When Did “Doctrine” Become a Four Letter Word?

Doctrine has fallen on hard times among mainstream Christian churches. Liberal churches have disparaged doctrine for at least a hundred years. By “doctrine” they meant the traditional orthodox doctrines that asserted miracles, original sin, the incarnation and atonement, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, and others. According to Liberal churches, modern people schooled in natural science and critical history can no longer believe these teachings, and such controversial teachings distract attention from the liberal agenda of progressive moral advance in society. (For more on the idea of Liberal Christianity, see my essays on Liberal Christianity posted on August 01 and 08, 2015). In the first half of the Twentieth Century Liberalism was opposed by traditional believers who defended the orthodox doctrines mentioned above. But even within conservative Christian circles in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries there were revival and evangelistic movements that down played “denominational” doctrines so that they could more effectively evangelize the unchurched. That is to say, the practical concerns of evangelism and church growth nudged evangelists and pastors toward minimizing doctrines that were not directly related to conversion and salvation. Requiring prospective church members to consider and adopt many doctrines would distract them from making a “decision for Christ.” Hence in their own way many conservative opponents of Liberal Christianity down played doctrine.

We can see many of these same forces at work in 2015. Liberal churches still reject orthodoxy and continue to pursue a mission of social change according to progressive philosophy. Many evangelical churches continue to put a high priority on church growth and churching the unchurched. Of course the methods of attracting people into churches have changed. Over the last years I have noticed an increase in two areas: offers of social support and exciting “worship experiences.” Instead of evangelistic “crusades” or revival meetings churches provide a full spectrum of social programs that appeal to young families with children, singles and other affinity groups. And they spend huge amounts of money and energy to provide moving experiences of worship and uplifting messages from the pastor. Doctrine does not fit well into this picture. And it’s not hard to imagine the consequences of years of doctrinal neglect. People may eventually begin asking themselves, “Why are we here?”

So, what is doctrine? The English word “doctrine” derives from a Latin-based word that means “teaching.” Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds. In his “great commission” recorded in Matthew 28, Jesus commanded his disciples to go to the nations, baptizing people and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (v. 20). The apostles remembered Jesus’ teaching and passed it on. They also taught about what happened to Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. They explained how his death and resurrection affect us and how we are to relate to the Lord Jesus Christ. The church “devoted” itself the “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). The New Testament is the record of the apostles’ teaching and the apostles’ memories of Jesus’ teaching. Preaching is simply a particular way of teaching. The gospel is not opposed to doctrine. The gospel is the first and the most important thing that must be taught.

Doctrine, that is, Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching, informs us about certain historical events and their meaning, about the right way to live in the world, and about God’s promises. The Bible teaches about God’s nature and identity, about the identity and work of Jesus Christ, about sin and salvation, about the church and her sacraments. Christian doctrine instructs us about whom to trust, for what to hope and how to love. It teaches us how to use our bodies and souls and tongues. The task of the church is to continue to teach and live the full range of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching. We do not have the right to limit teaching only to areas that are consistent with progressive culture, as do Liberal churches. Nor do we have a right to focus only on the “exciting” “affirming” and “uplifting” teachings as do many evangelical churches. To church the unchurched should not mean simply getting them in a worship assembly three or four times a month. It means to work toward re-forming them in the image of Jesus Christ. It means to help them to know and rely on all the promises of God, to engage them in the practices Jesus and the apostles taught us: prayer, the supper of the Lord, baptism, listening to the Word of God and confession.

But doctrine is boring, some say. No! Some teachers of doctrine are boring. But everything Jesus’ and the apostles’ taught is exciting, revolutionary and challenging! When various teachings get separated from the heart of the good news of how much God loves us and has done for us in Jesus Christ, then, yes, they are onerous and boring. But if we keep clearly and steadily in mind that doctrine—every doctrine!—is about who God is or what God has done for us or how God’s love can become a real power in our lives or how we can live in this world in faith and hope and love, then each and every morsel of teaching (doctrine) will be like honey in our mouths, wisdom for our minds, and energy for our souls!

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7 thoughts on “When Did “Doctrine” Become a Four Letter Word?

  1. falonopsahl

    I have been considering this issue a lot these past few weeks because of the reading I’ve done this semester and because of the discussions in our class and in my ethics class with Dr. Doran. The church I went to when I was in high school was definitely a “new-believer friendly” church, and while that was great for a 15 year old discovering her faith, within two years, I was tired of hearing the same things over and over again. I wanted so desperately to be convicted, and I wasn’t alone in that sentiment by any means, especially among the others in my youth group at the time. It was interesting the routes most people took in response to the feel-good preaching we regularly received — some found churches or went to universities that challenged them and helped them grow in their faith, but most started to lead distinctly secular/un-Christian lives before falling away from Christianity completely. Liberal Christianity is definitely boring, but the responses that some churches have had, as you’ve mentioned, are entirely dangerous to the faith and harmful to individuals. I hope as a community we can quickly find a solution to respond to these problems.

