Why Study Christian Doctrine
Course: A Guide to Christian Beliefs
Lecture: Why Study Christian Doctrine
The first book of theology I ever studied boldly headed its first chapter with the title, The queen of the sciences — Theology, and the writer claimed: "Seeing that Theology has for its domain the knowledge of God and His works, it is only just to regard it as the noblest of all the sciences — the very queen of the sciences." Today we are not sure of its position, and one wag has said that it might be better called "The knave of arts." Within universities and colleges, Christian theology is often regarded as an unscientific subject using its own highly subjective methods and producing results which can have no possible claim to scientific validity. It has become fashionable to turn away from theology to "religious studies", the comparative examination and description of the various religions of mankind, including Christianity, from an allegedly impartial and scientific point of view.
If the study of Christian theology is not highly regarded in Faculties of Arts, the individual Christian may well wonder whether it is worth one's attention. If it is to be studied at all, let this be done by ministers and preachers who have a professional interest in it. The ordinary Christian does not need to burrow deeply into a subject which seems to have caused lots of confusion in the church and which has little apparent relevance to the Christian life. Is it not the case that on occasion people who have dabbled in theology have become bewildered in their faith and even "unsound"? And have we not all heard of young people, keen for Christian service, who went away to theological college and emerged again after three or four years with all the life knocked out of them and their cherished beliefs reduced to a sad state of confusion? Beware, then, of reading any further in a book such as this one!
But of course all this is a sad caricature of the real position — although, admittedly, with sufficient grains of truth in it to make a reader wonder whether I can possibly present a convincing case for taking up theology.
Many universities and colleges nowadays have departments devoted to the study of politics. One of the lecturers in the subject during my student days resigned his post to work in the headquarters of a political party. Clearly he had a particular commitment to the truth of one political outlook, and he was (and is) by no means alone in his allegiance. Another lecturer, whose own politics are probably somewhat pinkish in colour, told me that he keeps his own allegiance dark, so that the students will not think that they have got him nicely pigeon-holed and be able to say, "He only says that because he is a ...." Lecturers in politics and other subjects are very often committed to the truth of one understanding of the subject. Yet this does not prevent them from attempting to teach their subject objectively and scientifically, and in general people do not question their good faith. The situation of theologians is somewhat similar. They are committed to the truth of what they teach, and they know that often other people do not share their beliefs; nevertheless, they aim to teach with academic integrity and impartiality, and they are prepared to question and examine their own beliefs so that they are well-founded.
There is clearly a difference between the study of theology and religious studies. The latter is largely descriptive and comparative and attempts to understand the various religions in terms of the natural causes and influences that account for their particular histories and characteristics. The former sets out the content of Christian belief, but does so in terms of its nature as a statement of what Christians ought to believe. It accepts the Christian faith as true, and attempts to state it systematically. Now, of course, there can also be Muslim theology or Buddhist theology, statements of what the adherents of these religions consider to be true, produced by people who believe in their truth. Fair enough. It is then possible to compare these systems and to see what elements of truth each of them may contain by comparison with one's own position and to discuss the basis on which each of them is constructed. Although Christians will work from their Christian standpoint, they will nevertheless be open to consider what elements of truth there may be in these other systems.
There is a place, then, for both theological study and religious studies, and in both cases it is possible to work with intellectual honesty and with an open mind.
What is Theology?
Before we ask what value there may be in the study of theology or Christian doctrine, it may be helpful to ask exactly what is involved in the study itself. "Theology" is a word of a familiar type, being similar to words like "biology", "pharmacology", and so on, in which the' -ology' part designates the study or science of the subject denoted by the first half of the word; in this case' theo-' is derived from the Greek word theos, meaning God, and hence theology is the study of God. The other word in use, "doctrine", is derived from a Latin word which means "teaching", so that Christian doctrine is what Christians teach.
It follows from these considerations that the subject-matter of theology is God. Naturally it is not concerned merely with God in himself, but with the activity of God and with every area of human thought and experience that is affected by belief in God.
But we are talking about Christian theology, and therefore the concern of the theologian is with what Christians believe about God. Christian doctrine is a statement of what Christians believe. Such statements might be found in the creeds and confessions of the church that were drawn up to express the beliefs of those who framed them. The task of theology is to state what Christians believe in a systematic and orderly fashion.
We may look at the matter from another point of view. We have just been speaking about what Christians believe, as if Christian faith were a matter of believing certain things in our heads, statements that can be expressed in propositional form. But the simplest Christian knows that Christian faith is primarily a matter of trusting in God through Jesus Christ. Theology, therefore, asks the question, What does it mean to have a personal trust in God? We can say that theology is an expression ofwhat it means to trust in God,and this way of putting the matter does justice to the fact that Christian belief is more than simply assenting to certain statements (which even demons can do, James 2:19).
