January 22, 2021

Sundays with Michael Spencer: October 11, 2015


A debate is going on several places on the blogosphere around this question: “Are the doctrinally obsessed missing the heart of Jesus?”

My answer is a simply “yes,” and the reason is one word: obsessed.

You said it. Not me.

Obsessed isn’t doctrinally interested, doctrinally aware or doctrinally correct. Doctrinally obsessed isn’t someone who makes doctrine a priority or who even brings it up frequently. Obsession is….obsession. Single-mindedness. Idolatry. Loss of perspective.

I’m obsessed with vanilla oreos.

When we are two weeks into February, I’m obsessed with “pitchers and catchers report.”

I’m close to obsessed with a new Apple laptop.

I’m obsessed with my family’s safety.

If I were obsessed with doctrine, I would be perverting my experience of the heart of Jesus, because obsession with doctrine is against the teaching and example of Jesus himself. Love God with all your heart, etc. Don’t be obsessed with the outlines and definitions. Let them do their good work. See the Pharisees for more information and I Corinthians 13 for a good picture of what we’re going for.

Doctrine rightly placed and rightly valued clarifies and carries the Gospel of Jesus. It centers it and gives it language. Obsession with doctrine equates Jesus with a right view of justification.

If we don’t know the difference, our Christianity will become debate points and our discipleship nothing but promoting and publishing our favorite ideas.


  1. Very true. An obsession with doctrine always leads to argument, too, because it must always be defining itself against what is wrong. Love, prayer, humility — these rarely lead to argument. I was about to say fasting, but I realized I have heard from my Orthodox friends about intense fights over the Lenten fast; however, these once again are really about doctrine — what the rules of fasting are — and not about the experience of fasting itself. So to avoid argument, avoid doctrine — except doctrine is essential and beautiful in itself. I guess we should practice virtues and accept doctrine: in other words, we should take on the activities of fasting, charity, kindness, etc., but simply receive doctrine without feeling we have to manufacture it or even defend it.

    • Burro [Mule] says

      It’s harder to take the fundamentalism out of the boy than it is to take the boy out of fundamentalism.

      The Greeks just laugh at us. Nevertheless, I am praying for fast-observant orthodox spouses for my kids. For me, that corresponds to daily Mass attendance for Catholics and daily Bible study for Evangelicals, an outward sign of what might be inward reality.

  2. But… But… TRUUUUUUUUUTH!!!

  3. And now that the snark is out of the way, here’s what a lot of theology-obsessive types will think when they read this (and I can speak with authority here, because I was one, and the unrepentant Pharisee lurking in the back of my mind said it even now)…

    “We are fully justified to obsess about theology, and argue about it with you, because otherwise it will never be brought up. We live in an age which has contempt for (T)ruth, and where the Church refuses to stand on basic theological and moral principles. To be a true witness in this age, we MUST confront the indifference to truth and theology at every place possible.”

    • Coincidentally, a friend just posted to FB this quote by J. I. Packer: “Doctrine is not a bunch of the church’s own ideas, thoughts and dreams about God, but it is a declaring of what God himself has shown and told us.”

      I don’t know, it just made me bristle a bit. I didn’t post a reply, but I wanted to ask, Why wouldn’t you post something about Jesus and the good news of the gospel instead of something about what “doctrine” means to you?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        If this is what “doctrine” means to him any engagement is self-defeating. Because we know what Doctrine means, we can look it up in a dictionary. This is a pretty hollow rhetorical device saying Doctrine == My True Doctrine [and thus everything else isn’t even false doctrine it is just dookey]. With that attitude any capacity to engage someone in a civil substantive conversation is down the toilet.

      • I like Packer, and I suppose that quote is true in cases where doctrine is Revealed. But it’s far too broad a statement for my taste…too much doctrine we hear is either a clever “reorganization” of revelation, or an outright invention. Both designed, unconsciously I assume, to divert attention from Jesus and the Way.

