January 22, 2021

Swimming against a Tide: Doctrine (part two)


Swimming against a Tide
Ways I’ve changed in my evangelical faith
Doctrine, part two: What doctrine can’t do

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.

• • •

The danger in all reading is that words can be twisted into propaganda or reduced to information, mere tools and data. We silence the living voice and reduce words to what we can use for convenience and profit.

• Eugene Peterson
Eat This Book

Today we continue to respond to Tim Challies’ recent blog post, “6 Great Reasons to Study Doctrine.”

As I said yesterday, this article reflects an approach with which I am familiar; indeed, one which I used regularly in earlier stages of my journey. But I’ve altered my course, and I’d like to push back against this post as a way of telling you how I’ve done that.

The six “great reasons” to study doctrine, which he urges us to consider are:

  1. Doctrine leads to love
  2. Doctrine leads to humility
  3. Doctrine leads to obedience
  4. Doctrine leads to unity
  5. Doctrine leads to worship
  6. Doctrine leads to safety

I think there is a fallacy here that undermines all six of these points. That fallacy is that more knowledge, more Bible knowledge, more theological knowledge, more knowledge about God inevitably leads to an increase in virtue.

The fact is that more knowledge may and can help in that process, but only if it is accompanied by other things. The practical reality is that it is easier to pass along a “body of knowledge” than it is those “other things,” and so the church has tended to focus on knowledge dispensing as a primary component of its ministry, thinking that this will lead to transformed lives.

However, could it be more self-evident that this kind of knowledge in and of itself is not sufficient? — “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

In fact, the stereotype of the unloving, proud, hypocritical, schismatic, idolatrous and insecure religious person (the very opposite of Challies’ doctrine-studying Christian) who knows much but practices little is so pervasive that, in my view, it takes a lot of courage for Tim Challies to write in such glowing terms about the unique value of studying doctrine. I won’t speak for him, but when I was teaching this way, I can only imagine that it was because I was so caught up in my own little religious world that I couldn’t see the facts about life as it is actually lived.

To his credit, he does insert a few caveats along the way, such as:

  • “. . . the study of doctrine cannot be the pursuit of dry facts, but facts that lead to living knowledge of God and growing love for God.”
  • “Again, theology is not a cold pursuit of facts, but a red-hot pursuit of the living God, and it works itself out all over life.”

But I am not convinced, having known as an evangelical Christian and pastor for many years the way this tends to work out in real life. On the ground, where the rubber meets the road, this translates into a fallacious approach that, if applied to other vocations, would be laughed at. No one, for example, learns to be a skilled musician by studying music in this way.

Knowing and appreciating and even loving Bach do not translate into being able to play Bach.

The problem with the “study doctrine” approach is that it does not go far enough. It substitutes the shell for the kernel. “Change your mind, and that will change your life” rarely works. Christianity is not about developing the right ideas, it is about being raised from the dead into new life.

The virtues Challies commends as growing out of deeper study actually spring organically out of being alive in Christ and develop as we grow from baby steps to maturity, as the Holy Spirit leads us through the experiences of life, especially the things that we suffer.

As Richard Rohr puts it, “We do not think ourselves into a new way of living, but we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”

Let’s look at just one of the items on Tim Challies’ list. With regard to love, Challies writes, Your love for God is limited by your knowledge of him, so that you can really only love him as far as you know him. As the depth of your knowledge grows, so too does the depth of your love. This is why the study of doctrine cannot be the pursuit of dry facts, but facts that lead to living knowledge of God and growing love for God.”

Once again, the first problem with this is equating “knowing God” with the “study of doctrine.” When, in any kind of personal knowing, does pursuing facts about a person lead to a living knowledge of that person? We don’t know other persons by studying them. We know them by dealing with them personally. Whatever “facts” we learn don’t come from a book but from our personal interactions.

Tim Challies’ approach ignores an important lesson Jesus taught, recorded in Luke 7:36-50.

A Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner. The dinner was interrupted by a sinful woman, who burst in without shame or concern for propriety and anointed Jesus’ feet from an alabaster jar, bathing them with her tears and kissing them. The knowledgeable, religious, respectable Pharisee was appalled and objected. But Jesus said this to him, contrasting his righteous, well informed host with the unknowledgeable woman: “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Challies assumes that “knowledge of God” comes through doctrine, through learning a “body of knowledge,” from retaining certain facts about God that somehow get internalized and transformed into love. But consider this woman. She did not show great love because she learned certain facts about Jesus and meditated on that knowledge until it somehow got translated into her loving actions. Not at all. Whatever knowledge she had grew out of personal dealings with Jesus that set her free from sin and raised her up into new life. Love wasn’t knowledge she applied. It exploded from her. It couldn’t be contained.

New life begets love. Not more knowledge, even knowledge of God.

We usually don’t “learn our way into loving.” Studying doctrine can certainly be intellectually stimulating and it can teach us some things about God’s character and what may or may not be the right thing to do. It may lead us to invite Jesus to dinner so that we can consider these matters with him. And don’t we all look forward to such stimulating religious conversations?

We might even decide his word is true and good and try to do the right thing and so honor the God we’ve learned about.

But studying doctrine won’t wake me from the dead, make me abandon my pride, sacrifice my precious ointment, and fall down at Jesus’ feet in a hot mess of loving tears and outrageous abandon.

Go ahead, study the book. Only engaging the living Word personally can tear me apart like that.


  1. Eckhart Trolle says

    Comment deleted.

