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.