Doctrine. Theology. For many evangelicals these words are as pleasant as the phrase, “impacted tooth!” That theology is irrelevant to Christian life has essentially become a received dogma. Nevertheless, as much as indifference about Christian truth reigns among evangelicals, to the same degree we have actually adopted a competing religion, and therefore the Christian explanation no longer interests us. If this is true, then a call to reconsider the importance of theology is also a call to repentance and faith.
Doctrine is “that which is taught” from the Latin word doctrina. In my experience however, doctrine elicits one meaning and teaching quite another. To test the negative associations attached to the word doctrine ask yourself, “Would I rather attend a church known for its solid teaching or its solid doctrine?” For most evangelicals, a teaching church wins hands down. The word doctrine evokes “closed,” “narrow” and perhaps even “bigoted.”
As a result of this aversion to theology, evangelicals have reached a sort of gentlemen’s agreement on disputed doctrines. If it is true that one does not discuss politics and religion in polite company, then in evangelical circles, it is even more impolite to broach controversial topics such as baptism or predestination. For many evangelicals, the present consensus about the practical necessity of “a-doctrinal” Christianity is a sort of nirvana. In this view, doctrinal disagreements are not important and achieving doctrinal precision is not the true work of the church.
A-Doctrinal Christianity: Pious or Not?
This position seems pious. Who can disagree with the aim of spreading the Good News? Second, doctrinal debates have too often been conducted uncharitably with each side concerned primarily with winning. Third, there has occasionally arisen in the church self-appointed doctrine police which one might call the DC crowd–the doctrinally correct–who are interested more in being right and making certain everyone knows they are right than in helping one grow toward the truth. These folk treat Christianity as a matter of accumulated secret knowledge which they alone possess.1 When faced with these folk it is perhaps wise to agree to disagree. There are things about which sincere believers can intelligently and charitably disagree. Charity is not, however, an excuse to simply ignore. The main branches of historic Protestantism were anything but ignorant of the differences between themselves.
Why Theology Has Fallen on Hard Times?
Why, for one cause for our present indifference to theology is the widespread evangelical ignorance of the source (Scripture) and tradition of Christian teaching. Why? North American evangelicalism has long been infected by modernity. In the middle of the 18th century, the ultimate authority of God’s Word came under full-scale attack. The Enlightenment modernists asserted the primacy and autonomy of the human mind. By the end of the 18th century, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) had convinced European philosophy that one cannot know things, outside of the mind, as they are in themselves (Ding an sich). Rather, he said, reality is a convention, the picture our mind forms of the world outside us. In this view, God is not the Triune Creator and Redeemer who reveals himself as the I AM, but rather the product of our experience of him. About the same time, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) concluded that since we cannot know much about God directly and we cannot trust the truthfulness of the Bible, we ought to think of Christianity as a “feeling of divine dependence.” Even if Kant and Schleiermacher are not household names, their ideas formed the cornerstone of modern society.
It is easy to tell what we Americans value by the amount of money we spend on it. College professors who teach Business, Medicine or Law are typically more highly paid than those who teach History. Why? Because our culture values those disciplines which will allow our children to go out into the world and make money. Under Kant and Schleiermacher, our culture, including evangelicalism, has placed a premium on that which produces immediate gratification. This move relativizes the importance of Christian truth in the church. When was the last time you saw a congregation rise up in protest because the pastor failed to preach a series of sermons explaining the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity? If, however, the pastor fails to preach an annual series on “How to Improve Your Marriage,” he will hear about it at the annual meeting. J. Gresham Machen called this syndrome the “tyranny of the practical.” Substitute “immediate” for “practical” and his meaning is clear. The mainline churches made this trade early in this century. Evangelical Christendom faces this crisis today. We evangelicals do not choose churches because of doctrinal commitments, but because of the number of programs available to meet our felt needs. We do what makes us feel good. We have agreed with Schleiermacher that what really matters is what I experience. If theology doesn’t make me feel good, then, by all means, let’s be rid of it.
