What image does “doctrine” evoke in your mind? Answers would probably range from meaningless discussions of unfruitful minutia of rationalistic projections by ivory-tower theologians to exciting visions of polemical engagements over distinctive points of doctrine. Both of these exercises could be called “doctrinal,” but both leave a bad taste in the mouth of contemporary Christians who are impatient with the impractical musings of theologians and fed up with the backbiting, abusive and sectarian character of polemical exchanges.
Many are searching for something more significant. They yearn for pragmatic value instead of the perplexity of intellectual gymnastics and the haughtiness of intramural Christian squabbles. Students, like church members, are skittish, suspicious and usually disheartened by any “doctrinal” discussion.
Homiletics illustrates the problem. Preaching, it is said, ought to be life-oriented, faith-building and practical. Doctrinal preaching is out of style and ineffective. Topical preaching is rejected, in part, because it is usually doctrinal preaching, and it is much easier to sneak one’s doctrinal position into a series of texts in topical preaching than when expounding a particular text. Preaching is thought more effective if it is framed psychologically or in story or in exposition, but never “doctrinal”.
This rejection of doctrinal preaching is due in large part to a reaction to the fundamentalist emphasis on polemics. There preaching focuses on peripheral issues which are unconnected with life. This is largely driven by a demand for “distinctive” preaching. What can you preach that a Baptist cannot? Or, what can a Baptist fundamentalist preacher say that distinguishes him from a Methodist? Thus, doctrinal preaching degenerates into battles over the Bible and skirmishes over distinctives. A steady diet of such preaching does not strike at the heart of the central aspects of Christianity. As a result, controversy is highlighted without the illumination of Christianity’s center, the weightier matters.
On the other hand, sermons shaped by inductive storytelling or pop psychology have the tendency to offer secular advice in religious clothing. They remain superficial and fail to probe the deeper resources of meaning and application within the Christian faith (that is, they fail to be “doctrinal”). While this perspective is driven by the nausea of the popular culture with doctrinal preaching, without doctrine there is no substance. Without reflection on the Christian faith, there is no grounding in the story of God or his revelation to us. This kind of preaching may produce a relatively healthy secular psychology, but it will foster a weak and immature faith; a faith easily tempted and seduced by the forces of humanism, materialism and pluralism in our culture. It will be a faith that adopts the values of its culture rather than challenging them.
Ellen T. Charry has argued that the function of Christian Doctrine is aretegenic, that is, it is “conducive to virtue” or it generates a virtuous life (By the Renewing of Your Minds [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977], p. 19). The purpose of Christian doctrine is character formation. Theology should give the people of God an identity (a sense of calling and status) and equip them with normative ideas and values that shape them into the image of Christ. The function of Christian doctrine is practical—to build a community which images God. Thus, the goal is neither polemical victory (to glory in being “right” on every issue) nor theological ingenuity (to glory in a “new” idea). It is pragmatic. Christian doctrine should serve God’s intent to seek a people that share his values and holiness in communion with him.
Theology is neither metaphysical speculation nor polemical exchange, but the applied story of God toward the goal of character formation. As Paul told Titus, if we will teach Christian doctrine (stress the theology of Titus 3:3-7), then the Christian community will be full of good works (Titus 3:8). This is the kind of “teaching” that is “good and profitable.” A community is shaped by its doctrine. Teachers and preachers pay heed. Doctrine must be aretegenic if it is to be biblical.