The Function of Christian “Doctrine”

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.



6 Responses to “The Function of Christian “Doctrine””

  1.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    John Mark,

    Glad to see your new blog. I will be reading it quite often and learning even more.

    Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby V

  2.   Nick Gill Says:

    I think this can be an area where language causes us to struggle. Our language, too, needs to be baptized.

    “Character formation” is rarely considered as a spiritual movement.

    “Spiritual formation” often ignores virtue, or trusts that being formed by the spirit will produce the fruit of the spirit. Trust is good, but among those who love to use “spiritual formation” language, is sometimes borders on naivete because they fall out of love with spiritual discipline while waiting for virtue to be produced.

    Character Formation… once I stop hearing my parents’ ideas about ‘building character’, I think I’ll be able to give the idea a fair hearing.

    Welcome back to the blogosphere, Dr. Hicks. Once upon a time you taught a session on the imprecatory Psalms at the Lipscomb Lectures (this would be the year that LaGard Smith was promoting ‘Radical Restoration’). My wife and I went to your session and received much blessing from your teaching and spirit.

  3. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Language always carries baggage, doesn’t it? :-) Whatever we use perhaps we should use different metaphors to convey the full weight of what it is that we are trying to communication.

    Thanks for my return welcome.

  4.   Gardner Hall Says:

    This is a balanced and needed approach to preaching and teaching. When I was a boy almost all the lessons I heard were topical and often polemical. Many my age have reacted against that extreme and now are afraid of the “doctrinal” topical approach. (Yes Nick, that’s loaded language.) Of course a good spiritual diet offers a varied style of preaching.

    I’m also glad to see you blogging again and thank you and others for being so courteous with those of us who aren’t nearly as well read as you are and occasionally offer other points of view.

  5.   Nick Gill Says:

    I don’t think we can avoid topical and doctrinal preaching without rendering great harm to the body. Much of Paul’s work in the Epistles is topical in nature. But it is also intensely Christological, and that is where our style of study and interpretation often fails.

    Doctrine is a loaded term these days, but it is a good term that deserves to be unpacked and used as often as possible.

  6.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    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.

    Well said.
    As Paul so aptly teaches, it is no longer I that lives but Christ lives in me.
    We as Christians and members of the assembly of Christ are to take up the divine nature, by taking upon ourselves the character qualities as expressed by Christ to the will of God.
    In Romans the 12th chapter Paul states that this is a reasonable service, to god.
    Faithfulness to the gospel of Christ is a necessity to the best of our ability.
    2Th 1:3 We are bound to give thanks to God always to you, brethren, even as it is meet, for that your faith growth exceedingly, and the love of each one of you all toward one another aboundeth;
    2Th 1:4 so that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which ye endure;
    2Th 1:5 which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God; to the end that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer:
    2Th 1:6 if so be that it is righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you,
    2Th 1:7 and to you that are afflicted rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire,
    2Th 1:8 rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus:
    2Th 1:9 who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
    2Th 1:10 when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at in all them that believed (because our testimony unto you was believed) in that day.

    Blessings John Mark from your brother Rich in California

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