by R. K. McGregor Wright, Th.M., Ph.D.
The Task Before Us
The purpose of this paper is to establish clearly whether the Bible makes correct teaching, sound doctrine, or (to use the historic term) orthodoxy, necessary for the progress of the Christian life. The case will be argued here on the grounds of the teaching of the New Testament alone, only because the vast mass of supporting data in the Old Testament only strengthens the argument and must await another paper.
The case requires both definition and reasoned argument leading to the conclusion, and will be dealt with in two stages. We will ask: (1) how does the New Testament present the doctrine of doctrine?; and (2) what is the relation between doctrine and life?
We live today in the most privileged and free civilization in the history of the world. We have total freedom of worship, and of propagating our faith. Never before in Christian history have we had so much of this world’s goods at the disposal of the saints of God. Never before have we been so inundated with material and spiritual blessings and opportunities. We have every imaginable advantage of education, time and resources at our elbows, dozens of libraries, millions of books, including vast collections of reformational texts of theology, Bible exegesis, commentary, and sermons.
Yet, despite more free time than ever to spend how we wish, the average member of our evangelical churches across the nation still cannot explain to a Jehovah’s Witness why he or she believes in the Trinity, the average Calvinist can not explain to an Arminian what mortification of sin is, the average Protestant can not explain to a Catholic how justification is distinct from sanctification.
Many believers spend years in ostensibly orthodox evangelical churches, and never hear one sermon on the relationship between the Trinity and worship, never hear one sermon on the dominion of sin or grace, never one sermon on even such a fundamental commonplace as the security of the believer. As a result of this neglect, there are fewer and fewer people in the pews who even expect to find any connection between correct doctrine and correct practice.
It seems to be more and more assumed that correct practice is so easy to come by that it need not depend on correct doctrine at all, that doctrinal orthodoxy is really just “a head trip.” Most of the people attending our churches seem to function as if somehow sincerity will do instead of truth.
This leads us to:
The Head vs. Heart Heresy
It is very common in these days of so great an embarrassment of riches in the matter of books and religious freedom, to hear mention of the mysterious gap supposed to exist between the “head” and the “heart.” It is assumed, of course, that the mind, the intellect, is the head, while our faith resides in something called the heart. It is therefore possible to have head knowledge without heart knowledge, and so miss out on the reality of faith.
Likewise, a mysterious gap is thought to exist between theory and practice which we are somehow unable to bridge. People who ask too many questions are accused of being on a “head trip” and admonished to “be practical.” Their problems are said to be solvable somehow by having the right kind of experience rather than by getting their questions answered from the Bible in the form of doctrine. Their problems are to be solved through understanding their emotions, by improving relationships, through serendipity, through counseling, through a new commitment, or perhaps even by “getting to know God better.” But never can personal problems be solved through doctrine, since mere theory is not thought of as being “practical.”
It is even suggested or implied that “there are really no answers” in the final analysis, since the ultimate questions dissolve at last into mysteries. We do not need answers; we need to grow up and learn to accept the paradoxes of life! True Christian maturity is said to be measured by our commitment in the face of final paradox rather than by any kind of knowledge. People who want answers are just immature, that’s all.
It is not the purpose of this exercise to refute these absurdities as completely as they deserve. We shall have to be satisfied just now with the response that against all forms of modern irrationalism, the Christian religion is recognized by specialists in comparative religion as being by far the most intellectual religion of all; that the New Testament puts a heavy priority on the regeneration of the intellect (witness the Pauline emphasis on the intellect in the prayers for the Ephesian and Colossian churches in the first chapters of their respective epistles); that the Bible in both the Old Testament and the New makes it perfectly plain that the term heart means the seat of the intellect, or the mind as our capacity to reason; therefore all the problems we face are to be solved first by allowing the Bible to change our minds about the truth, and then by learning what God’s answer is to our problem, as God defines and explains both problem and answer.
The spiritual breakthrough comes when, in humble dependence on God’s mercy, we accept His account of the matter and obey what He says to do about it. The results are predestined to be successful and to infallibly meet the needs of the believer sooner or later. The Bible itself calls this process “making disciples,” and the primary method is said to be by something called teaching. This program was set forth in the last words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, in the Great Commission.
The word teach appearing there, occurs twenty times in the Gospel of Matthew alone, and Jesus is called Teacher there about ten times. If we look at the whole NT, the two nouns for teaching or doctrine occur over fifty times, while the verb to teach occurs over ninety times. The word teacher appears at least fifty-eight times. Half a dozen other related words appear on another twenty occasions.
