Lesson 1 - Biblical Doctrine

LESSON 1

Biblical Doctrine

 

 

Our doctrines are the body and systems of teachings that relate to our theology.  They represent what we believe about God, his revelation of himself to us, and the salvation that he has offered us.  Denominations are typically defined by their doctrine.  Every denomination has doctrines that define who they are as an organization.   Each has something specific that they believe which makes them unique.  This unique belief was held so firmly that at some point in the past, those who held to those beliefs were willing to separate themselves and form their own group of like-minded believers.  For some people, we have chosen to belong to a particular denomination specifically because of those beliefs.  For others, we may belong to a denomination and honestly do not even know how or why it is distinct from other groups.  We just know that we are comfortable in that particular church organization.  At the core of every religious organization, however, are biblical interpretations that are unique and different from other organizations.  Those differences may be subtle or they may be significant, but they are there nonetheless.

As we learn and grow and fellowship together with those in our local church, we are exposed to these unique views – even when we do not even realize it.  As a result, we begin to build biases in our thinking – even in our terminology - that are centered about our denominational doctrines.  Sometimes even small differences in meaning can be magnified simply because of terminology.  Eventually, we begin to see our doctrines all throughout scripture – not necessarily because they exist that way in scripture – perhaps they do and perhaps they do not – but we see them that way because we have been taught to see them that way.

Even within denominations, however, there can be differences in biblical interpretation simply due to how we as individuals process things differently.  There is a book by a gentleman named Richard Foster called Streams of Living Water that explains these differences in how we process things spiritually.  He calls them our spiritual personalities, and they affect how we look at everything spiritually, including how we read and understand God’s word.  He mentions six of them specifically.

The Contemplative personality is a spiritual personality that generally views the world from the perspective of a prayer-filled life, filtering all of their experiences through a focus on prayer and personal communion with God.

The Holiness personality is a spiritual personality that views the world through the lens of a virtuous life.  They understand all of their experiences in how those experiences affect their ability to live holy.

The Charismatic personality is a spiritual personality that focuses on the power of the Holy Spirit in their life.  These individuals will tend to seek out the movement and power of the Holy Spirit in their experiences.

The Social Justice personality looks to the needy and the hurting in the world and focuses their attention on meeting the needs of others.  They seek to lead a compassionate life and see scripture through its commands to be merciful.

The Evangelical personality sees the world – and scripture - through its commands to spread the gospel.  These people focus on God’s word and see scripture from the perspective of God’s revelation to mankind.

Finally, the Incarnational personality sees things religiously.  They try to live a sacramental life and see scripture from the perspective of the religious rituals and how they impact our lives daily.

At times, you may have tendencies for more than one of these personalities, but in general one is typically dominant in your life.  It affects how you interpret all of your life experiences.

 

Both of these – our historical doctrinal perspective as well as our individual spiritual personality– can bias the way we study and interpret God’s word.

The Theological Process

 

The idea behind the theological process is to put aside our doctrinal and spiritual personality biases and see God’s word the way he intended for us to see it. The purpose of this lesson is not to question or challenge any of your doctrines nor is it to tell you that your specific denominational doctrine is somehow wrong or flawed.  Rather, the purpose of this lesson is to allow God’s word to inform your beliefs and doctrines rather than having your understanding of scripture being biased by either your doctrine or your spiritual personality.  While we should all have great respect for our denominational doctrines, this lesson challenges you to look beyond what you may have been taught to rely primarily on scripture as the source of your doctrinal beliefs.

All theological study should begin with a process called exegesis – which means to get out.   Exegesis is the process of determining what a given scripture means.  The idea is to get the original meaning out of scripture rather than forcing an interpretation into scripture.  Exegesis is passage-oriented study, where we take a passage (as opposed to a topic) and try to learn what it means.  We do our best not to interpret it based on our beliefs.  Rather, we learn first what it means and then let that inform our beliefs.  And while we know that scripture is alive and active and speaks to us in our world today, we recognize that scripture can never mean to us today what it did not mean to those who first wrote and read it.

