October 25, 2020

Swimming against a Tide: Doctrine (part one)


Swimming against a Tide
Ways I’ve changed in my evangelical faith
Doctrine, part one: Definitions

This week I want to push back against some articles written by others — not because I have a chip on my shoulder or animus toward any particular writers, but simply to try and express some of the ways I have changed paths in my own journey of faith.

• • •

Writing about the Christian life . . . is like trying to paint a picture of a bird in flight. The very nature of a subject in which everything is always in motion and the context is constantly changing — rhythm of wings, sun-tinted feathers, drift of clouds (and much more) — precludes precision. Which is why definitions and explanations for the most part miss the very thing that we are interested in. Stories and metaphors, poetry and prayer, and leisurely conversation are much more congenial to the subject, a conversation that necessarily also includes the Other.

• Eugene Peterson
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

We start this week with my response to a post by Tim Challies, called “6 Great Reasons to Study Doctrine.”

Tim’s post reflects a way I used to think and a method by which I tried to communicate the faith. Though it was perhaps helpful in some early stages of my journey (in fact, I’m sure it was), I don’t find it helpful or encouraging to my faith anymore, nor do I think it comes close to expressing the richness, especially the imaginative bountifulness of the Christian life.

Of course, Challies’ piece is just a blog post! And we all have to use shorthand sometimes. But the shorthand I used to use and the shorthand I now aspire to use are quite different.

As Eugene Peterson wisely says, “My concern is that we use God’s gift of language in consonance with the God who speaks.” He urges us to follow Emily Dickinson’s dictum: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Like the Challies article I’m critiquing today, I used to tell it straight. I favored the clear, wide paths that enabled me, or so I thought, to make a beeline for the truth. I’ve come to treasure a more meandering way. It’s more like the Bible. It’s more like Jesus. It’s more like actual life.

Let’s start with definitions

Challies says, “Doctrine is simply the teaching of God or the teaching about God—the body of knowledge that he reveals to us through the Bible.”

This is the foundation of sand that many Christians build upon. They believe that the Bible reveals to us a “body of knowledge.” This body of knowledge can be analyzed, categorized, and systematized into neat “doctrinal statements” in brief and “systematic theologies” in longer form. I used to embrace that approach, but now I have come to think that it subjects the Bible to the modernist project and does not deal appropriately with the Bible we actually have in our hands. There is a reason the Jewish faith has no “systematic theologies.” Their sacred book — the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament — doesn’t lend itself to that! Perhaps the New Testament, with its missional participation in Greco-Roman culture might appear to be more amenable to developing a body of “propositional truths,” but the fact remains that the New Testament is a collection of books that also resists such formulations.

This is not to say that we can’t say true things about God based on scripture. But we do so without the kind of precision or certainty that the “doctrine” approach promises. When we talk about the Bible, we are not talking about a “body of knowledge,” but rather a Story that is worked out in messy and mysterious ways. We are talking about a book containing a wide variety of types of literature, put together to give “wisdom,” which is not mathematics; indeed it is the very opposite of formulaic. We are talking about a canon that is designed to promote faith, hope, and love, not precise definitions of God. We are talking about an epic drama that leads, by way of many meandering paths, to the Story of its Hero, Jesus the Messiah of Israel and Lord of all creation.

We do not have a “body of knowledge” that enables us to know God. We have Jesus.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).

Jesus did not make God known by giving his disciples a “body of knowledge” from which they could formulate doctrines. He did it partly by teaching, yes, but that teaching was the farthest thing from academic.

  • It was not “doctrinal,” but incorporated fully into daily life, experience, ministry — more like apprenticeship than classroom, more like field training than book study.
  • It was told “slant” — in ways that prompted curiosity, imagination, questions, even befuddlement and resistance in those who were privileged to receive it, not in easy to learn propositional summaries.
  • It was relational, the kind of “knowing” that is shared between persons, which cannot ever be systematized, despite our many efforts to produce “how to” books about such bonds as marriage, parenting, or friendship.

The Christian faith is simply not primarily a matter of doctrine — ideas, concepts, “truths.” It is about how God came to save us so that he might dwell in our midst forever.


  1. Eckhart Trolle says

    So fornication is okay, then…?

    • Why are you here? 😉

      • Eckhart Trolle says

        Let’s not make this about me!

        • So you get to make it all about us, with no reciprocation? Pull the other one!

        • Eckhart Trolle,
          I feel that you made ‘this’ about you the moment you used that ‘nom de plume’, and I think you can agree with that evaluation once you think about it. Your ‘name’ is a message in itself. I think it is a bid for attention in the way of confrontation, but here at Imonk, you might encounter less confrontation and more ‘conversation’, in which case, don’t hesitate to enter into the conversation. We are all here for different reasons. We all have different stories and backgrounds. We listen to one agree, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not, but there is an openness to shared ideas and thoughts here that you may not find elsewhere . . . for that, we can thank Michael Spencer, of blessed memory, and Chaplain Mike who has carried on Michael’s tradition.

