by Donald Allister
(read foreword, chapter one, chapter three, chapter four)
Living apart: a sad state of affairs
The Bible is important, relevant, alive, and worth spending time on; doctrine is unimportant, irrelevant, dead, and worth avoiding: that's how many Christians think or feel. In recent years there has been a return to the Bible right across the churches, but not a return to doctrine. The Bible is seen as having something to say; doctrine is not.
Given the way that doctrine has often been presented, such an attitude is hardly surprising. It is normal for books on doctrine to be full of long words and difficult concepts which don't seem to come from scripture or to have any practical use. Doctrine has become the preserve of academics. It is something that those training for the ministry have to study, but it doesn't seem to help them with their Bible study or make them better ministers.
I believe that doctrine does matter; it is important, relevant, alive, and worth spending time on. And in the same breath I want to say that doctrine and the Bible belong together in the life and mission of the church. Neither should exist without the other, and if either doctrine or the Bible is taken on its own there will be problems. In fact, it is because doctrine and the Bible have been divorced (or at least separated) that we have so many problems in seeing the relevance of doctrine and in understanding what the Bible has to say.
Doctrine is an essential tool, given by God, to help us read, understand, explain, proclaim and obey the Bible. Without it we can do none of those things properly. Without it the Bible becomes just a collection of inspired stories and sayings, instead of being a unified and integrated whole, one book, the word of God.
That's why doctrine is important, and why I'm excited about it. That's why I want to see a healthy marriage between doctrine and the Bible. As long as the separation continues the children (that is churches, Christians, and all they are meant to be and do) will continue to suffer harm. Most will gravitate to one parent, some to the other, and all will lose out.
But isn't this a big claim for man-made doctrine, setting it alongside God's word as an equal, or at least a partner? And isn't it running the Bible down, to say that God's word needs human doctrine to explain it to us? Am I not really denying a great Reformation principle, that scripture alone contains all we need for salvation? Those are important questions. I hope that by the end of this chapter you'll be convinced that what I'm arguing for is biblical and right.
So how does this marriage of the Bible and doctrine work out? How does their partnership help the people of God and advance the kingdom?
The Bible was written over a period of at least a thousand years, by several dozen human authors. God was behind it all, and all of it is his word, but equally each part of it was written in a different style and for different reasons. God, his word, and his opinions don't change; but equally, each part of the Bible was written to a different group of people, a different human situation, a different set of problems.
Christian doctrine is the human work of systematising, putting into order, the teachings of the Bible. The Bible is like the open countryside, full of many lovely wild flowers, shrubs, grasses, different terrains and habitats. Doctrine is like a cultivated garden, where many terrains, habitats and plants have been organised by people. Nobody denies that the countryside is 'the real thing'; but neither does anyone deny that a well-planned garden helps the appreciation, enjoyment, study, growth and sometimes even the survival, of plant and animal life. A good garden is not a betrayal of the countryside, or a substitute for it, but its servant, friend and partner. That is how doctrine relates to the Bible.
Of course the wild countryside existed long before man-made gardens (at least in our fallen world), and the countryside doesn't need gardens; but in a fallen world we need gardens to appreciate the countryside. Similarly, the Bible doesn't need doctrine; but we need it if we are to get out of the Bible all that it has for us.
Three in one: doctrine to the rescue
It's time for an example of the way that doctrine helps us understand God's word. I'll take one of the most misunderstood and off-putting areas of doctrine, but also one of the most important: the doctrine of the Trinity.
Many Christians keep Trinity Sunday and have a suspicion that it is important, but they'd run a mile if asked to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Many are happy to sing hymns or choruses with a strongly trinitarian structure and approach to God, but would never try to defend the doctrine - or even the need for a doctrine - of the Trinity. The problem is compounded by the fact that trinitarian doctrine is tied up with theological controversies dating back fifteen or sixteen hundred years.
