Why We Should Care About Doctrine (And Error)

There is no more distressing trend in the church today than the general disregard and distaste for sound doctrine. Not only do people think of doctrine as inherently impractical, but the issues of error in the church as a whole are not on people’s radar screen.

The general reason for the first part of this trend is the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment separated the noumenal realm from the phenomenal realm (a la Kant). As a result, the only things that are real are the things that we can sense with our five senses. Hence, everything became either intensely practical or intensely philosophical, and never do the two realms meet. Hence, doctrine is seen as being part of the noumenal realm, far removed from the everyday phenomenal realm. This bifurcation is largely unconscious on the part of modern day churches. Nevertheless, it is extremely prevalent. People in the pew therefore have an aversion to doctrine, because it is seen as far removed from daily life. This is not a biblical picture. If Jesus is our Immanuel, and has come to earth, lived an earthly life, died an earthly death, and told His disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth, then doctrine matters for the Christian life. We are not to separate doctrine from life.

The reason for the second part of the trend (the issue of disregard of error) is that truth has become more and more relative. If there is no such thing as absolute truth, then there is no corresponding error to refute. No one wants to say that anyone else is wrong today, in a doctrinal sense. And so the boundaries of truth are broadened. Corresponding with this broadening of the boundaries is an equal and opposite shrinking of the essentials of the Christian faith. As the boundaries of truth are broadened, so also does there need to be a shrinking of the core truths of the faith in order to make room for as many views as possible. Hence the trend away from the fuller-bodied confessions of the Reformation AS our confession of faith to a more anemic catholic-creed-only type of faith. Issues such as Scripture and justification will inevitably come under attack in such an environment, since they were not fully formulated in the early catholic creeds, but most definitely were in the Protestant Reformation.

The connection between these two halves of the attack on truth lies along these lines: if doctrine is impractical, then the pursuit of error is also impractical. Hence people don’t seem to feel the need to interact with either truth or error. A perceived over-emphasis on truth will then result in “divisiveness,” a very impractical result. What is practical is unity. What is impractical is truth. Hence, the “doctrine” (oh, the irony!) that God is love trumps the equally important doctrine that God is light. But we cannot separate the love of God from the truth and the light of God, for God is a simple (indivisible) being. Therefore, truth and unity are equally important. Neither should be sacrificed if possible. But the key here is that true unity can only be achieved around the truth, and this cannot be the anemic truth, but the full-bodied truth. This is where the confessions come into their own, because they define where the church thinks the boundaries of truth really are. The church thinks that these doctrines in the confessions are the core truths of Christianity.

So why should we care about truth and error? Ultimately, because God cares about it. The Bible speaks over and over and over of the importance of truth and the equal importance of rejecting error. Some of the Bible’s strongest language comes in these discussions (Galatians comes to mind).

None of the above should be construed as looking down on what is practical. If Christian doctrine does not result in changed lives, then it is not true doctrine. However, the definition of what is practical needs to be reformulated. What we believe is every bit as practical as what we do. Our mindset informs our choices; doctrine informs practice, and is itself practical.

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12 Comments

  1. December 30, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Do you plan to address the topic of indifference? You seem to hint at it in the above.
    The common attitude of “Whatever” is a huge problem, since it cuts off all further discussion and opts for a status quo of the lowest common denominator. It’s the frustrated, consigned outworking of the Kantian dichotomy.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    December 30, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Yeah, I kind of danced around it a bit. I think that indifference is the further step that people take when they are thoroughly convinced (even if unconsciously) of the Kantian paradigm.

  3. December 30, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    A truly Machenesque post. How much of this is due to evangelical pietism?

  4. greenbaggins said,

    December 30, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Hmm, interesting question, Martin. Pietism in its worst sense upholds the bifurcation of Kant. Piety in its best sense does not. I think that the movement of pietism that results in experience being dominant over doctrine is very much in play here. I don’t know how one would quantify that, however.

  5. December 30, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    When professing Christians are indifferent to doctrine I sometimes wonder what Bible they must be reading. Almost every epistle in the NT has a reference to error in general, and specific errorists in particular.

    Perhaps part of the rehabilitation of these categories would come from following the evocative metaphors connected with truth and error in Scripture (i.e. wolves, teaching spreading like gangrene, wind and waves, being taken captive etc.)

  6. Paige Britton said,

    December 30, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    What about the fact that most Americans are also fully convinced of the Garfield paradigm — too much food, another nap, etc., equals the good life? To go after either truth or error requires mental effort. How do you motivate your flocks to care enough to dig and evaluate and THINK about these things?

  7. December 30, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Excellent post Lane. Machen came to mind for me as well while reading it. On the sin of indifference, I just posted an excerpt from Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism here.

  8. Matthew Holst said,

    January 1, 2010 at 10:51 am

    I was recently listening to a Dr Stuart Olyott talk (if you haven’t heard of him find his sermons wherever you can!) on the subject of Biblical Spirituality. He began his talk using the following illustration which is relevant to your post:

    The CIA has a team dedicated to identifying counterfeit dollar bills and extracting them from circulation. The training is somewhat laborious – on the first day of training the trainees are shown a real dollar bill which they examine. On the second and third days they are also shown a real dollar bill to examine. This continues for the entire length of the six month course – real five dollar bills, real ten dollar bills and so on. The trainees spend months looking at the real thing. They learn to recognize the real thing. When they are shown a counterfeit, they recognize it instantly, because they are so acquainted with the real thing.

    Dr Olyott argued that the Christian church is so poor at identifying the counterfeit, because it is so unfamiliar with the real thing.

    Food for thought.

  9. Truth Unites... and Divides said,

    January 6, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Dear Lane,

    One of your best posts… ever!

    Well-done!

  10. Joshua said,

    January 7, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    “What we believe is every bit as practical as what we do.”

    Is what we do as practical as what we believe?

    If so, why don’t you speak out on public education? You home school, right?

  11. greenbaggins said,

    January 8, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Education is important to me, Joshua. As my kids get older, I’m sure I’ll write lots more about education.

  12. May 23, 2010 at 9:46 am

    [...] also has on her sidebar a link to an excellent post (Go ahead and read it.  I’ll wait here)  concerning the importance of knowing, and holding [...]


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