          So join in the conversation if you want to. Everyone has something of value to share. No one is dispensable.

    • As the rabbi said to Stewie in that one Family Guy, how do YOU feel about that?

      • Eckhart Trolle says

        My mind is just stewing in polymorphous perversity.

        And more good news: Since the Bible is a story rather than a body of doctrine, then not only may we fornicate without guilt, but we should also take the Incarnation with a grain of salt.

        Yes, I saw the line about how it might still be possible to “say true things about God based on scripture,” but since this cannot be done precisely or with certainty, then the creeds are right out, unless you’re willing to change “I believe in the Trinity” to “I think there probably is a Trinity, more or less.”

        • Fair enough; thank you for the thoughtful response, and the delightful alliteration that you introduced it with.

          Is this anything new, though? Even Michael Spencer said “or it could all be false” when talking about his beliefs.

          • I’m afraid that Meister Eckhart is not the first to coin that particular alliterative phrase.

        • petrushka1611 says

          As long as we’re trolling…

          I take my fornication with a grain of salt.

          • Sounds unpleasant.

          • Better than with a grain of sand, I guess…

          • Eckhart Trolle says

            Or as they say in Latin, “CUM grano salis.”

            But fornication loses some of its zest when you’re not afraid that Jesus is watching. Or as they used to say in Catholic school, that you drive the nails further into his flesh with each passionate thrust.

          • as they used to say in Catholic school

            I feel as if I know a little bit more about you, and where you’ve come from. We have something in common.

    • ET, I have no idea how that question has any connection with today’s post.

    • Only fornication under the consent of the king, so off with it, will ya? lol

      • I was going to say something like “Yes, fornication is okay, so screw you,” but that would’ve been impolite. Except that I would’ve put this 😉 after it.

    • Sure, why not. It’s just an act. Sex is neutral; it just is.

      Now let’s talk consent and personality responsibility and ethics and cause and effect and the law, lol.

    • How could you possibly get that out of this?

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Tim Challies’ post posits that:

    – Doctrine Leads to Love
    – Doctrine Leads to Humility
    – Doctrine Leads to Obedience
    – Doctrine Leads to Unity
    – Doctrine Leads to Worship
    – Doctrine Leads to Safety

    But I do not believe any of those six are true, not even in a fancy rhetorically caged but-true-doctrine-really-is kind of way.

    – Love leads to Love [and love can only exist where there is Community]
    – Experience and safety lead to Humility
    – Trust leads to Obedience
    – Leadership leads to Unity
    – Nothing leads to Worship, it is a nebulous thing that seems to spring up on its own. But humility, love, and trust certainly do not hurt.
    – Unity and Love lead to Safety.

    It is messy, many of these things loop back around, and in different places and times we seem unable to boot-up the system; a fact I imagine Doctrinarians really don’t like.

    • flatrocker says

      Maybe a slight adjustment to the underlying “assuredness” of Challies’ statements –

      Maybe the purpose of doctrine is to lead us to these six things. Which is to say they lead us to the heart of Jesus. If doctrine does not lead us to this, it is a doctrine in need of adjustment or abandonment. But then of course that makes the doctrine open to interpretation which no longer makes it doctrine. And therein lies the rub – if not our doctrines, what then are we to cling to?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        >if not our doctrines, what then are we to cling to?

        Our stories. Ultimately I think we just have to trust them.

        Which is more effective communication: saying “Love your neighbor” or telling the story of the Samaritan? The story does not illustrate the point – the point is a derivation **from the story**.

        But once we have performed out distillation we are far too eager to turn that into a bullet point and neglect the story. We have our point, we are good to go.

        • flatrocker says

          Interesting thought concerning the story….

          Our stories become our traditions. And those traditions that prove to be timeless become enshrined as sacred. And from the sacredness of our traditions doctrines are born. And doctrines become the point and purpose. And we subsequently forget the centrality of the story – because it is no longer needed.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > because it is no longer needed

            Well said! I think you’ve nailed it. This fits the cycle of much of human activity – increasing efficiency (*1) [towards doctrine, in this case] with concomitant increase in rigidity [or decease in adaptability!] – until fracture – then re-composition.

            It is sort-of a virtuous cycle. 🙂

            (*1) People have a tendency to mix-up efficiency with simplicity, we like simple, and feel it efficient, even when it is not.

            But I think we [as in people/society] are learning awareness and understanding of this cycle. There is a lot of talk in civic circles about being “anti-fragile”. Hopefully this will spill over into religious circles – there are a lot of adaptable [of course! 🙂 ] concepts in anti-fragile thinking.

