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Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy: A Hierarchy of Doctrinal Commitments

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Prefatory Remarks:1

The following essay is taken from a larger work to be published by Zondervan in 2002, tentatively entitled The Survivor’s Guide to Theology. The purpose of the book is to explore the various aspects of Theological Introduction2 looking at the study of theology, from epistemological, methodological, and systematic perspective. My purpose in this section is to explore the idea of doctrinal taxonomy and look at the historic foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, not to expound my personal commitment to a particular tradition. Comments made about the various theological traditions and positions have reference to the official stated theology as embodied by the best of the traditions, as opposed to the popular piety. For example the popular piety of Roman Catholicism teaches that by being good enough and using the sacraments one can be saved. This is something very different from official Catholic doctrine about salvation. From the perspective of Calvinism, popular piety in some circles falls into a fatalism that is not reflected in the best of the theological expositions of the tradition. The fact that I place particular formulations of the doctrine of salvation on a second level of a taxonomy does not imply that I hold the Reformation understanding of justification sola fide as unimportant. Indeed, what can be seen at times only murkily in other traditions is brought into bold relief by the Reformers. That this truth was not clearly articulated until the Reformation should inform us that it is not necessary to cognitively understand forensic justification in order to be saved. Salvation involves faith in Jesus Christ as opposed to any particular formulation of doctrine. However, in this case a Protestant understanding of forensic justification may give a clarity to the proclamation of the gospel message and provide a firm foundation to living the Christian life that other traditions’ articulations of salvation cannot provide.

The Problem

As the sociological, political, and philosophical climate of the church has changed in various eras, the church has been confronted with challenges to the doctrinal commitments held as truth. These challenges in turn have repeatedly provoked reactions in the church. In these reactions, different doctrines have been raised to a new level of prominence. The changing situations did not necessarily bring about further development of doctrine; rather in some cases doctrines which had up to this time been considered less important were raised in importance to meet a current challenge.

An example of this phenomenon can be seen in the status of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ and the doctrine of the inerrancy of the scriptures during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. With the rise of liberalism, historic Christianity took a defensive posture and militantly reasserted the “fundamentals” of the faith. However, these “fundamentals” were not simply a restatement or a recasting of the content of the historic ecumenical creeds. The “fundamentals” of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy were often boiled down to five propositions.

  • The inerrancy of scripture
  • The deity of Jesus Christ
  • The virgin birth
  • Bodily resurrection of Christ
  • The personal return of Christ

Two out of these five “fundamentals,” the virgin birth and the inerrancy of scripture, are not echoes of the core of the historic faith, but rather demonstrate a raising of more historically minor doctrines to a primary level to fulfill an apologetic expediency. In the case of the virgin birth, the doctrine had always been contained in the Church’s understanding and creedal affirmation with reference to the means of the incarnation. But during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy the doctrine was elevated to a “touchstone” status. It became a test as to whether one believed in the supernatural activity of God in the world. The modernists denied the possibility of miracles in the sense of God breaking into history and violating the “laws of nature.” The apologetic rationale of the fundamentalists was that if one would admit the reality of as the virgin birth, he or she would not have a problem affirming the reality of “lesser” miracles.3

With reference to the doctrine of inerrancy, the church had always affirmed the utter truthfulness of the scriptures; as early as Augustine we find affirmations of the inerrancy of the scripture. Catholicism always held the truthfulness of scripture, but progressively throughout the medieval period tradition was elevated as a separate and equally valid source of revelation and authority. This position was formally creedalized at the Catholic counter-reformation Council of Trent. Protestants responded with the doctrine of sola scriptura. During the period of Protestant Scholasticism the doctrine and nature of divine inspiration was developed in new, more refined ways. There even arose a teaching among some of the Protestant scholastic theologians that the vowel points in the Hebrew text were inspired.4 In opposition to Roman Catholic claims of the authority of tradition and the Pope, the authority of scripture was consciously raised during the Reformation and immediate post-reformation period in an attempt to rescue scripture from the captivity of the official Catholic magisterial interpretation that obscured the message of the Bible. But even in the great Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century the doctrine of inerrancy is not explicit.

During the nineteenth century higher-critical theories arose and attacked the literary and historical integrity of the scriptures. In response conservative representatives of historic Protestantism asserted the doctrine of the inerrancy of the scriptures. As noted, the concept of inerrancy is at least as ancient as Augustine, but the nineteenth-century response to the literary criticism of the sacred text involved a refinement, sharpening, and extension of the older concept of scriptural infallibility/inerrancy. This sharpening arose in the heat of controversy and became an apologetic tool to defend the veracity of the Bible and with it the historic Christian faith. Inerrancy became a touchstone doctrine for fundamentalists and their successors, evangelicals.5 Inerrancy has remained a touchstone for conservative evangelicalism to this day,6 with the doctrine functioning as the basis of scholarly societies such as the Evangelical Theological Society and also as a foundational doctrine for numerous Evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges. In fact, from a practical perspective the doctrine is often deemed as more critical than matters of Christology or understandings of the person of God.

Another recent historical example illustrates this same tendency to elevate doctrines to a primary level that have never been so seen historically. Throughout the early and mid-20th century heated and acrimonious debates raged between covenant theologians who adopted an amillennial eschatology and dispensational theologians who adopted a futurist eschatology. Here the issue was not even over the authority of scripture; the issue was over a doctrine that had never been agreed to by the consensus of the church. Yet, within dispensationalism a particular eschatological understanding had on a practical level been raised to a fundamental of the faith. In the eyes of many dispensational teachers a denial of their particular understanding of the details surrounding the return of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom was a denial of the faith.

Scripture clearly indicates that belief is important, and that the content of the Christian faith is to be jealously guarded. An individual or group can not take “the faith once delivered to the saints,” and modify it either by addition, deletion, or by twisting the received truth. Paul admonishes Timothy, “The things you have heard from me, these teach to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” The whole concept of a Christian tradition arose out of the second century in the church’s encounter with Gnosticism. Gnosticism might be likened to a second century New Age Movement that appeared on the surface to be very similar to Christianity. It formed the first major theological challenge to the young church. It was in the context of confrontation that the concept of tradition arose. The idea itself means literally “that which has been handed down or over” and echoes Paul’s admonition to Timothy (2 Tim 2:2). The early Church leaders argued that the content of the apostolic kerygma had been faithfully preserved by the leadership of the Church and that that preaching was also preserved in the emerging canon of the New Testament. This stood in opposition to the Gnostics who, although they claimed to have a secret knowledge handed down from the apostles outside the church, merely invented their teaching while claiming that they were Christian.

Within the evangelical fold there is a precommitment to scripture and a desire to base all doctrines on scripture through solid exegesis. However, it must be recognized that from a historical perspective the church’s theology did not arise directly out of the New Testament. Historically it arose out of the apostolic kerygma, a kerygma that predated the rise of the New Testament and a kerygma that centered around the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is this to which Paul refers when he commands Timothy to contend earnestly for the faith. It is this focus--the person and work of Jesus Christ--that forms the heart of Christian Theology. Virtually all recognize intuitively that issues, for example, of church government are of a qualitatively different nature than issues surrounding the Person of God or of Christ. Yet, despite this implicit recognition there is still in many quarters a mindset that insists that since truth is of God all truth must be defended with equal vigor. Many are willing to “go to the wall for” fine points of eschatology or ecclesiology or even finely developed and nuanced points of doctrine concerning core issues. These individuals tend to be ‘theological maximists,” i.e., they believe that we must discover and systematize all truth and commit ourselves absolutely to those maximums. They believe that to admit degrees of importance of truth is somehow an affront to the whole concept of Truth.

The matter of TRUTH as opposed to a human grasp of truth is crucial to understand at the very outset of any discussion of establishing a relative hierarchy of significance and importance of doctrines.

The very nature of Christian Theology demands from its practitioners and adherents a commitment to the fact that truth exists and that it can in some measure be grasped. Among evangelicals at least there is a precommitment to the Reformation cry of “Sola Scriptura.” Scripture stands as the final authority above tradition and ecclesiastical authority.7

In practice among Protestants at least since the time of the post-reformation period of Protestant Scholasticism, there has been the tendency to view the systematized whole of Christian doctrine as TRUTH. The scholastic method takes this even one step further, seeing all truth as on the same level and seeing a denial of any part of the system as a denial of the whole system. The scholastic practice of building frameworks and then within those frameworks deducing what must be true from that which is known lent itself to this mentality. Scholastic method was from one vantage point a magnificent achievement. The method caused theologians to build “cathedrals of the mind” magnificent structures that attempted to incorporate all theological knowledge into one comprehensive system, showing the place of each part and interrelationship of all the various parts. The down side was that the system tended to become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, and there was a leveling of the importance of truth. The interrelatedness of doctrines led to the conclusion that to deny anything in the system was to deny the whole body of Christian doctrine and therefore the faith itself.

