The basic body of Christian teaching or understanding (2 Timothy 3:16). Christian doctrine is composed of teachings which are to be handed on through instruction and proclamation. The teacher attempts to offer a clear and connected interpretation, for doctrine must be a coherent explication of what the Christian believes. For instance, what we say about humanity affects what we say about Christology; what we say about election shapes what we believe about the church.
Christian doctrine is a corporate expression of an authoritative interpretation of the faith as professed by a considerable body of church people. Doctrine is a living confession; it is “that which is handed on”—but not unrelated to the cultural context in which it must be lived.
The Heart of Doctrine The basic question for human beings is: “can we know the transcendent,” that is, God? Religious doctrine deals with the ultimate and most comprehensive questions.
We speak as persons addressed; God has spoken to us (Hebrews 1:1). With all the limitations of human language, we still attempt to reflect upon what we have heard through God's Word of revelation in history, Scripture, and the Christ. We speak so as not to remain silent (Augustine). We testify to God's search for humanity and confess that we have “been found” in Christ.
This confession has as its fulcrum the kerygma.
The kerygma is the name given to a common core of teaching in the early church. This is what the earliest preachers proclaimed: fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy; story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; the call to repent and to accept the forgiveness of sins through Jesus the Lord.
The Flexibility of Doctrine God and His Word remain consistent and unchanging. Human teaching about God has to be stated anew for each generation in the language that generation speaks. Without abandoning crucial affirmations, the church must address itself to the issues of each new day. It goes without saying that most Christian doctrines reflect something of the culture in which they were brought to speech and Scripture. We cannot ignore this reality when we undertake biblical hermeneutics (interpretation). The key to flexibility of Christian doctrine is the watchful conservation of the biblical/theological intent while at the same time seeking language that will translate such into the contemporary milieu. The heart of doctrine remains a systematic examination of the content of the relationship which God in Christ has entered into with us.
The Shaping of Christian Doctrine Three factors guide a believer in the formulation of Christian doctrines: Scripture, experience, and intellect.
1. Scripture The Bible witnesses to the revelatory activity of God. The Bible functions both as witness to and bearer of revelation. Its authority lies in the events to which it points and the One to whom it testifies.
Scripture may, however, become bound to tradition. The church may become a servant to and rely only on inherited interpretations of Scripture. The church may adopt definitions having no other basis than earlier church statements and teachings. The result is traditionalism. This leads a church to become deaf to the Word of God and to fail to penetrate to the core of scriptural teaching. Doctrine may be perceived, then, as static and unchanging, or worse, irrelevant and meaningless.
Priority of apostolic tradition collected as Scripture over church tradition was the decision of the church. This was also the basic thrust and tenet of the Reformation. It is still a basic presupposition of Protestant Christianity: Scripture over tradition. Each generation must listen to the Word rather than simply depending on the church.
2. Experience A person has doctrine before being able to read and interpret Scripture. This comes through experience as an individual and as a part of a church community. Experience is not the most important factor in shaping or guaranteeing the truth of doctrine. Several aspects of one's experience do contribute to the shaping of Christian doctrine. These include personal, church, and cultural experience.
Personal experience includes one's moral struggle, intellectual quest, and mystical awareness of God, whether dramatic/emotional or quiet/contemplative. These are all integral to doctrinal understanding, providing evidence and understanding. Personal experience ensures doctrine is related to life and valid. It can also make doctrine idiosyncratic, untested by and unrelated to the experiences of history, of others, and to the truths of Scripture.
A church with its own tradition introduces us to faith. Christian nurture shapes our attitudes toward the Bible, our social consciousness, and our attitudes toward the goodness of life. The doctrine of our denomination takes root in us. Such shaping gives our doctrine roots and strength. It may also make us provincial, out of touch with the rest of God's people and ignorant of the world and its questions.
Culture shapes the way we think, the values we hold, the choices we make, and the way we relate to others. Peer pressure from our culture and our socioeconomic status affect our doctrine. Culture enriches and gives depth to life. It may so shape our expectations that it blinds us to truth.
There must be scope for the free activity of Christian feeling rooted in experience. When feeling, however, comes to be considered an immediate fountain of knowledge, the intellect is deprived of its rights, and the Bible sinks below its proper level. We must always guard against absolutizing our experience (or that of anyone else) as normative.
3. Intellect The church has framed the canon, creeds, and confessions as a means of giving coherent interpretation to the witness of the earliest church. Of course, the key question is: did these distort or accurately develop the tradition of the New Testament?
There must be as much scope for the free activity of the intellect in framing Christian doctrine as for Christian feeling. The exaggeration of the intellectual factor can also pervert doctrine. Mystery is difficult to explain logically. We must learn from the church's history and thus use confessions, creeds, and abstracts, to formulate Christian teaching for the present generation. At the same time we should retain a suspicion of any claim to have arrived at a comprehensive, exhaustive, definitive, or infallible statement of doctrine. The human intellect tests experience of personal life, church, and culture by the truth of Scripture to describe the church's beliefs in current language. Such descriptions remain open to correction and revising.
Participation in worship may be the most significant factor in the formulation of Christian doctrine. In worship the Spirit of God brings personal experience and leads the intellect to understand Scripture. In worship the church's tradition is shaped and proclaimed. In worship present culture stands under judgment of God's Word. Worship thus has saved theological formulation from becoming too arid. Worship binds doctrine closely to the centralities of Christian truth. Worship can have harmful effects. Certain forms of devotion meet human emotional needs. Other forms of worship can either rob Christian doctrine of emotion or set emotional needs at the center of doctrine. This may let doctrine be taught without responsible thinking.
In the final analysis, every heresy is the inappropriate use of any one of the factors used to form doctrine. Scripture must be interpreted in language appropriate to present experience and in categories shaped by human intellect. Thus, the church must continue to clarify the focus of its teaching.