Although exegesis is the means by which we interpret any particular passage of scripture, it is through one of the five different types of theological study that we enhance our understanding of scripture. Those include Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology, Philosophical Theology, Practical Theology, and Apologetics.

 Systematic Theology is the process by which we systematically search the scripture to determining the full counsel of scripture regarding a given subject.  Systematic Theology focuses on a thematic progression of the subject in scripture.   For example, what if we wanted to study the topic of prayer?  Systematic Theology would search throughout all of scripture and put together a complete picture of what scripture has to say about prayer and then draw conclusions from that study. In doing so, we do not pick and choose which scriptures that we consider and which we ignore in order to justify our existing beliefs; but rather, we study everything scripture has to say about a subject and determine what we believe based upon a full examination of the topic.  Hopefully scripture will support our pre-existing beliefs, but occasionally we find that our beliefs need to be adjusted based on what we discovered in scripture.

Biblical Theology is the branch of study that is focused on the progressive revelation of God in scripture.  It is similar to Systematic Theology except it focuses on a historical progression of a topic instead of a thematic progression.  Biblical Theology looks at scripture from the perspective of the progressive revelation of God throughout history.  For example, how did the revelation of God’s plan of salvation progress throughout history?  Biblical Theology would look at the differences in how God revealed his plan of salvation in Genesis from how he revealed it to the prophets.  This would be compared first of all to how it was proclaimed by Christ himself and then taught (through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) by Peter, Paul, and the other early church leaders.  Biblical Theology is very useful in defending the biblical inerrancy of scripture because it looks at why such differences in revelation exist.

Philosophical Theology is a method of study that uses philosophical techniques to analyze theological concepts.  In addition to relying on the biblical record, Philosophical Theology also relies on rational thinking and similar arguments to make its points. Philosophy of Religion is a branch of philosophy that focuses primarily on Philosophical Theology.  Philosophical Theology is very useful in making arguments for and defending the existence of God.  It is also very helpful in any form of apologetics (see below).

Practical Theology is the practical application of theology to everyday life.  Practical Theology asks such questions as what is going on in a given biblical situation?  Why is that situation happening?   What should be going on in the situation?  And ultimately, how should we respond today based on the situation?  Practical Theology focuses heavily on the stories and circumstances of the bible and how they relate us today.

Finally, apologetics is the defense of doctrinal beliefs.  Apologetics is not so much concerned with establishing doctrinal beliefs or even in evangelizing souls as it is in defending existing doctrinal beliefs.   Apologetics uses all of the above listed theological approaches, plus experiences in history, plus whatever other information may be available in order to create its defense arguments.  Apologetics works on the understanding that there are times when the goal is not to save a soul, but rather to provide confidence that one’s beliefs are valid.

 

Doctrinal Differences

 

Psalm 133:1 says “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”  That, indeed, is the ideal.  In fact, in 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul strongly urges the Corinthian believers not to have divisions, but to be united in their thinking.   Such passages urging Christian unity exist throughout the New Testament.  As Christians, we are never more effective in ministry than when we are in unity – and we are never more ineffective than when we are divided.

Unfortunately, we know that no matter how hard we try to remain in unison, there will always be doctrinal differences that have to be dealt with. Paul actually admitted this as well in1 Corinthians 11:18 and said that (even though they are not ideal) such differences in biblical interpretation are necessary to point out error in the church.  

If we are not careful about our differences of opinion, though, we will end up spending all of our energies arguing over minor issues that have little relevance to either our salvation or our daily Christian walk.  That is not to say that any such differences in interpretation or doctrine are not important; but they need to be placed in their proper perspective so that we don’t harm our Christian fellowship – and effectiveness - as a result. 