This methodology very naturally leads to a rigid doctrinaire mentality that sees for example, fine points of eschatology as on the same level of importance as the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union of humanity and deity in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. It further leads to the charge of heresy against anyone who does not hold the exact same formulation of doctrine as oneself. This mentality has over the centuries filtered its way down from the level of the theologians all the way to the educated layman in the pew. This is not a matter of knowledge; it is a matter of mindset.

Another negative side effect of the scholastic methodology and mindset is that it feeds an intellectual dishonesty because it places off limits study that could possibly threaten an existing systemic conclusion. With reference to this phenomenon it must again be stressed that theology is a human discipline and that theological systems and doctrines are human constructions which to a greater or lesser extent refract the truth of divine revelation. As human constructions they must by their very nature remain open to examination, criticism and correction because of the nature of human understanding. It remains finite, perspectival due to the historically bound nature of knowledge. Further it is twisted and warped due to the noetic effects of sin. Any time an individual or group places areas of investigation off limits because the “wrong” conclusions would threaten their orthodox understanding, that person or group has ceased to be a seeker of truth and understanding and theology becomes defensive and apologetic as opposed to a search for and verification of truth. Perhaps the best example of this mentality is seen in the great B.B. Warfield. Warfield has been called the greatest theologian seen in America after Jonathan Edwards. He is said to have had the theological mind of a Charles Hodge and a Wm G.T., Shedd rolled into one. Yet he never produced a systematic theology of his own. He believed that the Westminster Confession presented the apex of theology, and that Charles Hodge’s exposition of Reformed theology could not be improved upon. Any theological conclusion that challenged or threatened a conclusion of Westminster had to be discredited. Warfield’s collected works span ten sizable volumes, and the quality is superb. But the perspective is always critical and analytical not creative and probing. He took his stand on Westminster and never wavered from it. In fact his position at Princeton Seminary at the end of his life as Professor of Polemic theology!

To reiterate, in contrast to the scholastic methodology, we must recognize that beyond the basic apostolic kerygma, theologies and doctrines are human constructions which more or less adequately encapsulate, interpret and contextualize the teaching of scripture for later generations. Philip Schaff, the nineteenth century church historian, in describing the creedal commitments of the church observed that confessions are man’s answer to God’s word.8 And in the best case any creed or confession is only “an approximate and relatively correct exposition of revealed truth, and may be improved by the progressive knowledge of the church.”9 If we extend Schaff’s observation to theology generally the fallibility and limitedness of the human construction becomes more apparent since a theological system arises out of a single mind rather than the life of the church or a collection of minds.

Extending Schaff’s observations further, we must distinguish between the form of a doctrine and its substance.10 This criterion recognizes that by virtue of the fact that we live in specific historical situations we will conceptualize and express our understanding of the truth in concrete historical forms that arise out of our own zeitgeist. An example may prove helpful: a building contractor in the south uses bricks to build a house while a contractor in the northwest uses wood or a contractor in California uses stucco. These houses constructed of different building materials look different on one level, but they bear a “family resemblance” on a deeper level and all accomplish the same purpose, and we are comfortable moving from one type of house to another. The contractor uses the building material at hand, rather than import foreign material from afar. Likewise, the fathers used the intellectual material at hand to express the truth of the trinity to their society rather than import Hebrew thought into a Greek speaking and thinking world. And it may be appropriate to re-express the truth of a given doctrine in a form that is appropriate to the concrete historical situation in which we live to aid in understanding. A good example of the recasting of a doctrine can be seen in Alister McGrath’s recasting the doctrine of justification by faith in the categories of existentialism and personalist theology.11

This alerts us to the ever-present danger of placing too much emphasis on particular words and not going past the words to the meaning expressed by those words. In point of fact, doctrinal statements and creedal affirmations can easily become verbal shibboleths that obscure meaning and foster division over words rather than meaning. On the other hand, doctrinal statements can and are reinterpreted by individuals to mean something entirely different than the creed was meant to express. W. Robertson Smith, the nineteenth century Scottish Old Testament scholar, when told that he was accused of denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, is said to have replied, “How can they accuse me of that? I have never denied the divinity of any man, let alone Jesus.”12

While we are to contend for the truth, all truth is not of the same order, despite the mentality of many theologians and teachers. We must recognize that there are theological truths that transcend local and temporary historical situations, while other “truths” are so affected by the Zeitgeist out of which they arise as to be idiosyncratic. An example of this idiosyncratic tendency would be the tendency of some denominations to enshrine the spiritual experience of the denomination’s founder in doctrinal terms that become normative and “distinctive” of the denomination. For example, the spiritual experience of A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, is reflected in the two distinctive doctrines of that denomination, healing in the atonement and post-conversion crisis sanctification.13 This leads to the conclusion that some theological truths are more important than others. If this is the case, how are we to determine what are the criteria which upon decisions about the importance of a truth are to be made? What are the first order theological truths which must be maintained? What are the second order truths, etc.? And how are we to recognize them?

The ranking of theological truth affects not only the historical articulation of a doctrine and marginalization of that which is idiosyncratic, but also involves the ranking of truths arising out of scripture itself. In many cases the scriptural material is abundantly clear and the church has always clearly affirmed certain doctrines. In other cases the scriptural evidence is scanty or cloudy. In these cases any conclusions drawn must be held with a degree of tentativeness.

Millard Erickson has suggested the above ranking in theological statements in importance and authority.14 This ranking is suggestive and helpful to get the student to think about the relative certainty of things believed. But from the perspective of formal theological affirmation, this hierarchy of authority is not totally adequate, especially if it is lifted from a context of further qualification of these levels of authority. For example, direct statements of scripture which may on the surface sound absolute may be qualified or relativized by other scriptural evidence. Erickson speaks of “direct statements of scripture.” While there is no hint that Erickson intends this, one might infer a theological method whereby a teaching is supported by a verse of scripture pulled out of its context and absolutized without reference to the larger biblical theological teaching on the subject. This was the rabbinical method of “pearl stringing” of scriptural references together without regard to their literary or historical context. This method was also adopted by the scholastic theological method and too often is seen even in contemporary popular theological method. “Direct statements” can be and are used as a theological “trump card” to clinch an argument. The authority of “direct statements of scripture” must be understood in the sense that the statement is interpreted accurately within its literary and historical context and not erroneously made to be a contextless abstract and global assertion.

On the second level of authority we must draw the distinction between necessary inference and logical inference. Erickson draws the distinction between direct implications and probable implications of scripture. These distinctions, while helpful, are not the same as the distinction between necessary and logical inferences from scripture. Necessary implications are those which either undergird an assertion and without which underpinning the assertion would fall, or they are implications that are from a logical perspective included in an assertion and need only the application of a syllogism to draw out the implicit information. A logical implication would be an inference that would be in harmony with the statement, but not necessarily drawn in syllogistic fashion from the statement.

Near the top of his hierarchy of authority Erickson places inductive conclusions drawn from scripture. Again this level of authority/certainty needs further qualification. The scientific method is by its very nature inductive and thus can never yield absolute certainty in its conclusions. However, inductive conclusions can approach the level of practical certainty if all the data have been examined and accurately interpreted. Thus the degree of certainty of inductive conclusions depends on the thoroughness of the inductive study.

Erickson is implicitly drawing a distinction between the teaching of scripture and the phenomena of scripture. This type of arrangement of authority is seen particularly in discussions of biblical authority. It is generally recognized within evangelicalism that if one begins with the teaching passages of scripture and once having established the teaching moves to the phenomena of scripture, he or she will ultimately emerge with a doctrine of scripture that embraces inerrancy. Whereas if an individual begins with the phenomena of scripture and from the phenomena proceeds to the explicit teaching passages, that individual will not embrace inerrancy. It is at this point that the question of method inserts itself into the whole equation.15

Erickson places conclusions from general revelation near the top of the pyramid and outright speculations as at the top as having no authority. His statements with reference to the authority of general revelation need serious qualification. General revelation, taken broadly, refers to the God-created order, and forms the larger context within which we must interpret the special revelation given in scripture. The failure within the more recent evangelical tradition of not giving general revelation its proper place in setting the bounds on some issues that have scientific answers has led to all sorts of intellectual and theological mischief in making the supposedly direct statements of scripture speak to issues far beyond the purposes for which they were given and globalizing the authority of the Bible beyond its purposes. To say that conclusions drawn from general revelation must be subject to the more clear statements of scripture, slavishly applied, could be used to “prove” a flat earth or a geocentric universe. There must be some kind of reciprocal process by which general revelation can inform special revelation and special revelation interprets general revelation.