Right through the Bible, God is spoken of in many different ways. At the beginning we are told that he created, that his Spirit brooded (or was hovering) over the waters, and that he spoke. Elsewhere in the Old Testament we find occasions when he speaks, is seen, appears (sometimes in human form), is described as having feelings, hands and feet, a voice and a back - but also as being unknowable, unapproachable, as not having a body and as not to be turned into images. He is a father, but like a mother; a friend, but an enemy; like us, but wholly different from us; our maker, lawgiver, judge and destroyer, but also our teacher, guide, helper and saviour. The list could go on: it's awe-inspiring, but confusing.
The New Testament offers more of the same. God is a consuming fire, a terrible judge, a fearful enemy, totally alien. But he's also one who loves us, cares for us, became a man and died for us, offers us himself, his friendship, his forgiveness and his strength. It's hardly surprising that books about God can be heavy, difficult and daunting. It's hardly surprising that Christian attempts to explain and proclaim what God is like have sometimes been more confusing than helpful.
But there are in the Bible clear lines of teaching about God, portrayals of him which seem to run right through or to recur regularly. In the Old Testament God is unknowable, but he makes himself known. He is our creator, not one of us, but somehow he gets alongside his people and among them. His presence is a great danger, but is also a great comfort. He is, at one and the same time, creator, redeemer and sustainer. In the New Testament Jesus both reveals God and is God. God is Spirit and cannot be seen, but is seen in Jesus. God's Spirit, and the Spirit of Jesus, and Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of Christ, and the Father, and God himself, all seem to be one and the same, yet to be doing and saying different things. Jesus is God, and a man, and the Son of God. The Spirit comes from the Father, but also from Jesus. In Jesus the whole fullness of God dwells. The Spirit brings with him into our lives both Jesus and also the Father.
The Bible's picture of God is tremendously helpful, a great source of wonder, joy and hope. But it's too much for us to cope with. We need to arrange the material, put it under various headings, clarify and simplify a stunningly complex pattern of truth, if we are to have any hope of understanding or explaining it.
In the same way as the scientist draws a simple picture of atoms and molecules as little balls joined together by sticks, knowing that the picture is true, helpful, and necessary, but also over-simplified and potentially misleading, so the theologian or preacher puts truths about God into diagrammatic form, alliterative headings, anthropomorphic language, philosophical concepts - all of which can be true, helpful and necessary, but also over-simplified and potentially misleading.
How does the biblical picture of God get turned into the doctrine of the Trinity? Doctrine is the systematisation of the Bible; that is, Bible texts and truths are put together in such a way that as clear a picture as possible emerges. If we start to do this with the different ways God is described, we might come up with something like this.
Clear texts tell us that God is the Lord God (Exod. 20:2-3), that Jesus is the Lord God (Isa. 9:6; John 20:28), and that the Holy Spirit is the Lord God (Acts 5:3-4). We're also taught that the Father and Jesus are distinct but one (John 14:9-10), that Jesus and the Spirit are distinct but one (Rom. 8:9-10), and that God and the Spirit are distinct but one (Heb. 9:14). And all three are mentioned together in various places, including Matthew 3:16-17; 28:19-20; John 14:15-20; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Hebrews 9:14; and 1 Peter 1:2.
Collecting Bible truths together like that is a large part of the job of doing doctrine! What is needed next is to produce clear statements which do justice to the texts we are considering. In fact we've already started with the statements above, such as 'Jesus and the Spirit are distinct but one'. It's then necessary to-check these basic doctrinal statements against other parts of scripture. If we've got them wrong, we'll find texts or passages to contradict them. If we're right, we may well find that other previously confusing texts make more sense in the light of our doctrine.
You may think this is similar to the way some sermons are constructed. So it is. One of the techniques of the preacher is to present Bible truths under clear and memorable headings. The three 'distinct but one' statements above could well be headings for three points in a sermon on the Trinity. Good preaching is doctrinal, whatever else it is.
