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No Creed but Christ

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The "Back Page" of the April 2009 edition of Christianity Today contains an article by Chuck Colson called "Doctrine Bears Repeating." In the article, Colson argues that the church needs to get back to teaching doctrine. Citing several examples of rampant biblical illiteracy among church-goers as evidence, Colson makes his point unavoidably clear with his final words: "The greatest challenge for serious Christians today is not re-inventing Christianity, but rediscovering its core teachings." [1] This one sentence accurately summarizes the primary issue facing the modern church. Ironically, the modern church is doing everything that it can to avoid this very issue.

If you spend any amount of time in the church today, you will undoubtedly hear the phrase "doctrine divides." These two words are almost always followed up by six others—which serve as a mission statement of sorts—and go something like this: "I have no creed but Christ." Although this pious-sounding series of words is meant to end theological discussions, it does nothing of the sort. When someone says they have "no creed but Christ," which Jesus Christ do they mean? Are they thinking about the desert nomad Jesus, who walked everywhere He went and preached peace and reconciliation, or are they thinking about the righteously indignant Jesus who overturned commerce and money tables in the temple? Maybe they have in mind the suffering Jesus, unselfishly obeying His Father's will and taking the sins of His people on Himself, or maybe they have in mind the conquering Jesus, with flaming eyes and a robe of blood, riding a white horse from heaven to judge the nations and rule them with a rod of iron. The problem isn't with having "no creed but Christ," the problem lies with what is meant by this.

Any time we discuss the Bible, or what God expects, or anything about God for that matter, we are "doing theology." Theology simply means "study of God." Doctrine is a necessary part of any theology; doctrine is nothing more than applied theology. When someone tells you what they believe, they are giving you their theology in smaller bits and pieces. These smaller bits and pieces are doctrine; that is, how this individual's overall view of God informs the way he thinks and acts in the world. Even though his basic view of God—his theology—may be remarkably similar to your own, his doctrine may be radically different. In other words, it is most certainly true that "doctrine divides," it does this by its very nature. Doctrine causes us to do some things and not others because doctrine, by definition, is made up of statements of what we believe are necessary results of our theology. And because we all tend to see things differently, we should not be surprised when many different doctrines arise from the same theology. The problem arises when we fail to discuss the doctrines simply because they are divisive. Avoiding an issue has never been an effective way of solving it.

Indifference to the truths of the gospel is seen in many other spheres, such as among those who champion "deeds, not creeds" (I do the deeds of prison ministry because I believe the creeds), and in endless discussions about new ways to "understand" or "do" theology. Some embrace another old heresy, that doctrines must be extracted from inward experience—that is, personal feelings. That's a version of Gnosticism. [1]



Colson's point about Gnosticism is well made. Christianity is objective, God-revealed Truth. While it is a fact that this Truth manifests itself differently in each of God's children, it does not follow that the objective Truth of God's revealed Word should be judged by how different individuals respond to it. This IS Gnosticism. Knowing that we are subjective and prone to selfishly believe that we have all the right answers to the theological questions should make us humble and willing to openly dialogue with other viewpoints and doctrinal practices. But we also shouldn't fall into error on the other side, buying into the postmodern idea that objective truth is never possible in a world of subjective interpreters. The question of interpretation is a major issue, and lies at the very heart of the differences between Catholics and Protestants—not to mention the denominational disagreements within Protestantism (and Catholicism to a lesser degree). Our subjectivity should always be like an iron in the fire, being ever refined towards objectivity, not towards futility. To this end, we must be always checking our own doctrine in the light of Scripture, as well as the time-tested traditions of the church fathers. As Colson points out, this was the goal of the Reformation:

J. I. Packer, on his 80th birthday, said that the greatest challenge of evangelicalism is to re-catechize our churches. More than ever, Christians need to be able to speak intelligently and courageously about the hope that lies within... The determination to restore orthodox faith—the faith "that was once for all entrusted" (Jude 1:3)—brought about the Reformation, of which we are heirs. A new emphasis on orthodox doctrine could also transform the church and culture today. [1]

Many scholars have been saying this for years, but it is up to individual churches to actually begin doing this. Evangelical Christianity needs to stop avoiding doctrine because it may scare a few people off. By ignoring it, we are only making the problem worse.

Endnotes:

[1]  Charles Colson with Anne Morse, "Doctrine Bears Repeating," Christianity Today (April 2009), 72. Online here.

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