      • I actually think its the opposite. Believing in Jesus eventually led the church to generate doctrine.

        • In order to box in something that resists being “boxed”. Humans are only comfortable with certainty, and that is what “doctrine” offers. Trusting God because of human artifice with language.

          • That can be the case, but in the best cases doctrine is not trying box something in, but prevent spiritual sickness. There’s nothing wrong with protecting the revelation from false teaching. It’s just when doctrine becomes a hammer, or a tool for threatening people, or takes the place of Jesus.

            One metaphor I heard was the doctrine is a lens, but it is not the object we are looking at. At times we need various lenses to see clearly, but we are never looking AT the lens, merely THROUGH it.

          • It’s almost like we are all describing something that doesn’t exist, throwing paint over nothing, copying over each other’s work, never once being able to see the whole thing.

            God is the negative space. If we all circle around it, and throw paint at it, where there was nothing, now there is a sphere.

            Like light into a blackhole.

            Or a hollow pinata made without a mold.

      • I will cling…to the old rugged cross…and exchange it one day for a crown.

        …which I then give back to Jesus because I’m so unworthy to even have a crown…or something.

    • Tim Challies’ post posits that:

      – Doctrine Leads to Love
      – Doctrine Leads to Humility
      – Doctrine Leads to Obedience
      – Doctrine Leads to Unity
      – Doctrine Leads to Worship
      – Doctrine Leads to Safety

      It was precisely the failure of theology to deliver on these promises Challies makes that set me on the path to where I am today.

      • Eckhart Trolle says

        The Dark Side are they!

      • I may have to do some more investigation into what he means by doctrine, but strictly speaking, I think doctrine is designed to confront or contradict heresy and falsehoods that threaten to deconstruct the faith.

        Which is to affirm doctrine’s importance. But it is not, in itself, designed to lead to any of these things. It’s more of a protective mechanism, which guards the things that lead us love, obedience, worship, etc.

      • “You didn’t try hard enough. You just wanted to keep sinning. Maybe there’s no hope for you unless you repent.”

        etc. been there on that merry go round, burnt the bridges behind me.

      • me too, eyeore.

    • Doctrine leads to love: Well obviously we all have anecdotal evidence of when this didn’t happen, but as soon as you begin to answer “what is love?” you have ventured into the realm of doctrine. You are right about this though, love leads to love. Our love is a response to divine love given us in Christ! But that’s kind of a doctrine.

      The humility wrought by doctrine is two fold: Acknowledging that we are sinners and prone to err, and thus need to be willing to consider when we are making one, and second, recognizing that MYSTERY and not certainty is the heart of Christian doctrine, and therefore our knowledge of God is indefinitely limited by our mortality and the obstruction of sin on our perception. I insist that doctrine does lead us to humility because it shows us who we are before God. Just because many “doctrinal” people are not humble, it doesn’t follow that they are doctrinally astute. Knowledge DOES “puff up,” as the OT teaches us, but beholding the face of God in Christ takes the stone out of every hand. THAT is Christian doctrine.

      Trust leads to obedience: Dead on! What are we trusting? How you answer this is a doctrine.

      Unity is created by uniformity of confession. Leadership creates uniformity of expression, which can create cultural conformity, but not the kind of unity that is centered in the person and work of Christ. It can lead to those things, but if and only if the leadership leads in believing, teaching, and confessing the Gospel.

      Worship does not spontaneously generate, that is silly. It is a response to the revelation of Christ. Jesus causes us to worship God, because his mercy and grace melts our stone cold hearts. Who is this guy that does such things to us? You guessed it, the answer must by necessity be doctrinal.

      The “safety” Challies refers to is safety from believing the kind of lies that destroy us. As any competent psychologist will know, the belief of lies is something people cling to which can destroy their lives. Lies are by their very nature destructive. Exposing them for what they are helps us steer clear of them and avoid giving evil an open door. Just as believing in Christ as truth brings light and life, belief in anything else brings the opposite. Right doctrine matters infinitely in this regard.

    • – Trust leads to Obedience

      Commented on Stuff Fundies Like recently that the old childish song “Trust and Obey” is pretty evil. Had a good discussion about just how insidious that song is.

      “for there’s no other way…to be happy (in Jesus)…but to trust and obey”

      Great early childhood programming.

      Anyways, I’d agree, Trust should ultimately lead to Obedience. The problem is when people merge the two. Trust is earned, not something you can just create on the spot.

      • It is a terrible song, right? Trusting and obeying has the potential to make you very miserable. I don’t see how the thinking person could not notice that. People who love that song are, imo, too comfortable.

    • I think it’s fairly self-evident that the study of doctrine has not naturally brought about these results.

      Of course, each one of those 6 “results” is a word that requires definition. “Love” per TULIP is…well…I won’t go there.

