Doctrine Ch.1 - Finding Doctrine in the Bible Is Difficult

Doctrines summarize what the Bible says on different topics. But how do our conclusions today compare with those of the Bible’s original readers? Understanding what they would have thought sometimes adds depth to our doctrine, but at other times it suggests there are things we have misunderstood.

Doctrines are the organized distillation of all the teaching of the Bible—in theory. In practice, as we’ll discover, they don’t always reflect the message of the Bible. Doctrines don’t include history, geography, or other areas of knowledge that the Bible includes incidentally. They are only concerned with God and his interaction with humans and the rest of creation, because these are what the message of the Bible is about. However, doctrines now taught in our churches are often rather more complicated than what we find in the Bible.

       For example, the traditional Christian doctrine of God—which includes attributes such as omnipotence, unchangeability, and timelessness—is based more on an ancient Greek model of absolutes than on the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say much that defines the nature of God, and naturally we want to fill in these gaps. In many areas that theologians and ordinary believers long to know about, the Bible is virtually silent—such as the nature of heaven and hell, ways to predict the end of the world, how to obtain miracles of healing, or the spirit world of angels and demons.

       In other matters, the Bible is by no means silent, though it can be confusing and apparently contradictory. These include topics such as human freedom and responsibility, how Jesus’ crucifixion dealt with human sin, and precisely who goes to heaven.

       The main reason for uncertainty in doctrines is that the Bible contains very little explicit theological teaching. It is mostly filled with things such as narrative, regulations for the nation of Israel, and poetry. We can learn a great deal about how God dealt with people in the past from these narratives, and the various regulations can (with care) tell us the moral directions in which God is nudging humanity. The Gospels’ use of Jewish parables and enigmatic sayings makes them difficult to interpret. The poetry consists of prayers directed to God (mostly in the Psalms) and messages from God through prophets, which are largely warnings and pleas for repentance. Among these are many precious nuggets that tell us what God is like and how he runs the universe, but they aren’t drawn together into coherent teaching. The New Testament letters are a more promising source of theology, though even these are mostly concerned with local matters in various churches.

       If we regard the Bible as God’s primary method of revealing himself to humanity, we have to conclude that he is not really interested in teaching us theology. This might seem flippant, but it is worth thinking about. We should at least acknowledge that doctrines don’t communicate or engage nearly as effectively as a story, or poetry, or even a series of letters. We should also admit that most of the subjects we are interested in—the future, the spiritual world, and how God works in this world—aren’t as important as what most of the Bible actually does address: our relationships with God and with each other.

       We need to admit that creating Christian theology often fills in the gaps left in the Bible by extrapolating from what we know and trying to make sense of it. This involves imposing a coherent and logical system onto those hints found in the Bible. When we succeed in finding a pattern that fits, we should, like scientists, have the humility to call it a working theory. There may, of course, be more than one theory that incorporates all the facts in a coherent way. Throughout history, the church has tended to call rival theories “heresy” and excommunicate anyone who disagrees, which severely stifles dialogue!

       The aim of this book is to demonstrate a method for exploring theology in the Bible. It is based on two main premises: (1) that there are a few core doctrines that we can be certain about (such as the Trinity, and salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus) among many others that we can’t; and (2) that the Bible is the one undisputed source of knowledge for theology. The main difference between this and other books on doctrine is the way in which the Bible is explored.

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The Bible through new eyes

Reading the Bible is very difficult for us, because we understand it through a lens that is colored by our church background and discussions of doctrines throughout history. For example, when we come across a description of God as sovereign, we immediately think about debates surrounding predestination or God’s power and planning. However, when the original readers of the Bible text saw the word “sovereign,” they thought of a sovereign—that is, a king—and they recognized that God was being compared to a human ruler. So instead of thinking of theological categories, they considered issues such as how far his rule extends, how glorious his throne room is, and how fair his laws are.

       In this book I will attempt to look at doctrines through the lens of the original readers of the Bible. This is important because they are the people that the Bible was written for, and the human authors were attempting to communicate God’s message to them—not to us. They wrote in ancient languages, using ancient metaphors and referring to ancient events as present-day occurrences, so we cannot expect to grasp the full meaning at first glance. Therefore, when biblical writers express an idea, we have to try to put ourselves in the place of the original readers in order to understand that idea.

What were they trying to say?

