Do We Really Need Theology and Doctrine?
As one involved in the training of 100s of people for ministry, this is more than just an academic issue. It cuts to the heart of what we believe and why we believe it. This question might seem a bit odd, even heretical, but consider the following quotes:
Culture warrior Bill Muehlenberg sent an email dated 19 March 2009 with the subject line ‘Time to Fight Truth Decay.’ Near the end he makes this comment:
‘Finally, for those of you into theology (OK, I know: I have just lost 98% of you!).’
The principal of an Australian Bible college once made the comment, ‘We don’t use the word “doctrine” in our school.’
On the back cover of the book, ‘Who Needs Theology’ by Grenze and Olson, it says:
To many Christians today theology means something alien, overly intellectual and unappealing. Even seminarians are known to balk at it.
Why is there such an allergic reaction to the words ‘theology’ and ‘doctrine,’ even in Bible schools and seminaries? A second question, which will not be covered, is: if they are so uncomfortable with these words, then what are the Bible colleges and seminaries teaching these days?
Whenever you face an issue, it is best to define your terms. In this case, it is easy.
1. Theology: from the word Greek word theologia which means ‘the study of God.’ Theos means God and logos ‘doctrine, discourse, and word.’
2. Doctrine: two words are used, didache and didaskalia which are translated ‘teaching, instruction, learning, and doctrine.’
In short, theology is the study of God and doctrine provides the building blocks of teaching that make up theology. What could be wrong with that?
Grenze and Olson put it this way:
Theology is not, as many wrongly suppose, a kind of esoteric knowledge possessed by a few superior intellectuals. It is simply faith seeking understanding. And insofar as ordinary Christians seek answers to questions that naturally arise out of faith, they are already doing Christian theology’
Thomas Aquinas said:
Theology is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God’
What’s the Problem With Theology?
Considering how fundamental theology truly is, why do educators and lay Christians seem to steer clear of the terminology and the practice of ‘theologizing.’
First, there is an ‘anti-intellectual’ motive. This is understandable when the perception persists that theologians are ‘out-of-touch.’ Didn’t Jesus Himself say that God has hidden His principles from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes (Luke 10:21). We are told in Proverbs 3:5-6 to trust in the LORD with all our hearts and to not ‘lean’ on our understanding.
The example of highly-intellectual liberal theology, which has all but sapped the life-blood out of the church in Europe, leaving it vulnerable to ideologies, factions, revolutions, and world wars, has diminished the importance of general theology in the eyes of the Church. Even if the theology is soundly Biblical and orthodox, when given in a strictly academic setting without the freshness and vitality of the Holy Spirit, it becomes dry and lifeless.
Another factor is the rise of subjective-experiential Christianity, which put emphasis on encounters of the heart rather than enlightenment of the head. The brand of Christianity which fits this category, to some extent, is Pentecostalism. People are encouraged to have an experience with the Holy Spirit, with little or no theological basis of why or how. There are promising signs of change in this area but remember, it is not an ‘either/or.’ You can have a Spirit-filled heart with a theologically sound mind!
A third issue involves ‘folk theology’ which is enunciated by both high profile celebrity ministers or unknown teachers. Often they enunciate theologically light-weight doctrines which are attractive, easy to grasp, but leave people vulnerable to every new trend; not to mention leaving their wallets lighter, too! Folk theology can degenerate into fads, which, like a toddler’s toy, is used for a time and then discarded. Fads can be based on genuine Biblical teaching but when focused on exclusively at the expense of a wholistic theological worldview, lends itself to excess.
Other reasons theology has been shunned are that lofty theological concepts have not been ‘translated’ into a way that laypeople can understand and apply. Faced with either deep and confusing theological theories (e.g. is the rapture of the Church before the tribulation or after) or the perceived ‘irrelevance’ of high academic theology to daily living, leaves the average person out of breath. Many people are still trying to balance their cheque books, raise their family, and figure out their future, let alone unscramble some theological egg.
Perhaps the greatest hindrance of all is that theology, particularly the highly-academic version, with its heavy emphasis on human reason and its nagging questions about minutia, can be perceived as anti-faith. It is not unheard of for people to leave Bible colleges and seminaries backslidden thanks to such faith-deflating intellectualism.
Grenze and Olson make this observation:
Theological studies undoubtedly can be an enemy of faith, but the antidote to bad theology is not no theology; it is good theology’.
Theology & Doctrine: Now More than Ever!
Since theology is its purest form means the ‘study of God’ and (Biblical) doctrines are the building blocks of that study, it is important to understand why this topic is vital.
First, to learn and teach sound theology and doctrine is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and the apostles. According to Acts 2:42 (NKJV), the early church:
42 …continued steadfastly in the apostles’ 5doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.
Theology and doctrine are to the born again spirit what diet and exercise are to the human body—they make us healthy, strong, and resistant to attack. Along with fellowship, the Christian grows through the ‘food’ of the Word (Matthew 4:4) and the water of the Holy Spirit (John 7:38).
2 John 9 (NKJV) says bluntly:
9 lWhoever 4transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son.
The Apostle Paul outlines a horrendous scenario in I Timothy 4:1-2: The Holy Spirit emphatically speaks that in the latter days, some will depart from the faith. They will give heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils. This is every good pastor’s worst nightmare. Few pastors like seeing people leave their church; but if they are attending another sound church, that should be of some consolation. But here is the picture of people walking out of ‘the faith’ altogether.
Fortunately, the Scripture gives the solution to this dilemma. It is found at the end of the chapter. 1 Timothy 4:16 (NKJV)
16 Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.
If we are in the Biblical ‘last days’—and I believe we are (I John 2:18)—it is time we realize both the desirability and indispensability of theology and doctrine. Without these things informing and guiding our lives, we face the real risk of having a vacuum that is filled by seducing spirits and doctrines of devils. In essence, they become an ‘insurance policy’ against error, deception and darkness.
Another issue is that so much of what is done in church life ‘in the Name of Christ’ has little or no theological basis to it. They are no more than traditions and ‘good ideas’ of men dressed up in Christian garb. The problem is that the results will be inferior and displeasing to God, or else when a time of shaking comes, the whole work will collapse into a heap.
For example, in his book Escape from Church Inc., The Return of the Pastor-Shepherd, E. Glenn Wagner speaks of how ministry training institutions have departed from teaching pastoral theology and embraced more practical subjects. Since the theological basis of these subjects is light, there has been a heavy emphasis of incorporating psychology, sociology, political science, motivational business practices and other secular disciplines into the teaching of practical ministry. The result is that instead of having pastor-shepherds who fulfill the command of Christ and care for the sheep, churches are getting managers, CEOs, and ‘leaders.’ These are more interested in numbers and ‘bottom line’ than in the spiritual welfare of the people. Instead of nurturing the sheep, they are being fleeced instead. Disappointment and disenfranchisement have resulted from this sorry legacy.
Ultimately, theology and doctrine are for our establishment and protection. This is best summarized by Jesus Himself at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. He says that whoever hears and does these sayings of His is a wise man who builds his house on the rock. When the rains descend, the floods rise, and the winds blow, the house will remain standing because it has a sure foundation. Those who do not ‘hear and do’ Jesus’ words are liken to foolish people, who build their house on the sand. When the same storm hits, they collapse into ruin (see Matthew 7:24-27).
Doctrine and theology help make us into strong, stable, and established followers of Christ. They protect us from error, keep us in the light, and cause us to be fruitful in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10). A return to the celebration of the Christian creeds is a convenient way to get distilled doctrine that resists heresy and fortifies us for the days ahead. Take hold of these timeless doctrines and you will never go wrong.
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.