Pietist Evangelicalism: The Conduit of Modernity
Though several scholars of American evangelicalism have argued that it was Princeton’s alleged rationalism which imported modernity into evangelicalism, it seems rather that the blame must be placed elsewhere. A close reading of the Princeton theologians will show that they were in essential harmony with Calvin and the Orthodox Reformed tradition on most points. There was, however, a pietist strain in evangelicalism which was not as hardy as old Princeton’s confessional theology. Because the organizing principle of pietism and mysticism is experience, they were able to find common ground with those, like Schleiermacher, who could point to personal experience, while denying the historicity of the faith. With this experiential bridge, they were more liable to being co-opted by modernity.
Another legacy to evangelicalism is a radically individualistic faith. If one cannot be certain about the historicity of the faith then one flees to mystical experience. Pietistic evangelicalism replaced the “priesthood of all believers” (access to God through Christ alone) with the “papacy of every believer” (the sole authority of the believer). Individualism has replaced the older Protestant idea of divinely ordained authority located in Scripture and in the courts of the church, and has led to a nearly irreparable fragmentation of the Christian landscape.
Activism–doing in place of thinking–is another result of the influence of modernity. We measure spiritual growth by the level of one’s religious activity. One prominent source for this activism was Charles Finney’s “New Measures” revivalism (the altar call, the anxious bench, etc.) which appropriated Schleiermacher for evangelicalism. The New Measures were the triumph of method over theology, pragmatism over principle and a wholesale rejection of the Reformation. An activist orientation also entails an unhappy indifference to and ignorance of history and theology. So, evangelical congregations across the continent anoint heretical pastors and slide into ancient heresies long ago addressed and rejected by the historic orthodox faith.
Why Theology is Necessary
It is dangerous, if not impossible, to live the Christian life in the absence of Christian truth. There are, to be sure, happy inconsistencies–does anyone really pray what an Arminian confesses? Nevertheless, there are serious problems with the “a-doctrinal” approach to Christianity. Everything one does flows from one’s view of God, history, the world, and self. If one says, “I want to do evangelism, not theology,” I should ask, “what will you tell
them?” Whatever one tells the lost will necessarily be doctrine.
Not all evangelicals capitulated to modernity. Since the Reformation, there have always been those whom one might class as confessional evangelicals. Because our Protestant parents believed differently, they acted differently than us. The leaders of the Reformation worked constantly to resolve their differences over important issues, viz., Baptism and the Eucharist. These efforts were usually motivated by genuine love for one another and a strong desire to see the evangelical church united. They saw theological dialogue as an act of Christian charity.
These discussions took place both in the church and the academy, in a forum inherited from the medieval church called the colloquium (Latin for “conference”).2 A colloquy was a structured discussion of doctrinal differences controlled by a moderator with an agenda. The teams met in a plenary session, then divided into smaller groups to tackle various issues and then returned to meet in common session to report on their progress. Evangelicals ought to revive the system of the colloquy. The benefit of such a system is that each ‘side’ is forced to sit down and prayerfully study God’s Word and the history of doctrine and decide what they think Scripture teaches. It is only when we self-consciously, systematically think through how we understand God’s Word and patiently, sympathetically attempt to understand how our brothers interpret God’s Word that we are prepared to compare conclusions and to make substantial, biblical, progress toward a common understanding of the faith. To challenge one another, even vigorously, over important theological questions is an act of love. Indifference to theology implies that the firmly held convictions of one’s brothers do not merit serious consideration. It is no mere coincidence that the system of the colloquy fell into neglect with the rise of modernity. Why discuss those things which are no longer of interest?
The present state of affairs must be changed. To decide what Scripture teaches, what the church believes, to re-consecrate oneself to the knowledge of our Triune God, these are the actions of a rebel against the Kantian sterility of modernity.
