The Case for Christian Doctrine

One of my favorite Christians of all time is Charles Sheldon, the one who lived his life and led his ministry with one simple question: “What would Jesus do?” His novel of that title has sold millions of copies, it’s not a great book — but Sheldon himself transcended his quaint, even sentimental novels. Perhaps why I like Sheldon the most is the challenge of his life to theology itself: Sheldon preferred “untheological Christianity” because of the Fundamentalist-Modernist battles. A pastor once told me after a colossal church split that he had only two questions of his friends who led the split: Are you making more disciples? Are you leading people to love God and love others more?

Why do you think so many today are so “untheological”? How do you think we should frame our theology? 

Because Christian thinkers and theological specialists tend to focus on differences and debates, we need the Charles Sheldons of this world to remind us that theology is a means and not the end of our endeavor. The apostle Paul wrote up 1 Corinthians 13 because of this: without love we are clanging cymbals.

But we do need theology, and that is why Ronald E. Heine has written Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith. His book introduces (1) classic (2) doctrine by using the Nicene Creed as an expression of classic Christian doctrine.

There is a rise today — and I’m seeing it in a number of ways — of interest in classic Christianity, classic because it unites all Christians since the early centuries, because so many today are mavericks when it comes to theology and have little to no respect of classic faith, and because they want to root themselves in the common core of Christians. So many today are reciting creeds in public worship; they are using prayer books in churches and in private devotions; and they are learning to frame their faith on the basis of the classic faith. This can build greater unity among Christians and it can recall our attention to the core ideas of the church’s faith.

So what is “classic”? It is the faith, or the articulation of the faith, that has endured; it has the appeal factor; and it is recognized by a large number of people.  So classic Christian doctrine describes “those doctrines that were accepted as true by most Christians before the end of the first four centuries of the Christian era” (3). That is, he’s referring to the Nicene Creed. We perhaps need the reminder that the foundational doctrines of the church were formed in the first four centuries.

So what is “doctrine”? This term refers to a discipline’s self-understanding. Thus, “we are speaking of the Christian system of belief or the common core of Christian teaching that determines Christian self-understanding — that is, what it means to be a Christian” (5).

Classic doctrines “define acceptable and unacceptable views” (5). Heresies are ideas outside what is acceptable.

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  • Rick

    Sounds similar to Oden’s Classic Christianity.

  • Scot,
    Tom Oden’s Systematic Theology is now more than 20 years old. He revised it into a one volume “Classic Christianity” a couple of years back. Are you familiar with it? If so, how does it compare with Heine’s work? I appreciated Oden’s claim of unoriginality. He argued for consensus and favored ancient texts over modern. I think such an approach is good since it helps check our perspective. Of course, as I recently experienced, it doesn’t help with someone who has decided “the bible says . . .”

  • scotmcknight

    Jerry, this one is briefer.

  • The limitations of mere belief—of merely giving mental assent to doctrines and dogmas —are
    clear enough. Such beliefs can never fully prepare us to face the
    storms and temptations of life. They offer a conceptual construct
    which, if mistaken for Reality, is yet another example of a
    house that is built upon the sand (Matthew 7:26-27). While doctrinal
    teachings and dogmatic traditions can convey a profound wisdom (insofar
    as they point to the Reality that IS Christ-in-you),
    they can also conceal as much or more than they reveal. The “map” is
    not the territory and the word “water” will never quench our thirst.
    Moreover, when the emphasis is on the creed instead of the living Christ, the result is a sectarian belief that reflects a spirit of conformity (achieved through indoctrination and conditioning) rather than an authentic, living faith. As such, it tends to breed a sense of superiority and self-righteousness among the so-called faithful and a spirit of intolerance toward those who think or believe otherwise.

  • Ted & Deb Gossard

    Good points. I wonder when belief in “the real Presence” began. As for me, I just don’t seem to fit well into all these theological disputes and arguments, I have neither the time nor training to adequately pursue them. So I’m off to pursue exactly what you’re getting at here: a love in and for God and out of that for others in Christ. Not too much interested in anything else at this stage of my life. Not that I will become mute on some things, like pacifist Christianity, etc.