      • Hey Rick~ I bristle too, tho admittedly this is a bit unfair with a statement taken out of context. My bristle is not at what someone might say that “doctrine” means to them. If qualified as such, I have no argument with anyone no matter what they believe, if stated as such, it’s the basis for discussion. But Packer, at least here, doesn’t say what doctrine means to him, he says what it is. That’s where I bristle and walk away. Who the hell are you? Maybe he intended to say it was what it meant to him, but he didn’t, and I suspect wouldn’t. This rigidity is what lets a stick stay stuck in the mud.

        Doctrine just means teaching. The other half of Jesus’ ministry was teaching, and the words of Jesus as we have them recorded is the touchstone for that for me. The words of others in the New Testament after Jesus left the planet take second place for me, and those who followed later, third, or fourth or fifth or sixth or nevermind, especially if pontifical. Even Pope Francis knows that pontifical is touchy business in the post-modern age.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > “.. the Church refuses to stand on basic theological and moral principles..”

      Maybe. But against the doctrinarial I think my beef is with what she/he means by “taking a stand”. Taking a stand is not argumentation, any lazy self absorbed slob in a recliner can do that.

  4. I have wondered. When you have lost your joy how do you get it back. You can’t make it happen. I have asked when walking the mountain. Lord I can’t manufacture joy. On the way back down he said I placed it all around you open your eyes. You see even feeding the cats became work on those hard days but I went. Waking up to meet Him here became work but I came. Sadness and hurt fill my life but I must go on. Can’t walk but I must work on this leg and I will. Then Joy came to me. When I opened my eyes and saw mom-ma cat Oreo withe white cream center and her male off spring. Now i touch them and thank him that I have such honor and he allows me too. I have found my joy again. It was always here. Now for the more part. You know the part when your hand touches Oreo’s head and love fills your heart for the thankfulness that she is here now and happening.

    • Good to hear from you again, w, and thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Christiane says

      W, God loves a thankful heart. God Bless!

    • Wonderful example, w.

    • That Other Jean says

      Thanks, w. I needed that today.

    • Good to hear from you, w.

    • I’m trying to learn how to be joyful by saying “Thank You”. Maybe someday it will take, if not in this life, then the next.

    • Hey Bill~ Just so you know, every day when I go out to speak blessing and protection to this little piece of land, this Garden, you are amongst the handful of people that get lifted up in particular for blessing and healing. I would not begin to know of anything different that you should be doing than what you are about. I’m sure that salvation and healing and wholeness comes with taking care of critters just as much as anything else, maybe in some ways, more so. I mention to you the word I receive from God daily, without fail, which seems to me the key — Stay open. Always glad to hear from you. ~Charley

      • stay open….. I hear it everyday. don’t quit or give up….everyday. I come and read and write………what. it boils down to is love. You are always on my mind here as so many. Charley, Charley I think I could say that word a lot. You are such blessing like little Oreo. She rolls on her back when we meet and the white cream center cover on both sides by black and my heart melts inside my chest. Charley, Charley as with so many here you are like that. It is then I understand this one who has all my attention and the tears that make it so hard to type. Ologies scare me. Closeness to humans do too. I have to live and feel it deep within touching the very core of who I am. I like the thought and sometimes it brings me closer but mostly it is taking a brush river a mamma cat who once had no hair there because she was so ugly. One of the most precious thing I know today. No paragrapjs sorry Oscar I can’t see through these eyes at the moment. You can hear him can’t you. I do all the time. He is so beautiful well beyond these words.

    • Hi w!

      “Everything that proceeds from the giving of thanks works to our salvation.” -Fr Stephen Freeman

      Hugs, and pets for the kitties.


  5. N. T. Wright famously said, resulting in much fury, particularly from the Reformed folks, that ‘one is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. One is justified by faith by believing in Jesus’ (‘What St. Paul Really Said’, p. 159). Such a novel idea; no wonder it met with such opposition and condemnation.

    • Amen to what N.T. Wright said.

