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The Function of Christian Doctrine

The Function of Christian Doctrine

What image does "doctrine" evoke in your mind? Answers would probably range from trivial discussions by ivory-tower theologians to fiery arguments between debaters 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.

People today are searching for something more significant. They yearn for pragmatic value instead of the perplexity of intellectual gymnastics or the haughtiness of intramural Christian squabbles. Students, like church members, are suspicious of, 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 covert doctrinal preaching, where doctrinal position sneaks into a series of texts. Preaching is thought more effective if it is framed psychologically or in story or in exposition, but never in "doctrinal" terms.

This rejection of doctrinal preaching is a reaction to the polemical emphasis of fundamentalism, which focuses on peripheral issues 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 skirmishes over distinctives. A steady diet of such preaching does not nourish the heart 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, preaching has no grounding in the story of God or his revelation to us. Pop preaching may produce a relatively healthy secular psychology, but it will foster a weak and immature faith, a faith easily 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," generating a virtuous life (By the Renewing of Your Minds [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997], 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 who share his values and holiness in communion with him.

Theology is neither metaphysical speculation nor polemical exchange, but the story of God applied toward the goal of character formation. As Paul told Titus, if we will teach Christian doctrine (i.e., 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."


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