Doctrine - 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 whether 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.

Let me begin this book with a confession: I normally work in biblical studies, which means I don’t usually delve much into theology or church doctrine. This might sound strange, but like every academic discipline, biblical studies and theology are becoming more specialized as knowledge grows. (After all, an expert is someone who knows increasingly more about increasingly less!) The separation between theology and biblical studies has become problematic, because theologians are sometimes tempted to ignore the Bible, and biblical scholars feel that theology isn’t always grounded in the text. For example, when Wayne Grudem planned to base his Systematic Theology on the Bible, some of his fellow theologians derided the idea and tried to dissuade him. Fortunately, he ignored them.

       The difference between theology and biblical studies is similar to that between theoretical and practical physics. The practical physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research break up atoms to discover the building blocks of matter. The theoretical physicists at the same institution try to build a theory to explain all the particles that have been discovered. But what if they found a theory so beautiful and simple that they decided to ignore any further discoveries? They might decide that the atom is made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and that this “trinity” is too perfect to tinker with. The discovery of other particles such as the Higgs boson would then be a “heresy,” and creating something like a quantum computer would be ruled out as impossible before anyone got started.

       Similar silliness can happen in theology if we forget that it should be built on data found in the Bible and not just on theories that work well for a time. The true test of any theory is whether it explains all the facts. So when doctrine develops, we should always look back at the Bible to check whether it is still in line with its foundations. And when Bible scholars discover new things through a better understanding of the languages, context, and meaning of the text, this should help theologians develop their theories. But too often, theology hardens into dogma, so that new facts are distrusted as a potential source of heresy.

       My conviction is that knowing what the original readers were thinking helps us understand the issues the Bible’s authors were addressing, which in turn helps us to formulate doctrine. My specialty is early Judaism in New Testament times, which I study in order to better understand the New Testament. Unfortunately, the early rabbis were not much interested in writing down their theology; they were more interested in how to keep God’s law. Nevertheless, we can infer a great deal from their writings as well as from other ancient writings. We may not understand what the original authors were saying if we don’t know which doctrines they were combating or what debates they were engaging with. For example, we will find that one reason Jesus spoke so often about the two paths to either heaven or hell was that Jews in his day believed there were three possible paths beyond death.

       In this book, I’m asking how biblical studies can inform theology, because I believe we need to keep these two specialties talking to each other. Each of the following chapters deals with what we can learn about a particular doctrine if we try to get into the minds of the Bible’s original readers. My choices of what to include reflect mainly what is being discussed in Christian communities at present. This usually means that they have traveled a long way from their origins in the Bible and may have changed significantly during the journey.

       Because I concentrate on the foundations of doctrines, I admit that I can tend to neglect the centuries of valuable work done by theologians, most of whom are just as interested in the Bible as I am. However, while I may lack the nuance and knowledge of history that many theologians have, I still think biblical studies can make important contributions to doctrine. If we allowed our knowledge of the original context of Scripture to inform our doctrines—even established ones—what would we find?

       I know that will sound unusual, if not dangerous, to someone who is well-versed in the development of doctrine. Perhaps I can blame my heritage as a Baptist. Since the Baptist church started as a back-to-the-Bible movement, we aren’t generally keen on church tradition as a source of information. In spite of this, doctrines are a really valuable way to study the Bible. As you’ll find, they can lead us to veins of unexplored Bible treasures that help us expand our knowledge and explore deeper into those doctrines, and into the mind and message of God.

       Some doctrines are more important than others. We don’t need to know lots of doctrines before God forgives our sins, but we do need to know something! In the last section I’ll look at the doctrines that we should all agree on, but the other sections deal with those we can agree to disagree about. Many of them cause confusion and create debate, but unfortunately some result in unnecessary divisions. My hope for this book is that we will be able to understand other Christians better by understanding the biblical foundations for some of these doctrines that divide us.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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