Church Doctrine & the Bible

Theology in Ancient Context

Returning to the texts behind important doctrines to resolve problems and reveal forgotten details. By stripping away 2000 years of theological complexity we can explore Bible doctrines as they were understood by a first century convert. This restores the revolutionary simplicity of Bible teaching.

Over the centuries church doctrines have become more important than the Bible text. Doctrinal statements summarise what the Bible says, so they are briefer to read and easier to affirm.

Biblical texts that support them sometimes mean something else, in their context. It is often easier to point to a 'proof text' than to study long series of passages behind a doctrine.

The original purposes for doctrinal statements can disappear. And the wording can change its meaning, so that the doctrine changes subtly. These changes sometimes results in a doctrine that is more problematic than helpful.

Our understanding of the Bible can be affected by doctrines we have learned. But it should be the other way round because the Bible text is the source of those doctrines.

Taking a fresh look at the Bible text behind these doctrines helps us to understand the Bible, as well as see what these doctrines were originally intended to teach us. 


• Introduction

Doctrines are the church’s conclusions about theology in the Bible. But would its first readers agree with modern doctrines? This book digs into the Bible text to discover if the original readers would have drawn the same conclusions. This method ends up revitalizing some doctrines and invites revision of others. It even suggests we should reject a few.

• 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 that Divide

• The Role of Tradition

All churches accumulate traditions—even those who claim to have done away with them! Can they help us to interpret the Bible, or should we challenge some of them like Jesus did?
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• Baptism

Jews baptized themselves every day, so baptism wasn’t something new for the early Christians. However, John changed the Jewish practice completely, and Jesus changed it into an initiation. Today different beliefs about baptism divide the modern church—but these are changing again.
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• Church Governance

Denominations use different systems of leadership, from powerful hierarchies to self-ruling congregations. The Bible isn’t clear about how things were done in the first churches, but there are some clues.
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• The Rapture

Belief in the Rapture arose from a couple of ambiguous prophecies to become a necessary article of faith for many. Perhaps we can’t work out what prophecy means in advance, but then, what is its purpose?
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• Free Will

Do we choose God or does he choose us? We can reason either way from the Bible depending on how we understand certain words. What we believe about free will shapes the way we describe what God is like.
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• Inerrancy

Does the Bible contain contradictions, inexact measures, and perhaps actual errors? And if so, does this mean that the Bible isn’t real history?
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• The Virgin Birth

This doctrine is rejected as mythology, even by many believers. But no Christian would invent a story that makes Jesus illegitimate! This wouldn’t make him appear at all holy or special.
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• Church Divisions

A split occurred in Acts 6 that eventually divided Paul’s churches from Jewish congregations. Paul found a way to minimize the damage. Can we learn from this how to heal our own divisions?
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Doctrines that Confuse

• Proof Texts

Flat-earthers, Christian Scientists, and others support their viewpoints from the Bible but make errors in how they do this. We can avoid similar common mistakes in reasoning.
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• Acts of God

In the Bible, the prophets predicted disasters and used them as warnings from God. Should we regard all disasters as retribution from God? This traditional church doctrine is rarely heard today—for good reasons.
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• Remarriage

The New Testament hardly mentions remarriage, so how can we know what it teaches about this? The key lies in Jewish and Roman regulations which assumed that most people would remarry. The relative silence in the New Testament is therefore very significant!
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• Original Sin

Augustine taught that babies inherit Adam’s guilt even before they sin—but this was based on a faulty Latin translation of Romans 5:12. So does that mean we aren’t born sinful?
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• Miracles

Jesus said we can ask for whatever we want and that we only need the smallest grain of faith. So why aren’t miracles more common? Some missing words from these phrases provide the key.
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• Prayer

What’s the point of telling God what he already knows or trying to change his mind? In a glimpse behind the scenes, the Bible shows that prayer helps align spiritual forces with God’s will.
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• Omnipotence

How does God achieve his plans? Does he manipulate us like a puppet master, corner us like a chess player, or guide and protect us from evil?
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• Providence

Romans didn’t believe that bad things happened by chance—they believed in a goddess called “Fortuna” or “Luck.” But what does the Bible say about random chance and divine purpose? And how does God work all things for good for his followers?
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• Unforgivable Sin

Jews believed that the sin of blasphemy was unforgivable, and although Jesus took this belief seriously, he also brought a solution. But what does Hebrews mean when it refers to a sinner who cannot be brought to repent?
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• Hell

Jesus taught a great deal about hell as a place where people were tormented, though the epistles speak mainly about destruction in hell. When Jesus referred to “eternal punishment,” did this mean torment, or destruction—or both?
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Doctrines that Matter

• Trinity

This all-important doctrine can be diminished by simplistic formulae or metaphors, but God is at least as complex as his creation—and certainly more complex than a clover leaf!
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• Sacrifice

Jewish animal offerings were killed painlessly, so the concept of a “sacrifice’ implied a costly gift, not suffering. What did Paul and others mean when they compared Jesus’ death to a “sacrifice”?
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• Jesus’ Punishment for Sin

Talking about God punishing Jesus might give the impression that God is a cruel father. The Bible says that Jesus bore our punishment, but surprisingly it never actually says that God directly punished him.
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• Redemption

Payments to redeem a kidnap victim or to buy a slave are strange images for salvation, but in Bible times these concepts were regarded very differently from how we think about them today.
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• New Life

What happens when we become a Christian? The images of a new birth and adoption might imply we have no role in this, but what did they mean in Bible times?
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• Repentance

In Jewish theology we must ask forgiveness from those we have hurt, before God will accept our repentance. This explains how repentance works in the Bible, and why God demands it before forgiving us.
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• Justification and Good Works

No official Christian or Jewish theology ever taught that heaven is a reward for a good life—they all emphasize God’s grace. So why did Paul bother to preach against salvation by works?
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• Saving Faith

The Greek word pistis has a broad meaning, so it can be translated as “faith,” “trust,” or “belief.” What do they each mean? And which one do we need for salvation?
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• Core Beliefs

What do we need to believe to be saved? There are very few essential doctrines and the list is surprisingly tricky to find in the Bible. The Creeds define heretics, not believers.
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• Those who Haven't Heard

What if you don't have a Bible to read and can't find out about Jesus - can you still be saved? The Bible gives us a couple of unexpected clues.
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• Conclusions

Arranging the three sections of this book has forced me to consider which doctrines are important, which are divisive, and which are so confusing that it is possible we have misunderstood the Bible.
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