Doctrine is Not a Four-Letter Word

Doctrine is Not a Four-Letter Word August 2, 2014

David George Moore conducted the following interview.  Dave blogs at

Tony Lane is professor of historical theology at the London School of Theology.  He is a leading Calvin scholar.  Among other things, Lane has abridged Calvin’s Institutes to make it more accessible.

*What were the circumstances which led you to write this book (Exploring Christian Doctrine: A Guide to What Christians Believe (Exploring Topics in Christianity))?

In 2006 I started to teach an introductory course on Christian Doctrine to first-year students. I delivered this module fourteen times and through that process refined and developed it. I was very happy when the opportunity came to publish it in the well-established Exploring series, alongside volumes on Exploring the Old Testament and Exploring the New Testament.

*Who is Exploring Christian Doctrine geared for?

As the previous answer indicates, it is primarily for first-year undergraduate students — to be used on their own or as a textbook for a whole cohort. It is also written to be accessible to the educated lay person who has had no formal theological training.

*One unusual feature of your book is what you call “skeptic’s corner.”  Why did you create this section?

The Exploring series have “special features” (material that is marked out from the rest) and in my book these include “Credal statements”, “Errors to avoid”, “Worship” (extracts from a hymn, a worship song or a liturgy), “Prayer” (from a historical source) and “What do you think?” (an invitation to the reader to stop and think about a question). From the beginning I was aiming to answer common objections to Christian belief and it was penetrating questions from students that gave me the idea of turning these into a “Skeptic’s corner”. Basically it’s a way of responding to questions that real people do ask.

*I have read many theology books, but never one that included cartoons.  Thanks for coming up with such a novel idea.  Perhaps other theologians will be encouraged to “go and do likewise.”

From the beginning I illustrated my lectures with cartoons drawn from magazines and other sources. When it came to the book I discovered that it would be both hard and expensive to use many of these in the book, so most of the cartoons there are by Miriam Kendrick, a former student whose father is a well known writer of worship songs. Some are there with the aim of making the book more accessible but some are there because they state a truth more effectively than could be done in words. That is especially true of those on pages 5 & 112 — you’ll have to buy the book to see what they are!

*Without getting too deep into the thickets of doing theology from a Western versus Eastern (speaking of Eastern Orthodoxy here) perspective, how do you guard yourself from either saying too much or too little about God?

That’s a very good question. I’m currently reading through Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologica with a colleague and I find myself asking time and again “How on earth does he know that?” The same is true of some today that want to model human society on the inner life of the Trinity, as if they knew all about it. Calvin’s response to such people was “Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself.”

I think it’s important to distinguish between positive and negative statements about God. Christian theology has traditionally affirmed that God is timeless, that he transcends time. This has sometimes been mistaken as a positive statement, as if God was like us but without the ability to change. As some rightly object today, such a God would be less than us. But this is not what the tradition teaches. God is outside of our time in that he transcends his creation of which time is a part. This is a negative statement (God cannot be tied down to time as if he were part of creation) not a positive statement that we know what it is like to be God in his inner being.

Good theology is composed primarily of positive statements about God (as is Scripture) but also needs to qualify these with negative statements about what he is not, as we also find in Scripture (e.g. Isaiah 55:8-9; 1 Corinthians 13:12).

*How do the major creeds remind us to major on the major doctrines and minor on the minors?

The mark of a good theology is not just that the doctrines are correct but also that they are in the right proportions. A portrait of someone might have all the parts accurately drawn, but if the nose is twice the size of the chin it is a caricature. There are some people for whom one gets the impression that their prophetic timetable is more important than the resurrection of Jesus. As you say, the creeds point us to the major doctrines. This is true of the ancient creeds such as the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. It is also true of later creeds and confessions such as the Lutheran Augsburg Confession or the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism, but these come from one sector of the Church only, not from the whole Church.

*Other than your own book, what five books outside the Bible would better equip Christians to understand theology?

That is hard to answer as it depends so much on what stage people have reached. As a young Christian I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which was a great help to me. I have reread it a number of times, most recently as preparation for this book. About half of my research and writing has been on Calvin and I have been greatly influenced by his Institutes. As regards modern systematic theologies there are many excellent volumes on the market, each with their own distinctive strengths and weaknesses, but I’m hesitant to recommend one in preference to another. For someone looking for a basic level introduction I would recommend John Stott’s Evangelical Truth.

*What theologians have been most formative in your understanding of the Christian faith?

That’s very hard indeed to disentangle so instead I’ll tell you who are the five most citied authors in the book (in descending order): Augustine, Calvin, Luther, the Wesleys and C. S. Lewis. You’ll see from that list that I have been influenced by and draw upon figures from a wide range of Christian traditions.

What was very influential upon me in my own theological studies was spending most of a year studying the Early Church (100-460), on which I took four courses. I certainly don’t think they were infallible, but I am amazed at how much they managed to achieve, starting with no fixed New Testament and no creeds.

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