On Doctrine and Practice
A charge that is made repeatedly against historic Christianity is that its stress on doctrine makes it authoritarian, theoretical, and cold. The Christian religion is a practical affair; putting the faith in terms of truth to be believed alienates or repels many who would otherwise be sympathetic. As John Robinson puts it, ‘the effect of the Church’s work has been to strip the Christ of his incognito. It has placarded him to men as the Son of God without allowing them to meet him as the Son of Man. It has said to men: “We have the Christ, defined in our creeds, present in our churches, speaking with final authority in our codes. Come to him there. Acknowledge him as Lord and as God”‘ (The New Reformation? p. 37). Alternatively the charge is that stress on doctrinal truth makes Christianity joyless and hard.
This is a serious accusation. If the historic faith does this, or appears to many to do this, then something is wrong with the way in which it is presented. The Bible is a practical book, and the first Christians were transformed men who were far from being joyless and hard. On these grounds any witness that is content with being theoretical is clearly defective. Such a charge deserves to be thought about carefully, from whatever quarter it comes. But before a possible response is considered it would be well to consider some of the other approaches that are currently available in the Christian church.
First, the answer of a ‘radical’ such as Robinson. He tackles the problem by defining the Christian message in terms of its effectiveness. Commenting on the statement of the 39 Articles that the Church is ‘a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments. . . duly administered’, he says ‘For the fact remains that to larger and larger numbers of our generation this is simply not gospel, it evokes no sense of good news, however purely the Word is preached and however the Sacraments are administered. And a Church which is identified with this function becomes progressively more irrelevant’ (p. 33). Because what is taught ‘evokes no sense of good news’ (which he assumes to be universally true) the message must be changed.
Robinson’s own recipe is to start from the other end; not from revelation, but relationships. Not authoritative truth, but the truth of experience. Christ must be made incognito; men must ‘discover the authority in the experience, the revelation in the relationship’ (p. 37).
But once the Christian Church allows itself to define its message in terms of effects (however understood) then it is throwing away the possibility of checking the perennial threat of relativism and subjectivism. Is this not idolatry? One can respect Robinson’s desire to see the Church a more effective instrument, and allow that he is raising perfectly proper questions, but the answer cannot be to say that what modern man (or any man) cannot accept cannot be the gospel. ‘If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ’. The answer of radicals like Robinson is that the check against relativism lies in the sanctity of human relationships; these provide the absolute standard against which the passing fashions of presenting the message of the Church must be measured. There are obvious reasons why this will not do. It is significant that he is able to take this view because he regards doctrine simply as ‘the definition of experience’. Christian doctrine is not teaching from God. It is a varying (and variable) account of the experience of men with God. It is via the sanctity of human relationships, coming to men ‘where they are’, that the Christian message is to be taught. It is wrong to present a supernatural Christ as the Saviour from sin, but one who is ‘a completely human man’ and to show, starting from this point, his uniqueness, the significance for men of this human life of Jesus. ‘And that significance is independent of how physically or metaphysically, historically or mythologically, individual Christians may take the stories — on which they may legitimately differ’ (p. 43).
It is a well-known fact that many evangelicals are wary of theology. Doctrine is said to be ‘divisive’ and ‘intellectual’. It is not surprising then that the message of such people should have a minimal doctrinal content, and make its main appeal to the emotions and not to the mind. The thinking behind the ‘new look’ pop evangelism seems to be that young people should be confronted with Christ ‘where they are’, in an idiom with which they are completely at home. The message must be packaged so that it will have an instant appeal. How else could one explain an event such as ‘An Evening with Judy and Nigel’ reported in the Christian Record (6 March, 1970), as follows: under the heading ‘Christian “pop” reaches the top’ Micheal Jacob wrote, ‘The real stars of the evening though were “Out of Darkness”, a polished and exciting little band who played hard rock with verve and professionalism. Each member of the group was outstanding, and their set was all too short, leaving a disappointed audience shouting for more. . . pixieish Nigel Goodwin performed a poem, acted in a short play and delivered the message at the end. A vision in purple shirt and black velvet waistcoat suit, his talents were rather underexposed.’
Such a display could be put on by Christians on the sole grounds that only by adopting the style and values of its contemporaries can the Church hope to show the relevance of Christianity, and be able to speak to men with integrity and in a language that they can understand.
But this approach, like that of the radicals, is completely self-defeating. So far from showing the relevance of the Christian faith it effectively smothers it. The nearer and nearer one approaches the level of the audience less and less does the gospel remain to convict and challenge. And this strategy is an essentially unstable one. What will happen if these methods fail to get a satisfactory response? Will the message be reshaped, or the methods changed? The temptation to do the former will be almost irresistible. It is not exaggerating to say that already in much popular evangelism of this type the centrality of the cross of Christ has gone and has been replaced by a vague, subjective, almost mystical version of Christianity involving ‘taking Jesus into your life’.
The suggestion that the methods of the radicals and ‘pop’ evangelicals are essentially the same does not imply that the two are indistinguishable. That would be absurd. They are two present-day examples of well-intentioned but dangerous thinking about ‘communication’. The trouble is that they are based on the belief that if believer and unbeliever can get on to common ground this will give the faith greater leverage and success.
This is wrong. But what is to be put in its place? It is not sufficient to be negative. How is the Christian faith to be presented in a way that will be meaningful without compromising its truth?
The biblical view of ‘doctrine’ is that it is simply divine teaching, God’s ‘word’ about himself, human need, and his remedy. It is not a description of the religious experience of men, though it is perfectly true that God has used the experience of men to teach us truth about himself and ourselves — in the Psalter for example. Because it is divine truth it is essentially unalterable. To change it would be to change the truth of God into a lie. And, because God is one, and his word is truth, that word although it contains unfathomable depths, is capable of being given systematic expression; though admittedly the best systematic theology is grossly imperfect.
This view of doctrine as revealed truth must be the presupposition of any effort at communicating the gospel that would itself be biblical. But the question still nags — What duties are involved in speaking this doctrine to men?
If Christians stop at the point where they have stated that Christian truth is God’s revelation then they stop short of their duty. The next step is to ask of every aspect of God’s truth that the Church teaches: What difference does this make, or is this intended to make, to the thinking and living of men and women? If the problem of ‘communicating the gospel’ is approached in this way there are several distinct advantages. In the first place it keeps the truth of God intact; it makes his revelation the starting point, and removes the temptation to modify it. Further, it gives prominence to what Reformed Christians, with their emphasis on the systematic confession of God’s truth, are in danger of neglecting, that the Christian message is designed to change men. Efforts at making precise what God is saying should not be slackened, but these ought to be seen as first necessary steps in showing how his truth is meant to re-orientate men and women.
The Bible is a practical book, not in the sense that its pages have an inspirational and uplifting effect, or that it is a handbook of practical hints. Rather, it is intended to make a man ‘wise unto salvation’. The stress of the New Testament is not on passive reception of divine truth, or on a theoretical entertaining of it, but on action — a pilgrimage, a race, a conflict. And God’s truth is to have the function of ‘servicing’ men for this action. A final advantage that this way of putting the problem has is that it provides an important check. It makes Christians ask, What is this doctrine to me? Is it religious jargon, or living truth?
How this approach might work out in practice can be illustrated by the biblical doctrine of election. The idea that many have of election is that it is a shibboleth, and a perpetual cause of friction in Church life. And this may partly be because it is too often taught in an abstract way. Why is election a part of God’s truth to men? What would be lost if the Bible was silent on the matter? What is its teaching intended (by God, the revealer of this truth) to do to us? What response is it designed to secure? What difference ought it to make to a person if he is persuaded of its truth? In asking these questions attention is directed away from theoretical considerations (though this is not to deny that any exposition of election ought to be as correct as can be) and put on a practical footing. This is how Paul expounds it; he links it with humility (Col. 3:12), and with the provision of confidence in God and assurance (Romans 8).
Of course this approach is not novel, but is a restatement of the Puritans’ emphasis on the ‘uses’ of doctrine, of their emphasis on the need to ‘improve’ and to ‘reduce to practice’ what is believed; and also on their insistence on seeing Christian truth as ‘practical divinity’. It follows from this that, if teaching is to be biblical, then it will not only be doctrinally exact, and doctrinally proportioned, but will also see that biblical truths are not forced out of their biblical setting. One of the dangers of publicly teaching from Confessions of Faith and such like is that doctrine is torn out of its biblical setting, and so runs the danger of not doing the work it is intended to do.
Today most Englishmen have not the faintest notion of what it is to be a Christian. They are suspicious of religion, and full of misconceptions. They cannot be expected to swallow something that is remote and foreign to them just because it is labelled Christian’ (If they do swallow it in this fashion then, in the present situation, something is wrong). Nor can they be expected to get interested in something that is dry and theoretical. At such times the expounding of the Christian faith will largely consist in showing, as patiently and unobtrusively as possible, just what God’s truth is intended to do. That is, what being a Christian means. This demands care and integrity.
This article was first published in the May 1970 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.
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