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  2. nokareon

    It seems to me that there may be further problems in determining what *is* doctrine. You have helpfully defined doctrine as those teachings which Jesus taught and passed on through the apostles. I wonder if that definition might actually be too narrow. Here are a few questions that arose in my mind:

    1) Many beliefs and practices of what we might call “Mere Christianity” seem underdetermined or unaddressed by Jesus and His apostles, even if you count Paul and the miscellaneous Epistle writers. The low-hanging fruit here would be a satisfactorily robust doctrine (though perhaps not counting as such on the present definition) of the Trinity. Scripture itself is remarkably tacet on the subject, and the most that could be drawn from Jesus’ statements is the identity of Jesus and the Father. It seems that a broader definition that allows for the essential clarifications/developments of the church patriarchs and councils is needed.

    2) Narrowing doctrine to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles alone seems to leave much of the Old Testament out in the lurch, so to speak. Jesus clearly had high regard for many texts of the Hebrew scriptures, quoting and teaching regularly from the Torah, Isaiah, Psalms, and some others. Still, there are a good number of books in the Protestant or Catholic Old Testaments that neither Jesus nor the apostles raise or address. It does not seem that Jesus could have simply affirmed the Hebrew scriptures as a collective body—as there was still a hotbed of debate and no clear consensus on what Hebrew texts were considered authoritative at the time—and even when Jesus says He has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, He noticeably leaves out mentioning the Writings.

    So it seems to me that we need a definition of doctrine that expands our scope beyond simply what Jesus and the apostles addressed (though of course His teachings are supreme). Something like “the core truths necessary for one to become a believing and practicing Christian” seems to suffice, though my definition then faces the burden of enumerating which teachings are the “core truths” of doctrine (which is a common problem for Christians of any flavor).

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  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    You are right, of course. I was oversimplifying the matter. I left out the law and the prophets and the writings. And the church has taught all sorts of supporting beliefs and practices never mentioned by Jesus and the apostles. But for most of its history the church has regarded the New Testament the source and final norm of all doctrine. And the New Testament is the lens through which the Old Testament must be appropriated for the church. Your definition in the last paragraph seems rather vague. How does one specify those “core truths”? My point in this essay was to argue for the significance of doctrine against those who view it as a bothersome exercise unrelated to experience.

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  4. nokareon

    Yeah, that makes sense and seems right. Enumerating the core truths is certainly a considerable task. When it comes to the core truths that marks “Mere Christianity” from between all its variant forms, they are something we all know must exist but have considerably more difficulty enumerating. There is the “Venn Diagram” approach that would look for the “least common denominators” between Christian denominations (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and the relevant subsets). The downside to this approach is that it starts with the denominations it already considers to be Christian, so it would not be able to adjudicate whether certain edge groups such as Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses qualify as Christian. Then there is the “Theological Foundation” approach that tries to determine what doctrines are necessary as a “first-tier foundation” on which one can build the rest of one’s Theology (i.e. Theism, creation, incarnation, redemption, Trinity). Finally, you could take the approach of William Lane Craig’s spider-web metaphor based on impact—the outermost ring of beliefs, if removed or changed, would cause few ripples to the rest of one’s theology, whereas the core truths at the center of the web would cause one’s faith to fall apart if one was removed or altered.

    Whatever account you choose, it is going to be difficult and controversial, which I suppose is half the fun of it.

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  5. davissavage

    Maybe I missed it, but what exactly is the “four letter word” you’re referring to here? Regardless, I think the concept of retaining doctrine as a mainstay in church teaching has slowly eroded at the hands of the onslaught of megachurches that have become so prevalent over the past 50 years or so. When the focus of church is taken off of Jesus, the Word of God, and the encouragement to participate in prayer and fellowship and instead placed upon financial stability and profit, a worship “experience,” and self-help messages, it is no surprise that the church in America is lacking the vigor it once had. We’re too afraid to tell attendees on a Sunday morning something they don’t want to hear because it might, like you said, deter them from commitment. But isn’t it also unfair to warn them about what they’re getting into? The Word rejects lukewarm faith and churches complain when they don’t have enough people to volunteer and commit to serving in the church, yet lukewarm, watered down faith is exactly what many modern churches teach. And they wonder what the problem is. Christ-followers need milk for a while, but they also need meat.

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