Doctrine Alone

The season of the Reformation ‘Solas’ has just ended and we have been reminded of the ‘aloneness’ of Scripture, grace, faith, Christ and the glory of God. But, hopefully, we will have also been reminded too that none of these are ‘alone’ in an absolute sense.

The Reformers never divorced Scripture totally from tradition, nor did they isolate grace from the God in whom and by whom we enjoy it. Faith alone is the means by which a sinner is justified, but faith that justifies is never alone. Christ as the incarnate Son of God can never be understood or experienced apart from the Father and the Spirit with whom he exists in the eternity of the godhead. And the glory that belongs exclusively to God cannot be divorced from the enjoyment of God that is bound up with his honour.

Yet how easily and with the best of intentions do we slip into oversimplifications of truths that really matter. We see this even in our zeal to safeguard truth from error. Whereas it is vital to be on our guard against any attempt to distort or deny the doctrines taught in Scripture, it would be a grave error to do so in a way that falls shorts of the Bible’s own expectations of how we are to do so. There is more to ‘contending for the faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) than meets the eye.

There is a real danger that we become myopic in this area. Whereas we quite rightly aim for precision in our understanding and formulation of key Bible teachings; we can lose sight of the fact there is more to these teachings than formulaic accuracy.

In an earlier post entitled, ‘No Theology without Doxology’ I drew attention to the fact that, in Scripture, doctrine always leads to worship. It is impossible to truly grasp the wonder of God’s self-revelation in all its different dimensions without falling down before him in wonder, love and praise. Yet, sadly, all too often that is what happens and we end up with the theological equivalent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, ‘faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null: dead perfection.’

There is, however, another crucial dimension to understanding how theology should be done. Namely, to realise that it is not only doxological, but also ethical. If we have truly grasped the truth God has revealed, it will not only lead to praise, but also to obedience.

When Paul sent Titus to Crete ‘to straighten out what was left unfinished’ (Tit 1.5), it is clear that there were major gaps in the Cretans’ understanding of God’s truth that needed to be filled in. The apostle instructs his emissary on areas that needed particular attention. But we cannot help but be struck by the wording of Paul’s key directive:

You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no-one will malign the word of God. (Tit 2.1-5).

Three things stand out in this statement. The first is that instruction given in the church must be in accord with the ‘sound doctrine’ revealed in Holy Scripture. Paul makes this assertion over against the unsound [unhealthy] doctrines that were circulating at that time. Those who teach and preach God’s word should always aim for the clearest articulation of the truths it contains.

The second striking feature of the apostle’s words here is that his command to teach the truth goes hand in glove with his command to live it out in every sphere of life. He makes it clear that doctrine is not merely something intellectual; it is also ethical.

This should really come as no surprise. The Decalogue is prefaced by a great doctrinal declaration: ‘I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt…’ (Ex 20.2), but it flows into a tenfold summary of ethical responsibility. So too, in the Great Commission, Jesus commands the apostles to ‘make disciples’ (which by definition means instructing them in biblical truth); but he spells out the implication of this with the words, ‘…teaching them to obey whatever I command’ (Mt 28.19-20). Doctrine is not only intended to redirect our thinking, it is also designed to redirect our lives in their entirety. (And Paul spells this out in terms of the intergenerational instruction in the things of God as one of the hallmarks of a faithful church.)

The third noteworthy detail in Paul’s instructions to Titus is the rationale he attached to it: ‘…so that no-one will malign the word of God’ (2.5). The transformed living that should characterise God’s family is not merely a matter for the reputation of the church; but for God’s reputation. Paul reinforces this in what he goes on to say about the behaviour of Christians who happen to be slaves. They should conduct themselves in such a way that ‘in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive’ (2.10).

Paul captures the weight of what is at stake in the very first sentence of this letter. In his greeting he states that his apostleship is ‘for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness’ (1.1) [italics added].

Going back to the solas of the Reformation, the Reformers were passionate about doctrine. They debated the best way to formulate the great truths of the Bible not merely with their opponents within the Roman Catholic church, but also with each other – allowing legitimate latitude for interpretation. But they were equally passionate for godly living: behaviour that was shaped by the truth of God’s word. There was no place for a sola doctrina that could be confined to the realm of theological debate. The truthfulness of God’s truth cannot be articulated by creed and confession in isolation from the conduct of its confessors.

Mark Johnston