Category Archives: doctrine

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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Divine Joy and Joy Divine: Five Points on Creation

We tend to treat God’s act of creating heaven and earth as an event in the long past, relevant to our lives only as setting the stage for the drama of sin and salvation. But the biblical doctrine of creation is much richer than that. It brims with implications for daily life and for understanding God’s continuing relationship to us in providence and in salvation. The first two chapters of my book The Faithful Creator explore the biblical doctrine of creation, summarizing it in five points. In today’s post I want to state these points and briefly explain them.

(1) The one God is the absolute origin and sovereign ruler over all that is not God. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Paul states this truth in unforgettable words: “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom 11:36; cf. 1 Cor 8:6). The two concepts of absolute origin and sovereign ruler go together. Our creations can get away from us and outlive us, but that is because we are not “absolute” origins for the things we make. Nothing escapes the Creator. And that is very good news for those who love the Creator and believe he is good!

(2) The one God freely established the Creator-creature relation, which is characterized by generosity, freedom, and power on the Creator’s side and dependence and debt on the creature’s side. God was, is and always be our Creator. We will always depend on the Creator and will be forever in his debt. For some, this type of relationship seems demeaning, and they wish to forget it or try to escape it. But those who understand that the one on whom we depend is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ revel in the gracious gifts of our faithful Creator.

(3) The creation really exists before God and stands before him as good; that is, as the result of God’s act of creation, the creature really is what God intended it to be. In the first chapter of Genesis, God pronounced the creation good at almost every point. And the Psalmist exclaimed, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’” (Ps 24:1). And Paul explains, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:3-4). That creation is “good” does not mean that it is perfect or that it cannot be misused. Rather it means that each and every creature has a place and a function rooted in the will of the Creator. Christians are not Gnostics or Manicheans who reject the body, food and the human joys of life. The good things of creation may be legitimately used to sustain and enhance human life and bring glory and thanksgiving to God. Only, they must not be worshiped or enjoyed selfishly or greedily. Instead they are meant to provide occasions for shared joys. Jesus did not condemn feasting but he did urge us to invite the poor and the sick that they may share in the joy!

 (4) The Creator-creature relation established at the beginning, with its characteristic qualities, endures for all time. The author of Revelation praises God in these words, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Revelation 4:11). God sustains his creation through the powerful word of the Son (Hebrews 1:3). Creation is happening now. Every new moment and every new thing comes from the hand of the Creator. What a difference it would make in our sense of God’s presence if we grasped this truth! The world and everything in it, every beat of our hearts, every breeze that cools our brows, and “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:16-17) comes from the heart of our faithful Creator!

 (5) Human beings possess a unique relationship to the Creator characterized by their image and likeness to God and responsibility to him. Human beings are not the whole of God’s creation but they have been given a special role. We have been given the capacity to know and love the Creator, and we have the obligation to image the Creator in the created world. Of course we don’t do a good job of it. In the New Testament we learn that Jesus Christ is the image of God in an archetypical sense: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col 1:15; cf. 1 Cor 15:49). By living in fellowship with the true image of God in the power of the Spirit we can begin to do what Adam did not, that is, shine with the glory and image of God (Col 3:10; 2 Cor 4:4; Rom 8:9) and spread the divine light over the world. Let there be light!

Creation: The Most Neglected And Underrated Teaching In Contemporary Christianity

I am very excited to announce the publication of my book The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in An Age of Anxiety (InterVarsity Press, 2015). I got my first copies Tuesday, September 15. I have more I want to say about the church, but in view of the arrival of the book, I want to focus on doctrines of creation and providence for the next few weeks.

Christianity affirms that the God we see in the face of Jesus Christ and experience in the power of the Holy Spirit, is the Creator of all things. The first words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Paul reminded the believers in Corinth to be careful to avoid idolatry. There are many “so-called gods and lords” out there in the culture, “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6:). And the first declaration of the Nicene Creed (381) affirms: “I believe in one God, Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

Considering its foundational importance and its comprehensive scope, the Christian doctrine of Creation may be the most neglected and underrated teaching in contemporary Christianity—and the most hated by those outside. In the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of The Faithful Creator, I underline the importance I see in the doctrine of creation:

“Learning how a thing began tells you much about how it will end and the course of its journey. In our experience everything begins from nothing and returns to nothing. From dust to dust, sunrise to sunset, in the end everything returns to its beginning. And if our origin really is nothing, our end will be nothing as well and our story a meaningless tale. But the Bible’s story does not begin with nothing, and it does not end with nothing. It begins and ends with God. And because God is our beginning and end, our journey will not be meaningless, for God surrounds and enfolds our time in his eternity. God alone is our origin and our creature-relationship to God defines our essence, and this makes the study of divine creation supremely relevant to our existence” (p. 25).