  2. This is true. I grew up in a Plymouth Brethren church, and thought doing lots of bible study would make me a better christian. What it got me was a lot of knowledge (which comes in handy from times to time), but it didn’t make me love God more. It did make me conceited and proud. And ultimately I became burnt out of studying too much. After that, having given up bible study and amateur theology, I grew in listening to God, loving others, and even loving God (a little bit).

  3. In fact, the stereotype of the unloving, proud, hypocritical, schismatic, idolatrous and insecure religious person (the very opposite of Challies’ doctrine-studying Christian) who knows much but practices little is so pervasive that, in my view, it takes a lot of courage for Tim Challies to write in such glowing terms about the unique value of studying doctrine.

    And that stereotype is all the more applied and applicable in the Reformed end of evangelicalism, and even more so still in the online manifestations of it. The gap between knowledge and practice was so wide that I had to repeatedly tell others (and myself) that I was a Calvinist because it was objectively true, not because I could commend it by the behavior of its proponents.

    • That was my experience in that end of evangelicalism as well. I found a lot of ‘competitive theology’, and usually as a full-contact sport. It wasn’t a very healthy environment, and ‘being right’ often trumped ‘doing right’ (and of course, the theological police were everywhere).

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Who needs Christ when you have CALVIN?
      CALVIN who has God All Figured Out.

    • I don’t find Calvinism to be objectively true at all, and I know some very lovely Calvinists.

      • I don’t hate Calvinists at all. Some of my best friends are Calvinists! (/s)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I spend a lot of time over at Wartburg Watch and Spiritual Sounding Board. A lot of the abuse they chronicle comes in the Name of Calvin. Including stealth takeovers, starry-eyed Calvinjugend, and Purity of Ideology (and what it justifies) that wouldn’t be far off the Khmer Rouge or Taliban/ISIS/Daesh.

        It turns into “the only goal of Power is POWER”, Predestined by Divine Right.

  4. “Challies assumes that “knowledge of God” comes through doctrine, through learning a “body of knowledge,” from retaining certain facts about God that somehow get internalized and transformed into love.”
    This assumption is pervasive throughout evangelicalism… I hear it all the time. And is is not a form of Gnosticism, at least a lite version of it?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      It may be a form of Gnosticism. But practically it is more like ‘wizardism’. Looking back at my Evangelical years… they look a lot like a D&D drama, with lousy special effects. Accumulation of more knowledge – of an ever increasingly arcane type – from more teachers… with some type of payoff somewhere along the line. It is certainly a form of magical thinking. Eventually one realizes the payoff is primarily just about status, which if that isn’t your cup of tea, renders it uninteresting.

    • I think it must be, or at least the leaven of the Pharisees in latter days. I know I used to act like my study allowed me to be a lazy jerk, because I “knew” that it would all click together once I had the right parts assembled. Not that I would ever admit that as my attitude, of course.

      Now I’m just trying to be a little less of a lazy jerk here and there, and holding less and less to theological claims.

  5. New life begets love.

    And love begets new life. Christian faith is an existential commitment rooted in a primal experience of the love of God given to us in and through Jesus Christ. There is no way to secure certainty about the extent of that love before embarking on the journey into it, or to adequately or accurately describe or delineate it once the journey has been undertaken. Risk is unavoidable. Life, experience, love, the love of Christ, are all too “thick” to fit inside the narrow channels of propositional expression.

    Where doctrine is useful is in trying to assure that the one we all speak of as Christ is in fact the same person. When we are all trying to telephone the same person, it’s important that we all are using the same telephone number. But the forging of doctrinal truth should be done modestly, with the recognition that our formulations and expressions are likely provisional, at least in some respects. After all, someone may have more than one telephone number, or prefer another means of communication.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > There is no way to secure certainty

      But this is the irony – Love doesn’t care about certainty.

      A father running into a burning building to get his child knows only one certainty: that he must go.

      Spending time with people who love something or someone… it is embarrassing it took so much of my life to realize this very obvious thing. Love accepts risk.

      “Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.” – C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

      • But this is the irony – Love doesn’t care about certainty.

        Wow,…..best quote for the month, maybe the year….. are you wearing your Royals hoodie, Adam, they need that mojo….

    • Burro [Mule] says

      My decade-long sojourn among the Reformed taught me that there are much better Reformed Christians out there than the kind you are likely to meet online, especially those who choose writing and pontificating over the Sisyphean labor of the pastorate.

      True, the Reformed do tend to love their books. They are a bookish lot, but the noble Reformed among whom I sojourned on my way to the Bosporus were incredibly catholic in their reading. It was from them that I learned to love Walt Whitman, Flannery O’Connor, François Mauriac, even Pauwels and Bergier .

      They loved and ably defended the Westminster Confession, but none of them to my knowledge mistook their knowledge of the Confession with intimacy with Christ, anymore than anyone would mistake the transparencies in an anatomy textbook for a living, breathing man.

      It was one of them who described his taking of Communion as “preaching the Gospel to those parts of my body that I cannot reach with my ears and mind.” I still think of that every time I go forward to the Cup.

      • I want to affirm much in Reformed Christianity. For many of us, it was a first step out of the evangelical circus because the Reformed folks take truth and intellectual depth seriously. They also tend to be less pietistic and more world and life affirming than those whose roots are in revivalist traditions. I have a deep respect for people such as J.I. Packer and continue to be helped by him.

        • Agree with you both. For me, the biggest challenge has been sifting out the good parts of the legacy from that period of my life, and trying to hold onto them as I toss out the bad.