We might be tempted to think that Christian theology is thus based primarily on the introspection of believers as they ask themselves what it is that they believe — and there might be as many different theologies as there are believers. But the source of Christian theology is not primarily Christian experience, but rather divine revelation. Our knowledge of God depends on what God has revealed of himself to mankind, and our Christian experience itself is determined by this revelation, which tells us what is involved in belief in God. While God has revealed himself in many different ways, the primary revelation is to be found in the Bible. This records the historical events in which God was especially active to reveal himself, and, above all, presents the historical person of Jesus, through whom came his supreme revelation. It also gives the inspired "commentary" by prophets and apostles, which brings out the significance of these events. This point will require fuller elucidation later, but for the moment we can say that Christian doctrine is an exposition of God's revelation of himself in the Bible.
There are, of course, other views of the source of Christian theology. Some people would attach much more importance to the analysis of the religious experience of Christians. Others would attempt to develop Christian theology on the basis of the revelation of God in nature or on the basis of philosophical discussion. Clearly there is a place for such studies within Christian doctrine, but the standpoint of this book is that the Bible is the basic and normative source for Christian doctrine, and that other sources of knowledge stand in a subordinate position to its supreme authority.
This consideration is based on the nature of the Bible as the principal and clearest place of God's self-revelation to mankind. In theology we are bound by what God has said and are not free to indulge our own speculations, which may be right or wrong. Christian theology, accordingly, has a normative or binding quality. It is not simply a descriptive statement of what Christians believe; it expresses what Christians ought to believe on the basis of God's revelation. This aspect of the subject is sometimes indicated by the use of the term "dogmatics."
Christian Doctrine and Bible Study
If we already have God's revelation in the Bible, someone may well ask why we need to study Christian doctrine: surely it is sufficient to be a Bible student without bothering about doctrine? Perhaps the simplest answer to this question is that anybody who studies the Bible is, in fact, really studying doctrine. When one of our universities instituted a "Department of Biblical History and Literature", the hope of the founders may have been that the Bible would be studied without any reference to doctrine or theology. One might as well hope to study the works of Shakespeare without reference to their literary quality.
The Bible is a doctrinal book, and it cannot be studied without some reference to that fact. But the Bible is not a systematic statement of doctrine. Paul, for example, did not set out to write systematic theological treatises when he wrote his epistles (with the possible exception of Romans); he was writing occasional documents, meant to deal with the current problems and needs of particular congregations. But his writings presuppose his understanding of Christian theology, and that understanding is expressed piecemeal in them. The theologian tries to work out from his epistles the systematic character of his thinking. Again, what the Bible has to say on any particular topic is not necessarily to be found all in one place. (That is why the most useful aid to Bible study after the Bible itself is a concordance.) The teaching of the Bible about creation is not confined to the first chapters of Genesis, but is spread through many passages such as Psalm 8, Isaiah 40 and Colossians 1. In order to understand what the Bible says on any topic, it is necessary to assemble all the relevant passages, compare them with one another and so arrive at a comprehensive statement of the teaching of the Bible.
And we cannot stop there. What the Bible says about creation needs to be related to the discoveries of scientists and the insights of philosophers, so that the Christian may have a critical understanding of the thinking of his contemporaries and may be able to frame his own understanding of creation, based on all available sources of knowledge and intelligible to modern people. Christian theology thus involves relating what the Bible teaches to human knowledge gained in other ways. If all truth is God's truth, then the Christian cannot spurn any source of knowledge in attempting to find out how God has revealed himself. This applies even to the teaching of other religions and philosophical systems, which may contain a mixture of truth and error. To most Christians the teachings of Karl Marx appear to be diametrically opposed to Christian belief, but it would be foolish to ignore the possibility that somewhere in the Communist system of thinking there may be insights into human nature and behavior that are true in themselves, independent of the non-Christian framework in which they appear.
A systematic discussion of Christian theology will take the student to many sources of knowledge and areas of thinking. Our purpose here will be the more modest one of attempting to set out the biblical teaching that forms the foundation of Christian theology.
The Use of the Bible in Theology
How is the Bible to be used in the study of Christian doctrine? A few comments may not be out of place.
First, it must be emphasized that the Bible is the principal source for the theologian. It is here, as we shall see in the next chapter, that God has revealed himself to us most fully. Consequently, all other sources of knowledge about God must be tested by the Bible.