Taking creation and the Creator seriously can transform the way you feel about the world around you and your own existence. And taking the faithfulness of the creator seriously by coming to embrace the doctrine of God’s all-embracing providential care, can begin to liberate us from the pervasive anxiety that robs us of the “peace that passes understanding.” These are the reasons I wrote this book.

You can look at the Table of Contents or browse sections or purchase the book at Amazon.com or other online sites:

http://www.amazon.com/Faithful-Creator-Affirming-Creation-Providence/dp/0830840826/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1442619010&sr=8-4&keywords=ron+highfield

Next Post to Follow Soon: “Why Contemporary Culture Hates the Christian Doctrine of Creation”

There’s Nothing Mere About “Mere Christianity”

Last week I announced the theme for the coming year: “A Catechism of Mere Christianity for a Post-Denominational Church Living in a Post-Christian Culture.” I explained the rise of the post-denominational church and its negative effect on contemporary churchgoers’ understanding of the Christian faith. Today I want to explain what I mean by “mere Christianity” and why the church’s teaching must take into account the general post-Christian Culture.

I am sure that the term “mere Christianity” reminds many of you of the book by C.S. Lewis. In his preface, Lewis cites the Puritan pastor and theologian Richard Baxter (1615-91) as his source for the term “mere” Christianity. In Baxter’s Elizabethan English, “mere” meant pure, unadulterated or unmixed, whereas in modern English it has acquired the connotation of minimal or bare. In Mere Christianity, Lewis attempts to present the central teaching common to almost all denominations, Protestant and Roman Catholic. According to Lewis, nonbelievers ought to be given an opportunity to hear the basic Christian message rather than having to sift through all the fine points of denomination-specific teachings.

Perhaps Lewis wishes for his age what St. Vincent of Lérins (early 5th century), advocated for his, that is, that Christians ought to give special honor to “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” Lewis discovered that it is not easy to articulate “mere” Christianity in a way satisfactory to everyone any more than the Vincentian rule can generate a list of teachings acceptable to everyone. Lewis’s first readers found matters with which to quibble and some later readers cite omissions and offenses. But Lewis’s work has stood the test of time. Seventy-years later it is the number one selling book in the category of theology and is read approvingly by Protestants of all denominations and Roman Catholics.

In this series, however, I will not attempt to imitate C.S. Lewis. His book was aimed at outsiders and was written before the post-denominational church gained the prominence it holds today. This series aims at insiders and takes our post-denominational consciousness into account. This is why I am referring to it as a catechism. Seventy-five years ago, during the Second World War, when Lewis first presented the material contained in Mere Christianity to a British radio audience, it would have been inaccurate to refer to England as a “post-Christian” culture. Not so today, for Great Britain or the United States. Lewis could presume that regular churchgoers have been taught the basics of the faith by their denominations. We can no longer make this presumption. Hence my title “a catechism of mere Christianity.”

Like Lewis and St. Vincent, I am convinced that there is a set of basic beliefs that defines the boundaries of Christianity and that the historic traditions (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) share this core. Perhaps the exact boundaries are fuzzy, and it would be difficult and perhaps impossible for these traditions to agree on a particular text articulating these basic beliefs. Nevertheless when I read the Seven Ecumenical Councils (or at least the Nicene Creed), the Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Roman Catholic Catechism, I am amazed at the consensus on these core beliefs. And I am also amazed at how extensive the list of consensus beliefs and practices is. There is nothing minimal about this “mere Christianity”!

Though the post-denominational culture in its evangelical form does not deny those historic beliefs and practices, it neglects to teach them in their fullness and focuses instead on experience. The language of worship includes references to God, Jesus and the Spirit. It directs worshipers to praise the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the joy of the Holy Spirit. Sermons inspire and encourage individuals. But as far as I can tell, there is little instruction in doctrine. Such neglect fails on two counts. (1) It assumes either that Christians don’t need instruction in the material covered in the historic catechisms or that they already know it. My experience is that they do not know this material, and my conviction is that they really need to know it. (2) It assumes that churchgoers understand the few beliefs that are mentioned in worship and sermons. I do not believe this is true. Familiar religious language has a way of losing its cognitive content and becoming opaque unless it is explained continually. When this happens, Christian words or professions of faith cease to direct the mind and become mere expressions of religious emotions.

