Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Doctrine Matters

            Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more curious about the fascination some Christians have with the minutiae of doctrine. Sometimes this doctrine is hoary ancient stuff from the sixteenth century or even earlier that defines the historic basis for denominations like the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Lately, however, the doctrines that fascinate tend to be about Jesus’ expected return from heaven to judge the living and the dead and all that.

            That any contemporary Christians care much about any but the most basic doctrines ought to surprise us. We live in an anti-intellectual popular culture where reading both widely and deeply has fallen out of favor. Shakespeare is someone we sample in college, not something many of us read or watch on stage anymore.

            When it comes to the Bible, things get worse. In one of his famous "man on the street" interviews, Jay Leno asks a college student, "What is one of the Ten Commandments?" "Freedom of speech," is the reply. Leno asks a girl when Jesus lived. She thought maybe about 30,000 years ago. Not a promising answer for someone who turns out to be an Art History student. The fact is, most people seem to think that everything related to religion—and especially its doctrines—is just stuffy and irrelevant. What does matter, if anything, are personal spiritual feelings and intuitions.

            And yet, some Christians continue to care deeply about doctrine—about the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Lord’s Supper (is he spiritually ubiquitous, thus always present, or is he really the bread and wine—transubstantiation?), for example. Or, will Jesus return to earth before, during, or after a literal seven-year period of persecution (the pre-, mid-, and post-tribulation camps among premillennialists)?

            Why? What is the drawing power of learning, holding, and fighting scorched earth battles for such doctrinal positions? Why do some people—people in the pews, people who never went a to seminary a day in their lives--nevertheless take the time to study, read, and argue about these doctrinal positions?

            As much as I wish that there might be a simple answer, there probably isn’t. People probably get engaged and excited about intellectually complicated doctrines for a whole host of reasons. It might be for the sheer intellectual delight of mastering difficult bodies of knowledge. Some people are indoctrinated to believe doctrinal change represents a slippery slope to perdition. Others teach in churches or colleges or seminaries where changing your mind—or even raising difficult questions—is not allowed if you want to keep your job.

            But there is one other possible answer. Christians sometimes concern themselves about historical doctrines, or esoteric, speculative interpretations of scripture about when Jesus will return as a way to avoid the heart of scripture. Such preoccupation is an unconscious avenue for not having to deal with other more serious matters of the law, and especially the heart of the law, love of God and neighbor. A focus on doctrine leaves little room for wrestling with practical questions posed by our wealth and others’ poverty, by our relationship to the environment, by war in the Middle East, or the ways gun culture or television violence poison Western culture. I’m reminded of how one of the Teachers of the Law, one who could even recite the greatest command, was judged by Jesus, in the end, to be “not far” from the kingdom of God while still apparently missing the point of the kingdom entirely.

            Which makes me think that whatever the point of holding to doctrines might be—and as I noted above, there are a few—the bigger issue is always going to be figuring out how holding them doesn’t get in the way of the main thing. 


  1. Good stuff here, John. I like to think some of those questions matter because they affect how we make those day-to-day decisions. Exactly when Jesus will come is probably not one of those. Enough to believe that is is coming and that makes a difference. Of course, it's interesting for discussion.

  2. Hmm. The "day-to-day" criterion for relevance is worth thinking about some more. Thanks!


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