What is Our Statement of Doctrine?

8 thoughts on “What is Our Statement of Doctrine?”

  1. I’m assuming the Jesus Prayer you mean isn’t Kύριε Ιησοὺ Χριστέ, Υιέ τοὺ Θεού, ελέησόν με τὸν αμαρτωλόν.

    But I find even most churches’ statements of doctrine silly. It’s not that I think doctrine doesn’t matter, but what is such a statement of doctrine but a vague rhetorical act? It does say, We believe this. The problem’s that this we is undefined: in these churches, there generally is no requirement on the part of anyone – parishioners or elders – to actually confess these statements of doctrine.

    And indeed, why should they confess these schismatic statements, which belong to one church alone? There’s no catholicity in the act, nor attachment to the Body of Christ, but only a narrow ‘personal’ statement of one’s own idiosyncrasy that condemns all others outside of that idiosyncratic system.

  2. Hmm, it seems rather overstated to me that a forum should imply the impossibility of a correct answer. Isn’t something of a false dilemma being set up when the alternative to Cartesian certainty must be absolute uncertainty? Of course, at this point one may wish to qualify the term “correct answer.” I find the Hellenistic philosophy hypothesis a little worn. It has been repeatedly debunked. The late medieval and reformation theologians saw our knowledge as analogical to God’s, not archetypal (capital-T) Theology as God knows, but ectypal (little-t) theology that is always faith seeking understanding.

    This seems like a saner description of Christian epistemology that can believe with confidence, yet be open-minded and teachable in humility. Your own invitation for counterpoint suggests the possibility to know our correctness at least to some extent. It seems to me that a Christian forum is worth the effort because God has spoken intelligibly enough even if our sin twists truth, and that at least one goal is the joy of “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2).

    After all, if we are called to know and love God (e.g. John 14:7, cf. those who don’t “know” John 16:3), it seems to imply some kind of correct knowledge. If I claim to love a friend, without possessing any sort of correct knowledge about him, then my claim begins to ring a bit hollow. Should this not also apply to our relationship with God?

    And while I agree that getting all the facts straight doesn’t save, there comes a point where getting our doctrine muddled gets very dangerous. Just a few examples in Scripture: Paul charges Timothy to guard sound teaching (e.g. 2 Tim 1:13) as a means to save his hearers (1 Tim 4:16); he pronounces anathema on anyone who preaches another “gospel” (Gal 1:6–9). Additionally, faith is futile apart from resurrection (1 Cor 15:16–19); to deny Father and Son, and Christ in the flesh is to be “antichrist” (1 John 2:22; 2 John 7).

    A statement of faith is a related, but different issue. Even as we desire freedom, there are still implicit boundaries to this forum: Christ and Christ crucified. Is this a parameter (anything relating, whether pro or con to belief in Christ and the cross)? Or is it a promotion (what now, in light of Christ and the cross)? If the latter, is resurrection promoted as well, or is that open for debate? These things might be helpful to ponder and clarify.

    Haha, Lue-Yee, being a bit cynical here? You raise some good points, but to discuss it would be to open a whole host of ecclesiological issues that probably don’t belong in this thread.

  3. Darren, my contention is not that a correct answer is impossible; it is merely that you cannot know with certainty that your answer with regard to some relatively minor point of faith is correct. No doubt God knows the correct answer, but I believe that many of our claims to certainty encroach on his claim to omniscience.

    So we may love God, and we probably love him with some correct knowledge about him. Nevertheless, our knowledge will inevitably also be muddled with incorrect knowledge about him. My argument is that we cannot distinguish with certainty which parts of our claimed knowledge are true and which are not.

    You make the analogy that it is difficult to love a friend without possessing some correct knowledge about that friend. Again, I agree with you, but I would argue that you can still truly love your friend even if some of your knowledge about him is not accurate.

