bits from bob....
For many Christians, doctrine sits at one extreme or the other. Doctrine is either a bad word or a panacea. Doctrine is restrictive and constraining, demanding and unrealistic, or doctrine becomes the cure-all for every religious ill. On the one hand, doctrine is virtually rejected. On the other hand, doctrine is virtually deified.
One might say that the reality is somewhere in the middle, but I suggest that the reality is so disconnected from the extremes described above that we need an entirely different way of thinking about doctrine. A good beginning point is to ask, "What is the reality behind doctrine?"
The word doctrine merely means teaching. Doctrine is that which is being taught. Two different words are translated "doctrine," providing sometimes a focus on the content of the teaching and other times a focus on the action or process of teaching. The Bible describes the content of the teaching as "the faith." When what is taught is passed from generation to generation, or from person to person, the Bible describes it as tradition. Teaching may involve the gospel (euaggelion, proclamation); it may also apply to corrective, peripatetic instruction (kerygma, teaching). It is easy to draw artificial lines of distinction that the Bible does not clearly delineate.
Some reality stands behind every teaching (doctrine). Tim Owens writes,
"There is an essential, yet often unnoticed, difference between the definition of a doctrine and the reality of a doctrine. While this may seem like only a subtle difference, or perhaps merely an issue of semantics, the consequences are far more substantial. Consider the difference between stating the definition of hell (most usually including who is in or out) and grappling with the awesome horror of the reality of hell. The same practice can be applied to the new heaven and earth. And love. And gospel. And justice. And church. And.... Our problem isn't that too few of us can define our doctrines, it's that too few of us are deeply passionate about the reality of our doctrine."
Owens' point is that doctrine is designed to point us to the reality, not merely to provide facts about the reality. Paul said he wanted to know Christ, not just to know about Christ. Said another way, "Doctrine is not just for believing, doctrine is for living." If our doctrine doesn't change the way we live, why have doctrine?
Human beings do not have the authority or right to change God's teachings. Thus, the body of teaching is to be protected and cherished. The teaching is to be learned, known and understood; the teaching is to be shared and passed on. Above all, the teaching is to be applied in our own lives. This is God's plan. The body of teaching (tradition, "the faith") is to be applied and then passed on to be applied in the lives of others. A subtle danger arises: the right teaching unapplied and unlived fails to fulfill God's purpose and does not have its desired result as "sound" or "healthy teaching." Incorrect teaching (for this illustration, consider teaching that is wrong only in minor details) that changes one's life and accomplishes God's purpose to make us like him may be more sound or healthy than absolutely correct information that is not used or applied.
This article does not diminish the importance of biblical teaching. It reminds us that doctrine for doctrine's sake has little or no value. Some reality stands behind every teaching-both in teaching the gospel and in instruction in righteousness. (One could say, both in teaching salvation and in teaching sanctification, but that is another article.) To understand the reality has the power to change lives. The focus is on the reality, not on the accumulated facts. God's realities require response. Thus, teaching is for living. Teaching must change our lives. Otherwise, doctrine is pretty useless--even if it is technically correct and true.