This makes a total of over 240 references in the NT alone to teachers teaching doctrines. When we recall that the well-known references to born again and regeneration occur in less than twenty verses we can only conclude that there is an extremely important subject being set forth in Scripture, which we may call the Bible’s doctrine about doctrine. Surely a subject which demands far over two hundred references in Scripture must be one of the most important things in the Bible.
The Doctrine of Doctrine in the New Testament
For convenience, we will concentrate on the Pastoral epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. The two NT words for doctrine may be considered synonymous for our purposes, and occur in these three epistles seventeen times. The verb appears another six times. A term meaning able to teach appears twice, and teacher three times.
There are therefore at least twenty-eight passages in these letters alone which will show us how important Paul thought doctrine to be. They may be classified as those passages (a) commanding or exhorting us to teach and be taught, and we shall refer to these as positive passages; and (b) those verses which warn against false teaching and teachers, which we shall call the negative verses. We shall consider the negative verses first.
To begin with, certain verses contain repeated warnings of the damage done by false doctrine. The very first occurrence of the word doctrine in these epistles warns Timothy to resist false doctrine by proper instruction of those involved in teaching it (1 Tim. 1:3).
Anything incompatible with the apostolic deposit was to be actively resisted. According to 1:10-11, this deposit covers moral matters in essential harmony with the ethical content of the OT Law. Everything else is “contrary to sound doctrine.” In 4:1, specific teachings are described as “doctrines of demons,” including forbidding Christians to get married, and spiritual vegetarianism. Paul traces much false doctrine to demonic influence in other epistles also (See Gen. 3; Eph. 6; 2Cor. 4:4; 1Cor. 10:20; Rom. 1:21-32; Rev. 9:20-21).
In 2 Tim. 4:3, the final apostasy is introduced as being the result of a turning away from sound doctrine to a multiplicity of popular teachers who tell the people what they want to hear and substitute mythology for divine revelation. Myths are exactly what the Bible does not contain, according to Peter (2 Peter 1:16).
Titus likewise warns of those who wreck whole house-churches with false doctrine which generates revenue for them and damnation for their hearers (1:11). Paul says (1:9) that a key responsibility of a Christian leader is to challenge and refute false doctrine from anyone who presents it.
Elders are to be active in opposition to these things and ever vigilant against them. There is no mistaking Paul’s attitude here: by exhortation (by actively challenging error when presenting the biblical alternative) and by reasoned argument (intended to convince opponents) sound doctrine is to prevail. The dreadful alternative is suggested in verses 10-16, that those deceived will be rendered useless for good works.
At this point in the study something needs to be said about the relationship of reasoned argument to evangelism. Unfortunately today, we blithely accept the common but artificial distinction made between preaching the gospel and Apologetics. Evangelism and Apologetics are treated as separate subjects in the Bible College or Seminary curriculum and the division has determined our modern practice.
One would think that because God has given the Church such specialists as Josh McDowell, Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til, therefore we do not have to give any attention to apologetics personally; besides, isn’t it really for intellectuals only? Isn’t it a subject for seminarians? Besides, everyone knows you can’t argue someone into the kingdom. . . .
Over against this dead weight of evasion, we should place the NT attitude to the defense of the faith, somewhat as follows:
First, we should note that Apologetics is an essential part of the Gospel; all the speeches in the book of Acts contain apologetic arguments based either on the OT prophecies or Jewish history, or recent events such as the coming of Christ. Read Peter’s speech in 2: 14-40 or 3: 12-26 or 4: 8-12 or Stephen’s in 7:2-53 or Paul’s in 17:22-31, to mention only some of the examples of apologetic material in NT preaching.
Second, the task of defending the faith is commanded in 1 Peter 3:15 and Jude 3, and illustrated by almost every NT document; most of Paul’s epistles contain arguments against various errors of his own day. Apologetics is therefore not an optional extra, but an integral part of the apostolic mandate.
Third, we have the methods of the Apostles throughout Acts. Consider the verbs used in 17:2 (reasoned with them), 17:17 (disputed...daily), 18:4 (reasoned and persuaded), 18:11 (teaching), 18:13 (persuaded), 18:19 (reasoned), 18:28 (convincing), 19:9 (disputing daily), 19:26 (persuaded), and 19:33 (defended himself), from a mere three chapters.
Paul links Apologetics consistently with Evangelism in both his writings and his practice. In Phil. 1:7, he describes his own work as being “the defense and confirmation” of the gospel. Clearly, Apologetics is for unbelievers a defense of the truth, and for believers a confirming of the apostolic message.