There is a statement that has been circulating within Christianity for many, many years. No one knows for certain who stated it first, but some believe the statement goes back as far as St. Augustine of Hippo.  It is a very important encouragement to remember as we begin to study the doctrines of scripture.  The statement reads simply as follows:

 

In necessary things, unity.

In doubtful things, liberty.

In all things, charity.

 

In other words, there are certain essential doctrines about which every Christian must be in unity.  As the statement says, it is necessary that we remain in unity concerning these doctrines because they are so significant to our faith.   However, there are other doctrines that may be important, but about which we have legitimate doubts and disagreements.  Because they are less essential doctrines, we must give each other the liberty – or freedom – to disagree about them.  Certainly, with respect to some of these, we will have extremely strong feelings, believing our view to be the only correct view; but we still need to give our brothers and sisters in Christ the freedom to disagree with us without there being hostility towards one another.  As such, we need to have Christian charity regarding all such disagreements.  We don’t have to agree, but we ought not to be disagreeable. That means, for some things, we simply have to admit that we disagree – and as long as it isn’t one of the “necessary” things, we have to be alright with that.

The question then becomes when is it alright to disagree and when should we insist on being in agreement?  In order to answer that question, we need some way to classify our doctrines by their relative importance.  Are they necessary, doubtful, or something altogether else.  The following is a suggestion for how to do that.

Absolute Doctrines. The first, and most important, classification of our doctrines we should refer to as absolutes doctrines.  Absolute doctrines are those Biblical interpretations about which we must be in agreement in order to call ourselves brothers and sisters in Christ. These are the “necessary” things from the statement listed above. They represent issues that are so important to our Christian faith that we would typically consider those who disagree with us about them to be heretics – not saved.  In other words, we cannot be in Christian fellowship with those who disagree with us about these things.  Believe it or not, this author would consider the list of absolutes to be fairly small.  For example, the following would be included on that list:

       The Holy Trinity

       The Inerrancy of Scripture

       The Hypostatic Nature of Jesus (i.e., that he was both 100% man and 100% God)

       The Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus

       Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus alone

       The Return of Christ

There are one or two others that this author would add to this list that were intentionally left off. Take a moment to contemplate what you think those might be.   For now, however, let us consider these as being an example of several of the absolute doctrines.

The reason these are considered absolute doctrines is because they are critical to our understanding of salvation.  Later in this lesson we will look at how to determine whether or not a doctrine should be considered absolute.    

Most Christian organizations have some form of Statement of Faith or Confession.   In them, you will likely find each of the above mentioned doctrines explicitly stated.  Any organization that does not believe in those doctrines should not be considered a Christian organization.

Doctrines of Conviction.  The second classification of doctrines is those we call our doctrines of convictions.  Convictions are those Biblical interpretations that we feel very strongly about, but we acknowledge that alternate interpretations reasonably exist.  We don’t believe those alternate interpretations are accurate, but we would not call those who believe in them to be heretics.  Rather than say they are not saved, we would say they are just in error.  Because we believe so firmly in these interpretations and are likely to debate strongly in their defense, we probably will not be part of the same faith family with those who disagree – even though we can still call each other brothers and sisters in Christ.   Christian fellowship exists between you, but such fellowship is limited. 

Big theological issues that are heavily debated issues fall into this category of convictions.  Because they are held in such deep conviction, it is very common that that they will also be listed in an organization’s Statement of Faith right along with the more absolute doctrines listed above.  To that organization, these doctrines are just as important as the absolute doctrines because the organization holds so firmly to those beliefs.  It is important, however, that we don’t hold so tightly to these beliefs that we forget about that important exhortation – “in doubtful things, liberty.”  Just because someone disagrees with you on one of these doctrines of conviction does not mean they are necessarily a heretic – or unsaved.