          • And another amen. Confessional Presbyterians taught me to engage my mind with the Scriptures more than anyone else. They can be rigorous to a fault, but there’s a good number of them who are terrific people, and I’ve found them to be great friends and coworkers. The impact of Packer, Sproul and Horton on my knowledge of the Bible is so profound, I shall not outlive my debt to their tradition. Most criticism of Calvinism that I hear simply do not stick to these guys.

        • I agree with all three of you. Like Mule, I had a period where I sat under reformed teaching, and I found it challenging and intellectually refreshing in some regards. I also found some of my reformed brethren condescending and, for lack of better terms, “Protestant Snooty”, with little or no desire for ecumenical cooperation. I eventually leaned toward the via media, where I remain.

          Thanks for the beautiful Eucharistic metaphor, Mule. I’ll be using that one soon.

      • Christiane says

        I have great respect for the Dutch Reformed Church in Wyckoff NJ that oversees Eastern Christian Children’s Retreat, one of the finest facilities of its kind. These good people serve and volunteer at the Retreat helping the staff to care for profoundly disabled individuals, among whom is one of my own children. ‘Christian’ witness among these people is shining and exhibits so much of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

        I cannot compare these good people at all to the neo-Calvinists on line. There is only contrast.

        I am Catholic and I honor the Dutch Reformed volunteers and board members who founded and oversee the Retreat. The Chaplain at the Retreat, a woman, is one of the kindest and most compassionate ministers I have had the honor of knowing. I don’t cringe when I hear ‘reformed’ since I know of these good people.

        It does however take very little of Challies before I’m cringing.

      • 1. MORNING OF THE MAGICIANS is a terrifically mad and wonderful book, redolent of its era, a marvelous stimulus to the imagination, deadly if taken seriously. I am happy to report a quick glance at Amazon reveals it is still in print! Along with John Keel’s MOTHMAN PROPHECIES* and Hal Lindsey’s LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH** it allowed the 12 year old brain of Your Humble Correspondent to enter a funhouse world of forbidden secrets and hidden mysteries that would truly shatter the minds of those who get a glimpse of them (shattered in the way only a 12 year old’s mind can be shattered).

        2. The Reformed lot seem like my kind of folks. Unfortunately I was raised in a small Georgia town church full of country Southern Baptists. Nice, decent “shirt off their back” kind of folks; not stupid people but simply unlettered. My friends thought I was strange because I read books even when I didn’t have to for school. My parents were so proud I was a reader and good in school that they never censored my reading in any way (unlike every other area). For that I have always been grateful. Books were my escape and I got out as fast as I could.

        3. Sorry Chaplain Mike, this post doesn’t have anything to do with the subject of your post but having read your comments from yesterday and today I can’t find anything I disagree with and all I could do is repeat what you’ve already said in my own words.

        * There was a great movie made of Keel’s book n 2002, creepy and atmospheric.
        **Alas I took LGPE much too seriously for way too long but hey the oak must not despise the acorn.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Never heard of MORNING OF THE MAGICIANS, but I am very familiar with the other two. Way too familiar.

          John Keel wrote some REAL disturbing stuff. Kept me awake for days at a stretch, too afraid to sleep.
          Remember, “We only hear from the ones who got away.”

    • –> “New life begets love.”

      This may not relate completely, but a friend posted a pic on FB of a guy holding a sign that read, “The Beginning is Near.”

      I thought it was brilliant. There’s something about proclaiming “The Beginning is Near” that seems hopeful and loving and Christ-like. It’s my new mantra and mindset.

  6. Mike,

    Would you differentiate between the study of doctrine and the study of scripture, or at least the reading of scripture? I don’t think reading the Bible is a guarantee to lead people to faith, as there are those who will testify that it did the opposite. But certainly reading scripture or hearing it and letting the word soak into you is a part of knowing God, being transformed by God, being led to Christ. I know it has been for me. And I would think that anyone who is liturgical would have to agree, or why else would you make sure to have scripture readings every Sunday?

  7. I get and appreciate what you are saying, but you included things such as this:

    “But studying doctrine won’t wake me from the dead, make me abandon my pride, sacrifice my precious ointment, and fall down at Jesus’ feet in a hot mess of loving tears and outrageous abandon…Only engaging the living Word personally can tear me apart like that.”

    But that IS doctrine. As Tim Keller says, “I have encountered churches that claim, “We don’t teach doctrine, we just preach Jesus.” But the moment you ask them—‘Well, who is Jesus, and what did he do?’—the only way to answer is to begin to lay out doctrine. But Paul does not simply say (1 Tim 3) that right doctrine is necessary, but it is “sound.” The Greek word Paul uses here means healthy rather than diseased. This is Paul’s way to say that wrong doctrine eats away at your spiritual health. Or, to say it another way, if you lack spiritual vitality and fruit, if you are not courageous enough, or joyful enough, or if you are not filled with love and hope, it may be because your grasp of Biblical doctrine is shallow and thin, or distorted and mistaken.”

    I then may be misunderstanding what you mean by “doctrine”.

    • Yesterday’s post deals with definitions.

      • Thanks. With that post in mind then (sorry I skipped it earlier), I wish you would rather say “systematic theology”, or “exhaustive theology”, in place of “doctrine”. I think Paul (and Keller) are right- doctrine is not a bad thing, and can in fact be a healthy thing.

        That being said, I again appreciate what you are saying overall.

  8. I have difficulty with the first “reason”, doctrine leads to love. God leads to love. God is love. I have a very simple mind and would be lost if I had to find God in doctrine. Thank God I can find Him living in all things among us! This is not to say that I don’t read His word, study and try to learn more (I am after all reading this blog). But God gives us many resources to find Him. To find humility, obedience, unity, worship, safety and especially love.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > To find humility, obedience, unity, worship, safety and especially love.

      This is it – that we can find those things ‘directly’. We do not need theology to take us to them.

      High-minded-me still sputters in protest, but the rest of me is convinced that he is full of himself. I would so much prefer that there were a neat and orderly system to all of this.

      I believe study *can* take us to them. As a mathematician learns the beauty in mathematics. But it does not take us to them necessarily; and it will only take some there, and lead others away.

  9. Just a thought. How much of this might be a problem of the Anglosphere? Maybe not exclusively, but to at least some degree.

    I raise the question because, in Spanish 101 in high school everyone learns that there’s a difference between the verb saber and the verb conocer, both of which mean “to know,” but which have distinct usages, the former speaking to knowledge about something/someone and the latter meaning “to know” at a personal level.

    Any thoughts from native speakers of Spanish or other languages?

    • My understanding is that it is the same in Greek.

      In German:
      wissen, to know facts – Wissenschaft (“the business of knowing facts) is the word for science;
      kennen, to know a person, or thoroughly know a language or specific study or practice.


      • Same in French: savoir and connaitre. Even Kyrgyz makes a distinction between bil- (to know rationally) and tani- (to be acquainted with). English could use the same easy distinctions.

        • Norwegian has vite and kjenne, just as their German cognates. Strangely, it seems that know had taken on the meaning of “knowledge” in English alongside wit/wot in the Middle English period…

  10. Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee when he passed James and his brother John mending nets in their boat. Jesus said, “Follow my doctrine!” And they dropped their nets and followed his doctrine.

    • Point well made, Charles.

    • +1

    • Well said.

      But a physical Jesus is not physically walking by my cubicle, calling me to physically get up and leave my computer and follow him to wherever.

      No, that doesn’t mean that doctrine and abstract ideas are all that exists, but we do need words to have meanings. “Follow me” has doctrinal content to it.

      • +1.

      • Randy Thompson says

        True, but Jesus does come into our cubicles when there’s a Bible there, and it’s open to one of the Gospels. The risen Jesus can indeed (and often does) speak through the written words of the earthly Jesus. And, who’s to say that someone might not hear Jesus’ words in Mark 1 or Matthew 4 and get up and leave the cubicle? (Granted, from that point on, it’s certainly not the same, as you noted.)

        • I agree. I’ve been involved in Bible studies since becoming a Christian almost 30 years ago. I currently lead two of them at my church. Some have been better than others, some have been too “doctrine-oriented” for my liking, but I’d like to think that Jesus has been a part of them and that He continues to be a part of them. I’m hoping (and praying) that people in my studies get a better sense of God’s grace and love and go away more ready to share His light and hope than had they not participated. I know that some of those studies have helped ME understand Him better and that I’m much more able bear fruit having read and studied His word.

          And studying the word with other believers helps, too! I must admit, it helps to have several people in my circle of believers who are very learned and know the limits of knowledge. Being around healthy Christians is a wonderfully freeing thing.

        • Fair enough Randy.

          Would you grant any kind of difference in experience between the disciples dropping their nets and quite literally following Jesus and the cubicle dwelling Bible reader, or is it the same?

          All I’m saying is that “doctrine” need not be an obstacle to “following”. They aren’t (necessarily) opposed to each other. And when they are, I’d rather mend the disconnect than vilify the word. As I said in another comment, I don’t think there are any mere ideas when it comes to doctrine and following Jesus. They always have implications for the “following” part of it.

      • Christiane says

        here’s the thing:
        ‘Follow Me’ doesn’t work among the Christians whose doctrine doesn’t get interpreted through the lens of Jesus Christ . . . when the Southern Baptists went full fundamentalist thirty-plus years ago, they removed Jesus Christ as the ‘lens’ through which sacred Scripture was to be interpreted . . . you can see the ‘change’ by contrasting their 1963 Baptist Faith & Message with the neo-fundamentalist version 2000 Baptist Faith & Message . . .

        their rationale? it had been ‘too easy’ for some to depart from fundamentalism when Our Lord was seen as the ‘lens’ through which sacred Scripture was read . . .

        ‘Doctrine’ these days, for many strict fundamentalists, is ‘what THEY say it is’ . . . hence the need for their intense exclusiveness and internal control of their flocks . . . problem is that intensity seems to be growing, as evidenced by some of the cases reviewed over at Wartburg Watch

        • I guess when Jesus doesn’t fit neatly into the accepted doctrinal box, then either Jesus or the box have to go. Or maybe you can just paste a “Jesus Approved” sticker on the box. That should make it all right and good.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          ‘Doctrine’ these days, for many strict fundamentalists, is ‘what THEY say it is’ . . . hence the need for their intense exclusiveness and internal control of their flocks . . . problem is that intensity seems to be growing, as evidenced by some of the cases reviewed over at Wartburg Watch

          “Doctrine” becomes “Pure Ideology of The Party”, as dictated by Party Ideologists and Commissars.

          COMRADE O’BRIAN, INNER PARTY: “How much is Two Plus Two?”
          6079 SMITH W, OUTER PARTY: “Four.”
          COMRADE O’BRIAN, INNER PARTY: “And if The Party decrees it is not Four but Five?”