A bit on the troubling side is that this whole presentation of levels of authority seems to be based upon a Baconian/common sense assumption that the facts are pre-theoretical and “out there” as objective information. As chapter two has shown this is an inadequate conception of the reality of the situation. All the while we are cognizant of the primarily narrative nature of the text and the difficulties that come in transforming narrative statements into theological assertions.

The Components of Doctrine/Theology

Charles Hodge defined theology as the arrangement and display of the facts of the Bible. This simple definition is still the operative cognitive definition among many evangelicals to this day. As we have seen in previous chapters, there is much more that goes into the construction of a doctrine or a theological system than simply the biblical text. There are in fact numerous preunderstandings of various types that shape the Gestalt of any theological expression. Alister McGrath in his 1990 Bampton Lectures16 focused upon the elements of doctrinal construction and identified four elements that give shape to any articulation of doctrine.

Elements in Doctrine

    Doctrine as that which defines the community

McGrath traces this aspect of doctrine from the early church down through the Reformation. A couple of illustrations will demonstrate how doctrine functions in this role. Justification by faith became the doctrine that demarcated Lutherans from Roman Catholics. Likewise the Lutheran understanding of the nature of the Eucharist (often referred to as consubstantiation) defined Lutheranism vis a vis Reformed Protestants. Doctrine gives the theological justification for a group’s existence. It is key in a group’s self-definition. Even the council of Trent focused on the self-definition of the Roman Catholic Church rather than a definition of the heretics. Key in doctrinal articulation is the element of social demarcation defining who is in and who is out.

A more contemporary illustration might be the doctrine/practice of glossalalia within the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave tradition. At the outbreak of Pentecostalism in 1906 the defining phenomenon was the practice and doctrine of tongues. Major Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God have to this day doctrinal statements which insist that tongues is the evidence of salvation, and that a lack of a glossalaliac experience is evidence that an individual is not saved. This experience/doctrine was that which identified Pentecostalism early on. It is interesting to note that as the tradition matured and moved trans-denominationally the emphasis on tongues was downplayed, and at one point in the 1980’s only about 35% of those who identified themselves as Charismatic spoke in tongues.

Doctrine as Interpretation of Narrative

Doctrine is generated by and subsequently interprets the Christian narrative. During the modern era the emphasis has been on the propositional nature of truth. This whole perspective is closely aligned with the Enlightenment concept of universal truth. The advent of postmodernism has brought a reassertion on the power of the narrative, and the priority of the story over the didactic. In this respect the new era has returned to the power of the story, a position more in harmony with the perspective of scripture itself.

Ultimately, Christianity is about narrative, a story, the story of God’s dealings with humanity culminating in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Christian community is derived from the story of Jesus of Nazareth. It is that story which gives the Christian community its identity. The New Testament itself adopts this perspective. It insists that the believers’ identity is found with Christ. Paul develops the concept of ejn Cristw’/ (in Christ). Jesus’ story becomes the believers’ story; he has been co-crucified with Christ, buried with Him, and become a participant in His resurrection. Jesus is the paradigm of existence.

Narratives are grounded in history; they are not universal abstractions. Even the church’s sacraments are rooted in the story of Christ; they focus upon his life and death.

But stories need to be interpreted to have meaning. They can be interpreted at many different levels, and may have various interpretive frameworks imposed upon them. It is at this point that we look to the scripture. The scripture contains the foundational texts of Christianity, its story. But story is not doctrine/theology. They two are of fundamentally different as types of genre. McGrath suggests that the story itself contains the fundamental structure, the nascent interpretive framework out of which doctrine is constructed.

During my first year as a college professor, as I was expounding the doctrine of the Trinity to college juniors, I made the comment that the church didn’t have a formal doctrine of the Trinity until Nicea, in A.D. 325. The hand of one of the students shot up. “What do you mean, they didn’t have a doctrine of the Trinity? I open my Bible and I find it everywhere!” What he did not realize that he was looking at those scriptures through the framework that had been worked out during those early centuries. He was at the center of the interpretive spiral, if you will. The interpretive spiral is a well-known phenomenon in the discipline of hermeneutics, the goal of which is a fusing of the horizon of the author and the reader. McGrath suggests, rightly, that there is a similar process in the generating of doctrine from the narrative.17 The story contains a substructure of conceptual frameworks. These implicit frameworks serve as the starting point. They are the “hints” and “signposts” which guide the reader/interpreter/theologian in making initial doctrinal affirmations. Then the text is re-read in light of the initial doctrinal conclusions, and modifications and embellishments to the framework are made. There is a dynamic interplay, a dialectical interplay between the text and the doctrine.

In the process of constructing doctrine a transformation from narrative to propositional statements occurs. It must be realized that narrative, because it is given as story, is not to be approached deductively, but rather inferentially. The difference between the two methods of analysis is significant. All too often theologians have been guilty of treating the text as a series of premises from which conclusions could be deductively drawn. This is a serious methodological error. Rather, it is at this transformation point that we decisively shift genres and produce doctrines which are given in a form foreign to the scriptures and teach truths which the scripture does not necessarily explicitly expound.

The church has always had those that could be legitimately called theological primitivists, those who do not wish to step beyond the text. But the whole point of doctrine/theology is that simple reiteration of the statements of scripture is not enough. To return to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Apostolic Fathers simply repeat the baptismal formula without comment, affirming that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all God. But, if this is true, then there is a problem with the received doctrine of monotheism, which understood God as unity, not duality or tri-unity. The doctrine of the Trinity arose out of reflection on the nature of God as revealed in the text of scripture as an attempt to explain how the one God could also be three. It is not metaphysical speculation based on Greek philosophy, although those early theologians used philosophy in order to help them explain the concept.18 The doctrine of the Trinity is rather an interpretation of the narrative. We might illustrate this with the concept of an acorn. The acorn is not the oak tree, but it contains the material from which a tree will grow.19 In this sense it is legitimate to speak of the development of doctrine. We recognize that doctrine must be ultimately linked to the text of scripture as its primary source. As McGrath has noted: “The sola scriptura principle is ultimately an assertion of the primacy of the foundational scriptural narrative over any framework of conceptualities which it may generate”20

While the theologian may feel at liberty to explore other sources of potential interest, doctrine is historically linked with scripture on account of the historicity of its formulating communities. Christian communities of faith orientate and identify themselves with reference to authoritative sources which are either identical with or derived from scripture.21

Scripture’s primary function is not to give theological statements but to relate the story of God’s dealing with humanity, especially in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. “Scripture does not articulate a set of abstract principles, but points to a lived life.”22 Whether approached directly or through a filter of creeds and traditions, scripture constitutes the foundational documents of the Christian faith.23 These foundational documents provide the material from which theology is inferred and constructed.

Doctrine as an interpretation of Experience

When attention is turned to the third of McGrath’s four components, doctrine interprets experience, those within the evangelical tradition tend to get very uncomfortable. Evangelicals heartily assert that genuine Christianity involves experience, yet at least from the time of the Princetonians, evangelicals have compartmentalized theology and life into two separate areas, not letting experience inform or shape theology, or theology necessarily inform experience.24 Charles Hodge insisted that experience did not make a Christian; believing a set of facts about Jesus Christ did.25 Following in the common-sense tradition of Hodge and Princeton, Evangelicals have seen truth as absolutely separate from the knower, as something that exists “out there.”26 Additionally, experience has smacked of Schleiermacher and Liberalism on the one hand and the excesses of the Pentecostal tradition on the other. Yet, a closer examination of the scripture presupposes an experience, particularly an experience centered around the believing community.

McGrath’s appeal to experience is looking not at private religious experience, but at the communal experience of the Christian community. In particular, he notes that Christianity addresses the human experience of alienation. It is this experience which becomes a point of contact. Christianity “addresses such experiences in order to transform them, and to indicate what the shape of the experience of redemption through Jesus Christ might be like.”27 It is at this point he contends that we encounter a problem: the adequacy or inadequacy of language to express experience. McGrath invokes Wittgenstein’s musing that words cannot communicate the aroma of a cup of coffee as an example of this unhappy phenomenon. While words cannot adequately express experience, they can point to experience as signposts.