Some beliefs that fall into this category include such controversial topics as predestination, mode of baptism, church structure, treatment of the Lord’s Supper, and the like.  For this reason, denominations are largely divided around these deeply held convictions.  Truthfully, however, many of the things that we hold as convictions should more rightfully be treated as opinions (see below); but in our own sinfulness we create divisions among ourselves that ought not to exist.

Personal Opinions.  The third classification of doctrines we call our opinions.  Opinions are those Biblical interpretations that we believe to be true, but we are not so deeply convicted about them that we would necessarily separate ourselves from those who disagree with us about them.  We acknowledge that others legitimately disagree with our interpretation and it is possible that we may not be entirely dogmatic about it ourselves.  We generally have no problem being part of the same faith family as those who disagree with us about these issues.  In other words, we can agreeably disagree about them and Christian fellowship comes easily despite our disagreement.  The vast majority of our doctrinal differences ought to fall into this category, but too often we elevate what should be an opinion to a level of conviction, creating division in the church and sometimes going so far as to separate ourselves from those who disagree with us.

Questions. The final classification of doctrines is those doctrines that would be considered questions.  Questions are those Biblical interpretations for which we honestly have not determined how we really believe.  Questions fall primarily into two categories – those for which we have not yet taken the time to fully study and form a solid belief; and those for which we have studied in great depth and have, as a result, come to an acknowledgement that a real question exists regarding the proper interpretation.   For younger Christians, many doctrines should fall into the first group simply because the young Christian has not had the opportunity to form his own beliefs.  However, what normally happens is that young Christians are “taught” what to believe by older Christians without the benefit of the young Christian actually studying the relevant scriptures to determine if that belief is appropriate. 

For the mature Christians who have studied scripture more intently, their questions typically move into the opinion or conviction category as knowledge on the subject is gained.  Occasionally, however, a mature Christian will see that there are still some mysteries in scripture and will resolve themselves not to take a hard stance on an issue that is not clearly answered in scripture.

Unfortunately, knowing the different classifications for our beliefs is only part of the question.  We still have to determine into which category our beliefs fall so that we will know how strongly to defend them.  Do we really want to argue endlessly over a very irrelevant issue such as ______________________(you can fill in the blank with an issue you think is not very relevant – but as surely as the author fills in the blank, someone will argue with him that the issue is not irrelevant).  On the other hand, we would never stand for someone to come into our church and tell us that the Trinity does not exist – and we would defend that truth strongly.  We defend the more essential doctrines – but we do so in Christian charity – while we give grace on the less essential doctrines.

For this reason, it is important that we properly categorize our beliefs.  Some of the greatest disunity we have as Christians occurs when we disagree about which of these categories a particular issue falls.  This happens when we become so convinced that our interpretation of scripture is right that we are unwilling to accept the possibility that other interpretations exist – and we are even less willing to admit that perhaps the other interpretation may be more right than our own.  In those cases, a belief that started out as a question moves quickly up to an opinion, then to a conviction, or possibly even an absolute.  In some cases, such an elevation of the doctrine may be absolutely appropriate; but in other cases, it is the result of our unwillingness to admit that not every question in scripture has to be answered with certainty.  After all, we are still called to live by faith and Deuteronomy 20:29 does say that God still keeps some secret things to himself.

Consider the following example.  A majority of evangelical and orthodox Christians would be in agreement regarding a belief in the physical return of Jesus Christ at some point in the future, but there are those that believe that his promise to return is symbolic and not literal.   Those of us who believe in the physical return probably do so very strongly – with great conviction – and we would defend that belief and probably make some statement about it in our organization’s confession of faith.  However, what do you think about the timing of Jesus’ return?  Will there be a literal seven years of tribulation?  Will he return before, in the middle of, or at the end of that tribulation?  Will there be a literal 1000 year reign?  Will he wait and not return until the end of millennial reign? There are many views, beliefs, and opinions on this and sometimes they result in disagreements or even arguments.  But that precisely is the point: should these disagreements rise to the level of conviction or absolute doctrine?  Should we refuse Christian fellowship because someone does not agree with us on one or more of these issues?  We probably should not, but there are people who place extreme significance on this issue – even to the point of separating themselves from those who disagree with them.  This kind of elevating non-essential issues to higher levels of doctrine can cause unnecessary disunity among the brethren. 