  3. Burro [Mule] says

    I don’t think study of doctrine will necessarily bring all these bona to pass, but praying doctrine does.

    We need cool heads and warm hearts. Study tends to overheat the brain. It leads to hot heads and cold hearts.

  4. I actually have an affection for doctrine; partly for the content, as much as I know of it, but mostly for the meaning of the word itself. Since it means teaching, it reminds me of the people who have taught. And when I look at the Fathers and doctors of the church, I realize that there is no room to be “doctrinaire.” The richness, variety, difference of focus, and difference of tone that are represented over the last 2000 years are a great blessing to me; in other words, the teachers are a blessing to me — people, part of the great cloud of witness. We go wrong when we think that doctrine is only abstract propositions divorced from people.

    Like you, CM, while I enjoy theology, as I get older I mostly look for quiet, beauty, and prayer. And like you, Mule, I love the liturgical prayer that knits doctrine into beauty.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > We go wrong when we think that doctrine is only abstract propositions divorced from people.

      I’m not so sure. I think what you describe is not Doctrine, but History. Studying History will include the study of Doctrines; but the study of Doctrine is then considered in a context [the History], in the story, where it can be fruitful.

      • Quite true. What is usually lost on those who focus on doctrine is that theology is, to a very great extent, reflective of the historical context in which it was developed. I think the classic example of this is the emphasis on justification of the reformers – it gave (and gives) central place to an issue that was ”hot’ in the sixteenth century but was probably not nearly so in the first (or the twenty-first). One might argue the same for views drawn from the ‘new perspective’ in light of post-holocaust reflection. That in itself is not a bad thing. Luke Timothy Johnson, in the book reviewed recently, notes that Christian views of ‘holy war’, slavery, and women’s rights (for example) changed, not because of definite biblical teaching (in fact, Scripture was often used to opposed progress), but in light of human experience – the revelation that God continues to give through experience (which is really what we find in Scripture).

    • Damaris, I’m not saying there is no place for doctrine, which in its best forms summarizes and states the meaning and significance of the story.

      One reason I would trust your love for doctrine is that you embrace doctrine in the context wherein you love stories, history, literature, the arts, etc. You have imagination, not just adherence to propositions.

      • “You have imagination, not just adherence to propositions.”
        That’s it right there. With imagination or curiosity or childlike open-heartedness, we let the story of Jesus become a living, growing thing inside our heads. That story becomes part of who we are, mingling with experience, input from others, and our own musings. Theology then becomes an automatic part of our thinking, in which we are constantly comparing and considering the words on the page as they relate to The Word as He has taken root inside us.
        Strict, unquestioning, unbending adherence to doctrinal propositions is a way that some people try to hold God hostage until reality meets their demands and expectations — the foremost being the all-consuming need to be “right” and to be vindicated in one’s rightness.

    • “And like you, Mule, I love the liturgical prayer that knits doctrine into beauty.”

      Well, that sentence itself is beautiful writing, Damaris.


  5. I think Michael got it pretty much right yesterday in saying that the problem isn’t doctrine, but obsession over doctrine. We have to have doctrine. We have to have some form of definition of what we believe and what we teach. The creeds that so many repeat every Sunday are doctrine. Without some form of doctrine we lose the ability to communicate what it is we believe, whether we tell it slant or tell it straight. The problem comes when we become like the Pharisees Jesus was speaking to, and we carefully study our doctrines because we think that in them we have eternal life, rather than trusting in Jesus for eternal life.

    • The creeds, especially the Apostles Creed, are more story than doctrine.

      • Eckhart Trolle says

        So to believe in them would be a category mistake, like a kid who believes Batman is real…?

      • Mike,

        Why can’t they be both?
        We believe in God the Father, Almighty maker of heaven and maker of earth…
        -This is both a story (creation) and a doctrine (a truth which the church believes and teaches)
        And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Marry, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
        -Story (incarnation, crucifixion) and yet also doctrines (he is the Son of God, he was born of a Virgin, he was crucified)

        The stories teach doctrine, they just teach it in a different way than a systematic theology would. Personally I like the stories and the systematic theologies. The problem that I think is really being addressed today is when people take an absolute systematic theology approach to the faith, and insist that you agree on every point of their theology. For example, “What do you mean you don’t believe in the pre-tribulation rapture? Don’t you believe the Bible?”

        • Doctrine at its best is a summary of and explanation of the meaning and significance of the story.

          I can only say that I used to embrace doctrine in another way — as ideas, concepts, propositions. I don’t deny any value for doctrine, only that we not make it a primary way for holding and communicating our faith.

          Peterson’s quote says it best: “Which is why definitions and explanations for the most part miss the very thing that we are interested in. Stories and metaphors, poetry and prayer, and leisurely conversation are much more congenial to the subject, a conversation that necessarily also includes the Other.”