He notes that while the experiential aspect of doctrine in most frequently associated with Romantic theologies, such as Schleiermacher, we find roots and even specific explications of this concept even as early as Augustine.28 While McGrath does not explicitly draw the conclusion, it can be inferred that at the beginning of the Christian faith, experience preceded doctrine, i.e., the apostles experienced the risen Christ and that that experience led them (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) to write as they did. In so saying it must be noted that the experience could not have been a pre-linguistic mystic experience, but one that occurred within their existing framework of reality.29

The question of experience again raises the troubling question of the adequacy of human language. McGrath observes:

Underlying the profundity of human experience and encounter lies an unresolved tension—the tension between the wish to express an experience in words, and the inability of words to capture that experience in its fullness. Everything in human experience which is precious and significant is threatened with extinction, in that it is in some sense beyond words, and yet requires to be stated in words for it to become human knowledge. It is threatened with the spectre of solipsism, in that unless an experience can be communicated to another, it remains trapped within the private experiential world of the individual. Words can point to an experience, they can begin to sketch its outlines—but the total description of that experience remains beyond words. The words of John Woolman’s associate express this point: ‘I may tell you of it, but you cannot feel it as I do.’ Words point beyond themselves to something greater which eludes their grasp. Human words, and the categories they express, are stretched to their limits as they attempt to encapsulate, to communicate, something which tantalizingly refuses to be reduced to words. It is the sheer elusiveness of human experience, its obstinate refusal to be imprisoned within a verbal matrix, which underlies the need for poetry, symbolism and doctrine alike.30

C. S. Lewis has observed a similar tension on the aesthetic level:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things— the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of the worshippers. For they are not the thing in itself; they are only the scent of the flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.31

McGrath endorses a suggestion made nearly two centuries ago that “the function of doctrine is to effect a decisive transition within the language of the Christian community from the poetic and rhetorical to the ‘descriptive-didactic.’“ This means that poetic or rhetorical and doctrinal language are distinct, but related means of communication within the believing community. In fact, it is because rhetorical and poetic language are the primary language of the community that doctrine becomes necessary for responsible communication to the community in its primary language.32

Doctrine functions as the cognitive element within Christianity, the skeleton that supports and gives shape to the flesh of spiritual experience.

Concerning the relationship between poetic and religious language, C.S. Lewis has noted:

This is the most remarkable of the powers of Poetic language: to convey to us the quality of experiences we have not had, or perhaps can never have, to use factors within our experience so that they become pointers to something outside our experience—as two or more roads on a map show us where a town that is off the map must lie. Many of us have never had an experience like that which Wordsworth records near the end of Prelude XIII; but when he speaks of ‘the visionary dreariness,’ I think we get an inkling of it.33

The point here is that poetic language not only has the ability to communicate emotion but to arouse emotion in the hearer. Emotion can be communicated through words although it cannot be reduced to words.

In order for my experience to be expressed, communicated to or aroused by another, it demands statement in cognitive forms. That these cognitive forms fail to capture such an experience in its totality is self-evident, and hardly a matter for rhetorical exaggeration: it is one of the inevitable consequences of living in history and being obliged to communicate in historical forms.34

There is in doctrine an interplay between the cognitive and the experiential. T. S. Eliot expresses this interplay:

We had the experience but missed the meaning
An approach to the meaning restores the experience35

While the Enlightenment separated facts from interpretation and implicitly endorsed a view of knowledge that has been characterized as ‘brute empiricism’ it is now generally recognized that there is not such thing as bare, brute facts.36 Experience is not pre-theoretical, but is already theory laden, arising within an interpretive framework, however tentative that framework may be. Prior belief plays a vital part in interpreting experience.37

To try to sum up this most difficult point: doctrine arises out of the poetic and rhetorical and narrative language of scripture, language that points beyond itself to the experience of God and redemption. It gives cognitive form to the experience referenced in that language and in so doing provides a framework, a skeleton to support the life of the believing community. It does more than this however. The doctrine, the meaning, creates and restores the original experience in the life of the hearer. “Doctrine opens the way to a new experience of the experience.”38

To reiterate, for the church today, experience is an inadequate foundation for doctrine, nor does contemporary experience legitimately generate doctrine but doctrine informs experience and thereby gives significant insight into the existential side of Christianity.

Doctrine as a Truth Claim

In leaving this factor until last, some might infer that the truth claim of doctrine is of less than paramount importance. This is not the case. In fact, it is the truth claim of doctrine that underlies its importance and its fulfilling of the other functions. But this raises the question Pilate asked our Lord, “What is truth?”

Numerous definitions for truth have been propounded, and in answer to the question there is no universally accepted definition, Plato’s proclamation that the philosopher is the lover of truth notwithstanding. Disciplines have various criteria for truth, some explicit, some implicit. None universally agreed upon. One suggestion, traceable ultimately to Marx and Engels, is that truth is simply “correspondence with reality.” Truth is that which describes things as they actually are.

Classically there are several definitions of truth, all of which bear what Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance, despite their distinct but related emphases on the nature of truth. The Greek term ajlhvqeia carries the interpretation of truth as the “state of discoveredness or unhiddenness.” The term has primary reference to the thing itself and only secondarily to a statement about the thing. It is a description of how things are now, in the present moment. The Latin veritas by contrast carries a sense of precision of utterance or exactness. The truth is faithful and exact, without omission. It is complete. As opposed to ajlhvqeia,veritas has primary reference to past events, and is closely associated with history, or narrative. As Cicero said, “Who does not know the first law of history to be that an author must not dare to recount anything except the truth? And its second that he must endeavor to recount the whole truth.”39 The Hebrew emunah contains a sense of personal reference: truth related to a sense of trust. Thus the true God is not simply the only one who exists, but the God who is trustworthy and faithful to his promises. So in everyday language, the false friend is not one who is non-existent, but one who cannot be trusted. Thus, emunah has a proleptic aspect as it points toward future faithfulness. Like veritas, emunah has past reference, but not simply for the sake of the past. Rather, the focus is a shaping of the present and future through predictive hope, and gives a paradigm for understanding the goal of history.

Christian doctrine relates to these ideas of truth in that it is rooted in history. Theologians speak of the “Christ-event.” While the terminology is not popular among evangelicals, it does serve to call attention to the fact that Christianity is rooted in history with all its contingencies, rather than in timeless truths. Brunner has gone so far as to say that truth is something that happens. Jesus is truth (Jn 14:6). God is not to be identified with sterile philosophical concepts but rather with reference to Jesus, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Truth is then grounded in history and reflection upon historical event, Spinoza and Lessing notwithstanding.

Doctrine involves interpretation, as McGrath has suggested above. But in any interpretation the question asked is at least as importance as the answer given. Thus in examining Christian doctrine we must not only look at the cognitive statements, but also the questions that led to those statements. Does Jesus Christ, the “Christ-event,” precipitate the questions to which doctrines are the answer. The Church has always answered this question with a resounding “Yes!” There is an essential continuity of the core doctrines of the Christian faith throughout the ages. While doctrine has ventured beyond Christology, we must not forget that Christ is the lens through which our understanding of other doctrines is mediated. For example, for the Christian to affirm “God is love” involves an implicit christological reference. The affirmation links a hitherto undefined concept, love, to its concrete demonstration in the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth, God incarnate.

The truth of doctrine also involves internal self-consistency. Indeed heresy has been defined as the adherence to teaching that is inconsistent with the central affirmations of Jesus Christ and the Redemption that he provides. Doctrine/theology is an integrated whole with one doctrine informing another. We may speak of a doctrine of Christ, a doctrine of man, a doctrine of God, or of sin, but we recognize that these doctrines in order to be true must be internally consistent and consistent with the foundational doctrines of the faith. There must be an intra-systemic unity of the truth expressed in doctrine. By way of example we could show how the person of Jesus Christ controls what have been labeled as the four natural heresies of Christianity, all relating to either the need of, or the possibility of, redemption.40

The truth of doctrine is not simply a reflection on the past or even the “Christ-event.” The truth of doctrine is not simply information. This is, I believe, a great failure in evangelical tradition. We have tended at least since the time of old Princeton to view all truth as of the same type.41 Doctrine however must be orientated toward faith. It cannot be simple factual information. As Dorner contended, there is a personal demand upon the individual for facts to move from the realm of the abstract and theoretical to the realm of the vital. With this faith commitment arises a certainty that comes from personal encounter with the living God. This is the existential aspect of doctrine, associated with Kierkegaard, but implicit within the text itself. It was at this point that confessional faith failed in the Era of Protestant Scholasticism. This point also relates to the authority of experience. Doctrine involves an existential imperative that demands to be appropriated personally in one’s inner life.