Next, we need to study the message of the Bible as a whole and to interpret the various individual parts of it in their contexts. In the past, some theologians have been strongly and justifiably criticized because they based their theology on "proof-texts" which they dragged indiscriminately from all parts of the Bible and whose interpretation they took for granted without asking what they really meant. Some of the curious views of the sects result from this procedure. A man once tried to use a verse in Ecclesiastes (I think it was 3:19f.) to prove to me that there is no after-life. He did not stop to ask what the text in question originally meant, nor to ask how it fitted in with the teaching of the New Testament, which clearly testifies to an after-life. It is always best to study whole passages rather than isolated texts and to "compare Scripture with Scripture."
A third point is that we should not despise the many helps to the study of the Bible that exist. Some people like to go it alone, thinking that their own insight into the Bible is sufficient, and that the Bible itself will be plain and transparent to their understanding. No doubt the main thrust of the Bible is clear enough, and the Reformers were right to insist on what they called the "perspicuity" of Scripture, over against the mass of traditions that had obscured its meaning in the medieval church; but it would be sheer presumption on the part of any Christian to think that he or she can ignore the wisdom that God has given to other Christians and do their own thing successfully. There is a vast secondary literature in which the collective wisdom of God's people is to be found, and here there is light to be found on the dark places of the Bible. By careful use of such books, we can vastly increase our own understanding of Scripture.
It goes without saying that students of theology need the guidance of the Spirit to help them in this task. There can be no better aid than the help of the Author himself to understand his book. A willingness to learn humbly from the Spirit of God is indispensable to the theologian, lest he be led astray by the pride and self-sufficiency of a human mind that thinks that it has the native ability to understand the ways of God.
The Uses of Christian Doctrine
What is the ultimate value of this study, which Christians may be tempted to set aside as too difficult or simply as irrelevant to their Christian lives? As Paul said, in answer to a different question, "much in every way." One obvious reply is that the study of Christian doctrine will preserve the student from falling into error and enable therm to distinguish between what is true and false. A few years ago a number of people in a somewhat exclusive Christian sect, which up until then had managed to stay reasonably orthodox, were directed into some highly eccentric behaviour at the behest of a man who had attained a position of influence among them. It took a few years before many of them realized how they had been duped by a man whose teaching was crazy and whose own character fell far below Christian standards; it is safe to say that had the members of this group studied doctrine more seriously and tested the instructions give to them by Scripture, they would not have been led astray as they were. In the sixteenth century there were Christians who practiced polygamy out of a mistaken understanding of Christian freedom, and today there are people who observe Saturday as their day of worship out of a confusion between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Lord's Day. The antidote to such oddities is a sound knowledge of Christian doctrine.
At a more serious and personal level, Christian doctrine feeds the soul of believers and enables them to grow in Christian faith and understanding. Although the study of doctrine can be merely a matter of the mind, the mind can be the route by which the Word of God reaches the heart and influences the life. Christian doctrine, studied in a spirit of humility and prayer, opens up our minds to the revelation of God and provides spiritual food for believers. They learn more of the character of the God whom they worship, they understand more fully the tragic situation from which they have been saved, they appreciate more fully the wonder of the divine grace that saved them, and they realize more of the spiritual possessions that God wishes to bestow upon them.
Christian doctrine thus provides the fuel for devotion. It sets the heart on fire with love for God and gives the inspiration for worship. It is arguable that much Christian worship is cold and formal, simply because it lacks an adequate basis in the presentation of Christian doctrine. Christian worship is the human response to divine revelation, and it is only when worship is based on the presentation of the Word of God to the congregation that they can respond with warmed hearts and give God intelligent praise and service.
Finally, only through the study of doctrine can Christians prepare themselves to be active in applying their faith to the problems of living and to the task of Christian witness. The evangelist must know his message and understand how it applies to the needs of the many different kinds of people whom he will meet. A person who does not understand the gospel will be a very poor advocate for it; one cannot expect to be persuasive if he or she has not studied the brief.
With these practical applications in mind, we can now turn to our subject. We shall look first in more detail at how we know about God (ch. 2) and then at the nature of God (ch. 3) and of the world, its creation and its fall into sin (ch. 4). This will lead on to consideration of God's new start with the sinful world in Jesus Christ (ch. 5), and how God's new creation becomes effective in the individual (ch. 6) and the church (ch. 7). Finally, we shall look at the completion of God's work at the end of time (ch. 8).
Questions for Study and Discussion
- A Unitarian minister once put up a poster saying that he offered "religion without dogma." Do you think that what he offered is possible?
- Can a Christian believer study religion or theology "with an open mind"?
- Is it possible for a person who is not himself a Christian to understand Christian doctrine fully?
- It has been said that "deep theology is the best fuel for devotion": discuss.
- Many sects base their peculiar doctrines on the teaching of the Bible. How would you show the validity or otherwise of their views?