Monday, July 5, 2010
“Theology” and “doctrine” might not be four-letter words, but they have become dirty words, even in the church. There are many reasons for this, but I can only mention a few of the reasons or challenges:
“We don’t need theology. The Bible states that they will know us by the love we have for each other, not by our dogmas!” Indeed, it’s true that we manifest Christ through lives of love, but we can’t act like Christ until we first learn how to think like Christ. This was the conclusion of Christian pollster, George Barna, who found that there are profound behavioral differences that set apart Christians who truly believe a certain six basic essentials of the Christian faith. He found that these believers lived in a far more Christ-like way than those who couldn’t affirm these six basic beliefs – like God is omniscient, Christ is sinless, and the Devil exists. Barna concluded that they acted like Christ because they had learned to think like Christ.
Unsurprisingly, this is also the conclusion of Jesus – if we are to be His disciples, we have to first abide in His truth (John 15:4-7; 14:21-24; 8:31-32). The principle is simple. If you are going to be a good locksmith, you have to want to be one and then to equip yourself for the job through learning.
A life of love is essential, but there are no shortcuts. We must first know the truth before we can live the truth (Col. 1:9-10; Phil. 1:9-11). Knowing must precede doing (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 3:10-11).
“We need to trust in God and not in a set of doctrines.” This challenge sets God in opposition to His Word, as if there’s a difference between trusting God and trusting in what He has taught us. Biblically, the two go together: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope” (Psalm 130:5-6). Clearly, trusting in the Lord and trusting in His Word are synonymous. If we trust in Him, we are trusting in what He discloses about Himself and His promises.
The two are so inseparable that Jesus is even called the “Word of God” (John 1:1; Heb. 4:12-13), the “wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:30), and the “truth” (John 14:6). This is partially true because we don’t relate to Him through touch, sight, or smell, but through believing what He has revealed to us.
“Jesus wasn’t teaching us systematic theology, but a life to live. One indication of this is that we theologians can’t agree on what His theology actually teaches.” There are numerous logical flaws in this challenge. For one thing, even if there are major disagreements among theologians, this fact fails to argue that there’s no truth or that the truth is unobtainable. Otherwise, this same argument could be used against any religion or belief, because there will always be those who disagree. Therefore, according to this reasoning, we shouldn’t choose any religion or philosophy for ourselves because there will always be the naysayers.
Taking it one step further, the above challenge is also a theological statement with which many will disagree. Shouldn’t it then also be discarded because others will disagree with it? Besides, if theologians disagree about Jesus theology, they will also certainly disagree about how we are to live for Jesus. If we conclude that theological truth is unobtainable, then knowing how to live or love is also beyond our understanding. As a result, we are left with no rationale for any lifestyle we might want to choose.
In fact, everything Jesus taught was a matter of dogma or doctrine. Doctrine means teachings! In contrast to this, many today put forward their own Jesus, one who is undogmatic and undemanding: “Jesus would never judge; He’d never exclude anyone.”
Such a conclusion is only possible if we don’t look too closely at what Jesus actually taught. He promised that many who come to Him, trusting in their own righteousness, will be told, “Away from Me you workers of iniquity” (Matthew 7:23). According to Him, there is only one way to God, and that’s through Him (John 14:6). He even informed the religious Jewish leadership that if they rejected Him and His teachings, they would remain alienated from God (John 6:29). It’s therefore obvious that the road to salvation is paved with doctrine (John 17:26; 1 John 5:20).
“I’d rather know Christ than know more about Christ.” This challenge is the challenge of the mystics, who claim that they possess the techniques to experience Christ apart from knowing truths about Him. Instead, knowing about Him is the emphasis of Scripture:
“This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
Moses had had the ultimate mountain-top experience, the ultimate transformational encounter with God, to the extent that his face even glowed. However, when he descended back down to his people, Moses didn’t talk about the experience or how they could have one like him, but instead he focused on what God had instructed him – the teachings of God (Exo. 34:29-34).
