What ever happened to Christian Doctrine?

We need Doctrine today more than ever, not less – particularly the youth.

Have you noticed that doctrine has fallen from grace in everyday church life, and from the pulpit? Maybe you haven’t noticed since the process is gradual and easy to overlook for a while. Doctrines may at times talked about, even referred to, but it is seldom if ever actually preached or offered as a significant part of church school.

In church society what appears to be happening (or already has happened) is that doctrine is being made synonymous with dogma. Dogma is a four letter word in the mind of relativistic, pluralistic society, equated with authoritarian control and the like. The evangelical church seems to be subtly adopting the same attitude, in what appears on the surface to be the fear that it will alienate non-Christians and reduce potential growth. The church would certainly differentiate itself from overt expression of this secular view, but living in the world brings a quiet inflow of ideas, attitudes and approaches. One of these is rejection of the fixed framework that doctrine represents (erroneously) to many people.

What does this indicate about the true attitude towards the Sovereignty of God in all these matters? What does it say about belief and dependence on the sufficiency of scripture and the sufficiency of the fundamental ideas therein?

In church life today it seems dated to insist that there are any fixed benchmarks aside from basic belief. As such, demoninational distinctives, and the rich history that preceeds them, are passe and are quietly jetisoned in favour of more up to date presentation and applications. But it bears remembering that a building in which the foundations are eroded by inattention, will weaken over time and eventually fail.

Before we expand into too wide a discussion, let us look narrowly at basic beliefs. I look from the point of view of a Reformed Baptist, but I suspect that most evangelicals would find the same symptoms to one degree or another.

If you were to ask the average church goer or even member:
What are denominational distinctives?
What are theirs?
Would they know why?
Would they think it was irrelevant? Dated? That they are all the same?
Would they know what a confession of faith is?
In this case would they know what the Westminster Confession is?
Would they feel that the doctrinal beliefs of church leaders were important?
Would they know what those leadership beliefs and tenants were?
Would they feel that leadership job performance was the over-riding criteria?

Do you see where this is headed? It is headed to where history, the structure of belief, and therefor the ability to defend or hold on to those beliefs in the face of adversity, comes into serious question.

The beginning of an answer to this is sound doctrinal preaching and teaching. It is not up to date. It does not utilize todays ‘relevant’ examples (it is timeless). And it does not necessarily directly address modern application. But it is absolutely essential for a faith based upon bedrock.

Nowhere is this more critical than in the church youth. No group is more challenged by society. No group is more suseptible to its wiles. Yet in no church group is the education in the structure of our beliefs and the reasons for them often more lacking.

The danger is that what may be created is a wonderful, vibrant, dynamic ministry that is built on sand. When the flood comes, and we all know that it will in some (worldly) form, a foundation of reinforced concrete is needed, not sand.


10 thoughts on “What ever happened to Christian Doctrine?

  1. cnaphan

    But aren’t Baptists, by principle, non-credal and non-dogmatic? I thought private interpretation was an inalienable right of all Reformed believers?

    I suppose it’s true that you should at least know things like that, and what other sects believe.

    I think young people have been brought up to believing that “ecumenicalism” is a “good thing”, thus we shouldn’t dwell on what separates us. Of course, “Unity through Ignorance” is not a banner I would like to go to war under.

  2. kwilson

    Sure private interpretation is important, but not in a vacuum. Baptist denominational lines are largely based up the Baptist Confessions (orginal and revised). I don’t know if I would call them sects though.

    The popularity of ecumenicalism can not result in anything other than “Unity through Ignorance” as a conclusion if the base is no base at all. i do not consider it progress – quite the opposite.

  3. cnaphan

    I realize there’s a lot to learn about various Confessions and it would behoove us all to be familiar with the key documents of our own denomination and others. But in principle, they are not as important as forming one’s own opinion using sola scriptura, thus confessions and councils have a reduced stature.

    The problem really raises its ugly head when issues like “The Da Vinci Code” come up. I’ve heard people confidently assert that the New Testament was written by Constantine, which is pretty hard to refute if you’re only familiar with the Bible plus modern writers.

  4. kwilson

    I would agree to a point. The real issue is that what is often heard today is neither Confession (really just an example for the ‘basics”), nor solid work in scriptural interpretation. Notice I did NOT say modern application.

  5. cnaphan

    Ah, you’re concerned that people actively believe in heresies or have a foggy notion of what they believe.