Doctrine makes truth claims, but these claims are of necessity colored by the lenses of the theologian and the epistemology s/he employs. Hence it is necessary to be in conversation with past generations, the continuity of the Christian tradition. We all make mistakes, but we do not all make the same mistakes.

The Necessity of
Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy

As noted above, there is a general recognition that some doctrines are more important than others. Erickson speaks explicitly to this reality in his Christian Theology.42 As such, certain doctrines are to be given more prominence in discussion. He adds a second important observation in that, for example, “eschatology is a major area of doctrinal investigation. Within that area, the Second Coming is a major belief. Rather less crucial (and considerably less clearly taught in Scripture) is the issue of whether the church will be removed from the world before or after the great tribulation.”43 To unpack the significance of what Erickson says, there are certain doctrines that in and of themselves are major doctrines—we could say core doctrines—but finer developments of those doctrines are not to be considered of first order importance.

Establishing A Doctrinal Taxonomy Historically

A generation before the fundamentalist-modernist controversy Philip Schaff published The Creeds of Christendom; a few years later Charles Briggs published The Fundamental Christian Faith. In both of these works there is an explicit recognition that the doctrinal conclusions embodied in the creedal affirmations of the creeds of the ancient church represent the theological core of the Christian Faith. This perspective was also that of Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century. Vincent gave much thought to the issue of doctrine and concluded:

I have devoted considerable study and much attention to inquiring, from men of outstanding holiness and doctrinal correctness, in what way it might be possible for me to establish a kind of fixed and, as it were, general and guiding principle for distinguishing the truth of the Catholic faith from the depraved falsehoods of the heretics. . . . Holy Scripture, on account of its depth, is not accepted in a universal sense. The same statements are interpreted in one way by one person, in another by someone else, with the result that there seem to be as many opinions as there are people. . . . Therefore, on account of the number and variety of errors, there is a need for someone to lay down a rule for the interpretation of the prophets and the apostles in such a way that is directed by the rule of the Catholic Church. Now in the Catholic Church itself the greatest care is taken that we hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all people (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est). 44

Vincent recognized the inadequacy in a simple appeal to the text of scripture in that the scripture was subject to a variety of interpretations. Something more was needed. He settled on the principle of the “consensus of the faithful.” In other words, there had to be universal recognition by the laity as well as the clergy. A doctrine could not be local. A doctrine could not be new. Another way to sum up this teaching is catholicity. The substance of Christian doctrine must be universal. This is in fact the presupposition of Tom Oden in his systematic theology. Oden has endeavored to write a consensual theology using as his method the vincentian canon, focusing upon what is common to all branches of Christianity.

In so saying we must distinguish between the form and the substance of a doctrine. One of the amazing phenomena of language is that it is possible to say the same thing in a variety of ways, and even in a variety of languages. This should alert us to the necessity to probe what linguists call deep structure, the universal meaning, rather than stumbling over surface structure, specific verbal articulations of theological conclusions.

Having said this, the question remains, “What specifically belongs at the core of our theological commitment?”

    Trinitarianism

First and foremost as noted above, the person and work of Jesus Christ belong at the heart of any theological taxonomy. These concepts involve a number of interconnected teachings and assumptions. As these were worked out historically the questions focused first upon the relationship of the pre-incarnate Son to God the Father. The early church struggled with finding adequate language to express the relationship between the Father and the Son, recognizing the deity of each without inadvertently falling into the trap of asserting two Gods. Early on several attempts were made to explain this relationship; these were adjudged to be inadequate. The crisis that precipitated the church’s formally declaring its understanding at the Council of Nicea was the teaching or Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, who taught that the Son was the first created creature who became the creator of the cosmos. Arius summed up his teaching with the phrase, “there was a time when the son was not.” The church responded at Nicea in the Nicean creed asserting that the Son was consubstantial with the Father. This statement was an assertion of the eternal divinity of the Son, as a full participant in the deity of the Father. The council of Nicea did not address the question of the Holy Spirit as such. The understanding of the Holy Spirit’s full participation in the Godhead came as a result of the work of the three great Cappodocian fathers, especially Basil, and was codified at the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381). This statement gave explicit form to the already existing practice of recognizing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as fully and equally divine.

As explanations of the nature of the Trinity developed, the Eastern and Western church developed different frameworks of understanding for the doctrine—frameworks which especially from the perspective of Eastern Theology are incompatible. So, in a taxonomy of doctrine the fact that God exists as Trinity stands at the very core of the Church’s faith, while explanations of a framework of trinitarian understanding would be ranked as second level theological reflection.

    The Two Natures of Christ

The second major theological development of the ancient period was a precise articulation of nature of the incarnate person of Jesus Christ, specifically the doctrine of the two natures, deity and humanity, and the explanation as to how these two natures come together in one person (the hypostatic union). Since the birth of the church there had been an implicit recognition that Jesus was unique as both fully human and also fully divine. Early on, the church had simply repeated these assertions without trying to explain the nature of the incarnation or relate the divine and human together in the one historic person of Jesus Christ. As with the Arian controversy, the church’s understanding of the person of Christ also arose out of controversy. But in this case the understanding was refined in three successive controversies.

In order to understand the christological conclusions forged at Chalcedon, there must be an understanding of the theological climate of the ancient church in the fourth and fifth centuries. The question of the person of Christ was one that occupied the Greek-speaking church, a church which was divided into two theological schools. The first school, that of Alexandria, was heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy and was interested in spiritual realities. The tendency here was to emphasize the deity of Christ, often at the expense of his humanity. One of the staunch defenders of Nicene orthodoxy was Apollinarius, the Alexandrian theologian and friend of the great Athanasius, the architect of trinitarian orthodoxy. Apollinarius saw that one of Arius’ arguments was not properly trinitarian but focused upon the nature of the incarnation. Apollinarius responded with an explanation of the relationship of Christ’s deity to his humanity that in effect made Christ less than fully human. Apollinarius’ hypothesis was that in the incarnation Jesus Christ had a human body and soul, but the spirit (rational mind) had been replaced by the divine logos, the second person of the Trinity. The reaction against Apollinarius’ teaching was swift in coming, and his position was condemned as heretical by the council of Constantinople in A.D. 381.

Roughly a generation later, Nestorius was Patriarch of Constantinople and a representative of the other major theological school in the Greek-speaking east—Antioch. The Antiochean school was interested in historical interpretation of scripture and focused upon the true humanity of Christ. While not denying Christ’s deity their focus was upon Jesus’ humanity and the example he gave to his followers. Nestorius, as was typical of the school of Antioch, drew a sharp distinction between the humanity and the deity in the incarnate person of Jesus. So sharp was the distinction that he was understood to be teaching that Jesus was in reality two separate persons inhabiting a single body, Son of Mary and Son of God. This perception was exacerbated because of Nestorius’ opposition to the already popular designation of Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer).45 Nestorius was himself an intractable individual, and when Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, challenged Nestorius’ position, he defiantly refused to back down and challenged the orthodoxy of Cyril. After a series of confrontations, the Emperor convened a council that met at Ephesus in A.D. 429. This council condemned Nestorius and his doctrine of “two sons.” While historical research has questioned whether Nestorius himself did in fact hold the doctrine that bears his name, Nestorianism as popularly understood undermined the doctrine of salvation with its failure to adequately integrate the two natures into the one historic person who was Jesus Christ.46

Twenty years later another christological crisis arose. This time the nexus of the controversy was Eutyches, a well respected elderly but unimaginative and poorly trained monk in Constantinople who reacted with disfavor to the Council of Ephesus’ insistence that Christ existed in two natures after the incarnation. Heavily influenced by Alexandrian theology and spirituality, Eutyches taught that after the incarnation Jesus had but one nature, the divine. He was variously understood to be teaching that Jesus’ humanity was absorbed by his deity, or that in the incarnation the two natures fused to become one more than human but less than divine, a tertium quid (third something). Eutyches’ heresy did not violate the dictum arising out of the Apollinarian controversy, (“that which he did not assume he did not heal”) but did ultimately fall into a docetic heresy and violated the anti-docetic dictum “Grace never destroys nature.” Eutyches’ heresy destroyed the humanity of Jesus after the incarnation and also fed into the dualistic temptation to flee from the flesh. After much political maneuvering and a council that declared Eutyches orthodox (the Robbers Synod of Ephesus in A.D. 449), he was finally condemned at Chalcedon in A.D. 451.47

Chalcedon produced the final creed of the ancient church.48 Pronouncements since that time have been confessions. The Creed of Chalcedon addressed particularly the understanding of the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. However, a careful reading of the creed shows that the statements are apophatic rather than catophatic. It is a creed of negation rather than assertion. Rather than give a precise definition of the incarnate Christ, the creed draws parameters around what is allowed within orthodox christological theologizing. As later centuries proved, there was still much room for debate and discussion about particular emphases, but the boundaries were established. In looking taxonomically at the doctrine of the incarnate person of Christ, an affirmation of the truth of the creed arising out of Chalcedon is to be considered at the heart of the Christian faith. Further refinements and frameworks built within the boundaries, which from the very beginning accommodated Alexandrian and Antiochean emphases, are of second or third level importance.