We must conclude from even so brief a survey, that the apostles argued with unbelief as well as preached to it, that they expected their arguments to convince at least some hearers, and that they saw both proclaiming and defending the gospel as two sides of the one coin of evangelism. No disjunction exists here between head and heart, for gospel truth is to be addressed to the mind!
The Apostle Paul identifies himself as “a teacher of the gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim. 2:7) and indicates that at that time he was not allowing women to teach or to arrogate teaching positions to themselves over the existing (male) leaders. Apparently in such a male-dominated society as we know the ancient world to have been, Christian women were bypassing the orderly procedures of church administration by rejecting the then all-but-universal male leadership which had probably been too slow in making practical Paul’s injunction about “neither male nor female in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). He warns that these women must learn the same way the men did, “in quietness and submission” and not “usurp authority over the men” in teaching positions.
The warning example of Eve transgressing because of false doctrine deceiving her is to be noted. A woman cannot teach anyone unless she is “capable of teaching” (3:2), and she cannot teach without first learning. Therefore, “let the woman learn” is a mandate roughly equivalent to “educate your women too,” and is in harmony with Jesus’ radical answer to the Jewish refusal to teach their women the Law, when he accepted Mary as a student disciple “at his feet” and warned Martha that her sister had chosen “the better part” which would never be taken away from her (Luke 10:38-42). Paul agreed with Jesus’ attitude, apparently.
In chapter 4, verses 6, 11, 13, and 16 are an interesting group of verses. In order to be a good minister, Timothy is to be “nourished up” on good doctrine in harmony with the apostolic deposit. The alternative again is “fables” or myths. Verse 10 rebukes idolatry, since we serve the “living God,” the final preserver of all people, and especially the Savior of believers. This he says, we must teach. In verse 13, the (public) reading of the Scriptures aloud was vital for the life of churches in which so many were illiterate. Exhortation then, involves presenting the challenge of the truth and “the doctrine.” Only by taking heed to the doctrine (v. 16) can both the teacher and the learners (i.e. disciples) be kept safe.
Elders may spend most of their time “teaching the word” (5:17) and are therefore to be paid “double honor.” The epistle closes with three verses (6:1, 2 and 3) in which it seems that “the doctrine” can be blasphemed as well as “the name of God,” as a result of unworthy lives. These things, he says, we must “teach and exhort.” Paul sees teaching and challenging the faithful as two sides of the one coin of properly communicated truth.
In verse 3, Paul equates his own teaching with “the words of our Lord Jesus Christ” as “the doctrine according with godliness.” Those who “teach otherwise” are motivated by pride and other sins which, he warned, will eventually “drown them in destruction and ruin” (vs. 4-9).
Second Timothy is, if anything, even stronger. Again, he opens the subject (1:11) by identifying himself as an apostle sent to announce the gospel as a teacher of the nations. In 2:2 the word anthropois means people, human beings in general, and cannot be restricted to males. It links up with the mandate to educate women in 1 Tim. 2:11 and is a collective mandate to educate both male and female Christian leadership in doctrine, thus preparing them to teach.
There is more of this kind of thing in 2 Timothy. In 2:24 God’s servants are warned not to be “macho” (yes, that’s the Greek word! Cf. Titus 3:2 also) but to be gentle, patient, “apt to teach.” The word for this is didaktikos and means having a didactic or doctrinal emphasis.
In verse 3:10, Paul notes that the consistency of his doctrine and his life is part of his exemplary Christian leadership. This is what it means to “live godly in Christ Jesus” and he adds that we can expect it to bring persecution. The inconsistent and hypocritical believer is no challenge to heathenism! A godly consistency in which life is controlled by truth is a terrible affront to the false autonomism of the unbeliever and he cannot leave it alone. A “form of godliness” is fine, but “the power thereof” is an irritant to unbelief (3:3-7).
The classical spot for the doctrine of doctrine is 2 Tim. 3:16. “All Scripture is God-breathed” says Paul, and as a result is profitable for doctrine. This term is then expanded by the rest of the verse into reproof (telling us when we are wrong), correction (telling us the right alternative), instruction in righteousness (or ongoing discipleship training, paideia or education). The purpose is then described as being “in order that the anthropos of God may be properly equipped, totally and completely equipped or furnished with a view to every good work.”
