NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of articles on common contemporary viewpoints which are contrary to orthodox Christianity.
If anything is characteristic of contemporary American Protestantism it is opposition to doctrine. In former times people might be opposed to particular doctrines, such as the doctrine of predestination or the doctrine of hell; but today there is widespread opposition to doctrine as such, to the very idea of an authoritative body of Christian doctrine.
This present-day aversion to doctrine exists in various forms. For example, there is downright opposition to doctrine shown in the often-heard slogan, “Christianity is not a doctrine but a life.” The person who says that is setting up a false antithesis between doctrine and life, and rejecting doctrine in the interests of “life.”
Another common form is doctrinal indifferentism, the prevalent attitude of not being interested in distinctions between truth and error. The doctrinally indifferent person is wrongly called “tolerant.” Questions concerning the deity of Christ, the atonement, the inspiration of the Bible, he lightly dismisses as “abstract theology” or “theological hair-splitting.” By “hairsplitting” such a person means any exact theological knowledge at all.
Yet another form of aversion to doctrine consists in the faint praise of doctrine. When a person says: “Doctrines are important, of course, but what really counts is Jesus’ way of life,” he is engaging in the faint praise or doctrine; what he really means is that doctrines are not important at all, and that we can have “Jesus’ way of life” regardless of what our doctrines may be. Similarly, when people discuss Christian doctrine as if it were a luxury or auxiliary ornament to be added to our religious faith and life, as if we could first live the Christian life and then afterwards perhaps acquire a modicum of doctrine, they are engaging in the faint praise of doctrine; doctrine is not a luxury to the Christian any more than bones are a luxury in the human body.
Another form of opposition to doctrine is skepticism concerning the existence of absolute truth, a spiritual blight which is extremely common today. According to this view, truth is not permanent but changes with the times; what was true yesterday may be false tomorrow. The person who says the Westminster Standards were a good expression of Christianity for the seventeenth century but are not suited to the twentieth century is suffering from this spiritual blight. The Westminster Standards are either true or false; if false, they were false 300 years ago when first written; if true, they are still true today.
All the tendencies that have been mentioned are at bottom anti-doctrinal in that they are all contrary to the recognition of the true place and importance of the body of Christian doctrine that has crystallized in the great historic creeds of the Church. These tendencies are all characterized by aversion to sustained, systematic preaching and teaching of a recognized body of Christian doctrine. These tendencies are so prevalent today that it may safely be asserted that there is not a Protestant church in America that has not been influenced by them to a greater or less extent. Some denominations have succumbed to these anti-doctrinal tendencies, while others are struggling nobly against them.
The contemporary aversion to doctrine makes the task of the minister far more difficult than it would otherwise be. The minister who would be faithful to his calling must, as it were, undertake the removal of a great stone from the door of his people’s minds; he must first cope with the almost universal prejudice against doctrine before he can hope to impart to his hearers any adequate knowledge of the doctrinal system of the Bible. That is to say, the present situation cries urgently not merely for faithful preaching of the doctrines of the Christian faith, but for convincing people that Christianity is essentially doctrinal and that its doctrines are therefore absolutely important so that without them Christianity cannot exist, and there can be no saving gospel.
An Element of Truth
There is indeed a certain element of truth in the anti-doctrinal spirit of modern religion. It may be regarded as a reaction against that type of religious formalism which regards Christianity as merely a body of doctrine. Such a perversion of the Christian religion is often called “dead orthodoxy.” A more correct term for it, however, would be dead Orthodoxism. For orthodoxy really involves a hearty acceptance of the truth, and a really hearty acceptance of the truth cannot coexist with a lifeless formalism in religion. The person whose religion is devoid of true spiritual life is never really orthodox, for he does not accept the doctrines of Christianity in their true intent and purpose but only externally or as a mere matter of form. His religion therefore should not be called “orthodoxy”-not even with the word “dead” added—but “orthodoxism.”