The doctrine of the Trinity says that there is one indivisible God. That's an important and precious Bible truth. But the doctrine also explains that God exists and acts as three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Each of these is fully God, not just a part of God. Each of them is and displays what God is. But the three are distinct in their dealings with one another and with us. In other words, there is in God himself, in his one undivided perfection, a trinity of persons, wholly in tune with one another, co-operating not competing, distinct not disagreeing, separate not pulling apart. God is one and three, three-in-one and one-in-three. This is not a case of double schizophrenia, but a sort of existence we do not see elsewhere: unity and community, oneness and multiplicity, singular and plural.
To quote the Athanasian Creed, one of the very ancient statements of belief agreed by leaders of all the churches in about AD 400: We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding [confusing] the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
The doctrine of the Trinity is the best, most helpful, most accurate attempt so far to explain the nature of God and the interrelationship of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. As we have it, it is the culmination of hundreds of years of thinking, praying, talking and arguing by believers. It is not simple, but it is simpler than the Bible. It is a tool to help us understand the Bible. It is a gift of God to his church. Without it we would have more difficulty than we do in understanding or explaining how God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit relate to each other and to us.
Theory and practice
One objection to doctrine is that it is always theory with no practice. Theoretical doctrine is important, but so is the practical. Very often we think of doctrine as just theory, and that makes it seem irrelevant (interesting perhaps, but of no real use). In fact every 'theoretical' doctrine has a clear practical side and implications, and when doctrine is well taught these will come over loud and clear. The doctrine of the Trinity is no exception to this.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not just theory, saying what God is like. It also tells us how he works, and particularly bow he works for us in salvation. The practical doctrine tells of: the Father's love for us and his plan of salvation; the Son's work on the cross for us, reconciling us to the Father; and the Spirit's work in the hearts of believers, applying the benefits won by Christ, making Christ known, and assuring us of the Father's love. These statements are summaries and headings, representing many different Bible passages; but when put together they form practical doctrine.
A doctrinal statement of the Trinity at work in salvation, such as in the last paragraph, is an enormous help to believers reflecting on their relationship with God; but it is also invaluable to those doing evangelism. Explaining in clear language what God has done how he works is one of the major tasks of the evangelist. The theologian, producing that language, is serving evangelism, making it easier for the evangelist to preach and for the hearer to understand. Doctrine is very practical.
Preaching and teaching
One of the main reasons why doctrine arose, and why we need it, is to help preachers and teachers explain Christian truth. If you read the first few verses of Genesis, you get a picture of God in creation, but it is a bit vague and even confusing. If you read in the light of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, you begin to see more of what's going on: the creator is the triune God. This helps us to understand New Testament statements that Jesus Christ was involved in creation (e.g., John 1:3; Col. 1:16). The doctrine, drawn from the whole Bible, helps us to understand those parts of scripture which are less clear.
Sometimes this is described as reading the Bible through doctrinal spectacles, and people criticise it because they say it is not letting the Bible itself speak, but coming to it with our presuppositions or prejudices. That needs to be answered, because it certainly is possible to bring our prejudices to Bible reading.
In the first place, this method is letting the Bible speak for itself, because the doctrine is the Bible speaking. What is really going on is that the Bible, using doctrine as a tool, is explaining itself. Or, to put it the other way round, we are looking at one part of the Bible in the light of the whole. This is perfectly reasonable, and indeed is a good methodology, given the belief that the whole Bible was inspired by the one consistent Spirit of God.
