Doctrine – which looks at things like the trinity, the end times, salvation, justification, sanctification – is the careful (or, perhaps tedious) explanation of the various things (propositions, to philosophers) that Christians (or some Christians, or the best Christians, or at least our kind of Christians) believe. Doctrine is what we use to figure out who has it right and who has it wrong (and how to convince them that they are wrong).
That, of course, is the worst case scenario. In contrast, doctrine is also the valiant attempt to really understand what the Bible tells us about God, about us, about the world we live in, and about the world to come—carefully explained and logically organized. Well-written doctrine leads us through Bible passages on any given topic, explains them, fits them together, and shows us Who God is more clearly—and who we are. I have sometimes been overcome by the awesome love of God while reading doctrine.
Enter Anthony Thiselton.
In his book, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine, Thiselton tackles the problem of doctrine that is answering questions nobody is asking. And to fix that problem, he suggests that we take all the methods that we use to look at what the Bible says and then to figure out what it means – that’s hermeneutics – and use those methods to look at doctrine itself with fresh eyes. We can see what it says. But can we figure out what these doctrines mean … to us … today?
So, let’s think about doctrine in general. What do you know about topics like the nature of human beings, the nature of sin, the atonement, the nature of Jesus/the Holy Spirit/God, the Father/the Trinity, about the Church, the Sacraments, and the end times. Do you know too many answers without interesting questions? Or do you have too many questions without helpful answers?
And if you have time to look up a few Bible passages, read a couple of the verses listed below. The authors aren’t answering questions about how God created the world. Their questions are different. Are any of them yours?
Ps 121:2; Ps 33:6-7; Ps 148:7-8; Deut 32:10; Isa 34:11; Ps 8:3-8; 2 Cor 4:1-6; Col 1:15; 3:10; Heb 1:3.
Note: Despite the title, I don’t actually mean to say that all past doctrine is useless because it is answering the wrong questions. However, with the help of Anthony Thiselton, I would like to look at the ways it might be helpful in answering different questions than those we usually ask of it.
Here are the questions that our class came up with from the verses above, when the answer is: In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and God created human beings in his own image.
- What do I have to praise God for?
- Why should I believe God can help me?
- What about people (including me!) who get away with evil?
- How do I know I’m important to God?
- Why is Jesus such a big deal?
- What is a human being supposed to be like?