That, of course, raises the important question: how do you know how important a particular doctrine should be?

 

Determining Doctrinal Categories

 

There are, fortunately, a number of ways that we can figure out into which category a particular doctrine should be placed – and therefore be able to discern how to respond to those who may disagree with us regarding those doctrines.  Of course, even after going through this process, there remains still a chance that we may disagree regarding its importance.  For that reason, we need to remember to maintain our Christian charity towards each other even in these disagreements.

Biblical Clarity.  The first thing to consider when deciding into which category a particular doctrine should be placed is its Biblical clarity.  We must ask ourselves the question: how clear is scripture regarding this subject?   God will be very clear on those things that are very essential.   If scripture is not very clear, then we may need to acknowledge that other, legitimate interpretations may exist.   If we have to “twist” an interpretation of a particular scripture to make our understanding of the doctrine work, then perhaps we also need to acknowledge that others may legitimately interpret those scriptures differently. 

Relevance to the Character of God.  Another question to ask when trying to determine the relative significance of a doctrine is the extent to which the doctrine reveals the character of God.   How we understand God is critical to our understanding of not only our need for God’s salvation, but also the way in which we approach God to obtain that salvation.  Therefore, if an issue deals with the character of God, it is more likely to be an essential doctrine.

Relevance to the Essence of the Gospel.  In that same line of thinking, one should also ask the question as to the relevance that the doctrine has towards the essence of the gospel itself.  The heart of Christianity is the gospel message that God has offered mankind salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  Any doctrine that deals with the essentials of this gospel it is more likely to be an essential doctrine.

Biblical Frequency and Significance.  One of the most dangerous things we can do is develop a significant doctrine around a single reference in scripture – especially if we take that reference out of its proper context.  In reality, the more significant doctrines will likely be those that are repeated frequently in scripture or are given great significance in scripture.

Effect on Other Doctrines.  We should also look at how the issue affects other doctrines.   God is not the author of confusion, so if the issue tends to confuse other doctrines, we probably do not have a good understanding of the doctrine.  If the doctrine is an isolated doctrine, not dependent upon or affecting other doctrines, it may be a less essential doctrine.  On the other hand, if it is an issue that clarifies and strengthens other doctrines, it is more likely to be an essential doctrine.

Effect on Personal and Church Life. God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.  Therefore, if the issue affects how we live our lives or how the church operates, it is more likely to be an essential doctrine.

Consensus among Christians (past and present).  Finally, even though man’s understanding of God’s word can never be as authoritative as God’s word itself, we still cannot ignore the long-standing tradition of thousands of years of testimony by Christians.  If Christians throughout the ages have traditionally agreed on the issue, it is more likely to be an essential doctrine.  By contrast, if there has been significant controversy over the issue and it has not been definitively resolved, it is less likely to be an essential doctrine.  Likewise, just because you may have been taught a particular doctrine since you were a child does NOT mean it is a more important doctrine.  Within any particular denomination, less essential doctrines are often taught with equal importance to absolute doctrines. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that, so long as you recognize that it may be OK for others to disagree with you on those doctrines.

 

Using these tests, let us now consider some of the absolute doctrines we listed earlier in this lesson and test them to see if we can agree on whether they really are absolute doctrines.  We would not necessarily expect each doctrine to pass every criterion above, but there ought to be enough indication from the criteria to convince us that they are rightfully called absolute doctrines.