Second, we guard against the danger of bringing prejudice to our doctrinal Bible reading by continually checking our doctrine against the teaching of scripture. If, on the basis of a few texts, I make a doctrinal statement which helps me explain another harder text, that is fine. But if the doctrinal statement is contradicted by a text elsewhere, then I know I've got it wrong. The doctrine needs to be rewritten to include all the relevant biblical teaching. Preachers and teachers have a clear duty to make sure that their words agree with the whole of the Bible, not just parts of it. This means that doctrinal statements are always provisional: we must be ready to improve or correct them as we come across or understand Bible passages that we haven't fully taken into account in constructing the doctrine. Doctrine is thus more like a loose-leaf notebook than a bound volume. That doesn't mean it is of little value; the classical doctrine of the Trinity, formulated fifteen hundred years ago, has stood the test of time and has yet to be bettered. That is true of most of the doctrinal statements stemming from the sixteenth-century Reformation, including the theologies of Luther, and Calvin, and the great statements of faith of the Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. We must be ready to revise our doctrine, but only when we see that it does not match up to scripture.
Another reason why doctrine developed, and we need it today, was to counter heresy. I'm a firm believer in the old saying that the greatest danger to the church is always from within, not from outside; and that heresy is the greatest danger of all. Jesus was so insistent on God's word and his words being the truth ('amen' or 'verily' means 'truly'), and he calls the Holy Spirit 'the Spirit of truth'.
A basic heresy, actually the cause of many others, is that there are inconsistencies or disagreements within the Bible. For example, we often hear that the Old Testament presents one idea of God and the New Testament another, or that Paul's doctrine is much more rigid than that of Jesus. These views only arise because people see the Bible as lots of little bits rather than a coherent whole. Because true doctrine always attempts to systematise scripture, it will constantly argue against, and disprove, the notion of biblical contradictions. The idea that the Bible is one book, the product of one mind (as well as of many), and consistent throughout, is what lies behind all genuine Christian doctrine, and deals the death-blow to virtually all heresy
One of the most dangerous heresies in the early church (and today) was that Jesus was just a good man, even a Spirit-filled man, but not actually God. A similar one was the more subtle but equally wrong idea that he was born human but became divine later on (at his baptism in some versions of the heresy, and at the resurrection in others). The effect of these views is to deny the incarnation and thus to say that we humans (in the person of Jesus) reach up to share in the life of God. The correct view is that in Jesus God was reaching down to us, that in the incarnation Jesus took on our humanity, became fully man, while remaining fully God.
Behind that correct view lies the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. People deny Jesus' divinity because they don't understand or don't believe the doctrine of the Trinity. If they did, they would know that the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, who existed before creation, is the one who took human form and became known as Jesus of Nazareth. This truth explains some of Jesus' own sayings about himself, and makes sense of things written about him in scripture.
The doctrine developed because of wrong views, and if the doctrine is properly taught today, such wrong views will be less likely to gain ground. The battle against heresy, especially heresy arising within the church, is as real as it ever was. Christians, particularly ministers and preachers, are called by God to stand firm in the true faith and to guard or defend it. That guarding has a strong positive aspect: in part, we guard the gospel by proclaiming it. But it also has its important negative side: we guard the truth by refuting error. Doctrine is an essential tool in refuting error, and if doctrine is neglected we are in danger of going astray from the Bible's teaching.
Doctrine apart from the Bible
Another danger is that doctrine will lose its essential linkage with scripture. This has happened in the world of academic theology to an alarming, degree, and much of the havoc wrought there has worked its way into churches. So-called doctrine with no apparent connection to the Bible creates all sorts of problems. It introduces wrong thinking and heresy. It becomes simply an academic exercise and so puts off those Christians who are less academic. It harms the cause of real biblical doctrine by making people think that doctrine is an optional extra and not of central importance. Doctrine must stem from Bible study, it must be seen as the servant of the Bible, and it must constantly be reassessed in the light of continuing Bible study.
There is a further danger when attitudes to doctrine and ways of doing it go wrong. This is that doctrine can easily be taken over by the world or by worldly ways of thinking. Again, this has happened in much modern theology. The activity of doing theology, making doctrine, is often not seen as explaining or systematising the Bible, but as trying to make sense of the world in the light of what we know or feel or guess about God. This means that the all-important headings used in doctrine are chosen not to explain scripture but to be relevant to theologians' ideas of what is really important. The result is that many modern theologians are really writing sociology or anthropology, politics or economics. Those are genuine academic disciplines, but they aren't the same as Christian doctrine.