Theoretically, what we want to do can seem impossible. Many scholars of literature would say that it is actually impossible to know the “authorial intent”—that is, what the author was thinking about and intending to convey in his writing. This rather pessimistic conclusion is based on the fact that it is so easy to misunderstand an email from someone you meet every day, or even to misinterpret someone speaking to your face—even if you are married to her. You can mistake irony for plain speech, misunderstand who or what they are talking about, interpret advice as criticism, or even misunderstand the meaning of a word—for example, “that’s incredible” (“amazing” or “unbelievable”?), “that’s confusing” (a reference to what they describe, or the way they’re describing it?), “How much?” (“too much” or “too little”?). Broken marriages and friendships testify to the difficulty of communicating. When you add the fact that an author is from a different family and area, possibly from a different culture, language, country, religion, and time period, there are so many possibilities for misunderstanding that some have concluded we can never be sure what the author meant.

       The biggest barrier of all is that we can’t look inside the mind of anyone—not even the person looking into our eyes. We cannot know what he is thinking (is he pessimistic or optimistic about a situation?) or even be sure about how he is feeling (is he excited or anxious?). This is a much more serious problem when we can’t see him, because there’s only so much that an emoticon can communicate. So when we read something by someone we have never met, and we don’t know what she was going through at the time she wrote it, it is impossible to interpret her words in the light of her feelings and current experiences. As a result, focusing on authorial intent leaves us with a host of problems.

How was it understood?

Fortunately there is a way forward: by looking at the reception of a message. If an author knows his readers, he should be able to write a message that will be received clearly—at least by those people he is writing for. So, in order to understand this message clearly, we have to find out as much as we can about the original readership and read the message through their eyes. This is difficult, and it won’t be foolproof, but it isn’t impossible.

       When we try to understand doctrines, there is another barrier that doesn’t often arise in other forms of communication. We have to understand the theology that those original readers already accepted. The person communicating will know what they already believed, so the message will spend more time on those aspects where they disagree and need to be persuaded, and skim over the aspects that they already understand well. That is why the Gospels rarely bother to affirm that there is only one God, whereas the Epistles, which are directed to those living in Gentile lands, include reminders that other so-called gods are nothing (1 Cor 8:4; Eph 4:6; 2 Thess 2:4; 1 Tim 2:5). This also explains why the Bible never bothers to tackle atheism—because that idea was unthinkable.

Firmer foundations

This book aims to reinvigorate the doctrinal basis of our faith. It isn’t a compendium of all doctrines, or even an in-depth investigation into a small number of doctrines. It is a series of pointers to places where, by attempting to discover how the Bible text might have been understood by its original recipients, we might rediscover the basis of what we believe or make new discoveries that illuminate problems.

       Sometimes we’ll find that the verses on which doctrines stand originally meant something slightly different, so perhaps our doctrines are tilting a little too far on their foundations. Other times we will find new insights that add breadth to what we understand, so that those doctrines gain a broader and firmer foundation. And sometimes we’ll search for the Bible foundation of a doctrine and discover it is missing!—usually because we misunderstood a verse and then forgot we had based a doctrine on it.

       You may disagree with some things while reading this book—and I’m hoping that you do. The purpose of the book is not to convey the conclusions but the method. You might disagree because you bring details to the table that I have neglected, or you may interpret the intent of a verse differently and come to a different solution. Or you may simply start with different assumptions. Most importantly, you may have a better insight into how the original readers would have interpreted the Bible text, and thereby have a different conclusion about what the author was conveying to them.

       The aim is to review and revive church doctrine by looking at the Bible text, and that is something that anyone can do—but please do this with humility, alongside and listening to other believers. The Bible was written to the whole body of believers, not just to us as individuals, and doctrines should be the teaching of the whole church.

       For me, the best result of this book would be for the church to gain new insight into those doctrines that cause massive divisions between believers, sometimes based on very shaky foundations. Undoing two thousand years of humanity’s tendency to bicker and split into rival groups won’t happen as a result of one small book, but it is worth aiming at! We are often tempted to look down on those who have got it all wrong. When that happens we should recall Jesus’ words about specks of dust and planks of wood (Matt 7:3-5; Luke 6:41-42). So when you discover something exciting and new in the Bible, it is worth discussing with others before proclaiming it from pulpits or blogs. I would love these chapters to result in a deeper understanding and appreciation of the theology of others. I’d hate for them to inspire a new denomination!

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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