      • In the moment the command was given, I don’t believe the words “follow me” had doctrinal content to them. Unless you broaden the meaning of the word so much that everything one says is now “doctrine.”

        “Wash the dishes for me and then leave them in the rack to dry.” Is that really doctrine? I don’t think so.

    • And drowned those who would not, in the name of the LORD……

  11. I think there’s a certain idealism within evangelical circles that makes doctrinal fights seem more appealing. We’re almost all western, middle class, law abiding citizens; correct doctrine is all that separates us from our neighbors. That’s the core of what was temporarily frightening about the “New Atheists”, right? That they were essentially evangelicals who didn’t believe in G-d? What metric could be used to distinguish us from them? Well, doctrine!

    I genuinely think that for a certain type of person (I always think of Doug Wilson, though I know it’s unfair), it’s existentially terrifying that they are not substantially better than their nonreligious neighbors. They look at their life and see that they are essentially the same in “fruits of the spirit”, and so they fall back on doctrine as a way to set themselves apart. That’s what Calvinism demands, right? A uniqueness from the “rest”. Which is exactly what doctrine can’t be used for.

    “He who is forgiven little, loves little”. When a person is too young, or too sheltered, what sense does doctrine make? What sense does heaven make to a person who has never had a loved one die? What sense does justice make to a person who’s never experienced serious injustice?

    All the helpful doctrine I have found is descriptive, in the sense that a person reads the bible, lives life, grows in wisdom, and finds a way to express that experience in doctrine. It always seems to backfire when it is used prescriptively. “You shouldn’t watch that movie or listen to that music”, or, “you shouldn’t go to this profession or that country”. “You should think this, don’t think that” is a great way to make a person think exactly “that”.

    • Burro [Mule] says

      I may be wrong here, and correct me if I am wrong [albeit gently], but I don’t believe there was much linguistically, culturally, or genetically that separated the Hebrews from the Canaanites.

      A lot of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel makes more sense to me if this is true.

      • I mean, even in the Pentateuch it’s made clear the Canaanites are cousins to the Jews, right? Isn’t that the point of declaring that Canaan was a son of Ham who was a son of Noah?

        Some quick googling turned up a Jubilees passage where Canaan is cursed (in a way his father is not) for taking up residence in the land allotted to Shem. That was the core of their disagreement, that all the children of Abraham had been given specific land by G-d and that Canaan was not content with his allotment, which is why it was ok for Shem’s descendants to invade and enslave them.

        • Mmmm…dunno about “cousins.” I agree with Mule that they were no doubt _actual_ cousins (brothers even?) to the Canaanites, but I think the point of the Noahic text is, in fact, to distance the Canaanites from the Semites by simply making them Hamites outright, rather than emphasizing any sort of connection.

          On the other hand, certain other of Israel’s neighbors (sometimes confused with Canaanites proper) were considered cousins without further ado:

          Edomites: First cousins through Esau
          Ishmaelites: Second cousins once removed (?)
          Midianites: Second cousins once removed (if Midian is associated with Keturah, Abraham’s second wife)
          Moabites and Ammonites: Third cousins

          Interestingly, the Philistines — The People of the Sea — also aren’t Canaanites, though they were also held to be Hamites.

      • > . . . that separated the Hebrews from the Canaanites.

        Or the Egyptians or the Arabs or the Syrians or the Babylonians. To a lesser extent, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. It seems that much of the “Old Testament” religion that I often find offensive, angering, primitive, and irrational, was simply intended to maintain the distinction and prevent, or lessen, assimilation either way. Don’t weave cloth with wool and linen. What did this accomplish?

        It gave us that “Old Testament” in a relatively uncorrupted state, and it maintained a relatively pure culture for Jesus to be born into as Son of David, tho as recorded his predominantly Hebrew heritage was mixed along the way. I can’t imagine Jesus doing what he came to do without those Scriptures and without that culture, both of which involved “doctrine” to maintain. To maintain them with that doctrine after their job, from a Christian perspective, was done is a different matter.

    • I think you’re onto something big here. It’s an identity/belonging thing. This is the implicit mindset that people seem to carry:

      “If my life of following Jesus doesn’t actually qualitatively make a difference, I will pacify that dissonance by belonging to a group that draws clear boundaries about who gets it and who doesn’t. My identity will become secure if I belong to the group that is the most assertive about their correctness and everybody else’s wrongness. Because even if my life still sucks, I will have truth on my side.”

      • Because even if my life still sucks, I will have truth on my side.

        Do NOT underestimate the powerful draw this has on some people. Especially if they are (like me) untrustful of their own relational capacity, intellectually bright, and still have a connection with the old Enlightenment ways of thinking.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      They look at their life and see that they are essentially the same in “fruits of the spirit”, and so they fall back on doctrine as a way to set themselves apart. That’s what Calvinism demands, right? A uniqueness from the “rest”. Which is exactly what doctrine can’t be used for.

      And with the Hyper-Calvinists who end up exposed on Wartburg Watch, it’s also the way to PROVE to themselves that THEY are the Truly Elect. (And You’re NOT.)

  12. I don’t have any problem saying that doctrine (little D) is hugely important. I see a vital connection between doctrine (as ideas and beliefs) and lived existence – there’s no such thing as a mere idea.

    The post is about the ROLE of doctrine in general and not any one particular stream of theological thought, but I also don’t want to concede to these 5 point types that if a person did grant Challies premise of the absolute supremacy of Doctrine (capital D) that you’d inevitably end up theologically where Challies does. That the only way to avoid the “plain truth” of Calvinism is by arguing that doctrine is unimportant (and CM is certainly not saying that doctrine is unimportant).