    The Nature of Divine Grace

Implicitly the early church recognized the necessity of divine grace for salvation. From the immediate post-Apostolic period the church recognized the absolute necessity of divine grace for salvation and that, left to itself, humanity could not be saved. But the theological climate of Gnosticism kept the church from reflecting upon the nature of human depravity and the need of divine grace. During the fifth century a British monk, Pelagius, came to Rome and taught a gospel of moral reformation, stressing the full ability of humanity to obey God completely. At this time Augustine had already articulated his doctrine of human depravity and the accompanying spiritual inability to please God apart from a prior application of divine grace. The ensuing debate, the Pelagian controversy, brought into bold relief the issues concerning the nature of human depravity and divine grace. The church recognized the legitimacy and necessity of the concept of human depravity as being inexorably bound up in the nexus of the doctrine of salvation. It did not however unequivocally endorse Augustine’s doctrine of total depravity. Pelagianism was condemned at Ephesus and at a number of local synods, but it was not until the Reformation that the Augustinian doctrine was endorsed and incorporated into a formal theological matrix. Thus, it would be proper to say that an understanding of human depravity is at the center of the historic faith, but the historic faith does not endorse any particular articulation of depravity, whether it be Augustinian, Reformed, Semi-Augustinian, or even Semi-Pelagian. The doctrine of human depravity and its correlate doctrine, the necessity of salvation being of God and by grace belongs to the heart of the web of Christian proclamation; any particular articulation belongs at the most as a second level truth.

    The Canon of the New Testament

As we turn our attention to the rise of the New Testament canon, we must recognize that at this point we are not dealing with the foundational doctrines of the faith, rather we are dealing with the foundational documents of the faith. The early church adopted the Old Testament as its original scripture. Very early it recognized the canonicity of the gospels and the Pauline epistles. Gradually the rest of the New Testament writings were recognized as having divine imprimatur. However, with the text of the New Testament the process is qualitatively different than with the doctrinal controversies discussed above. Here the church never made a universal formal declaration of the extent of the New Testament. The lists that arose were associated with particular bishops, e.g., Athanasius in his festal letter of A.D. 369, and with local synods in Hippo and Carthage about 20 years later associated with the great Augustine. The canon of the New Testament was not imposed upon the church by ecclesiastical authority. Rather its authority arose by consensus.49 As a result of the way the canon of the New Testament arose, it was not formally closed until the Reformation period, although from a practical perspective it was virtually closed in the sixth century. Again due to the historic consensus of the church the shape of the canon of the New Testament would be understood as at the center of the faith, although from an epistemological rather than a formal doctrinal perspective. Certainly there has never been a serious attempt within the church to add any more books to the received canon, and any questioning of the legitimacy of any of the books of the New Testament have focused upon the fringes as opposed to the books that preserve the heart of the inspired apostolic proclamation of Christ and his Word.

Establishing a theological taxonomy exegetically

For the theologian and the exegete there is a constant tension.50 This tension arises out of contradictory expectations, expectations to preserve truth on the one hand and on the other hand to act as a scientist to test the validity of truth and to act as an explorer seeking new truth or a fuller grasp of truth. Along these lines, the theologian and exegete must wrestle with how we define orthodoxy and whether a simple pursuit of truth can be accomplished in light of the noetic effects of sin. Too many evangelicals do not nuance their theological convictions nor do they hold them up to critical examination. This smacks of a method that gives tradition an unqualified authority and is more in keeping with historic Roman Catholic method than having a Protestant spirit, for it regards the tradition (whatever that tradition may be) as unquestionable and undifferentiated. If we approach the question of the certainty of doctrine from an exegetical as opposed to a historical basis, the greatest certainty about doctrine comes from a two-pronged approach: empirical (solid exegesis, biblical theology, etc.) and pneumatological, i.e., the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit about certain truths, thus bringing home a greater degree of certainty about more central things. A taxonomy of doctrine is the result. To what does the Spirit bear witness? Essentially matters pertaining to Christology and soteriology. Practically, this tells us that rationalism and the Enlightenment cannot invade the Spirit’s territory; solid historical-critical exegesis cannot destroy one’s faith in the resurrection of the theanthropic Person because that faith though rooted in history is not based solely upon history. When it comes to less central issues, there needs to be a hierarchical order of certainty and a concomitant hierarchy of centrality as we develop a taxonomy of doctrine. Thus, for example, looking at issues of eschatology, the central truth of Christ’s bodily return is what unites believers. First John explicitly says that the Spirit bears witness to this fact. But when Christ comes is left to the church to hammer out on the basis of solid exegesis. Conviction in such issues dare not be as certain as convictions about the person and work of Christ. Otherwise, we succumb to the danger of “majoring on the minors,” of missing the central message of the Bible, and of suppressing the witness of the Spirit on the more crucial issues. There are, to be sure, less central issues of which we can have a very high degree of certainty—largely because any reasonable exegesis must come to such conclusions. But there are also topics on which one thinks that his views are Spirit-guided, but his own certainty of such matters is stated more humbly. It is intriguing to note in 1 Cor 7:40 that Paul uses this kind of language in his view of remarriage after the death of a spouse: “But if the husband dies, she is free to marry whom she will, provided the marriage is within the Lord’s fellowship. She is better off as she is; that is my opinion, and I believe that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 7:39b-40, REB). There seem to be degrees of certainty that the Spirit bears witness to. Issues of marriage and remarriage are not core doctrinal convictions, but must still be worked out in terms of sapiential preference and solid exegesis.

Thus, on the other hand, in those areas outside core theological commitments, we have both the freedom and the responsibility to do tough exegetical spadework and to follow where the evidence leads us.

As those who believe that God is truth, we must commit ourselves to pursue truth in our exegesis no matter the cost, as long as it is within the bounds of taxonomically core doctrinal commitments as defined by the Spirit’s witness and solid exegetical conclusions. This will by its very nature involve challenging (and maybe slaughtering) sacred cows. But it is the exegete’s and the theologian’s sacred responsibility to examine the text historically. Checks and balances are in place—both theologically and exegetically—via the witness of the Spirit, solid exegesis, and the fact that the theologian’s and the exegete’s labors are done in community with others who can evaluate and challenge conclusions.

A Theology of Minimums?

In all that has been said, the question may arise, “Are we not forced to accept a theology of minimums rather than organizing and arranging truth and bringing all things under the Lordship of Christ?” To this the response is, not necessarily. What we are arguing is that there is a central core of truth that has established itself through the centuries and been agreed to by all who name the name of Christ, regardless of the communion or denomination of Christianity to which they belong. It is this core that is the starting point of our theological understanding. It is the minimums that identify us as Christian as opposed to something else. This core represents the minimum theological commitment of a Christian. But beyond that minimum there is within the theologian an inward push to organize all understanding and systematize it into a comprehensive whole. This compulsion, it could be argued, is an inward human compulsion. We at least in the West must see how things fit together. We must “dismantle the universe” whether it be physical or theological and learn how it works, and coax out its hidden secrets.

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Clues” the crew of the Enterprise awakens after having been rendered unconscious by an energy field apparently for a few seconds. The ship is apparently unharmed although it was hurled several light years from its location. However, several small anomalies and inconsistencies lead Captain Picard to believe that something more sinister has happened to the ship and that Commander Data is somehow complicit in the affair. As the mystery unravels it is discovered that the ship has encountered a xenophobic alien race and in order to survive Captain Picard had to agree to have all memories of the encounter wiped from the consciousness of the crewmembers and all physical evidence eliminated. When the discovery of what really happened is made, the alien race again threatens to eliminate the Enterprise. Picard pleads the case noting that the reason that the ruse was discovered was that clues were left behind and that humans are compelled to figure out mysteries. It is precisely this compulsion to figure out mystery that has compelled modern science to its advances. It is the same force that compels the theologian to make further discoveries and advance theological understanding.