Undoubtedly the dead orthodoxism of the: past is at least partly responsible for the aversion to doctrine which characterizes the present. The churches have reacted against a perversion of Christianity which seemed to have nothing but a bare body of doctrine, and have in many cases swung clear over to the opposite extreme of favoring a perversion of Christianity which regards a body of doctrine as unnecessary or even harmful. Both extremes are wrong; both destroy the Christian religion. To revert to the figure of the bones and the body, we may compare the Christian religion in its totality to the human body, and the doctrinal system of Christianity to the bones of the body. Now obviously a structure of bones is not only highly desirable, but absolutely necessary, for the existence and functioning of the human body. Bones are not a luxury; they are an absolute necessity. Similarly the doctrinal system of Christianity is absolutely necessary for the existence and activity of the Christian religion. Doctrines are not a luxury; they are an absolute necessity. Christianity without doctrines is as impossible as a human body without bones. On the other hand, a body consisting of nothing but bones cannot live and function, either; it is not really a body, but only a skeleton. And in like manner a type of religion which has nothing but a bare body of doctrines cannot really be Christianity; it can only be a perversion or travesty of the Christian religion.
The element of truth in the slogan “Christianity is not a doctrine but a life,” then, is that Christianity is not only a doctrine, but also a life. This is the element of truth which dead orthodoxism has denied, in practice if not in theory; and the neglect of this element of trllth has certainly been one of the factors leading to the aversion to doctrine which exists today.
Influence of Modern Science
It would, however, be a mistake to lay all the blame for today’s aversion to doctrine on yesterday’s dead orthodoxism. Other powerful factors have also been at work. Today the people in general, including the membership of the churches, are under the influence of science and philosophy as never before. Modern science is almost completely under the dominion of modern philosophy, and both have had a tremendous effect on the religious life and thought of our day. Modern science and philosophy have championed a view of the world and of human life which is utterly incompatible with the Christian religion. This modern view of life implies that many of the doctrines of Christianity, such as the doctrines of creation, the fall of man, miracles, the virgin birth of Christ, his bodily resurrection and ascension and second coming, the infallibility of the Bible, supernatural regeneration and salvation, cannot be true. As a result of this there has been a tendency on the pan of many faint-hearted Christians to quake and tremble at the blasts of science, and to seek to take refuge in a non-doctrinal form of Christianity that would be beyond the reach of the attacks of science and philosophy. Such people say in effect: “Science has shown that the modern mind can no longer accept the doctrines of old-fashioned Christianity. But never mind; we can still be Christians, for these doctrines, after all, are not essential to the Christian religion; they are only the outward form or husk of Christianity; what really counts is the kernel, and we can retain that, even though science requires that the husk be abandoned.” Thus modern religion seeks to retain a non-doctrinal something as the real essence of Christianity; and that “something” usually turns out to be merely a vague mysticism or an ethical ideal of kindness and good will. Christianity has been “re-interpreted” and divested of its doctrines—robbed of its structure of bones—until it is no longer recognizable as the genuine article. The net result is that each person decides for himself what he considers good and praise-worthy, and labels his self-made religion “Christianity.”
A Subversion of Christianity
Against the anti·doctrinal spirit of the present day, it must be asserted and insisted upon without apology that Christianity is first of all a body of doctrine. It is indeed more than that, but it is that first of all. The Bible is the special revelation of God to mankind, and the Bible is essentially a message of truth. It answers the two basic questions, “What is true?” and “What is right?” and in answering them gives us the materials for constructing the system of Christian doctrine and Christian ethics. The Bible furnishes the infallible data; it is the Church’s task to put them together in systematic form—a task for which Christ promised the illumination of his Holy Spirit to the Church (John 14:26; 16:13).