  • Aaron

    That book looks good, I will have to check it out. It seems like this is about focusing on the essentials of our faith. The problem we are facing today is either a dismissing of classic doctrine or on the other side those who are lumping in all sorts of other doctrines into the “essentials” category.

  • KentonS

    Why do you think so many today are so “untheological”?

    Because the church has a history of theology that has made it an embarrassment to those of us who identify as christian.

    This post took me to the wikipedia page on the Nicene Creed. Interesting how that the version in 325 was revised in 381. What, the 325 version wasn’t enough? Then there’s the whole “filioque” controversy: yes, one freakin’ word causes a huge split. And you have to ask why so many are so untheological?

    I like the idea of going back to Charles Sheldon. Take all the the crap about Armenianism vs. TULIP, Preterism or Dispensationalism, and every other ridiculous argument and throw it out. Throw it the hell out. Start over with the Jesus Creed, incarnation and resurrection and find the folks who can boil it down to just those things (basically the 325 version of the Nicene creed) and they’ll change the world.

    (end of rant)

  • Kandace

    I am quite certain I could never win a theological debate, though there are a few truths I would die for. However, I can sit at His feet and listen. I can pray for who is on His heart, I can go where He leads me to go and say what He wants me to say. And when I fail, I can repent, receive His mercy and move forward. That is more of my concern.

  • Theology (aka doctrine) is important and I do think that a focus on the consensus of historic, orthodox Christian beliefs is important (ie the Rule of Faith) for establishing a set of core essentials. This was the faith handed down and was worth dying for in the early church.

    Theology and discussions can help us refine how we understand who God is
    and how He is working in the world. Whenever we are thinking about
    God we are doing theology. So it is important to understand what the essentials are that have stood for 2000 years. And we should keep in mind that Love Wins is as much a theological claim as Calvin’s or Watson’s Institutes.

    On the division of what you know and what you do with your faith, it is important to keep in mind that faith is not an object. Faith is trusting in something. Theology helps shape and define what you are placing your faith in. What you believe drives how you live. How do you view Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, how do you run a local church, love others and still discipline them when needed, help the poor without creating a culture of dependency etc.

  • Adam

    What do we do if people want to be clanging cymbals rather than loving? Sometimes I wonder if our real problem isn’t the doctrines or beliefs but that we still don’t know how to handle the problem of evil.

  • Nils von Kalm

    Scot, what do you think of N.T. Wright’s conclusion that the creeds don’t really give us the Gospel? Wright says the creeds were formulated to lay out those doctrines that hadn’t been finally decided upon yet. That’s why none of them mention love for instance. The ‘Jesus Creed’ didn’t need to be included in the creeds such as the Nicene Creed because everyone already accepted that that was a fundamental part of following Jesus.

    Given this, don’t creeds like the Nicene Creed have limited value? I’m not saying we should throw out the Nicene Creed, but we shouldn’t base all we believe on it.

  • NateW

    Theology is more like poetry than a dictionary. There are classic poems that nearly everybody agrees are masterpieces, but when it comes right down to it, there is no formula by which great poetry is written, no systematic way to teach someone how to write a great poem. In fact, to rigidly follow a master poet’s exact poetic style virtually guarantees the banality of one’s own writing.

    To “do theology” then is not to create a dictionary that defines “acceptable and unacceptable views” and it is CERTAINLY not about judging foreign sounding views as “heretical. 

    Poetry always dances at the frontier of language where definitions are stretched to their limits and even shattered. To say that a “classic doctrine” DEFINES the “correct view” of God is like saying that you can understand the correct meaning of a poem by looking up each word in a dictionary. A great poem transcends the sum of its collective word’s definitions. Whereas a definition leaves a reader satisfied in the  assured “correctness” of his view, a great work of art guides the reader into an encounter with the limits of his own understanding. Art rewards humble seeking with ever deepening layers of discovery. A definition is a destination—a final word. A poem is a beginning—an invitation.

    “Words have their own meaning, or they have different meanings, and words change their meaning. Words that meant something 10 years ago don’t mean that now. They mean something else.” 
         – Bob Dylan 

    “But we are once again being driven right back to the beginnings of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship – all these things are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them. In the traditional words and acts we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary, though we cannot as yet grasp or express it. That is our own fault. Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action. By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification. It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom.”
         – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison”