Christian doctrine is an area of theology that is essential to the life of the intellectual Christian. It is in this area, however, that the average Christian is largely unlearned. I say this as one who was not raised in a liturgical tradition; this, to me, has been crippling and paradoxically liberating. Crippling because of the lack of eloquence I am able to refer to the formal teachings of the church and at the same time, this lack of experience is liberating as it has afforded me the luxury of being able to approach certain topics in the church from an objective point of view. “Christian doctrine tells us that there is redemption for us and for the world, and each particular doctrine articulates some aspect of this redemption.” Zizioulas articulates the driving power behind doctrine well in his first chapter entitled Doctrine as the Teaching of the Church. It is to the end of telling the redemption story of Christianity that we use doctrine in our communities.
The purposes of doctrine are pointed out in the title of this first chapter well. Teaching is the fundamental purpose for doctrine as it is the retelling and reinterpretation of the dogmas or beliefs of a particular system or people; in this case, Christianity. Without the tradition of indoctrinating our children and new believers, the beliefs and convictions of our original church fathers are not able to perpetuate into the next generations. It is this line of doctrine that has linked the modern church to its familial roots that were planted by the original disciples and authors of the bible — it is our lifeline to remaining a distinct people. Along with the purpose of keeping our beliefs relevant is the pragmatic reason of accuracy that doctrine affords us. Without some standard of beliefs set down, it is easy to see how any particular set of beliefs can be distorted until they no longer resemble the original beliefs. Moving beyond simply maintain relevance, Moltmann points out that the effect of the doctrines that we teach is to “develop and practice…thinking as well [as working out our doctrines].” A theoretical doctrine is only so helpful if one does not allow it to affect their thinking and practice. This is a major part in understanding why we use doctrine as a means of communicating our faith.
All of this usefulness would be for naught, however, if the Christian church at large does not maintain clarity. Our doctrines also provide this for us; a base line of sorts to which we can hold all beliefs that come our way in order to discern what is worthy of ascription. An example of this is in a case of the original councils in which beliefs such as Arianism were dismissed as heretical to the doctrines that were set forth. While this divisiveness may superficially seem contradictory to the inclusive message of Christ, it serves the function of keeping the truths that were learned and reasoned from the God-man, Jesus untainted by personal preferences and cultural relevance. Following from this clarity is the essential common ground that believers can stand on. While there are definite differences between Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Western Protestant theologies, the distinct common ground of Trinitarian theology, the divinity of Christ and the works of the Holy Spirit is an essential bond that truly makes us “one, catholic, apostolic church”. Jesus calls the church to exist as one functioning body and to do this there has to be some agreement as to what metaphorical DNA we will have. The doctrines of the Christian church are that DNA that unites the hand, foot and nose of the entire church body despite our differences.
True to the purpose of distinguishing the Christian religion from all other world religions, there are friction points that are unavoidable. The most obvious to point out would be the great schism between the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east. The fact that what divided these two similar traditions was the minute interpretation of a particular phrase that was contingent on dialectical differences in concert with the political plights of Charlemagne gives testament to the fragile nature of religious beliefs in general. It is because of the great fragility of such matters that doctrine must be scrutinized carefully because there is potential for unnecessary division among the body which is against the basis of our faith that lies in Christ’s calling us to one body. Another area in which friction has turned into permanent change is in the Christian cults that have cropped up over time. Groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons find their roots in Christianity but became heretical when they denied fundamental teachings of the church. In such cases, it is right that those holding to the heretical beliefs be pointed out and publically spoken against if they refuse to alter their beliefs. The friction that comes along with definitively stating what one believes is a healthy friction because it only serves to further purify the beliefs that have been set forth. A more recent area of friction is in the doctrine of hell. A couple years ago, pastor-theologian, Rob Bell released his book Love Wins which stirred up a lot of controversy in conservative Christian circles and, in fact, indirectly led to my older brother leaving a pastoral job at a church in Kansas. Many brought accusations of heresy against Bell and his book but were unable to point out in exactly what way he deviated from true Christian dogma. It is in the crucible of such friction that Christians grow, mature and stretch their minds in a progressive way.
I myself have encountered several discussion indirectly related to doctrines of the Christian church. One such example is when, in December of 2011, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church decided to cancel Sunday services in exchange for his entire church committing to doing acts of service in their community. While promoting this event, some other pastors across the country had opposing feelings; one such pastor, Erik Raymond, felt strongly enough to write a blog about it. My best friend who lived near Raymond’s church sent me the blog and asked my thoughts. The basis of Erik’s argument was to pose a dichotomy by asking if churches are primarily called to meet formally or to acting in service to the community. This gets right to the heart of the ecclesial doctrines of the church i.e. what is our function? I unfortunately never got a response from Raymond, but it is just as well since my purpose was not to confront him, but to give my two cents in response to his two cents. As alluded to before, I have also been privileged to witness my older brother who is a youth pastor in Iowa confront different doctrinal issues in his ministry career such as the aforementioned doctrine of hell.
Overall, I appreciate my experiences with doctrinal debates and the education that I have gained from pursuing a Christian academia. My understanding of doctrine is a little more liberal and abstract due to my lack of liturgical upbringing, but is no less a large part of my beliefs today. The purposes of defining ourselves, clarifying ourselves and purging our beliefs of falsehoods is a noble and well working function that the Christian church has yet to cease benefiting from.