Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Is Doctrine Important?
During my seminary education we spent many semesters discussing and learning the finer points of Christians doctrine. Franz Pieper's multi-volume set of Christian Dogmatics occupied our waking moments well into the night as we digested the hundreds, if not thousands of pages of detail. After seminary some pastors gave a sigh of relief. Finally, they said, I don't have to concern myself with all that doctrine. I can now do the work of ministry.
Yet, can we be about the work of church and ministry, including missions and evangelism, without careful attention to the doctrine and teaching of the church? All you have to do is to believe in Jesus and salvation. The rest is secondary, some would claim. Anyway, all that discussion of doctrine only gets in the way of Christians working together for a common cause and confuses people.
I remember a community women's Bible study in the city where my last parish was, which attracted some of the lady's from my church. What struck me at the time was that they completely avoided any discussion of the sacraments for fear of offending the ecumenical makeup of the group. Naturally, when you mix Baptists and Catholics and Lutherans you are going to have differences on matters such as the Lord's Supper and Baptism. But how can you study the Bible and avoid speaking of these things? Furthermore, how can one even avoid the plain fact of their great importance within Holy Scripture?
Also, if one were to discuss these things and honestly confront the differences of belief, one would quickly realize that the differences also involve very fundamental doctrines of the Scriptures, such as the communication of attributes in the person of Christ. Real presence in the Lord's Supper hinges on the critical truth of whether the divine attributes of God are indeed shared by the human nature of our Lord, and also about where our Lord is (some Reformed hold to the belief that his human nature is now in heaven.)
By ignoring doctrine or treating it as secondary, many churches have slipped into any number of damaging errors, even though they sincerely want to do the right thing. For example, many an evangelical Christian passionately seeks the salvation of those who do not yet believe. However, in the process they erroneously turn them to their own efforts and initially away from Christ when they tell them they must make a decision to let Jesus into their heart. It is the old debate on the freedom vs. the bondage of the will. The bottom line here is whether we believe that the sole responsibility of salvation and conversion belongs to God, or whether we want to be Pelagian about it and fall into the grievous error of claiming partial human credit for one's salvation.
Doctrine does matter if the message we are proclaiming matters. And one cannot separate the Word from the Truth of that Word. Error at one point can very well corrupt the whole enterprise in the end. Yes, doctrine is important.