    I have this sense that Challies thinks that unity and worship and all those other virtues are the natural result of doctrine because if we REALLY studied doctrine we’d all end up as Calvinists. Then all these silly debates about women and human freedom and inerrancy and eschatology would just disappear – perfect unity would ensue because ALL of the answers to any meaningful question are all out there just waiting to be objectively harvested from the text. But that’s simply not true. If it was, would there be any reason to ever do anything other than study the Bible?

    I do have a problem when doctrine is used to crush the life out of people, or when clobber texts are tossed back and forth like grenades. Or when the biblical text becomes nothing more than a jumbled up version of Institutes, and the goal is to “master” the text – objectively stand over it and analyze it, and fit every single piece together into an impenetrable system. It can’t be done. Not only because people are finite and fallible, but because the text as it actually exists won’t allow it.

    Doctrine can be fine in a role as a servant in the context of an actual lived life. Good servant. Horrible master. She’ll drive you further and further into isolation if you let her get out of control.

  13. I think one of the reasons people hold on to book learning so intensely is that the living, breathing presence of the Holy Spirit is all too nebulous a thing. It is much easier to formulate a relationship to a set of ideas than to an unseen, unheard person. Nonetheless, it is communion that He is after. The thing is, we don’t have an elaborate playbook to instruct us in that interaction while we have more tomes on theology than can be counted. That is one of the poverties of modern Christianity drenched in rationalism. Virtually all communication with God must, by its very nature, take place on or over the edge of rationality. Why? Because it’s an irrational behavior. It is the heart-speak and the inner vision but that’s just blather to the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t even think that’s a thing. There are no definitions. There is no framework. How do even know if you’re doing it right? How do you even know if you’re doing it at all? There’s no assurance and no certainty. It’s fairy tale fantasy. Inevitably then we sit around the table with Jesus at the head and we talk about him as if He wasn’t there and when He interjects it can’t be heard above the din. We need a strong sound base in doctrine but then we need to use it for deepening our relationships with each other and with Him. He is either living or He is not. If He is not then theology alone is fine. It’s a religion. If he is a person that we have been made in the image of, then He, like us, desires intimate union and it is up to us to search out the depths of possibility where that communion can take place. It’s a tall order in a rationalistic society but there are some like Richard Rohr and others who are championing the cause. In my opinion He died for nothing less than that. Not only does He love us, he likes and enjoys us. That’s the aspect that gets lost because it defies rationality. How do you just cozy up to the Lord? How do you tell Him a joke that you know will get a laugh? How do you wow Him or keep Him engaged? How do you hear His joke? How do you give him a shoulder rub? He loves a good shoulder massage, it’s true. Sometimes if you get going he won’t let you stop. It’s in the inner sanctum that some pure absurdity grows and morphs into an actual back and forth. Heaven is a joyous place of clear intention. Whatever form we choose to personally engage our Lover, it must be vital and unguarded. Some of the things I’ve said may just be childish fantasy but things like that have helped me to grope through the silence and the darkness to draw Him out. Can I prove that to be true? No and I don’t care to. This is really personal stuff. I just think it is essential that we expand the horizons of what it is to relate to Him as a living being and I think He welcomes and eventually honors our stumbling toward Him.

    • Ah Chris,

      Fr Stephen Freeman has written extensively on the “two-storey view” of reality – that people generally consider the divide between “rational” and “irrational” to be unbridgeable. But what if there is no divide? Considering that that option might actually be “the truth” was one of the big things that led me out of Evangelicalism.

      There are great writers, ancient and modern, in the Orthodox Church who expound on theology. But we do not have a set of academy-produced books to which we point and say, “It’s all in there,” What we have is about 3 dozen volumes that are the notations regarding worship that have been made down through the centuries: which prayers and hymns we offer at which times during the day, week, month and year, all saturated with scripture and scriptural allusions – and that’s what we point to. And we don’t harbor any illusion that “doing it all correctly” will necessarily lead a person into virtue, or knowledge of Christ. But we do believe the testimony of people who have told us that it helped more than anything else. In the consciousness of the Orthodox Church, a theologian is one who prays. There is a place for the intellect – but it’s not first place.

      And of course, the union of the human and the divine is the whole point of creation – Love desires union with the beloved, and in that union life is brought forth.

      I too believe that Jesus welcomes our stumbling toward him.


      • Christiane says

        “In the consciousness of the Orthodox Church, a theologian is one who prays. There is a place for the intellect – but it’s not first place. . . . I too believe that Jesus welcomes our stumbling toward him.”

        Hi DANA,
        this reminds me of ‘kneeling theology’

      • Dana,

        Does the Orthodox Church consider everyone who prays a theologian? And if not, how does it distinguish the non-theologian pray-er from the theologian pray-er?

        • Robert,

          Orthodoxwiki says the term was given by Evagrius Ponticus when he wrote that “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (Treatise On Prayer, 61).

          As I understand it, “theology” has more to do with contemplation than with nailing down doctrine, although being able to speak truths about God (all true things, not propositions only) is part of it. It’s “the study of God” in the sense of doing so in union with him, not observing from a distance. That sort of union is what the “praying truly” is about – and it’s the telos of every human. No limits are set on who is praying truly – the safest place to learn how to do this is in the Church, but at the same time God hasn’t revealed everything to us, and we should attend to ourselves and not stress about other people one way or the other.