At this point we fall under the model of the theologian as explorer/scientist. We test, probe, investigate, and extend our theological knowledge and build a comprehensive understanding, an understanding that we believe is right and accurate. As we work we operate within a paradigm of understanding. And we seek to extend the paradigm. As we learn we develop a full orbed system that tries to incorporate all truth about God and his universe from any and every source under its umbrella. But eventually for a number of possible reasons, that paradigm cannot accommodate new data and another paradigm is proposed. That proposal is inevitably met with stiff resistance and the charge of heresy is leveled against those who would change the status quo.

Theology deals by definition with revelation. The ultimate database from which it draws is the entirety of creation. The subset database is the Bible, special revelation. The subset of special revelation is the salvific message of redemption. It is this that composes the “theological core,” the sine qua non of the faith. The theological enterprise is broader than the core; it seeks to organize and make sense first of the rest of special revelation and beyond that the totality of general revelation. It is as we move beyond the core that the conclusions become more tentative and open to interpretation and debate.

But when we step back from this system we have built, a system of maximums, we must recognize that our system arose out of a particular set of assumptions and pre-understandings that were universalized in our understanding and thought patterns, but in reality were not universal. Rather they were local and historically conditioned. That is not to say that all that understanding was wrong; it was the best that could be done at that place and at that time with the data and methods available.

To approach this question from another perspective, we recognize the core of the faith as having the status of metanarrative. It expresses universal and transcultural realities, although these realities arose out of particular historical events. The expansion upon the basic metanarrative encapsulates the timeless metanarrative within what is essentially a local narrative.

When conditions change, the local narrative51 may be challenged and even discarded, but this discarding is not a discarding of the metanarrative features encased in the local narrative. Rather it is the discarding of the local understandings/interpretations that have grown up around the core metanarrative, understandings that involve even the framework in which it has been encased.

The battle arises between those who have transformed the local narrative (be it Thomism, Lutheranism, Reformed, or whatever theology) into metanarrative and treat it as normative for all people, places, and times the minds of those who adhere to the systematization they equate it with metanarrative, and those who advocate a new (and as yet untested) paradigm that does not view the theological issues involved in the same manner or importance as does the old paradigm.

Ranking non-core issues

The historic faith of the Church expresses that which is at its core, the sine qua non of Christianity. A denial of the essential truth of any of the core doctrines places one outside the faith from the perspective of its essential proclamation and involves one is heresy. Yet there are many more doctrines and perspectives than those expounded in the historic and ecumenical creeds of the church. The church is divided into three major communions, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. Within Protestantism there are numerous traditions, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, and Arminian as well as innumerable denominations. While Christians agree on the fundamental doctrines of the faith,52 How are we to deal with the significant differences that exist between communions and narrower traditions? How are we to rank the authority of theological constructions that are narrower than those embodied in the ecumenical creeds?

The first reality that must be reiterated in this process is that all theological constructions are finite, limited approximations that represent, recontextualize, or redescribe the presentation of the scriptural material. Additionally, by virtue of the nature of language, there is a high degree of metaphor and figurative language in scripture and in the concepts there embodied. Grant Osborne has discussed the metaphorical nature of theological language with reference to hermeneutics and its implications for theological construction.53 Osborne argues rightly that theological statements are at their core metaphorical. The consequence is that “doctrinal statements are figurative representations of theoretical constructs, and the accuracy or ‘truth’ of their portrayal is always a moot point.”54 When added to the historical dimension this makes for a degree of tentativeness in the certainty of assumptions.

In Christian theology we are dealing with something analogous to what Thomas Kuhn would call “paradigm communities” in science. Those theological formulations which transcend the boundaries that separate the three major Christian communions must have the highest authority. Within particular communions, those doctrines that are common to the entire communion will be ranked next in level of authority. In actuality, this principle applies particularly within Protestantism since it, to a far higher degree than Catholicism or Orthodoxy, finds itself characterized by discrete traditions, sub-traditions and sub-sub traditions.

Within Protestantism we would look historically at such doctrines as:

  • justification sola fide, by faith apart from human works. This is the doctrine out of which Protestant was born.
  • an understanding of the sacraments as testimonies and reminders as opposed to sacerdotalism, which sees the sacraments as actually infusing divine grace into the recipient.
  • the centrality and the final authority of the scriptures, which ranks as a hallmark of Protestantism as opposed to Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
  • the extent of the canon as excluding the apocrypha.

These are all examples of what would be considered second level doctrines. They are important, maybe important enough to divide over, but not a part of the fundamental core of the apostolic kerygma, and hence not an explicit part of the historic faith.

Divisions also exist between Protestant traditions, particularly between the Reformed/Calvinist tradition and the Arminian and Wesleyan/Arminian tradition. Issues that separate these traditions focus particularly upon the understanding of the nature of human depravity and spiritual ability and the nature of divine grace. The battle between these two camps has often coalesced into heated and acrimonious debate over the issue of election/predestination. Often unrecognized is that in these doctrinal constructions there is a divergence in the theological methods by which the doctrines are established and defended. The Reformed camp particularly has committed itself to a scholastic theological method that Calvin himself would find objectionable. Conversely the Arminian camp has historically had no solid center around which it built its system and has tended to drift theologically in the direction of rationalism. While not denying that there are profound implications to the questions raised, looking taxonomically at the importance of these debates they must be ranked as third level. The doctrine of predestination did not die on the cross; Jesus did.

Many other questions beg to be addressed in this discussion. Questions about organizing principles,55 philosophical systems employed by various systems and theologians, hermeneutics and the application of hermeneutics to various genre of scripture, and the implications for the development and articulation of doctrine are all-important questions that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, to address all of these questions is beyond the scope of this discussion. What this chapter has tried to demonstrate is that it is a fundamental error to view all our doctrines as on the same level of importance. Some doctrines are fundamental to the faith. These are the consensus doctrines spelled out in the ancient creeds. Interestingly these are not the doctrines that evangelicals get upset about when they are challenged. Looking taxonomically, the irony is that the doctrinal discussions that engender the most heat and least light are those doctrines that are historically and exegetically the least well established, but have been raised to touchstone level by particular denominations and traditions in a sectarian fashion.

It is in the realm of ranking doctrine that the reality of theological politics rears its ugly head. After all, everyone believes that his or her theological construction is the biblical one. Very, very few consciously recognize that factors other than the biblical text come into play in their theological belief structure. The commitment to the truth of God leads them to adopt a defensive posture and attack those who challenge their beliefs at any point. A commitment to pursue understanding and truth done within a dogmatic or confessional community must often be accomplished quietly and without challenging the powers that be, for such a challenge could well cost the individual his job or ministry. This is not hyperbole; it is a reality that I have seen happen on numerous occasions over issues as seemingly trivial as advocating dialogue with other denominations, of adopting a hermeneutical principle that is perceived to threaten the existing structure, of declaring that a denomination’s “denominational distinctives” are not cardinal doctrine.

There tends to be a fundamental insecurity among those who wield the power in denominations and schools that often cannot tolerate the mind that dares to ask questions. Reactions to new perspectives are often swift and “knee jerk.” While addressing primarily the evangelical community on this point, the same intolerance is seen on the left wing of the theological spectrum. Numerous conservative students have found their theses and dissertations rejected because they did not toe the line with politically correct exegesis or ride a theological hobbyhorse of the party line at more liberal institutions.

The raising of issues that properly are fourth or fifth level concerns in a taxonomy to touchstone level reveals a fundamental flaw in the way theology is approached. While we would not normally think in these terms, this mentality becomes schismatic and culpable before Christ because it takes the focus of reflection off Him and His work and introduces division into His body, the church.

As has been said elsewhere, systematic theology does not arise directly from the Bible, the claims of adherents to particular systems notwithstanding. It is a human enterprise.56 Theological definition is a human response to God’s revelation, and the organizing principles are of human, not divine, origin.57

While God is truth, we are not God and only have an incomplete grasp of His truth. By recognizing the relative importance of the truths we hold, we are better able to maintain the bond in unity in love.

In essential things unity
In non-essential things tolerance
In all things charity


1 This essay is a preliminary and unedited draft of a chapter in a forthcoming book; see prefatory remarks for data.

2 Theological Introduction or Prolegomena is a field of study akin in to OT Introduction and NT Introduction. In this case introduction does not mean easy, but rather preliminary issues that must be understood before looking at any system of doctrine.