If we want to experience God, we do this through understanding Him, and this comes through His Word. We feel intimate with Christ because of what He has revealed about Himself through Scripture. I feel grateful because I know that He has forgiven my sins!
If we want everything that God has for us, we will embrace His teachings. Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders pointed them back to Scripture:
"Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32)
In contrast to this, the mystics are suspicious of the mind and often suggest that it’s the mind that holds us back from receiving God’s blessings. In this regard, the Christian mystic, Richard Foster, writes:
“Imagine the light of Christ flowing through your hands and healing every emotional trauma and hurt feeling your child experienced that day. Fill him or her with the peace and joy of the Lord. In sleep the child is very receptive to prayer since the conscious mind, which tends to erect barriers to God’s gentle influence, is relaxed.” (Celebration of Discipline, 39)
Although it is true that we can use the mind in sinful ways, the mind is also a God-given gift through which we find great blessing through understanding and meditating upon Scripture. Psalm 1 equates blessedness with meditating on the Word day and night, rather than regarding the fruits of the mind as “barriers to God’s gentle influence.” This is the consistent message of Scripture (Josh. 1:8). In contrast, we can’t find a single word of Scripture about being ushered into the blessings of God by virtue of contemplative techniques. Jesus would agree. Our God is not seeking worshipers who have learned mystical techniques of hearing or influencing Him, but rather those who will worship Him “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
“Knowledge and doctrine makes us proud. Christians use their notions of doctrinal correctness to enable themselves to feel superior to others.” There is little doubt that we do this and abuse the truths that God gives us for selfish, perverted purposes. However, we humans do this with any good thing. We certainly perform good deeds so that we can feel superior to others. We also do this with our spiritual of activities, even prayer. We may boast of the length of time we spend in prayer or the results we’ve achieved through prayer. We might also use prayer to convince ourselves that we’re more spiritual than others. However, the fault isn’t with prayer, but our abuse of prayer. Likewise, the fault isn’t with theology or doctrine, but the way we abuse them.
Rather than forsaking what God has given us – prayer, faith, statutes – because we often fail to deal with them in a faithful manner, we should repent and cry out for His deliverance.
“Doctrine divides. Two much emphasis on doctrine just causes fights.” Once again, doctrine and Scripture can be abused, causing fights where there shouldn’t be fights. However, division isn’t always bad, and there are things worth fighting for. We are instructed to fight for the faith (Jude 3) and to be intolerant of certain things, like bad teaching. Two of the seven churches of the Book of Revelation were commended by the Spirit for their intolerance of destructive teachings (Rev. 2:2; 2:20). Another church was reprimanded because it tolerated intolerable teachings (Rev. 2:14).
When we withhold Bible-based confrontation, we withhold love. There are times when, if we love our community, and even the transgressor, we will confront in a Biblical manner (1 Tim. 1:19-20; 1 Cor. 5:5). There will always be fights, disagreements, and things we should refuse to tolerate. It’s imperative that our confrontations are those whose goal is the ultimate welfare of others, thereby pleasing God. However, it’s only through Scripture and our theological grappling with it that we receive this wisdom.
Learning doctrine isn’t easy. It requires patience and perseverance. Yes, it divides and sets us apart. However, it is doctrine that informs me that Christ died for my sins, all of them. It is doctrine that reassures me that even if I continue to feel guilty, Christ has forgiven me, and even if I feel condemned, that the Cross nullifies all condemnation. It is doctrine that instructs me that He will never leave me, even if I feel abandoned. It is doctrine that puts a smile on my face and convinces me that I’m safe. It is doctrine that informs me that I’m beloved even when it has become painfully clear that I don’t deserve anything from Him. He keeps me through His Word, by the Spirit who works mightily through that Word. Ultimately, doctrine gives me everything I need to follow Jesus (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
(Reminder: The New York School of the Bible begins its four-week July intensive on July 12! Please support our school by bringing a friend! Call (212) 975-0170 x23 for details.)