The Trinity.  The concept of the Trinity was not fully realized until after the ascension of Christ into heaven.  However, there is still considerable biblical evidence of the Trinity.  Each person of the Trinity is referenced as God in numerous places in scripture; and all three are listed together in several places (notably at Jesus’ baptism and in the Great Commission).  The doctrine of the Trinity is essential to our salvation and it is essential to our life as Christians – with each of the three persons of the Trinity playing key and critical roles.  Furthermore, given the way in which the concept of the Trinity was heavily debated, formally adopted at several early church councils, and then subsequently incorporated into several creeds, we can certainly say that there is consensus among Christians both past and present.

The Inerrancy of Scripture.  The bible itself speaks very clearly that all scripture is the very inspired words of God – and we know from the character of God and from scripture that God cannot lie.  Our entire faith depends upon the inerrancy of scripture, and Christians both past and present have believed in and relied upon its inerrant truth.

The Hypostatic Nature of Jesus.  Like the Trinity, this is a doctrine that wasn’t so clear based strictly on scripture because it is not explicitly stated anywhere in scripture.  However, scripture does clearly refer to the MAN Jesus Christ, and scripture does clearly refer to Jesus Christ as GOD.  When we discuss this doctrine in the Basic Theology course, we will see that this doctrine is absolutely critical to our salvation; and, like the doctrine of the Trinity, it is an issue that was hotly debated but ultimately settled through early church councils.  Christians throughout history have believed in the hypostatic nature of Jesus Christ.

The Death Burial and Resurrection of Jesus.  In terms of biblical clarity, we need no further proof than the Apostle Paul’s discussion of the importance of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in 1 Corinthians 15.  Paul makes it unquestionably clear why this doctrine is so essential to our faith.  Without it, our faith is hopeless.

Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus alone.  We can rely once again on Paul for our evidence that this is an essential doctrine.  Not only does Paul repeat it frequently in his writings, but he wrote an entire book – the Epistle to the Galatians – to expressly make this doctrine clear.  Indeed, it was the belief in the essential nature of this doctrine that ultimately caused the Protestant reformation, because Martin Luther believed that the Roman Catholic Church during that day was teaching salvation by means other than grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

The Return of Christ.   While there is much disagreement about the details surrounding the return of Christ, the biblical evidence is more than clear that Christ will return.  Jesus Christ himself repeated this and all four gospels speak of it.  Paul spoke of it repeatedly and it is the culmination of the book of Revelation.  It is no surprise that all of the early creeds included language concerning the return of Christ.

 

This, therefore, raises the question as to other doctrines.  Are there other “absolute” doctrines?  If they are not absolute doctrines, then in which category should we place them? Consider for yourself how you might classify some of the following issues and doctrines:  The virgin birth of Jesus, baptism by immersion as opposed to sprinkling, predestination, which Bible translation to use, and the Rapture of the Church.  Evaluate these concepts against the criteria listed above – indeed; evaluate all your doctrinal beliefs carefully against these criteria.   If you truly believe they are absolute doctrines, then treat them as such – with utmost respect, defending them as necessary.  If not, then perhaps you still have very deep convictions about them.  That is great, but understand that maybe others believe just as strongly – but differently – than you do.  And since it is not an absolute doctrine, then we must give each other a measure of grace on the subject.

 

In conclusion, we know that the ultimate goal of our Christian fellowship with each other is to remain in unity – both in mind and in spirit.   That means we must strive to be in agreement as much as is possible – especially about such important topics as biblical doctrines.  However, we know that there will be issues over which we may never be in agreement.  We also know that Satan will constantly be trying to introduce error in the church not only to pull us away from truth but also to create division in our midst.   To minimize the division while still being diligent to keep error and heresy out of the church, we must be able to not only recognize truth from error, but be willing to accept the possibility that we ourselves are the one in error – as least with respect to some of these less essential, less definitive doctrines.  Knowing the difference, therefore, between doctrines that are absolute and those that are merely opinions and questions can help minimize the discord that would otherwise develop as a result of our doctrinal disagreements.

 


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