Orthodoxy simply means “right thinking” or “right worship.”3 Thus, “dead orthodoxy” is an oxymoron. One cannot be truly orthodox and spiritually dead. Only when we’ve stopped believing the historic faith does it become dead. Not surprisingly, it was Schleiermacher who first described orthodoxy as dead. Trinitarian orthodoxy is, however, as subtle and exciting a truth as anyone would ever wish to meet. Our faith is full of mystery, wonder and the smell of life, not death. Nor should orthodoxy be condemned because it has sometimes been taught badly. I once had a disagreeable plate of hash browns at 3:00 AM in Idaho. I have not, however, given up on hash browns simply because some fry cook once ruined them.
The institutional church has been assailed for decades for its alleged lack of relevance. To call her back to concern for truth is asking the church to shift into reverse. To some it may sound as if you are asking the church to commit statistical suicide. We must be prepared to show Christian leaders why Christian truth is the starting place for ministry. If you are ready to walk into the “a-doctrinal” breach of church leadership, contending for doctrine, then perhaps God has called you to just such a ministry in your congregation.
Recover the Confessions and Confessionalism
We must recover our Protestant confessional background by studying the Reformation confessions in the light of Scripture.4 We must be prepared to lovingly, but firmly, call the evangelical church, her leaders, and her courts (presbyteries, synods) to account for the abandonment of her historic doctrinal commitments.
Finally, we can return to the Reformation system of the colloquy. One might organize a discussion within one’s own congregation or between one’s congregation and an evangelical congregation from another tradition.5 Having witnessed the often pathetic state of theological discourse in evangelicalism today, I think we could stand a few colloquia! Failing that, make a point of meeting believers from other Reformation traditions. Perhaps you know someone who attends an historic Protestant church which is not being faithful to its confessional heritage. It might be helpful to meet with that person to discuss your confessions and their role in the church.
You are reading this magazine presumably because you are concerned about the state of the church. You have decided to educate yourself, to read, to think and to grow intellectually and spiritually. But just as you probably did not come overnight to your present understanding of the need for good theology, you should not expect an entire congregation or its leadership to instantly change. So be patient and humble.
That the evangelical church will have a theology is inescapable. The question must be whether we are committed to believing and confessing a good, historic, confessional, theology which is faithful to the Bible, or whether we will accept the unhappy modernist settlement.
1. This is the danger of gnosticism or salvation obtained through the possession of secret knowledge which grants one admission into an elite group. Gnosticism is an ancient philosophy and movement which is notoriously difficult to define. The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek verb Ginoskein (to know) and noun Gnosis (knowledge). Most evangelical scholars think that Gnosticism did not become an organized movement until just before the 200′s A.D. However, the seeds of the movement were present in the first century and its likely that John’s letters addressed some aspects of the movement in the cities of Asia Minor. The early church Father, Irenaeus (c. A.D. 175), wrote five books against the Gnostic heresies. That Gnostic ideas were still in circulation during the Reformation is evidenced by the fact that the Belgic Confession Article 12 (1561) repudiated Manichaeism, a later form of these false ideas.
2. It is true that the Reformers met with mixed success in their attempts to find unity. They did succeed more than is sometimes recognized. Dissatisfied with the failure of the Marburg Colloquy (1529), Martin Bucer, Philip Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger met secretly five years later at Constance to resolve differences over the Eucharist. There they agreed that Christ is eaten “by faith”. At Hagenau (1540) Calvin and Bucer signed the Augustana Variata (1541), a significant version of the Augsburg Confession (1530) indicating substantial unity on the supper between at least a segment of Lutheranism and the Reformed Churches. In 1549, the Reformed Churches in Switzerland signed the Consensus Tigurinus marking unity on the Eucharist. It was always Calvin’s hope to see Protestantism united against her common enemies.
3. These two concepts are not far separate. Romans 12:2 (Geneva Bible, 1602 edition) speaks of our ‘reasonable’ service to God.
4. It might be well to begin with the catholic creeds, i.e., the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds and the Definition of Chalcedon. I find that about 10% of my students are familiar with the Apostles’ Creed. If your congregation does not use these Creeds it might be well to inquire about it. One should be greatly troubled if a church will not use the catholic creeds.
5. I have benefited greatly from virtual colloquies through on-line conferences.
Originally published in Modern Reformation (Sep/Oct 1996)