Who is Doctrine For?: Theology in the Life of the Church

DISCLAIMER:  The following post is rated “Looooong” and may not be appropriate for people with short attention spans :p

This past quarter I took a course in Systematic Theology.  Honestly, it has been one of my favorite classes.  The readings have been great, the lectures engaging, and the assignments thought provoking.  We’ve addressed topics like Christian ethics, the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, the sacraments, death, and resurrection.  For an egghead like me, this kind of stuff gets me excited.  I have been on cloud nine all quarter because I am in nerd central and I love it.

However, the other night Jenny and I were talking and she said something that really struck me:  “I feel like you are immersed in this subculture and you’re starting to speak a language that I just don’t understand.”  Her words really hit me.  I had to slow down and ask myself the question:  “Who is all this for anyway?!”  If I’m spending all this time (and money) learning theology, but it is not translating, then why am I doing it?

My conversation with my wife helped me to see that it is very easy for me (and others) to become a product of the seminary subculture rather than transforming us into leaders who are able to speak with, but also relate to and be a part of the spiritual formation of the people around us.  As such, I have to routinely remind myself that the vocabulary, practices, and viewpoints that we so often use and take for granted are not those of the world around us.  As theologians, we are presented with the ongoing challenge of “communicating timeless truths in an ever changing world”.

So who is doctrine for, anyway?  What role should theology have in the life of the local church?  What follows is my response.

THE DECLINE OF THEOLOGY IN THE AMERICAN CHURCH

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
~1 Timothy 4:16, NIV

With these words the apostle Paul charges his young protégé, Timothy, to serve faithfully as a teacher and leader in the early church. Over and over again in the Pastoral Epistles, Paul concerns himself with encouraging his successors to faithfully live out their calling as teachers of the Christian faith. His primary concern was that future generations would grow to full maturity in Christ Jesus and he saw the teaching of sound doctrine as essential to this task. Yet, in our modern context words like “doctrine”, “theology”, and “dogma” have largely been confined to academia. They stir up mental images of old buildings, older books, and long-since-dead theologians. In an age of self-help devotions and pop-theology a dedication to the sound teachings of the faith has been on the wane. YouTube sermons and celebrity pastors have replaced the catechist and the shepherd-teacher. “Why,” we reason, “would we need such outdated teachings when the latest Christian book is at our fingertips?” And so we are tossed about, like waves on the sea, “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14 NIV).

The state of the Western Church is a sad one. Rather than reflecting the image of Jesus Christ in greater and greater measure, Christians simply reflect the individualistic, pluralistic, and syncretistic inclinations of the world around them. If we were to diagnose what is happening I believe it all comes back to this: the church has lost its calling to make disciples. And while recent trends have begun to correct this deficiency they often circle around the same solutions that have led us into our present calamity: more books, more DVDs, more conferences.

So what can be done? I believe it is time for the church to rediscover the motivations which drove the apostle Paul and his contemporaries: “[Jesus Christ] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:28-29 NIV). Our calling, as teachers and preachers of the living Word is to help people grow into maturity in Christ Jesus. However, this will not happen through the same consumer-oriented methods of spiritual development that have characterized the Western Church in our modern age. Likewise, it will not take place in the sterile environment of the classroom lecture. I believe it will happen when the church re-claims its calling to teach theology in the classroom of life. In the following sections I will explore the important place of theology in the life of the church and present a framework for incorporating deep theological reflection and application into the life of the church.

REMOVING SOUND TEACHING FROM THE CHURCH

But before discussing solutions to this problem, I believe it is necessary to highlight the reasons for the decline in theological education within the context of the local church. For the purposes of this paper I want to focus on three areas.

External Pressures

In their book Grounded in the Gospel, Gary Parrett and J. I. Packer highlight that one of the greatest barriers to teaching theology in the life of the local church is increased skepticism of external authority in the Western world.[1] They note that,

Many Protestant leaders remained largely unaware that the real roots of Christianity…were being replaced by the idea that those who adhered to the church system and kept up religious appearances were still free to believe or disbelieve as their personal judgment might suggest. This liberal mindset undercuts catechesis completely, for catechesis assumes the existence of authoritative truth that needs to be taught.[2]

This skepticism toward any kind of teaching authority makes teaching theology a challenge in our increasingly postmodern world. The rise of individualism and pluralism has not helped. The result is that the idea that the individual is the sole determiner of philosophical and theological truth has taken on such widespread cultural acceptance that to challenge it virtually guarantees that one will have lost his or her audience before a single point is made.