It is within the church, the believing community, that the task of developing and reshaping doctrine must be done. Part of the reason for the rampant liberalism we see today, where theologians virtually ignore the Bible or feel free to disagree with it, is that people try to do their theology outside the church. They operate within universities and colleges, creating an academic so-called theology which is of no use at all for the believer wanting to understand the Bible better. Or they root themselves in the world, claiming to be relevant but in fact compromising the authority of the Bible. The church is the only place to do theology properly.
The church is the place where the battles most need to be fought. Traditions quickly ossify; the vital breath of scripture, interpreted and applied by doctrine, is the only way to prevent that or cure it. Some traditions are good, some may even be necessary as part of our faithfulness to God, but all tradition must be regularly tested and reviewed in the light of scripture: this is a major part of the purpose of doctrine.
The doctrine of the Trinity is an example of doctrine controlled by the Bible. The doctrine arose because of the need to understand and explain what scripture teaches on a theme which is important to scripture. It's not just that people found a few verses on an obscure topic and turned them into a major doctrine. The Bible itself was allowed to say what was important - in this case what God in himself is like - and then to develop that theme.
This contrasts sharply with some modern so-called doctrine, where people decide what is important, then try to develop a doctrine of it. If the Bible has something to say, that will be taken into account; if not, Christians can still think and discuss and come up with a 'doctrine'. So today we have these modern types of doctrine covering such subjects as nuclear weapons and political liberation, animal rights and world development. Those are subjects on which Christians should develop a view. Christian involvement in such things is important, not least because it will balance some of the wilder ideas. But they are not the subjects of theology or doctrine. They are very valid areas for Christian reflection and debate: but doctrine is something more than Christian reflection - it is Christian truth.
The shape of doctrine, the context in which it is done, the headings and subheadings, the structure, categories and language, must all be controlled by scripture. The Bible must set the agenda for doctrine. Otherwise we are in the nonsense world of some modern theologians, for whom theology is empty rejecting on any event of experience in the light oftheir faith (often a faith in which scripture is not very important). True theology will reflect on what is going on, but always in the light of the Bible and in such a way that the Bible is in control.
The blood of the Iamb: doctrine in history
I want to move away from the doctrine of the Trinity to another important area which shows something of how doctrine should continue to develop (under the control of the Bible): the question of the atonement, how Christ's death achieves our reconciliation with God. It's a theme that runs right through the Bible, especially when we make the vital connection between Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Old Testament sacrificial lambs. And it's an area of doctrine whose development in history was much slower than the Trinity, so we can see some of the stages more clearly.
A word of warning: we now see the Bible in the light of two thousand years of Christian doctrine. Biblical phrases like 'justification by faith' are full of meaning for many because of the Reformation (or the current Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue). But in this section we're going back in time to when such phrases existed but weren't understood or seen as particularly important. You may therefore already be familiar with the endpoint of this journey: don't let that blind you to the instructive sights along the way.
The way atonement works is not simple. There are many sides to it in the Bible, and many views have been expressed over the centuries. But if we look at the history of this doctrine we can see clear developments. Some of them are good, adding to our understanding of scripture and helping the church in evangelism. Others are not good, distorting the Bible and making the church's task harder. We'll look at a few of the main ideas.
In the early centuries after the ministry of Jesus the main emphasis was on the crucifixion in its relation to the devil, is emphasised it as a victory over Satan, in that death (his tool) was defeated. Others saw it as a ransom, paying him his dues, so that his hostages could be set free. There are Bible passages and verses to back up these ideas. But it's clear (at least with our advantage of hindsight) that there's much more to it than that.