    As to your point that doctrine can become so muddled as to be dangerous: again, I agree with you. I’d argue that correct doctrine is certainly a worthy goal, and that we should be striving to preach sound doctrine, as Paul urges Timothy. However, I believe that the imperative to teach sound doctrine is different from the imperative to exclude unsound doctrine. Yes, Paul does call certain doctrines “anathema,” but he reserves his criticism for those who would deny the resurrection or teach that Christ’s sacrifice was not sufficient for the forgiveness of sins, not for many of the things that modern Evangelicals use it to condemn.

    Moreover, we must keep in mind that we moderns cannot make the claim (or at least most of us won’t) to have encountered and been instructed by the risen Lord, claims that Paul does make. This is another reason why I do not think it is fair to make the analogy that, because Paul condemns certain doctrines, we can also be just as free to condemn.

    Finally, as I argue in my article, we seem to ignore the only biblical advice we have for avoiding false teachers: judging them by their fruit. I contend that, if our goal is to have a good theology and a good practice, the way to go about this is not to expel those who preach what we consider heresy, but rather to be on our guard against those who do not display the fruit of the spirit. Those are the teachers whose doctrine is suspect — because the gospel rings hollow in their own lives.

  4. John, I still think that you’re overstating your case. I would agree that our knowledge of God (and anything for that matter) is always incomplete, and thus prone to error, as we fit the sound doctrine into our own fallen idolatrously sin-filled error-riddled thought systems. It is precisely because of this that I contend that the larger task of systematic theology (which I sense here is under implicit criticism) is valid, beneficial and worthy to weed out identifiable errors.

    I’m sympathetic to some of your concern. I have no interest in defending fundamentalism with its wooden literalism, and moralistic certainties. My interest is defending the weight of the wisdom of the carefully considered conversation of the church throughout the ages. Certainly it will always be incomplete. There will always be imprecisions. The more expansive it becomes, it becomes increasingly prone to error, and every age suffers its particular errors. But to tell the church just to stick with lowest-common-denominator certainties is to throw believers into the deep end to reinvent the wheel without guidance. This seems like a situation that will also produce all sorts of unwarranted certainties, majoring on minors, repetition of thoroughly debunked errors, and shoot-from-the-hip condemnations.

    Teaching sound doctrine necessarily excludes unsound doctrine (e.g. Paul’s anathemas). I think that is a given. I think we also do well to realize that sound doctrine and knowledge is not formed simply from propositions positively stated, but a whole symphony including what we don’t mean. The statement of the Holy Trinity in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds is a good example of this.

    I would also point out that fruit is not the only Biblical advice we have for avoiding false teachers. 1 John 2:22, 4:3; 2 John 7, for example, also point also to false confession. And even by your criteria, we need to know how to identify this “fruit.” Some think it’s success (televangelists and megachurches?), or how much you’re “touched” or “helped.” Even if we turn to Galatians 5:22–23, these are things which believers may be growing in relatively, but I still know plenty of unbelievers who are hands-down nicer and more generous people than most Christians I know. I’m unconvinced that it is better to accept uncritically a preacher showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control who denies, say, the resurrection of the body, while failing to show grace to one who preaches truth but remains rough around the edges.

    By your criteria, every preacher must be suspect because we are all sinners, and at some point or detail, the gospel is going to ring hollow in all our lives. But the gospel is the gospel (i.e. good news) because I am not the gospel (thank God!); Christ is. Christ is true and authentic regardless of our false and inauthentic existences. And grace means receiving it as those undeserving, not deserving.

    And yes, we haven’t met the risen Lord as Paul met him. But we are given the Holy Spirit who gives us Christ (John 16:13–15). And judging within the church is not restricted to apostolic office (1 Cor 5:12). Wisdom and discernment are gifts given to the church in all ages. We are not merely parrots, but called to be poets.

    Again, I also feel that churches fight and divide over a slew of issues where we have no certainty, and even issues where I’d say there is no right answer. But it seems to me that your argument effectively throws the baby out with the bathwater. Just because something has been done poorly doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done at all.