          Orthodoxy of course recognizes the theological work of many, but gives the title “the Theologian” to only 3 people, because of the lofty revelatory and experiential content of their writings:
          St John the Evangelist;
          St Gregory of Nazianzus, 4th century;
          St Symeon the New Theologian, c. AD1000. He has a very interesting testimony.


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Fr Stephen Freeman has written extensively on the “two-storey view” of reality – that people generally consider the divide between “rational” and “irrational” to be unbridgeable. But what if there is no divide?

        In a lot of Steven Jay Gould essays on nature, things (such as species and conditions) can often blend from one into another, without any clear dividing line — how many facial hairs constitutes a beard?

        Yet Law is a profession that requires exact definitions and clear dividing lines, with minimum ambiguity. Law must define a beard as X number of hairs or more, and not-beard as X or less.

    • . Yes -Thank you-

    • “I think one of the reasons people hold on to book learning so intensely is that the living, breathing presence of the Holy Spirit is all too nebulous a thing. It is much easier to formulate a relationship to a set of ideas than to an unseen, unheard person.”

      This is right on. It is a fact that led me down a rabbit hole awhile back, at the other end of which I found that I had a much higher view of the church than I did before.

      For a variety of reasons I now believe that how one relates to God through the Spirit is essentially contingent upon, and runs parallel to, how one relates to the church (wherever one is). Thus, one ‘measures’ the Holy Spirit’s & Christ’s presence by the manifestation of love and unity among the brothers and sisters of Christ’s body.

      I concluded that if one does not believe this, and maintains the typically “low view” of the church that many evangelicals do, including those well educated in doctrine, then one has no choice but to measure godliness, the Spirit’s presence, and maybe even salvation by something else. Doctrinal correctness is a good candidate, because it’s fairly achievable, and it’s a very measurable category of “rightness.” Rule-following may be another. Emotionalism yet another.

  14. Trevis,
    I appreciate your point that some of our difficulty may arise from the very way in which we express ourselves. I’m a native English speaker but work every day as an interpreter among hispanic communities and am continually struck by the nuances and differences in modes of expression which, in once sense convey minimal distinctions, yet in another sense often produce a different perspective, and as a result, an entirely different ‘interpretation’ of the same data. ‘Saber’ and ‘conocer’ are a good example, and another one that has been niggling in my mind for some years now is ‘believe’ vs ‘believe in’. We ‘believe’ someone, while we ‘believe in’ a cause, an abstract idea or Santa Claus. I’ve come to think that in all the discrepancies and distinctions and derailed attempts at communication, the essential thing is love defined by relationship/life with Someone. And taking the thought even one step further, if God is love and we are to let everything we do be done in love, we begin to communicate “in Christ”, with Him being the very medium we ‘use’ to express, as well as the very ‘thing’ we are expressing. He is actually becoming ‘all in all’ in and among us, and hopefully, to others as we speak.

    • Beautiful , Peregrin7. Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

      I’m reminded of an older Orthodox couple I once knew some years ago. The man was Greek and his wife Russian. They’d met as young people in some concentration camp during WWII, couldn’t speak a word of each other’s language, but somehow still fell in love and soon thereafter were married. Love is the universal language.

  15. Randy Thompson says

    Forgive me if someone said this yesterday or today and I missed it, but it seems to me that the New Testaments take on doctrine is expressed in Romans 7. When it comes to doctrine, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). Doctrine is simply a permutation of what Paul called “Law.” The law, of course, is good, and the problem with it is ours, not God’s.

    Doctrine tells us that grace exists, but that doesn’t mean it is part of our experience. Doctrine tells us that through Christ the door to heaven is open wide, but that doesn’t mean we’ve gone through it (or want to).

    Doctrine matters, but don’t confuse knowing doctrine with knowing God. it’s like reading the owner’s manual of a car and confusing that with actually driving the car.

  16. I get the whole doctrine-focused mindset, ’cause I used to have it myself. You wanna know God, read the bible. You wanna make sense of what you’re reading, subscribe to a structured belief system like the Calvinists provide. (Or, in the church I grew up in, Darbyist dispensationalism.)

    Much less challenging and nebulous than asking the Holy Spirit, “What do you mean by this?” only to have him answer, “No, no, son; that’s Lesson 500. You still have to work on Lesson 1, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Stop skipping ahead to the lessons you’d rather do, just because you’re hoping they’re purely academic.. You follow me.”

    Invariably, those of us who embrace these systems forget: Doctrine is a work. A good work, and God did create us for good works, but a work just the same. (Even though some of ’em will mix up “the faith'” by which we mean our religion, and “faith” meaning trust in God, and actually argue we’re saved through this doctrine, for “by grace are you saved through faith.”) To them, doctrine is way more than any work; it’s the countersign by which St. Peter lets us through the pearly gates. The “by grace” bit of the sentence is only used to defend predestination. But if you fail to embrace doctrine, you’re clearly not predestined.

    Proof these folks don’t understand grace: They’re awful at practicing it. Dare to teach doctrines other than theirs, and they’ll treat you like you’re already from the hell they believe you predestined for.

  17. This is completely off-subject, and personal. It’s probably wrong to talk about it here, but…the iMonk community has become important to me, in a way that no other community is. I guess that means I’m pretty lonely and isolated, but there you have it. So.

    I just got word by phone message from my sister-in-law that my aunt Mary, my mother’s brother’s wife, died. I don’t know any of the details, aside from the wake/funeral time and location, which my sister-in-law included in her message.