The Middle Ages saw some important developments. Anselm of Canterbury was born in Italy and spent most of his life as a monk in Normandy. In 1093, at the age of sixty, he became Archbishop of Canterbury until his death in 1109. Anselm taught that Jesus, in his death on the cross, was paying damages to God for human sin, making amends by a perfect life and obedient death. There are some problems with that view, but it was a big step forward.
Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a larger-than-life, never wholly orthodox character, sometimes venerated as the first modern free-thinker. He made a contribution to the doctrine of the atonement by arguing that Christ's death was effective by its moral influence on human beings. This idea is very popular even today, lying behind theories of Jesus as our example. Again that's a biblical idea, but Abelard's views, while contributing to the doctrine, are incomplete and wrong on their own. Jesus is an example to us, but that doesn't explain why his death was necessary: in fact, it leaves his death as a tragedy rather than a victory, or the act of a cruel God rather than a loving one.
The sixteenth-century Reformation saw the fullest development (so far) of the doctrine of the atonement, with the teaching in Germany, Switzerland, England and Scotland of penal substitution. This means that Christ died in our place (as the Lamb of God), bearing the penalty we deserve for our sins. Expressed this way, it both defeats the devil (by giving death its prey, then removing its power), and also reveals God's love (in sending his Son to die for us).
This doctrine of penal substitution is at the heart of evangelical theology, and provides the key to most of history's great evangelism. John Wesley and George Whitefield, Charles Simeon, William Carey, Henry Martyn, Charles Spurgeon, Hudson Taylor, Billy Graham: for all of them, penal substitutionary atonement was the core of their preaching.
Theologians sometimes tried to have substitution but without the penal aspect, or to have penal but not substitutionary atonement. Others taught that we can obtain forgiveness simply by confession and turning away from sin, with no need for a blood sacrifice. Some say that Christ in his death repented on our behalf, others that Christ's death enables us to repent. All of these views, and others, end up contradicting or failing to take note of key passages in scripture.
So far, the best doctrine we have of the atonement is that of penal substitution. I've only outlined it; there is much more detail to be seen. Within this doctrine great Bible words like propitiation, righteousness and reconciliation fit into place and make a great deal of sense. It is not a popular doctrine with many people, especially those modern theologians who don't see the Bible as wholly trustworthy, or who prefer their own theories to God's revealed word; but it presents the Bible's teaching, helps us to understand some difficult Bible ideas, and serves the church in evangelism. I'm not saying it can never be bettered, just that it hasn't been yet. Until it is, by an addition or amendment that can be seen to make it more biblical, we will do well to believe it and proclaim it.
Together again: summary and conclusions
Doctrine and the Bible belong together. A good example of this is the way that doctrine should guide our preaching. In the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, which is basically a product of the sixteenth-century Reformation, the structure of the Holy Communion service makes a very important point. The Bible readings are followed by the creed, and then the sermon. This demonstrates the way preaching should work: scripture comes first; in the creed we have doctrine which is based on scripture and must guide our approach to scripture; finally we hear the sermon, which should expound scripture in the light of biblical doctrine.
Preaching should be biblical and doctrinal. That doesn't mean it should be theory with no practical content, because doctrine (like the Bible) should be intensely practical. In fact, if either a doctrinal study or a sermon isn't applied to real life, it isn't complete. If true doctrine is a systematisation of the Bible, then its structure and headings will be every bit as practical as is the Bible itself. And the same should be true of preaching, which must be based on scripture in the light of biblical doctrine.
Doctrine is like a pair of spectacles through which to see scripture, but it is subject to, and does not control, scripture. If we look at the Bible through an unbiblical doctrinal lens, we will inevitably see it in a distorted way. If we try to look at the Bible in an impartial or 'presuppositionless' way, we are attempting the impossible. We all have our own presuppositions which influence the way we react to and understand what we read or hear. Some presuppositions are inevitable because of our background, some are valid and helpful, some are false and will lead us astray. If we want to read the Bible biblically, we must ensure that our minds and so our presuppositions are reshaped by biblical doctrine. This is what Paul means when he urges Christians to 'be transformed by the renewing of your mind' (Rom. 12:2).