        • Those last two sentences made me twitch…lol

      • Well, the Creeds have a narrative form, but they are actually articulating doctrine, albeit as shorthand, or as Tom Wright says, like a suitcase – each statement needs to be unpacked. And what you get when you unpack is doctrine. The Creeds were originally baptismal confessions of the ancient church. Interestingly, the doctrine was unpacked completely for the newly baptized in the weeks *following* their baptism. They had been around the community for long enough to first see how that doctrine was lived in life, and to decide whether they really wanted to enter it.


    • I flesh this thought out more in a comment below, but I believe this business of defining ‘doctrine’ as “every true statement” is a mistake. The creeds were formulated to oppose heresy and summarize the Church’s beliefs about God and Jesus. To the extent that it is used to teach, it could be called some form of doctrine.

      But to say something like “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” is not doctrine. It is a statement of faith. If were to say “I teach that God is the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” THAT would be, more specifically, ‘doctrine.’ But that’s not what the creed says.

      Teachers can teach true things, and they use doctrine to do it. What I have already been taught, and thus know to be true, is not categorized as ‘doctrine’ though. By definition. Once it has been successfully taught, it becomes “faith” or “knowledge.”

  6. This is a great post, CM. I know that me from 3 years ago wouldn’t be able to accept this, and me from 5 years ago would click off of the site with a screeching cry of “UNACCEPTABLE!!!” But, it seems that God really has done a lot with me since then (or maybe I’ve just grown up, which is God’s gift to everyone).

    The thing is, while I can happily accept this story paradigm, I don’t feel as though I can adequately explain it or explain why I can accept it when I start to think about it (honestly, expressing and defending ideas has always been hard for me, let alone the impenetrable mystery of emotions). Your thoughts?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > honestly, expressing and defending ideas has always been hard for me

      Don’t feel bad. It feels hard because it is!

      > I don’t feel as though I can adequately explain it or explain why I
      > can accept it when I start to think about it

      Do you feel you could adequately explain why you accepted any given Doctrinal statements?

      • > Do you feel you could adequately explain why you accepted any given Doctrinal statements?

        Not sure that I could… my suspicion is that, however brainy I fancy myself to be, I’ve always really parroted things back that have an air of authority to them and make some sense at first blush.

    • It seems as if my question boils down, since this has been the default view I was taught and the only one I encounter outside of this site, to: Why must the Bible be a story, rather than a databank of knowledge, as I have been taught?

      On one hand, I feel as though the story model only makes sense, considering that Christ was a teller of stories, the OT is mostly stories, and almost a fifth of the NT is stories, but… well, the near-universal opinion this is not so, prioritizing the Epistles over the Gospels and so forth, makes this alternate view hard for me to express.

      How do all of you explain yourselves who have this view?

      • To me, the focus must always be on the gospel accounts. Jesus is the exact representation of the Father, the visible person representing the invisible God, so I think we must read and re-read the accounts of Jesus’ life over and over to remind ourselves what was important to him and thus important to the Father.

        And while the Epistles are certainly good for rounding out Jesus’ who being, I think some folks get a little to infatuated with Paul. Paul was not Jesus. Paul is not the exact representation of the Father.

        A friend just loaned me Max Lucado’s “The Story,” which rearranges the Bible into story-form, making it feel much less “instructional”. I was a little leery at first, but as I skimmed it, the approach (everything is chronological, with Proverbs and Psalms and such mixed in where they would’ve occurred during the story) became fascinated me. You might give that a shot sometime.

        • Good grief…typos….

          “…good for rounding out Jesus’ WHOLE being…”

          “…the approach…fascinated me.”

      • turns,

        I would rather use the word “narrative” – “story” carries a connotation of “not necessarily true.”

        I came by the view by reading N.T. Wright, who explains the narrative as an overview of what the bible is trying to express, and where the narrative leads. I am also informed by EOrthodox teaching, especially regarding the OT – it cannot be understood except by reading it through the lens of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ (which necessarily presumes the Incarnation as well). So, like the title of R. Hays’ recent book, we read scripture “backwards.” My best theological buddy has an MA in OT Studies, and he reminds me that the OT is a narrative written by the Jews, along with Jewish commentary on that narrative.

        And as Rick Ro. has written, everything must be interpreted in the light of the Gospels.

        There is no uninterpreted text – not even the bible. All the difficulties we have with scripture are matters of Interpretation.


      • Paul’s simple definition of the Gospel, is a narrative of events:

        Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor 15:1-6)

        The first four books of the Bible are called “The Gospel According to…” and then what follows is a narrative about the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

        It’s hard to break through the shell of the majority view out there, but persistence pays off, I find. I hammer 1 Corinthians 15 pretty hard when I need to. No imputation, justification, or penal sub to be found. Just an account of what Jesus did.

      • Q. What do you get when two Rabbis discuss Tanakh?

        A. Three arguments.

        Yes, the text is a narrative–many in fact. Yes, there are “facts”. But, here’s what pried me away from my earliest training of seeing the Bible as a flat field of Facts…

        The OT is a collection of ARGUMENTS. This is evident even in the first 2 chapters of Genesis–two different stories in play. The story of Ruth is a rebuttal of Ezra’s marriage “reforms”. The historical books present several different views of the kings and Kingdom, but one constant is the ever-present assertion that Israel/Judah/the King did evil in the sight of YHWH and that’s why all this calamity is happening–and even when the perfect king comes to the throne, leads revival and reform but then dies confronting Necho and despite all the only answer for why shit happens is still “…he did evil in the sight of the LORD his God” (Jehoiakim).

        The other constant running argument is that between Priest/Temple and the Prophets. The Priest assert that purity and conformity to the sacrificial laws is absolutely necessary for national prosperity. The Prophets say that YHWH despises their ceremonial correctness and instead demands “uprightness”–social justice.

        In the Gospels Jesus grabs these threads and draws them through his heart of love and wisdom. The OT answers none of the questions it presents and settles none of the arguments presented about Who God is and what He’s like. Jesus settles all the arguments; “If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him.”

        Which is more important, Gospel or Epistle? Since Pauline epistles were written prior to our Gospels (perhaps excluding Mark) maybe it’s best to say that the Gospels are commentary on Paul…. ;o)

    • Since my experience mirrors yours in a way – except that I’m maybe 5 years ahead of you – I’ll offer up that maybe what you’ve experienced is a maturation of your faith and of Jesus becoming clearer in your heart and mind. There’s a beauty and peace to it, and a beauty and peace to the newfound mystery.

  7. Yesterday Robert wrapped up the thread with this:
    “The language of Christian faith is love language. It makes claims for the beloved that only make sense in the context of the ardor and passion that is felt and expressed. On the bases of this passion and ardor, affirmations are made about the beloved that cannot easily be translated into the propositional statements of doctrine without distortion, and reduction; the pearl of great price is traded for costume jewelry.” © (copied right)

  8. Marcus Johnson says

    Challies says, “Doctrine is simply the teaching of God or the teaching about God—the body of knowledge that he reveals to us through the Bible.”

    As soon as Challies used the word simply, I knew he was on the wrong track.

  9. I don’t know, I also am unsatisfied by Challies’ definition of ‘doctrine’ but maybe for a couple different reasons.

    I actually looked up all NT uses of the word ‘doctrine’ once, because I was dissatisfied with the way people were using it. I believe what I discovered was (not surprisingly) doctrine is ‘that which is taught.’ No one ever uses the word simply to refer to “that which is true about God.” Good doctrine does indeed seek to drive truth forward, but the two words are not synonymous. Doctrine is what godly teachers teach about God, for the purpose of training students a certain way. It’s a classroom word. Yet not all truth comes by the classroom (as CM points out).

    IOW, Joe Christian going about his Christian life isn’t supposed to study doctrine. He’s supposed to know Christ.

    For instance, I would never study ‘the doctrine of the resurrection’ as I’ve occasionally heard people refer to it. (Unless of course, I was specifically studying how the Resurrection was taught). I would study the Risen Christ. As well as know, love, and follow him. Great teachers might help me in this task, and they might use some ‘doctrine’ to do it. But in the end, the doctrine is a booster rocket that falls away and the content itself powers my faith.

    This confusion pops up right in Challies’ very first statement “doctrine leads to love.” Well perhaps secondarily it can, but it is not THE thing that leads to love. He confuses John’s statement about knowing God with studying doctrine. These are quite different. The NT uses the word “doctrine” in very specific ways, and that’s just not one of them. “Knowledge” in the BIble really doesn’t mean what we mean by “doctrine.” It’s not even a thing which needs doctrine, in every case.

    The second reason I’m unsatisfied with his definition is that doctrine historically arises in a context, for the purpose of clearly distinguishing the Church’s view against a heresy or a falsehood that threatens to erode the Gospel (or its effects).

    This is true in both in Scripture and later Church disputes. The Trinity and the doctrine of the two natures of Christ showed up not simply because someone realized it was true and decided to create a rubric for teaching it, but because Arianism (and various other heresies) were threatening the church. And so the these doctrines, were distilled from the New Testament for that purpose. But they are not organized by the NT. Their “arrangement” for that purpose came later.

    For a scriptural example: Paul’s theology of justification wasn’t dreamed up because it generated worship on its own. Paul thought it through in order to oppose the pervasive factionalism within the church. It was needed to preserve unity. The doctrine DID NOT create unity. It preserved the unity that was already there, and attacked the source of the disunity. I hope it’s not pedantic to say Christ created the unity, as he always does. To say “doctrine creates unity” is really to lean into a form of discarnate Christianity, or docetism.

    Once a problem is dealt with by “right doctrine,” then Christ can more easily generate the love, worship and humility in the Church. Doctrine isn’t generating this stuff though.

    • Incidentally, Challies is agreeing with me on his last point . The only one of his six points that actually uses a Scripture passage that contains a reference to “doctrine” is the last one- doctrine leads to safety (from false teaching).

      But in every other point, he confuses “theology” and “knowledge” with doctrine.

  10. Randy Thompson says

    Challies says, “Doctrine is simply the teaching of God or the teaching about God—the body of knowledge that he reveals to us through the Bible.”

    Doctrine is necessary and good, because human beings need to make sense of what they believe, and doctrine is what helps us do that. Doctrine is a product of, and an aid to, thinking.

    However, it seems to me that the mistake is to confuse what we find in Scripture with what God provided in Scripture. Doctrine is what we find there; it is not the same thing as what’s there. What one finds in Scripture is what one looks for, and since different people, or groups of people, look for different things, what they find is not the same. If we have a “body of knowledge about God,” that body of knowledge has a sociological (and historical) address.

    What a friend of mine said many years ago about tradition holds true for doctrine, I think. When and where tradition is subordinated to Christ, it allows for people of other (Christian!) traditions to come together around Christ. Where tradition is about itself, it serves to tribalize and divide Christians. Doctrines should function the same way–they should be held with humility and not be seen as being about themselves; they should unveil Christ (and his Father), and believers should respect and learn from doctrines other than the ones of their own group.

  11. Why does ET sound like DT? Is he “The Donald” incognito? Didactic, opinionated, no facts based on truth, sarcastic, disparaging…..hmmmmm. I hope he never goes away, because as the Joker said to Batman, “you’re just too much fun!”

    • Indeed, we seem to have periodic visitors who love to toss hand grenades and not worry about the damage.

      In fairness to ET, there is the periodic insight that the others have seemed to lack, and if ET is Wexel or Faulty under a different name, there seems to be a slight maturation in the person.

      But that personality gets extremely tiring and wearying.

  12. I’ve come to treasure a more meandering way. It’s more like the Bible. It’s more like Jesus.

    I disagree there, I think you may be reading something into Christ a bit. Jesus could be a real straight shooter, when the situation called for it. Or he could answer a direct question with a long story that ends with another question. Jesus played both sides of this game, and he played them well. He was definitely a brilliant communicator, and he always knew which tool to use at which time. We should expect no less from the author of language, the incarnate Word.

    Sometimes Christ literally took a side in theological debate. He called out err and directly judged the character of those promoting it. Other times he placated neither side. He made friends and enemies rather quickly, but above all, he clung to the truth until it got him killed. He didn’t mince words when it came to who he was and what he was sent to do (the Gospel).

    • –> “…he clung to the truth until it got him killed.”

      Hmm, I don’t see him clinging to the truth, whatever that vague term might mean, but rather he stayed true to who he was and to his mission. He didn’t die for the truth, he died for us.

      • Read more carefully. He was crucified because he claimed to be God. It was that blasphemy charge that sealed his fate.

        • I don’t disagree, but to me it’s also a chicken-or-egg thing. Was he crucified because of his claim or because he was meant to be the sacrifice? Did the Pharisees railroad him through the trial because of his blasphemy or because they were worried about what he was doing to their religious power? There are/were a lot of variables at play, of which his clinging to the truth was but one.

          This would be a great one to chat about over a brewski and pizza!

          • Or was a rebel rouser and potential insurrector/terrorist leading crowds executed by the occupying powers, and delivered into their hands by the local religious authorities who had a pretty good living keeping the peace with their overlords?

            And was it also more than that?

          • How can we really know? And why should our relationship to God rely on knowing?

      • Let’s not kid ourselves. Jesus knew exactly how they would react to that. Everyone did. You might say he did it to provoke his execution, but I don’t think that’s how it works. I believe Christ was sentenced because they hated Him. Not because they were threatened. That was surely a part of it, but ultimately, by hating him, they were hating God. It was more the evil in their hearts that brought it about than the cleverness of Jesus words to trick them into doing it.

        • Miguel,

          the farther I got into Wright’s “Jesus and the Victory of God,” the more I began saying to myself, “Well, of course they couldn’t let him live!” It wasn’t that Jesus provoked his execution, you’re right; and they did hate him. But feeling threatened was actually a large part of it. Some of the feeling threatened was for “righteous” reasons. You really should read at least the first 3 of Wright’s “big books” – the Christian Origins series.