Sadly, rather than facing this challenge, the church has largely run from it. Rather than articulating a robust, deep, and equally challenging counter-narrative of its own, the church has settled for the lowest common denominator when it comes to teaching and preaching. We have seen this at its apex during the church growth movement, in which pastors were encouraged to write seeker sensitive messages and steer away from theological mine fields like judgment, hell, the pervasiveness of Sin, and so forth. Furthermore, theology itself came to be viewed as a dry and esoteric discipline largely divorced from the complex realities of our modern Western world.

While this approach may have scored some points with church-weary seekers, it did little to win over the truly skeptical. Furthermore, it left the already-convinced Christian ill equipped with the language to defend the Christian worldview against the onslaught of counter-narratives and religious claims.

Outsourcing Theology

The second factor that has led to the decline of theological education in the local church is the outsourcing of theological training to seminaries. In its brief catalog of this trend, the New Dicitionary of Theology notes that:

It was chiefly through the scholastic writers and the new universities of Europe that theology became a more systematic exercise, a field of study and teaching, even a discipline or a science. This usage was not entirely new—it picked up pre-Christian Greek uses and some in the fathers also, but it foreshadowed the development of theology as an academic discipline no longer necessarily located in the Christian community.[3]

This shift from teaching theology in the local church context to teaching it in the academic setting has had a number of harmful effects.

First, it divorced the discipline of theology from the real-life struggles and challenges of the church in the world. As such, the discipline of systematic theology became more about defending the old doctrines and their developments and less about demonstrating the power and relevance of those doctrines for today’s world. As such, it became a largely esoteric discipline, focused more on theory and less on practice and application.

Second, this shift created the unintentional impression that theological education and study are for the professionals. Pastors and seminary professors study theology. Lay people do not. If any formal theological education was given, it was dispensed during the middle school years through confirmation classes, after which the Christian was on his or her own. Further theological reflection was not necessarily encouraged and, if it was, only was seen as for those who were interested in entering vocational ministry. As such, the average layperson was starved for lack of sound theological instruction. Again, Parrett and Packer were insightful on this point as they noted the strange influx of Christian men and women into supposedly evangelistic programs like Alpha and Christianity Explored. They write that:

These evangelistic ministry efforts are attracting large numbers of church members as well as inquirers. It seems that many who already count as believers are hungry-famished, really-for a rudimentary knowledge of the faith.[4]

By outsourcing theological education in this way we have left the church a mile wide and an inch deep when it comes to understanding even the most fundamental of Christian teachings.

Lack of Life Application

The third trend that has led to the decline in theological education within the church is the failure of many teachers of theology to helpfully apply the deep truths of doctrine to Christian life. The great agnostic thinker Robert Green Ingersoll once said, “Let us put theology out of religion. Theology has always sent the worst to heaven, the best to hell.” He noted how those most committed to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy rarely lived out the convictions that they so fervently confessed. Just as the writer of James once said, “Faith without works is dead,” so theological reflection without life transformation is also dead. If theological education is to have any future in the church, it must find ways of bringing the profound doctrines of Christian theology to bear on the character formation and personal lives of the Christians who profess them. In short, theological study must once again be grounded in the cause of making disciples. It is with this in mind that we now turn to one possible way forward.

THEOLOGY RE-APPLIED

In this section I want to briefly propose several ways forward in re-introducing theological education back into the life of the church. But before offering several concrete proposals, I think it is worth taking a few moments to re-define how we think about theology itself, as this will serve as the backdrop for the proposals which follow.

Theology Re-Defined

In the opening pages of his book, The Christian Faith, Michael Horton makes the simple but profound observation that “Theology simply means ‘the study of God,’ and doctrine means ‘teaching.’”[5] As such, he says, it is incumbent upon every Christian to take a serious interest in the field of theology, for theology is concerned with nothing less than knowing God himself. Sadly, he notes that “some Christians assume that knowing doctrine and practical living are competing interests. The modern dichotomy between doctrine and life, theology and discipleship, knowing and doing, theory and practice has had disastrous consequences in the life of the church and its witness in the world.”[6] For Horton, theology is an inescapable and necessary part of Christian discipleship for it helps Christians to orient themselves in the divine drama that God is writing in history.

Horton then goes on to highlight how doctrine arises out of this divine drama. He defines doctrines as the “grammar of faith.”[7] In much the same way that vocabulary and sentence structures help us make sense of language, doctrines, argues Horton, help us make sense of the divine narrative and locate ourselves within it. Furthermore, we are able to critically engage with that story and examine it more deeply by asking the right questions and dialoguing with it. He notes that “By questioning and testing our interpretation of God’s Word, we come to know what we believe and why we believe it, so that the grammar of faith becomes our own language of worship through which we interpret all of reality and live in the world.”[8] As such, doctrines have a way of reshaping and conforming our own categories to those of God’s divine drama.

In much the same vein J. I. Packer writes in his groundbreaking book Knowing God that, “The conviction behind the book is that ignorance of God—ignorance both of his ways and of the practice of communion with him—lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.”[9] As such, theology has a vital role to play in the life of the church not only because it helps us understand our place in God’s divine drama, but also because it grounds us and helps us make sense of the world around us. He writes:

As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesman to fly him to London, put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.[10]

When we begin to view theology in these terms we begin to see that theology is not an isolated discipline full of esoteric propositions and meaningless theorizing. Rather theology is the way by which we learn the language of faith. Not only this, but it becomes our compass in a world of competing truth claims and clashing worldviews. It grounds and it nourishes us by helping us make sense of the world and the God to whom it belongs. With this in mind, I’d like to offer three ways in which theological education can find its place back in the life of the church.

Curiosity Created the Church: Dialoguing with Modern Narratives

One of the ways that Christian theology can find its place back in the life of the church is by doing what it does best: dialoguing with the counter-narratives of the world around us. As many theologians are quick to note, the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith were articulated at times and in environments where alternative narratives were competing with the central assumptions of orthodox Christianity. Our doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity are just two of the foundational teachings of the church that grew out of intense dialogue with other philosophical and theological claims.

As such, it is incumbent upon theologians and Christian leaders to begin dialoguing with the other narratives that we find in our world which stand against the central claims of the Christian faith. This was one of the primary reasons why John Stott wrote his standard book on Christian discipleship The Contemporary Christian. In his opening chapters he calls Christians to develop the discipline of “double-listening”, which he defines as:

the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensible to Christian discipleship and Christian mission. It is only through the discipline of double listening that it is possible to become a ‘contemporary Christian’. For then we see that the adjectives ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’ are not incompatible, we learn to apply the Word to the world, and we proclaim good news which is both true and new. In sum, we live in the ‘now’ in light of the ‘then’.[11]

This discipline of double-listening is essential to the task of good theology. If theology is the language by which we make sense of our place in God’s divine drama and in the world around us, it is essential that theologians help the church bring its great and historical doctrines to bear on the challenging, multifaceted, and confusing issues of our day. Learning to ask questions like, “How does our view of the Trinity define our understanding of human relationships in a social media world?” or “How does our understanding of men and women as made in the image of God inform our view of sexual ethics?” are vital for helping Christians appropriate and live out the truths of the faith in an increasingly digital and sexualized world. If theology is truly the queen of the disciplines, then it must regain its ability to dialogue with and challenge the prevailing narratives of the world around us, and do so with insight, humility, and winsomeness.

Theology for Everyone

The second way in which theological education can benefit the church is by getting it out of the Ivory Tower and into the hands of Christian men and women. In the preface to his Small Catechism, Martin Luther spoke about the absolutely vital role that theology had in the Christian life in the following way:

The deplorable, miserable condition I discovered recently when I, too, was a visitor has forced and urged me to prepare this catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, and simple form…The common person, especially in the villages, has no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine. And unfortunately, many pastors are completely unable and unqualified to teach…Yet, everyone says that they are Christians, have been baptized, and receive the holy Sacraments, even though they cannot even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.[12]

Luther noted the lack of sound theological training more by its absence, but it was this lack that compelled him to write both his Small and Large Catechisms and insist on instructing the average layperson in them. This is made clear in his preface to the Large Catechism where he says, “This sermon is designed and undertaken to be an instruction for children and the simple folk…It teaches what every Christian must know.”[13]   For Luther and the other reformers it was necessary to teach the core doctrines of Christian faith to every believer, regardless of station, age, or degree of education. This is what led the reformers to reclaim the ancient Christian practice of catechesis, by which Christians were routinely instructed in and encouraged to live out the fundamental teachings of faith.

For the church in our day this process of catechizing the faithful is just as necessary. While we have typically done well at teaching children through Sunday schools and confirmation classes, this education must also extend to adults. This can be in the formal setting of a classroom or an informal setting such as discussion groups on the relevance of Christian teaching in the modern world. Furthermore, new technologies provide an incredible array of opportunities for Christians to offer basic forms of theological instruction to their congregants.

One recent effort that is worthy of mention here is The New City Catechism [14], an online and interactive teaching tool created to teach the fundamentals of Christian faith to both adults and children. Using an interactive combination of readings, video teaching, and memorization, this catechism is available both online and as an app for tablet computers and cell phones. This ingenious effort is just one expression of how the church can begin to teach the fundamentals of faith to its members.

But beyond discussion groups and online tools the church should regularly find ways of inviting theologians to join them for a time of corporate teaching and discussion. Congregations can host local theological conferences or partner with nearby seminaries to provide space for classes as well as opportunities for their members to grow in theological understanding. In these ways, the church can again become fertile ground for theological education and formation.

The Theologian as Disciple-maker

This last proposal is perhaps the hardest to quantify, but it has to deal with the theologian himself/herself. If theology is to reclaim its place in shaping the life of the local church, it must find expression in men and women who are not only able to teach the basics of faith, but model how those core doctrines are applied in Christian living. What I am calling for is for the theologian to increasingly view him or herself as a disciple-maker. Horton notes that our discipleship is directly tied to our understanding of theology. He writes:

“Unless we are relocated from the stories of this fading age to our identity in Christ and begin to understand the implications of this new script, our discipleship will be little more than moralism. Merely imitating Christ’s example is different from being united to Christ through faith, bearing the fruit of his resurrection life. It is the creed that gives rise to praise and therefore to informed and heartfelt love, service, and witness to our neighbors in this world. Doctrine severed from practice is dead; practice severed from doctrine is just another form of self-salvation and self-improvement. A disciple of Christ is a student of theology.”[15]

Horton’s argument is that discipleship must be grounded in the truths which theology helps us to understand and appropriate. If we are to live in light of God’s mercies, we need to understand the drama that he is writing. Failure to do so will inevitably lead us into greater idolatry or give us a faulty and unbalanced picture of Christian faith. It is easy to see why the reformers spend so much time writing catechisms and stressing the importance of educating every believer in the basics of Christian theology. Christian life and faith are inherently dependent upon a right understanding of God and his ways.

But more than this, theology must be modeled. It is the role of the theologian to teach his or her fellow Christians how to live out the truths that we profess in the classroom of life. More than simply stating how such doctrines are applied to everyday life, theologians must come alongside and model how these are lived out to their fellow Christians. In short, what I am calling for is more theologians. I define them as people rooted in the truths of Scripture, who embody the truths of faith, and who pass those on to other in word and practice. Without such models of faith we allow the other competing narratives of our time to shape and form us rather than the words of God himself, properly understood and articulated through careful study. The truth is that, ultimately, we are all “doing” theology. We all hold assumptions and stories about who God is (or is not) and what the telos of life really is, and we live these out an various intentional and unintentional ways. Theologians can help challenge those ingrained stories and force us to grapple with whether or not our lives reflect the story that God is writing. As such, every theologian, at his or her core, must dedicate him or herself to the cause of disciple-making. Theologians should have a prominent place in the life of the church as they model for their communities how to appropriate the truths of faith for everyday life. In short, my hope is that every Christian would be a theologian in the making as he or she meditates on the beauties of God and his character and seeks to live in light of the God whom we worship.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, I believe that the discipline of theology has much to give to the local church. However, whether or not it does depends on our commitment to root the truths of the faith in the life of the church and do so in a way that is compelling, insightful, and transformative. This will involve having not only a right understanding of the goal of theology, but applying that right understanding in ways that engage Christians and non-Christians at various places in their lives. This will mean re-engaging with the predominating narratives of our world, providing practical opportunities for theological education, and, perhaps most importantly, living out our theological convictions in the context of mutually enriching relationships, for such is the nature of true discipleship. In all of these ways, my hope is that we will all take to heart Paul’s great exhortation to “watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16 NIV). To God be the glory. Amen.

ENDNOTES

[1] J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett. Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old Fashioned Way. (Grand Rapids: Baker 2010), locs. 54-65.

[2] Ibid. loc. 65

[3] Ferguson, Sinclair B. and David F. Wright (eds.). The New Dictionary of Theology. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity 1988). pg. 681.

[4] Grounded in the Gospel. loc. 215.

[5] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 2011), loc. 99.

[6] Ibid., loc. 113.

[7] Ibid., loc. 240

[8] Ibid., loc. 285.

[9] Packer, J. I. Knowing God. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity 1993). pg. 12.

[10] Ibid. pg. 19.

[11] Stott, John. The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity 1992). pg. 29.

[12] McCain, Paul Timothy (gen. ed.). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. (St. Louis: Concordia 2011). pg. 446.

[13] Ibid. pg. 482.

[14] Keller, Timothy and Sam Shammas. The New City Catechism. http://www.newcitycatechism.com/

[15] Horton, The Christian Faith. loc. 336-337.

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