This sort of doctrinal understanding is necessary to keep our thinking and teaching balanced. Without it we are likely to over-emphasise some biblical truths at the expense of other equally important ideas. It is very important to keep the right balance between, for example, law and gospel, works and faith, knowledge and experience.
It is worth looking at a few of the many examples in the Bible itself of how doctrine is used in this way. In Matthew 22:29 Jesus tells the Sadducees, 'You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.' In one sense they did know the scriptures, that is the content of our Old Testament. What they did not know was the
Bible's teaching on a particular topic, resurrection and life after death. It was their Bible doctrine they were weak on. In Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4 Paul applies his doctrinal understanding of Old Testament passages about Abraham, the covenant and circumcision to the New Testament church. In James 2:5 we see a doctrinal principle, drawn from many Bible verses: 'Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?' This then becomes the heart of James's argument against favouritism.
Doctrine is necessary to help us keep our thinking clear. So much Christian teaching and writing is woolly and vague. Those are the last words you could use to describe the ministry of Jesus or Paul, but we can all easily think of clergy and lay Christians for whom they are the first descriptions to come to mind. Clarity is important in witness, in worship, in counselling, in decision-making - in every area of Christian life and ministry. Clarity brings honour to Christ, whereas woolliness dishonours him and his word.
Doctrine will help us evaluate new insights. The Christian church doesn't yet know everything God wants to teach. He reveals his truth progressively, as we saw with the doctrine of the atonement. We would be very foolish to say that the way we understand doctrine now is going to be valid and complete for all time. Scripture is complete; nothing can be added to it; in that sense God has spoken and his revelation is complete. But our understanding of it is far from complete, and that is what doctrine is all about. We need doctrine to help us test ideas or truths which people claim to have found from scripture (or from anywhere else). If those new ideas are biblical, then our doctrine must be flexible enough to incorporate them and even be reshaped by them. If they are not (and a clear biblical doctrine will often show up their faults), we need the arguments from scripture and history which doctrine provides in order to refute them. We humans, including Christians, are as good as ever at perverting God's truth. We therefore need something, namely Christian doctrine, to protect us from ourselves.
Doctrine will help our evangelism, providing a clear framework of the gospel and clear answers to questions people ask. The best simple gospel outlines (A B C D headings, 123 lists, bridge diagrams, 'God's plan of salvation', 'Two Ways to Live', and so on) are all applied doctrine. The best manuals for counsellors at evangelistic meetings are pure doctrine, usually with suitable Bible texts included. Those who know how to answer the questions people raise are those with a good grasp of doctrine.
I end by repeating something I wrote earlier in this chapter (I'm a preacher and know that careful repetition is important in good preaching!): doctrine is an essential tool, given by God, to help us read, understand, explain, proclaim and obey the Bible. Without it we can do none of those things properly. By it we are not to distort God's word (2 Cor. 4:2), but on the contrary to handle correctly the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).
Questions for discussion
1. What should we do when we find a Bible text and a doctrinal statement apparently in conflict?
2. What should we do when we find two Bible texts apparently in conflict?
3. How can we test claims that God is saying something new?
4. How can we give doctrine a higher profile in our churches?
5. How can or should doctrine help us in these areas: worship, preaching, evangelism, pastoral care, social concern?
For further reading
Sinclair Ferguson and David Wright (eds.), New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988). A major reference book of theologians, doctrines, heresies.
Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990). A heavy but stimulating book based on his Bampton Lectures; tackles modern liberal thinking head-on; good on the relationship of scripture and doctrine;
Bruce Milne, Know the Truth (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982). An excellent and readable account of basic Bible doctrine.
Donald Allister is Bishop of Peterborough. Before that he was Archdeacon of Chester having served churches in Cheadle, Hyde, Sevenoaks and Birkenhead since his ordination in 1976.
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum