The Disappearance of Doctrine

I get it.  Doctrine isn’t sexy.  Even the word itself is more likely to provoke yawns than applause, and at the church level it’s more likely to encourage people to roll their eyes than fill the seats.

Yet doctrine helps us understand who we are and what we—that is, the Church—are fundamentally about. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he encouraged the young pastor to “guard your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16), because salvation is at stake.

But what is doctrine?  Today’s world bristles at terms like “doctrine” or “dogma.”  The latter word especially comes with its share of cultural baggage. “Don’t be so dogmatic,” we might say.  The idea of shared beliefs runs counter to our cultural penchant for personal faith and private religious expression.

But this has not always been the case.  Both doctrine and dogma have helped form the Church’s common vocabulary for discussing God.  What do we mean by doctrine and dogma?  Christian doctrine is what we talk about when we talk about God.  Dogma refers to those doctrines that are shared by the Church.

We’ll talk more about the specifics of each, but today I want to begin by giving us an overview of what sociologist Alan Wolfe has called “the strange disappearance of doctrine in the church,”[1] a disappearance he attributes to the modern church’s emphasis on methods and showmanship over theological literacy.  Here’s how to think of this post: I want you to see this as sort of the “You are here” sticker you find on the directory of the local shopping mall.  We’ll look at how doctrine has disappeared from the common vocabulary of our world and our churches—and the tragic impact it’s having on the world today.

AGAINST ALL AUTHORITY

In his book on Scripture, N.T. Wright points out that for most of Christian history, there was little need to differentiate between the Bible and doctrine.  Sure, there were disagreements, even a major split in the year 1054 between the Greek-speaking east and the Latin-speaking west. But even events like this might be seen as sort of the exception that proves the rule.  We might look at two critical pieces of technology that have dramatically changed the world and, along with it, changed the way we understand God and the Bible:

  • The printing press (ca. 1500 A.D.). For the first time in human history, information could be rapidly produced and distributed.  This actually helped fuel Martin Luther’s famous “reformation,” where the glorious good news of the Gospel won out against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.  Of course, the unintended consequence was that now religious authority was no longer centralized in the Church, but had become de-centralized by placing the Bible in the hands of the common man.  Positively, this generated some great dialogues regarding the nature of God and the message of the gospel.  On the other hand, it meant that now, multiple, contradictory interpretations became popularized.  The multiplicity of protestant “denominations” we have today (such as Lutheran, Methodist, even our own) are, more or less, the children and step-children of this diverse time.  Not long after, the European “enlightenment” swept in—an intellectual movement that elevated the individual and the role of reason over the past traditions of community and divine revelation.
  • The internet (ca. 2000 A.D.). In our own day we’ve seen another form of technology change the way we communicate.  The World Wide Web has connected us all like never before and created unrivaled avenues for the distribution of information.  Before, distributing your ideas to the public demanded you had to find a publisher to take you seriously before your thoughts became print.  Now anyone with a blog or even a social media page can share their (ahem) “wisdom” with anyone that connects with them.

We’re obviously painting with a broad brush here, but what we’ve seen as we’ve moved from the “modern” world of the printed word to the “postmodern” world of the computer network is a change in what we would call authority—that is, how we trust information.

The move from the modern world of the printed word to the postmodern world of the computer network means we’ve embraced what Max Weber historically called “charismatic authority.”  While traditional authority valued a centralized source (the Bible for example), charismatic authority elevates the voice of individual teachers and leaders.  And, on the internet, you don’t have to look very far to find someone, somewhere, who agrees with the way you think.

In a mid-2000’s article for The Journal of Higher Education, a pair of authors lamented the way that this kind of thinking has eroded the classroom setting.  It used to be that students would be trusting and attentive to their teachers and professors.  But now they have only to access the web to connect to a vast network of “experts,” whose credibility runs only as deep as their Twitter followers.  The result, they say, is that no one takes anything seriously anymore, because the “truth” is always a matter of perspective.

In short, today’s generations no longer believe in absolutes, only perspectives.  In the eyes of such a world, doctrine holds no more meaning than any other personal opinion, and will often be evaluated on whether it can be found useful—or, to put it more negatively, based on whether it affirms or confronts my lifestyle.

INSIDE THE CHURCH

Sad to say, inside the church things have not fared much differently.  For the past several decades, the church has attempted to stand against the decline in religious belief by trying to prove herself “relevant” by minimizing uncomfortable doctrines (such as sin, hell, and the like) and shining a spotlight on the keys to financial and marital success.  Doctrine was assumed to be unnecessary for anyone but the ivory-tower eggheads.  The tragedy, of course, is that this emphasis on practicality and immediacy failed to produce fierce disciples for Christ.  Christian social analyst David Wells remarks:

“[T]he fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to staunch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds.  The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church.  His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.”[2]

This shift away from doctrine has only eroded the Church’s true identity as the bride of Christ.  In his extensive survey on American churches, Robert Putnam of Harvard University observes that when mainline churches shifted their focus from evangelism to social justice, they lost their core sense of relevancy and rendered themselves obsolete.[3]

THE NEED FOR BELIEF

On the surface, we might imagine that this shift in authority brings us the sort of happiness that comes from being free to find our own answers.  But it hasn’t.  It’s only brought misery and discontent and a profound sense of lostness.  It’s what Johnny Reznik was singing about in 1995 when he wrote the song “Name:”

“We grew up way too fast
and now there’s nothin’ to believe.
And reruns all become our history.
A tired song keeps playin’ on a tired radio,
and I won’t tell no one your name…”[4]

Two albums later the same band closed their album with the lyric: “Can you teach me to believe in something?”

What should our response be?  I submit that it is twofold.  First, we rightly mourn the way we’ve so quickly and so selfishly cast aside the life-giving doctrines handed down by that “great cloud of witnesses” and clung to the temporary, “clever” slogans we find on bumper stickers and internet memes.  Faith is deeper than that, it’s more wonderful than that, it’s more joyous than that.  Second, we press our knees to the earth in humble confession that perhaps we are not the center of the universe after all, and that perhaps God has something to speak into our hearts through his Word, through his Spirit, through his Church.

It is, after all, far too easy to point out the flaws in our world and religious systems.  But for all our folly, the answer is not less religion, but deeper religion, more robust religion, a form of religion that makes much of Christ and less of ourselves.  And so this week as we tread these hallowed halls of Christian belief, may it be our shared prayer that God guide us into all truth, and help us lift up the Savior’s name anew.

[1] Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (New York: Free Press, 2003), 67

[2] David Wells, God in the Wasteland, p. 30

[3] Robert Putman, American Grace.

[4] The Goo Goo Dolls, “Name,” from A Boy Named Goo.

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