      To paraphrase something else St. Paul really said, “Although I have excruciatingly correct theology and can win all arguments, if I have not love I am nothing.”

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      But for those for whom Doctrine==Jesus this statement doesn’t mean anything. The rebound question is “What does believing in Jesus entail?” The bounce back of that is ‘A Concise Summary Of The Teachings Of Jesus’ [we are back to Doctrine].

      I understand what he is saying, but I wonder if among most current Evangelicals such a statement would not result so much in fury, but more likely in a shrug. That is what they do, the follow the ‘clear teachings’ of Jesus… what do you mean?

    • Love his phrase “justification by justification by faith.”

      We love to invent feedback loops that have an appearance of truth about them, but that really just end up being meta-meta-meta-faith, as Jesus quickly fades from the picture.

  6. Hi Charles, Robert F. Guess what? Out with Evangelicalism I’m now an Anglican! Who would have think it.

  7. Yes, yes, and yes. I’ve known quite a few of these obsessive types and they drain the life out of you. And any joy. No other faith tradition can teach you anything as your only knowledge of them should be of how they are wrong. It makes you fear reading any religious material because you might be led astray. No one, according to these doctrinal obsessives, is right but them.

  8. For me this goes right back to the conversation this week that touched on knowing God as compared to knowing about God (..making the way by walking). Doctrine provides critical signposts along the way but does not create the intimate relationship. There are probably 5 to 10 people in this world who know more about my wife than I do. That’s raw data. No one on the planet knows her like I do though. I may not know the names of old boyfriends or details about vacations had or even what her favorite color is but I know what the subtlest change of inflection means in conversation. I know when something is bothering her or delighting her without a word spoken. I know pretty well what she is thinking if we are listening to someone go on about something or other. I know things that cannot be quantified or documented. Does that mean I don’t want to know anything more about her? Of course not but my knowledge of her after 15 years together, through lots of ups and downs, will hardly be altered by an accumulation of new data. All incoming data is now processed through the filter of my personal knowledge of her. Tell me that she did some very thoughtful thing that I never knew about or that she pissed somebody off by being blunt and I would say there is a good likelihood of both. Tell me that she committed grand larceny and I’ll tell you, without need for more data, that you are wrong. She can’t steal if she wants to. That’s not her. I know her.
    Jesus said that salvation was knowing God. “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Later in John 17 he vows to (through the Holy Spirit as we know from other passages) continue the process when He leaves. “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” Doctrine and teaching are critical to what end? That we may Know Him and the power of His reassurection. Doctrine is not the end, it is the means to the end and that end is a love affair between Christ and his bride. That love is all we have to offer and thankfully all He wants. What we know isn’t worth a hill of beans. It’s how we love.

  9. Christiane says

    Encountering Christ . . . the sadness is that many do not ‘recognize’ Him when they do . . .

    throughout many cultures there are stories of those who long to encounter One who brings wisdom, but when He comes, not as the glorious One they imagined, they dismiss Him and continue to wait

    An awful lot of the idols we have replaced Christ with are idols that glorify our own values and wishes . . . the need to be ‘right’ while looking down on the ones who are ‘wrong’; the need to be ‘saved’ while pointing out the ‘lost’; the need to be judgmentally pure while pointing to ‘those other sinners’; the need to be ‘in control’ served by setting others into categories of ‘submission’ to our wills; . . . oh the list is long of our idols and the list is long of our excuses for hubris and self-righteousness and pride

    But never do we hear ‘Lord, I am not worthy’ from ourselves when we have become our own gods . . . there is no room for humility in that religion of being always ‘right’, no

    • > throughout many cultures there are stories of those who long to encounter One who brings wisdom, but when He comes, not as the glorious One they imagined, they dismiss Him and continue to wait

      Or the man on his roof during a flood…

  10. Doctrine defends but does not define the faith. Doctrine is not a fruit of the spirit. It is often used to demonstrate the acts of the flesh.

  11. 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.

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