    I haven’t seen my aunt (or any of my family, for that matter) in more than five years. She was already in her early eighties when last I saw her, and had a long history of several chronic illnesses during all the time I’ve known her. Despite these maladies, she managed to outlive her husband, my uncle Tommy, by the better part of two decades. He was the picture of health, and her main support, right up to the day before his death, which was the result of a freak embolism following simple surgery to repair a rotator cuff tear that he had sustained in a fall. Here is the irony of a man who was terrified of hospitals (he wouldn’t even drink from hospital water fountains), but who nevertheless spent much time in them with his wife during the many occasions when she was a patient, and died unexpectedly at the end of his one-and-only brief stay as a patient himself. Perhaps he’s had some sort of premonition.

    Unlike most of the rest of my extended family, my aunt Mary was kind, patient, good-humored, tolerant, non-judgmental, and strong and fearles, too, in her own way. She had a magnanimity of spirit that spilled over into a warm eccentricity. I remember when her eldest son, my cousin Tom, divorced his first wife, she made it clear to him that, “You divorced her, Thomas, but I didn’t. I loved Maureen when she was your wife, and I still love her. Don’t expect me to stop loving her, or to stop being her friend and making time for her,” and she meant it, and lived it. That was they way she was. When I became more and more alienated from my own immediate family, and saw them only rarely on the occasion of a wedding or funeral, she was always there, and she always made it clear to me, and then to me and my wife, that she loved us and always would, no strings attached.

    It’s unlikely that we will be able to make it to the funeral. It’s in another state, notice was short, and the dread of spending time with my family all play a role in that unlikelihood. But I grieve her loss. She was the last surviving member of the group that made up my mother’s siblings and their mates, and I spent a lot of time with her and my uncle Tom (he was a gentle soul, though hapless and helpless in many ways: God took care of him by giving him a strong woman to take care of) when I was a kid. I remember when my parents and I visited them in their house, she almost always had a small bag of Planter’s Peanuts for me, or some other small treat. And she always gave it in love, freely, happily, with a smile.

    Rest in peace, Aunt Mary. May light perpetual shine upon you.

  18. It’s late on this thread. And perhaps this has been covered: But I agree. Living a Jesus-shaped life isn’t doctrinal. It is hospital-al; when my son was diagnosed with a hell of a disease, Leukemia, nearly five years ago, all my “training failed me.” What I’d internalized from so much discipleship evaporated. Like nothing else in the world of Christianity, imminent death of a child crystallizes that which is necessary and Godly and that which is wasted words. Living trumps naivete contained in the sayings of so many of my Christian brothers. They mean well. They love well. But the help brought to life from that doctrine was no more than pithy sayings akin to Oprah or some other crappy self help guru….

  19. Congrats on the Cubbies CM.

  20. > 4. Doctrine leads to unity

    This is the worst of the bunch for me, tho I understand where he is coming from. There was certainly what we now know as doctrine well before Martin Luther, but I think things took a decided turn when he made his famous “Here I stand” speech, whether or not he actually said this. This is when the Bible was elevated above God. This is when people started saying, “Where does it say that in the Bible?”, which I consider a conversation ender. This has been going on now for almost 500 years and it’s time to take a break.

    Unity for Challies and the great majority of professing Christians means agreement in “doctrine”. I can guarantee that there will be at least one hold out on that. To me, unity speaks of Oneness with God as Jesus spoke of it in its fundamental sense, as did the Apostle John in particular, and as Dana speaks of it above. To me, given this understanding, you can move this fourth proposition up to the top, with the others as explanation or building blocks. But Tim and I would just be talking past each other.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      This is when the Bible was elevated above God. This is when people started saying, “Where does it say that in the Bible?”, which I consider a conversation ender.

      Like “IT IS WRITTEN! (in the Koran)” among Extreme Muslims.

      Or “Pastor Raul Rees, Calvary Chapel West Covina”s standard comeback to any attempt to reason with him:
      “Show Me SCRIPTURE!”


  21. Before I go to bed, the classic Peanuts cartoon with Snoopy typing away on his doghouse roof. Charlie Brown says, “I hear you’re writing a book on theology. I hope you have a good titile.”

    Snoopy replies, ” I have the perfect title . . . . ‘Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?'”

  22. Hi Mike

    I understand where you are coming from but would like to suggest some qualifiers. This post sounds like how I learnt to follow Jesus as a Pentecostal. I grew up a Catholic but it was lack ofdoctrine that led me out. When I asked about faith, I was given an article that was so convoluted I got confused. Being a Christian that wants answers got me further confused with Protestants.

    I now think it is the motivation of how to followJesus, in unity with His body, that makes the difference. If we want doctrine to form a neat intellectual package that massages our ego,then it is as you say. However, if there really is post Apostolic continuity with the Holy Spirit (HS) directing the church, then doctrine is important in that assists or inhibits our relation with God. The HS developed the boundaries of scripture, liturgy, creeds, & councils.

    The early Councils clarified who Jesus is in relation to God & us. For example, not getting it right with the Trinity, or with Christ’s Divinity or humanity, stuffs up how we experientially follow God. We end up trusting a man or our efforts for salvation. Also, with no HS there is no transformation. When people get the Eucharist wrong, they aren’t mindful of Christ in their midst or of the gravity of sin.

    However, doctrine is to serve our walk, not to be worn as a badge.

    Oct 14, 2015 10:05:01 PM

  23. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    However, doctrine is to serve our walk, not to be worn as a badge.

    Or used as a weapon to Count Coup or worse.

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