Doctrine Matters


Chapter 2: Doctrine and the Bible

by Donald Allister

read chapter 1

Living apart: a sad state of affairs

The Bible is important, relevant, alive, and worth spending time on; doctrine is unimportant, irrelevant, dead, and worth avoiding: that’s how many Christians think or feel. In recent years there has been a return to the Bible right across the churches, but not a return to doctrine. The Bible is seen as having something to say; doctrine is not.

Given the way that doctrine has often been presented, such an attitude is hardly surprising. It is normal for books on doctrine to be full of long words and difficult concepts which don’t seem to come from scripture or to have any practical use. Doctrine has become the preserve of academics. It is something that those training for the ministry have to study, but it doesn’t seem to help them with their Bible study or make them better ministers.

I believe that doctrine does matter; it is important, relevant, alive, and worth spending time on. And in the same breath I want to say that doctrine and the Bible belong together in the life and mission of the church. Neither should exist without the other, and if either doctrine or the Bible is taken on its own there will be problems. In fact, it is because doctrine and the Bible have been divorced (or at least separated) that we have so many problems in seeing the relevance of doctrine and in understanding what the Bible has to say.

Doctrine is an essential tool, given by God, to help us read, understand, explain, proclaim and obey the Bible. Without it we can do none of those things properly. Without it the Bible becomes just a collection of inspired stories and sayings, instead of being a unified and integrated whole, one book, the word of God.

That’s why doctrine is important, and why I’m excited about it. That’s why I want to see a healthy marriage between doctrine and the Bible. As long as the separation continues the children (that is churches, Christians, and all they are meant to be and do) will continue to suffer harm. Most will gravitate to one parent, some to the other, and all will lose out.

But isn’t this a big claim for man-made doctrine, setting it alongside God’s word as an equal, or at least a partner? And isn’t it running the Bible down, to say that God’s word needs human doctrine to explain it to us? Am I not really denying a great Reformation principle, that scripture alone contains all we need for salvation? Those are important questions. I hope that by the end of this chapter you’ll be convinced that what I’m arguing for is biblical and right.

So how does this marriage of the Bible and doctrine work out? How does their partnership help the people of God and advance the kingdom?

The Bible was written over a period of at least a thousand years, by several dozen human authors. God was behind it all, and all of it is his word, but equally each part of it was written in a different style and for different reasons. God, his word, and his opinions don’t change; but equally, each part of the Bible was written to a different group of people, a different human situation, a different set of problems.

Christian doctrine is the human work of systematising, putting into order, the teachings of the Bible. The Bible is like the open countryside, full of many lovely wild flowers, shrubs, grasses, different terrains and habitats. Doctrine is like a cultivated garden, where many terrains, habitats and plants have been organised by people. Nobody denies that the countryside is ‘the real thing’; but neither does anyone deny that a well-planned garden helps the appreciation, enjoyment, study, growth and sometimes even the survival, of plant and animal life. A good garden is not a betrayal of the countryside, or a substitute for it, but its servant, friend and partner. That is how doctrine relates to the Bible.

Of course the wild countryside existed long before man-made gardens (at least in our fallen world), and the countryside doesn’t need gardens; but in a fallen world we need gardens to appreciate the countryside. Similarly, the Bible doesn’t need doctrine; but we need it if we are to get out of the Bible all that it has for us.

Three in one: doctrine to the rescue

It’s time for an example of the way that doctrine helps us understand God’s word. I’ll take one of the most misunderstood and off-putting areas of doctrine, but also one of the most important: the doctrine of the Trinity.

Many Christians keep Trinity Sunday and have a suspicion that it is important, but they’d run a mile if asked to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Many are happy to sing hymns or choruses with a strongly trinitarian structure and approach to God, but would never try to defend the doctrine – or even the need for a doctrine – of the Trinity. The problem is compounded by the fact that trinitarian doctrine is tied up with theological controversies dating back fifteen or sixteen hundred years.

Right through the Bible, God is spoken of in many different ways. At the beginning we are told that he created, that his Spirit brooded (or was hovering) over the waters, and that he spoke. Elsewhere in the Old Testament we find occasions when he speaks, is seen, appears (sometimes in human form), is described as having feelings, hands and feet, a voice and a back – but also as being unknowable, unapproachable, as not having a body and as not to be turned into images. He is a father, but like a mother; a friend, but an enemy; like us, but wholly different from us; our maker, lawgiver, judge and destroyer, but also our teacher, guide, helper and saviour. The list could go on: it’s awe-inspiring, but confusing.

The New Testament offers more of the same. God is a consuming fire, a terrible judge, a fearful enemy, totally alien. But he’s also one who loves us, cares for us, became a man and died for us, offers us himself, his friendship, his forgiveness and his strength. It’s hardly surprising that books about God can be heavy, difficult and daunting. It’s hardly surprising that Christian attempts to explain and proclaim what God is like have sometimes been more confusing than helpful.

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