  5. Darren, I think you’re misunderstanding my argument. I’m not criticizing systematic theology (although I do have some issues with it). Nor am I reducing Christianity to the lowest common denominator. What I’m criticizing are those who propose to silence those who would disagree with them.

    In other words, I’m suggesting that To An Unknown God should not become like, e.g., those seminaries that would dismiss professors with whom they disagree about debatable points. I’m suggesting that it would be better to argue about these matters. Presuming that one’s position is so certain that one is willing to fire someone because he or she disagrees with that person strikes me as bordering on a claim to omniscience.

    Teaching sound doctrine does not necessitate the exclusion of doctrine that we consider to be unsound. Perhaps we misunderstand each other on this point. Sure, when one has been called to preach, it is incredibly important that one takes the task very seriously, acknowleding how important the responsibility is not to mislead those who look to preachers for guidance. See, e.g., James 3:1; Luke 17:2. But that is a different matter from being so certain that one’s doctrine is the only sound doctrine that one are willing to exclude others who hold different views.

    I’m afraid your references to John’s epistles do not prove the point you’re trying to make. John is merely arguing that those who deny that Jesus is the Christ are deceivers. These people are clearly not preaching Christ and Christ crucified (and, yes, implicitly resurrected). As I made clear in my original article, I am willing to draw a line here.

    Sure, I agree that no one is perfect, but the church has been very lenient with too many whose behavior clearly displays that they have deep spiritual problems. I’m suggesting it is those about whom we should be concerned. It is such individuals who should be removed from their positions within the church, not the Peter Enns of the world.

  6. Ah, now your context is becoming clearer to me. No contest from me concerning the “fruit” of deep spiritual problems you linked to. Those so-called leaders have no business shepherding God’s flock and need to get the boot. Without that context, I imagined your condemnations falling on crusty old curmudgeons holding the line of orthodoxy without much tact… kinda how I imagined Athanasius vs. the world.

    Your comparison, though, is a bit of apples and oranges. We’re talking two unaffiliated ecclesiastical bodies. It’s not like the seminary was caught between hunting either criminals in their ranks or a cool guy who simply had different views from everyone else. The former, as far as we know, didn’t exist, so it’s a bit unfair to say that their heresy hunting has blinded them to those spiritually unfit to the ministry. It may be true, but we lack the evidence to make such a serious accusation.

    John’s epistles prove my point sufficiently because my point is limited to the principle: how do we identify false teachers? Yes they are deceivers, but what is the criterion John provides to make that identification? Here it is not strictly fruit (although fruit is certainly considered in the larger context). Those specific verses are examples where the criterion is the teacher’s confession. And you seem to agree with that principle, even if in practice, we may disagree how far that confession may extend.

    But at the same time, you seem to be working with something of a false dilemma: remove either the bad guys or the heterodox. Why not both/and? Now, as I said earlier, I agree there are cases that are frivolous. And maybe Enns’ teaching didn’t warrant dismissal. I’m not going to declare judgment on the rightness or wrongness of that particular case since I lack a lot of the data. But I would still defend an ecclesiastical body’s or a seminary’s right, in principle, to dismiss those who contradict the confession, and/or the animus of that institution. I think we need to recognize that such a dismissal is not necessarily a charge of heresy; it can simply be a statement of what they stand for. Baptists and Presbyterians generally don’t think of the other as heretics, but I don’t know of many Baptists who would allow a Presbyterian to advocate infant baptism among their churches. And in Enns’ case, we may note that the dismissing institution acknowledged Enns as evangelical; but their intention was to stand for a tradition more specific than broad evangelicalism.

    Churches are not an open forum on theological ideas: they are the communities created through the Word, the unapologetic preaching of the gospel. Not even seminaries are open forums; they are entrusted by the churches to equip her ministers for the harrowing task of feeding the sheep. I’m glad we do have open forums between churches and between seminaries, such as this journal. And I’m also glad we have our local churches who stand to proclaim a more particular witness, whether rightly or wrongly and more or less erroneously (and for better or for worse), to what they believe is most faithful to whole counsel of the Word of God.

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