The fundamental purpose of the Bible is to furnish the data for the system of Christian doctrine. This basic purpose of the Bible is often neglected, it is true. It was reported a few years ago that a certain fashionable women’s college offered its students two courses in Bible study: a course on the Bible as literature, and a course on the Bible as history. Now of course the Bible is literature, and contains history; yet neither of these constitutes the basic purpose of the Bible; the basic purpose or the Bible is to present doctrinal truth. As well not study the Bible at all, as to study it merely as a book of literature and history. We are not really studying the Bible to any profit unless we study it as what God intended it to be, the source of doctrinal truth.
The Truth Shall Make You Free!
The body of truth revealed in the Bible, and exhibited in systematic form in the creeds of the Church, is not an adjunct of Christianity, but the absolutely necessary foundation of the Christian religion. Our Lord said, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Thus doctrine—for doctrine is simply the truth started in logical form—is the foundation of the Christian life and is essential to salvation.
Christian doctrine consists, first, of a body of facts, such as the creation of the world, the birth, life and crucifixion of Christ, his resurrection and ascension to heaven. These facts are absolutely essential, yet of themselves alone they do not constitute Christian doctrine. To these facts must be added the God-given interpretation of the facts. Thus the fact of the crucifixion of Christ, plus the meaning of that fact revealed in the Bible, yields the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ. To say that Christ died is to state a fact of history; to affirm that it was for our sins is to set forth the revealed explanation of the fact; the combined statement Christ died for our sins is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, the substitutionary atonement. All the other doctrines of Christianity are similarly constituted.
Now any type of religion which denies, evades or minimizes this essentially doctrinal structure of Christianity is a Subversion of the Christian religion. The doctrinal structure of Christianity is not the whole of Christianity, yet it is the primary feature of Christianity, and its importance cannot possibly be over-emphasized. Where this doctrinal structure is denied, Christianity cannot exist; where it is neglected or minimized, Christianity cannot exist in a healthy and vigorous form.
It is notorious that doctrine is woefully neglected today. There is a truly abysmal ignorance even of elementary doctrinal truth in contemporary American Protestantism, A student in one of America’s oldest theological seminaries—an institution founded on a Calvinistic creed-was being examined for licensure to preach the gospel. One of the first questions he was asked was “What was the Covenant of Works?” To this he replied: ‘“That is easy. It means Adam had to work to earn a living” (!) This incident was told to the writer of the present article by the minister who asked the question. He was rightly shocked as such a display of doctrinal ignorance. Yet this was not a unique case; it could be paralleled time and again in pulpit and in pew, in the world of twentieth-century American Protestantism. It is common to read statements about the doctrines of total depravity, predestination, the verbal inspiration of the Bible, and so forth, which betray not merely disbelief of these doctrines, but downright ignorance o( what the doctrines are.
Doctrine the Main Course
The crying need of contemporary American Protestantism is for more doctrine. A little doctrine here and there, now and then, will not meet the need. The churches must get back to the preaching and teaching of doctrine as their main and continuous business. What is required is not a shorter or longer period of renewed emphasis on doctrine, but a permanent emphasis. Doctrine must be studied, taught, preached, and applied for all time to come. A temporary or sporadic inclination of doctrine will accomplish little; it must be continuous and permanent. Doctrine is not a side-dish but the main course of the church’s meal; the church’s must get back to it and make it the main thing from now until the end of the world, Where doctrine is neglected, Christianity eventually languishes. Without doctrine there can be no real evangelism, no true Christian education, no genuine home and foreign missionary work, no authentic application of Christianity to the social, political and economic spheres. Our religion is either doctrinal to the core, or it is not really Christianity.
“Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine” (I Tim, 4:16), “Hold fast the form of sound words.” (2 Tim. 1:13). “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:2–4). “For a bishop must be blameless as the steward of God…holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 1:7–9). “But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine” (Tit. 2:1). “In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine showing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity, sound speech, that cannot be condemned” (Tit. 2:7, 8).
JOHANNES G. VOS is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter) Church in Cloy Center, Kansas, and editor of Blue Banner Faith and Life religious periodical.