    As opposed to what I thought you meant, which is that people have orthodox beliefs but do not know how, when or why those beliefs are orthodox.

    Heh, I recently offended someone whose mother belongs to a Unitarian-Universalist congregation (the one in Ottawa actually). She said she didn’t know much about the denomination, so I explained, and concluded that they don’t really have any beliefs, which is true. She became a bit cross and said “They do have some beliefs, maybe they are just very inclusive.” But all I meant was that they have no creeds, just a statement of values.

    I think the real danger is that our churches will go that. People will hold a list of values and know where they stand on political issues, but not know precisely what they believe.

  6. cnaphan

    Consider the words we use, too.

    Unorthodox=effective (“he used an unorthodox approach”)

    Close-minded=bigoted, petty (“he was close-minded about my suggestion”)

    Tolerant or inclusive=loving (“the classroom is tolerant of others”)

    Chesterton said that in the olden days the worst insult was to be called a “heretic”, but now, it’s fashionable. The early Christians fought tooth and nail to retain the title of “orthodox”. Now, nobody wants to touch it. You can see why young people would shy away from “doctrine”.

    I remember I was talking to some of my non-believing friends and they mentioned some position that smacked of the old heresies, Sabellianism, I think. I said “Actually, that was a heresy, and not quite what we believe.” I think someone retorted that I’d better call the Inquisition or some such thing!

  7. kwilson Post author

    You are absolutely correct and in fact I had second thoughts before I started several of these threads. I definitely understand the reaction to ‘doctrine’ , which is why I tried to use dogma. Clearly that doesn’t make the distinction either. I don’t really have a set of terms that do not have modern baggage attached to them.

    Let me also add to all this that I do not claim to be much of an Apologist. Actually, I have little real interest in tha particular dicipline. For that, and a more solid treatment overall, you should check out Dr. Eric Svendsen’s blog at Real Clear Theology. It is listed under Links on our sidebar menu.

  8. D Rho

    Good post and very true.

    I’ve always felt that the postmodern or emergent movement away from ethics (doctrine, principles, absolute truth) and towards ethos (how you live, social justice, and loving others) is a dangerous one. Most of the movement seems to be a backlash against the traditional church – which has existed for thousands of years. If things don’t begin to change soon the emrgent/postmodern movement is in danger of forgetting history and repeating it vis a vis another bloody reformation in the future. ( Which would be strange since so many postmoderns are into church history and stuff). It feels like it’s beginning already.

    We need to begin placing high value on our traditions and our doctrines alongside a high value of reaching the world with God’s love. Can the two ever be married? It remains to be seen… however I see the rift and dissention between the “two camps” widening not closing. We need some bridges being built here. How we do that I don’t know.

  9. cnaphan

    Well, there are problems with a purely doctrinal approach to religion, too. For instance, you might read a book on repentance and become thoroughly familiar with the doctrine of repentance, and come to think of yourself as repentant, because of your familiarity and belief in all these good and holy doctrines. But on the last day, the Lord will say “Depart from me, I don’t know you.”

    “I’d rather experience an ounce of repentance in my soul than be able to define it.” says the Imitation.

    I see the conflict as between subjective and experiential “ethos” versus objective “ethics” (to use D Rho’s words). But if our religion is a meal, ethos is the steak and ethics is the salad. The steak’s the main course but the salad keeps us healthy. The conservative view can largely be summed up as “Eat your greens!”, the greens being orthodoxy.

    I don’t forsee a schism or reformation but I do see the potential for the good side of the “emergent” movement to be swept away over time, and the movement will end up as a Unitarian-ish wishywashy mix of every conceivable theological creed and practice.

  10. kwilson

    Hmmm, I didn’t read drho’s comment as adovcating a purely doctrinal approach. I see it as more a balance. However, since the pendulum has swung pretty far the other way and appears to have lots of momentum, maybe a little extra to the opposite side wouldn’t be bad.

    My concern is in seeing people (particularly younger ones) whose faith is purely experiencial, and who have no use for the framework of ideas that form solid belief. Certainly a ‘mountain top’ experience is both important and significant, but a firm doctrinal foundation also holds the structure up should it be assaulted by societal ideas. If one is supported by pure experience, one can be just as easily carried away.

    This is, of course, a moot argument in the face of a Calvinistic paradigm, but I think it bears expressing anyway.

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