3 Millard Erickson explicitly recognizes this raising of the virgin birth to touchstone status as an apologetic ploy, and that the virgin birth is not absolutely necessary for maintaining the reality of the incarnation. It is in his understanding probably a second level doctrine, i.e. not necessary for salvation. Christian Theology 2nd ed, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 757-760, 772.

4 These vowel points were not added until the medieval period by the Masoretes because Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language and there was a danger that the Jews would forget how to pronounce the text of the Hebrew scriptures .

5 The point here is not to attack or defend the doctrine of inerrancy, but merely to show how and why it achieved its central position among American evangelicals.

6 The 1970’s saw a renewal of the inerrancy controversy that had raged during the late 19th and early 20th century. The inerrancy controversy of the 1970’s and 80’s was an in-house fight among evangelicals who both asserted the characteristic essentials: “. . . conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorites that is the basis of Evangelicalism” (David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989], 3.) Traditionalists insisted upon the adequacy and authority of the formulations made in the late nineteenth century, while the opponents raised numerous objections to the doctrine based upon epistemology, linguistics, history, and the phenomena of the text.

7 We recognize with the historic Protestant tradition that sola scriptura means that scripture is the ultimate authority, not the only authority, a position that Donald Bloesch labels nuda scriptura (Theology of Word and Spirit, [Downers Grove: IVP, 1992] 193).

8 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom I, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977) 7.

9 Ibid.

10 Hubert Cunliffe-Jones (ed), A History of Christian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 19-20.

11 Alister McGrath, Studies in Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 408-436. McGrath is supremely concerned about the communication of doctrine to generations unfamiliar with the categories of scripture and of the Reformation.

12 Cited by Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 758.

13 To be sure these “truths” have been taught in other times and places, but the fact that Simpson experienced physical healing and had a crisis spiritual experience of the holiness variety that he identified as “sanctification” led to these doctrines being elevated to touchstone status in the denomination.

14 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 83-34.

15 See Chapter 00

16 Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) 35-80.

17 Ibid, 60.

18 It is at this point particularly that we see the epistemological/philosophical substructure of the theologian affecting the Gestalt of the doctrine articulated.

19 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 61.

20 Ibid, 64.

21 Ibid, 55.

22 Ibid, 56.

23 Ibid, 55.

24 This stress on the objective nature of the Faith has led to the charge that Princeton was rationalistic in its approach to Christianity. Numerous historians and theologians have contended that the Princetonians compartmentalized faith and life. For example, C. R. Jeschke states of the Princetonians:

The strict compartmentalization of formal theology and the life of piety that came to prevail at Princeton reflected in part the growing irrelevance of traditional modes of thought and inherited statements of faith for the needs of the church in a rapidly changing world. The fact that Hodge and his colleagues, like most of their contemporaries, were unaware of the sickness in the theological body, only permitted the condition to worsen, and heightened the reaction of the patient to the cure, when its true condition was finally diagnosed. (“The Briggs Case: The Focus of a Study in Nineteenth Century Presbyterian History” [Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1966], p. 56.)

Andrew Hoffecker has challenged this perception of the Princetonians, contending that those who make such assertions ignore the wealth of devotional material left by Alexander, Charles Hodge and Warfield (Piety and the Princeton Theologians, [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981]). Despite Hoffecker’s defense of the Princetonians themselves, it is not too much to say that many even among the Old School read only the theological material of the Princetonians. This fact contributed to a cold creedal orthodoxy among a significant contingent of the Old School with its stress on pure doctrine. Even the great Greek grammarian Basil Gildersleeve, himself a Princeton graduate, decried the “baleful influence of Princeton” stating that there was from there “very little hope of a generous vivifying force” (Letter from Gildersleeve to Charles Augustus Briggs, Briggs Transcripts 5:470 located at Union Seminary Library, New York)..

25 Charles Hodge, as representative of the Princetonian position, displayed a great antipathy for any emphasis on the subjective nature of Christianity. At one point he stated: “The idea that Christianity is a form of feeling, a life, and not a system of doctrines is contrary to the faith of all Christians. Christianity always has a creed. A man who believes certain doctrines is a Christian.” (Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 29:693.)

26 See chapter 2 for the inadequacies of this presumption.

27 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 66.

28 Ibid, 66.

29 See Sue Patterson, Realist Christian Theology in a Post-modern Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 73-93. In this chapter entitled “The anatomy of language riddenness” she explores the way in which language actually creates and shapes our world.

30 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 67-68.

31 C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 4-5.

32 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 69.

33 C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 133..

34 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine 70.

35 Quoted by McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 70.

36 See chapter 2, p. 00.

37 See chapter 2 p. 00. Thomas Kuhn’s classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, deals at length with the interpretation of data and how that it is given meaning within a framework. Only when data accumulates over a period of time which will not fit the framework do new understandings arise.

38 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 71.

39 Ibid., 73.

40 See Chapter 00 for a further discussion.

41 See M. James Sawyer, Charles Augustus Briggs and Tensions in Late Nineteenth Century American Theology (Lewiston, New York: Mellen University Press, 1994), 27-33.

42 Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 82-83.

43 Ibid., 82.

44 Vincent of Lerins, 000.

45 While most evangelicals intuitively side with Nestorius on the question of Theotokos vs. Christotokos there are important theological issues here cutting to the very heart of the incarnation. Protestant theologians from the Reformers to the 20th century have insisted that Mary is indeed Theotokos . For example Zwingli declared: “the Virgin should be called the Mother of God, Theotokos.” (An Exposition of the Fait, LCC XXIV, 256) Luther too concurred with this opinion. Calvin takes a whole paragraph in the Institutes defending the doctrine of Mary as Theotokos (2:14:4). In the twentieth century Karl Barth noted that it is “a test of the proper understanding of the incarnation” that “we do not reject the description of Mary as ‘mother of God’“ (Barth, CD I/2:138). The logic of the Theotokos designation is given by John of Damascus: “For as he who is born of her is true God, so she is truly Mother of God.” (John of Damascus, OF III.12, FC 37, 292.) The Council of Ephesus affirmed that this designation as Mother of God was “according to his human nature” but not “according to the divine nature.” Oden has summarized the significance of the title: Theotokos “does not mean that the nature of the Word or of his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the Holy Virgin, but that since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word united to Himself according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word was born according to the flesh” (Tomas Oden, The Word of Life (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989), 157.

46 For an excellent discussion of the implications of Nestorianism see C. FitzSimmons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy (Harrisburg, PA: Moorehouse Publishing, 1994) 119-138.

47 See Appendix, p. 000 for the text of the creed.

48 The difference between a creed and confession is significant in that a creed is affirmed by all of Christendom whereas a confession is limited to a particular tradition.

49 See M. James Sawyer, “Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament” Grace Journal of Theology 11:1 (1990) 00.

50 This section addresses the question of taxonomy from the perspective of the work of the exegete and is drawn from unpublished work done by Daniel B. Wallace. Grant Osborne, too, discusses this topic in The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), 286-317.

51 I am using the term postmodern term “local narrative” here not in the more conventional sense of geographically or culturally local, but in the sense of a theological system/tradition that conceptualizes Christianity in a peculiar fashion and which those within that tradition tend to globalize as the one right understanding.

52 For the purposes of discussion, fringe groups and liberal Christianity are not in view here since both of these groups actively deny crucial elements of the historic faith. Even non-creedal groups such as the Baptists agree with the doctrines taught by the ecumenical creeds while not generally accepting the authority of the creeds themselves.

53 Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991) 299-309.

54 Ibid., 307.

55 See here Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987) for an excellent discussion about issues surrounding the questions of system building and organizing principles.

56 See Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, volume 1, p. 3-11. Schaff’s discussion focuses upon the development of creeds in the life of the church. Systematic theology in this sense is a further extention of the theologizing found in the creeds of the church.

57 See B. B Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology.” In The Necessity of Systematic Theology, John Jefferson Davis (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978). Even as he insists on the objectivity of the facts of divine revelation, Warfield’s whole argument hinges upon the idea that theology is a science as geology or other natural sciences areas a sciences. It is the work of man to collect, to organize and to show the organic relationship of the data, integrating it into a concatenated whole. See also Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), Poythress’ argument is for the perspectival nature of human knowledge a perspectivalism that extends even to biblical and theological study. Implicit in his argument is that human understanding is finite and limited, thus while there may be objective truth in the mind of God, humans cannot attain to it. Therefore no one system of theology can give us ultimate truth. All systems are partial and incomplete.

Related Topics: Theology