a view because it is held by this person or that group.” In other words, you can’t legitimately write off a view because you don’t like its proponents. Conversely, this would also be true of accepting a view merely because it attacks someone you don’t like. The fact that the argument is filled with heresy? No big deal, at least the (apostate) guy hates my (Christian brother) “enemies.” This is folly.
So what are we to do? Where do we turn to discover the true relationship between doctrine and practice and love? We turn to the only place where we can find words given by the inspiration of our holy God, which are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). If we truly believe that “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3), we wouldn’t start anywhere else other than God’s Word.
In Part 2 of this series, I will begin to do just that by giving biblical examples of the place doctrine ought to have in the life of the believer, and the relationship between it and our practice and love. I’ll do this broadly across five different genres of Scripture (you can tell I took a hermeneutics class recently), moving in order of appearance: Law, Poetry, Wisdom, Gospel, and Epistle. The point is: it’s everywhere in Scripture.
There are currently four parts in development for this series, and they are all much shorter than Part 1.