In this series I plan to remind you of what your church should be teaching all its members (catechism) about basic Christianity (mere Christianity). All along, we will keep in view Christian language’s loss of meaning for a post-Christian culture.

Most church catechisms follow the order of the creed or of that church’s confession of faith. That order corresponds also to the order of most systematic theologies: God, the Trinity, creation and providence, the fall and sin, Christ and salvation, the Church and the Spirit, the Christian life and eschatology. I shall begin at a different place, with the church. And next week I shall explain why I begin there.

Next Week: “Yes, The Church Really Is Our Mother.”

A Catechism of Mere Christianity for a Post-Denominational Church Living in a Post-Christian Culture

Happy New Year! Today marks the beginning of the third year of ifaqtheology! And my new theme is announced in the title of today’s post.

I suppose it’s always been a problem, but it seems to me that the average churchgoer in the United States (elsewhere too I am sure) is becoming less and less familiar with the full range of Christian teaching. I don’t intend to quote surveys and studies of this phenomenon. It’s just an impression, and I will work with that. Few observers would question the assertion that denominational loyalties and confessional identities have declined dramatically in recent years. And we see evidence every Sunday that contemporary churches place less emphasis on teaching, learning and remembering than on the “worship experience” in which one expects to feel joy in the presence of the transcendent. Experience has moved from being considered a by-product of the encounter with word and sacrament to the central goal of Christian gatherings. Has thirst for experience replaced desire for understanding or has loss of understanding leading to greater thirst for moving experiences? Is the loss of confessional and denominational loyalties the cause or the effect of the loss of teaching and learning? I suspect they are interrelated in ways too complicated to describe.

At least since the early 19th century, American Christianity has been expressed, lived, taught and learned in a denominational form. Denominational bodies competed for the minds and hearts of people by touting the strengths of their particular package of teaching and church life. (Undoubtedly, social location also has a huge impact on which denomination one chooses.) Denominations for the most part are confessional bodies and have an interest in teaching the full range of their doctrine to prospective converts, new converts and children. As long as denominational or confessional consciousness is strong the task of teaching doctrine will be high on the agenda of a church’s priorities. The disadvantages of denominationalism—as opposed to an established, territorial church—are the presence of multiple contradictory voices all claiming to represent Christianity and the animosity created by such division and competition. But one positive thing that derives from the denominational and confessional form of Christianity is that most members of such Christian bodies receive the full range of doctrinal instruction; doctrinal teaching is important to these bodies, if for no other reason than to reinforce denominational loyalty.

In the present environment, with denominational loyalties at historic lows and confessions of faith gathering dust on the pastors’ shelves, churches have lost a major incentive to teach the full range of doctrine. To the contrary, church leaders deemphasize doctrine to broaden their appeal to prospective members. Taking the most generous interpretation of this practice, the goal is more effective evangelism. A less generous interpreter might conclude that growing a big church has become an end in itself. The consequence of this development is disturbing: the people don’t get taught at all! Hence the appalling ignorance of churchgoers, lay church leaders and even clergy in contemporary churches. Surely ignorance cannot be a means to any good end! But many evils befall the untaught.

We need a catechism of mere Christianity for a post-denominational church living in a post-Christian culture. And my goal for this year is to work on developing this catechism. So, what is a catechism? It is a summary of a church’s teaching prepared for the instruction of children and new converts. The printed version of the Roman Catholic Catechism is 800 pages long and covers a huge range of topics. Perhaps the most famous Protestant catechisms are the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647). The word “catechism” derives from the Greek word katecheo, which is used in Acts 21:21; Gal 6:6; and 1 Cor 14:19. It means to teach, inform or instruct. In time, it came to mean specifically the process of instruction in the basics of the faith in preparation for baptism in the case of adult converts or instruction of children in case of those born to Christian parents and baptized as infants. Its goal is not preaching the gospel to prospective converts. It is not an exercise in theology seeking deeper meaning and connections within the Christian faith. Nor does it aim to provide evidence for the truth of the faith or to defend it from attack. It aims to teach the full range of the faith at a basic level.

What is mere Christianity? And what kind of catechism can serve the needs of a post-denominational church? And why do we need to take into account the post-Christian environment within which the church lives today? Next week we will address these questions.