  13. You know there’s a great Wilco song called Theologians…it’s #musicmonday, I’d recommend it.

  14. Richard Rohr quotes Carl Jung in today’s meditation:

    >One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening become a lie. –C. G. Jung

    • “And, for heaven’s sake, never eat your dessert before your dinner, because it spoils your appetite and you will have filled your stomach with nothing that nourishes your body.”

      (Sorry. Jung’s quote was a little too close to a Stuart Smalley-ism to pass up.)

    • Precisely! Paul realized at some point that he had grown up to become the living, acting doctrine having advanced past the tutors and teachers of his youth. We become the doctrine as Christ finds room to live through us. On the one hand a great freedom and joy and on the other a responsibility and a cross. It becomes grown up and rounded. It loses static cling. Jung delved into that important truth at length. Early adherence to mental constructs emerges from its cocoon into a feeling toned embrace of life that dispenses with side taking and factionalism and begins to see what Rohr refers to as ‘both/and’.

    • Eckhart Trolle says

      Also, the devil is the hidden, fourth member of the Trinity.

          • And, to shed more light on the subject (from the WIKI article): “The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, for instance, refers to Abrasax as an Aeon dwelling with Sophia and other Aeons of the Pleroma Dukias in the light of the luminary Eleleth. In several texts, the luminary Eleleth is the last of the luminaries (Spiritual Lights) that come forward, and it is the Aeon Sophia, associated with Eleleth, who encounters darkness and becomes involved in the chain of events that leads to the Demiurge’s rule of this world, and the salvage effort that ensues. As such, the role of Aeons of Eleleth, including Abrasax, Sophia, and others, pertains to this outer border of the Pleroma that encounters the ignorance of the world of Lack and interacts to rectify the error of ignorance in the world of materiality.”

            Any questions?

          • Gnosticism is nothing if not needlessly complex.

      • This idea that Satan is the fourth member of a fourfold deity is also present in Whitman’s poetry, though I can’t tell you exactly where.

      • Weird. In order to get there, you have to basically reject what the Bible says about the Devil, and instead go with church dogma and tradition.

    • >What was news in the morning is history in the evening<

  15. I hear the kind of thing Challies says in a lot of the more conservative Protestant circles, particularly of the reformed variety. I grew up around some of this, though I think it’s gotten more strident in the last decade. But it has huge problems. The primacy of doctrine above all else and the assumption that truth is not to be found outside of a propositional framework would be foreign to most ancient near eastern cultures, and to many non-western cultures today, including large segments of the church on earth. In addition, it deprives part of the church of the power of story and the great truths stories can convey, and of what CM calls meandering. It’s a real loss, and may be part of the reason the church isn’t terribly appealing to a lot of the younger generation.

    • Just curious, can you give me an example of non-propositional truth?

      • Troublemaker.

        I once heard Ravi Zacharias say that even in the East people look both ways before crossing the street. As annoying as I sometimes have found him, I thought that it was a clever way of saying that logic and propositional truth, as they apply to everyday life and experience, are not Western but universal.

      • Jesus wept.

      • The Prodigal Son – Rembrandt
        The Starry Night – Van Gogh

        Watching my 2 year old daughter play.

        Beauty communicates truth in a way that is not propositional. We may need to discuss these things using words and propositions, but they themselves are not propositions.

        • Yes. Propositional formulations are based on non-propositional experience.

          But the ability to appreciate and perceive the truth expressed by the beauty of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son varies from one to another person; some see it, others may not, and it’s no defect in a person if they don’t see it where you do, or see it where you don’t. Truths expressed by logically correct propositions, however, are more universally apprehended, and with less variation of ability from one person to another. This is their strength, but also their great danger when the representation is taken to be the thing itself, and takes on a life of its own.

      • Any of the parables might be a good place to start. Also, what Mike H said.

  16. Christiane says

    ‘as the Father has sent Me, I also send you . . . ‘

    well, Our Lord didn’t arrive as a Bible, or a Catechism of Doctrines, but He did come among us with this advice: ‘learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart’

    we forget sometimes that He Himself IS ‘The Way’
    . . . and among our reformers we have the witness of St. Francis of Assisi that Our Lord Himself takes us in Hand:

    ““it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed a heart of mercy to them.” (Francis of Assisi)

  17. Tongue in cheek question regarding the Doctrine of Inerrancy:

    How many words does it take for those words or a sentence to become inerrant and a quote from The Bible? One? Maybe two?

    • Or how about this one on inerrancy redundancy: When the Bible quotes extra-biblical sources, do they thereby become inerrant by proxy, was the original extra-canonical writing also divinely inspired, or is it simply an inerrant quote of another text that might actually contain an err (and thus including potential err in the Bible)?

      • I distinctly remember asking that in junior high and making my bible teacher very uncomfortable. But he doubled down on King James Onlyism.

    • I relish that little rush of pride and feelings of naughtiness when I linger on the added articles and punctuation in my Bible.

      I’m so wicked.