The study of doctrine has always been a pleasant preoccupation for me—one of my favorite things. There is no explaining it, really. Why do some people like getting their hands dirty gardening? Why do others spend hours scouring Kijiji.ca for bargains or Ancestry.com researching family roots? I don’t know. But I love reading about, thinking about, and sometimes even writing doctrine. It’s a hoot. Except for one thing.
You see, other people, and even whole institutions (churches, usually) are also preoccupied with doctrine. Except that for them it doesn’t seem to be a fun thing so much as a weighty thing. Some take doctrine so seriously, in fact, that if you don’t agree with them they will argue with you. They might even send you nasty letters and emails, or publish articles denouncing your views, or even threaten to have you tossed out of the church. All of which seriously deflates the doctrinal imagination and takes the fun out of doing theology.
Early in my ministry, for example, I was asked to give a talk about God’s creation to a lady’s society from a neighboring church. I broached the topic of cosmic and biological evolution. I had just spent a year of full-time graduate study, at seminary, exploring these topics and so I was eager to share what I had learned. However, a few days after my talk I received a letter from this society, signed by all of its members, warning me that if I didn’t repent of my evolutionary theology I was headed for hell. I had been having fun trying to fit the Biblical and Scientific pictures together; the women were so aghast with my musings that they made sure I was never invited to speak or preach in their church again.
And that is the problem with doctrine. People take it far too seriously. One imagines that getting doctrines right about creation and or evolution, about infant or adult baptism, or about pre- or post- or a-millennialism—one imagines that if getting these doctrines right was important to God, he would have been a lot clearer about them in scripture than he actually was. Which brings up another doctrine, of course. Is scripture’s teaching about so much that we take so seriously divinely inspired, or is it a result of the limited knowledge of merely human writers—or both?
The truth is, for the first millennium and a half of Christianity, when most followers of Jesus could neither read nor write, it was sufficient for Christians to know the basics of the story, memorize the Apostles' Creed and Lord’s Prayer, and do as your priest told you—especially when it came to the obligations of neighborly love. And theology? Doctrine? Well, that was the preserve of a tiny minority of scholars who carried on a lively debate about many things that never entered into the consciousness of most Christians.
These days, a lot of scholars bemoan the fact that people are not reading anymore, and that the doctrines and teachings of the church are therefore beyond most folks’ understanding. As a result, Christians now tend to go to their churches not out of a deep intellectual commitment to its doctrines, but for community or out of habit or for some other reason. I’ve bemoaned this fact myself, in articles published in scholarly journals. I guess, in a perfect world, we’d all wish that everyone had a lot more knowledge and wisdom.
But there is another, brighter, side to this coin. You see, when people are no longer preoccupied with theology or with making sure that everyone else toes their church’s doctrinal line in the sand, people are freed to focus on the main thing. The main thing isn’t assent to pages and pages of truths Christians in other traditions disagree with. No, the main thing is loving our neighbors. In fact, for most of us loving our neighbors is hard enough all by itself.
Nevertheless, I have to admit that for the sheer joy of it, doctrine is still my playground. And for the times I mess up I expect God will just pick me up again, dust me off, and say something like, “That’s okay Johnny. Go and play some more.”