No more comprehensive statement could be made of the perfect sufficiency of Scripture. When it comes to the place of doctrine in the life of the believer, it’s sola scriptura all the way. The alternative is the disaster outlined in 4:3-4, in which sound doctrine is replaced by a relativistic mythology, as in modern liberal theology, and the popular recent New Age mysticism.
Paul sums up Timothy’s task in 4:2, as “Proclaim the Word, be on the spot every chance you get, since all seasons are in season. Reprove sin, admonish the sinner, challenge to godliness. The method is by patient and persistent doctrinal teaching; and nothing less will do” (my paraphrase).
In the letter to Titus, Paul expands on the need for doctrinal leaders. In 1:5-7, he notes that he ordained elders in every city to be overseers (episkopoi). They are to hold fast to the faithful word of doctrine (v. 9) in order to challenge and convince contradictors through sound doctrine. In 2:1 “sound doctrine” is the foundation of life for elders. The principle subject of this letter is the responsibility of Christian leadership. The chapter break at 2:1 gives the false impression that the subject has been changed from leaders to those being led. There seems to be no adequate ground for assuming this.
Paul began in 1:5-7 to explain the basic qualifications for generic leadership. The leaders are then related by their overseer status to the younger women and younger men to whom they minister. It is particularly mentioned that teaching is part of an older woman’s ministry (2:3-4). In 2:6-7, the younger men are warned to be uncorrupt in their doctrine. In 2:9, slaves are to decorate the Christian doctrine by their godly lives, in view of the blessed hope of Christ’s coming, towards which we are all moving (12-13). In verse 13, God is said to be the ultimate teacher of his children, educating them (paideuo) toward consistent holiness.
And all this is in the pastoral epistles alone!
Necessity of Sound Doctrine
The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is the agent of God’s regenerating of the human soul, effecting the change by the instrumentality of the Word of God (John 1:12-13, 3:5-8, Titus 3:5, James 1:17-18, 1 Pet. 1:21-25, etc.). This process of renewing the soul into the image of Christ continues all through the believer’s life until its consummation in the very presence of Jesus himself (John 15:3, 17:17, Rom. 12:1-2, 1Cor. 2:9-16, 2Cor. 3:17-18, 4:4, etc. concluding with 1 John 3:2).
The Bible uniformly presents itself as an instrument by which the eternal God reaches down into time by His sovereignty to effect those results which are to manifest His eternal plan or word. His Law-word for creation (Gen. 1) and His Law-word for redemption (James 1:18) work the same way: God speaks and the desired result is effected (Isa. 55:8-11). Sometimes the effect is by a direct action, and sometimes it is accomplished by a long chain of causal law-structures. In either case, the result is sure and manifests the divine will with irresistible certainty.
It follows, also irresistibly, that one of the links in that chain is such a human activity as preaching the word and teaching. Holiness being conformity to God’s word, sound doctrine is a necessary and indispensable step in the process, and false doctrine has a similar power and effect in the other direction.
The human mind is a flexible, dynamic function of our created humanness which at any instant is either reacting to true or false elements of doctrine. At every point where our consciousness touches and interprets the outside world, it does so in terms of presuppositions, axioms, or assumptions. Only then does it proceed by those necessary and unavoidable thought processes which unify and interpret our ongoing experience.
This process of intellectual interaction with the creation is the interpretive function which is our exercise of human prophethood under God as the original interpreter of His own Creation. It even continues while we sleep, in the subconscious realm, from which dreams sometimes rise to consciousness. We never stop interpreting reality.
When Adam and Eve fell, they lost the ability (but not the responsibility!) to act as God’s vice-regents over Creation. God created them in His image to function as prophets, priests and kings.
As prophet, Adam was to hear God’s word of interpretation and, assuming it to be true, extend that interpretation to all of creation as he encountered it. He was to reinterpret reality in terms of God’s prior exhaustive interpretation, part of which was revealed in the direct words of special revelation. This task of reinterpretation in terms of God’s revealed interpretation is called the task of the prophet. The realm of the prophet is truth, knowledge, exhortation and proclamation.
In other words, a truly creational Epistemology presupposes God’s exhaustive knowledge, and in faith responds accordingly. When Adam and Eve made themselves their ultimate reference-point and began with their own autonomist presuppositions, they had thereby automatically failed as God’s vice-regents in the realm of interpretation; they had failed as prophets.
Likewise, our first parents failed as priests. They should have represented God to each other and each other to God as pre-redemptive mediators in the realm of Ethics. When Adam saw that his wife was encountering false doctrine he should have acted as her prophet and challenged the heresy Satan was offering.
So should Eve have prophetically challenged Satan’s word as being inconsistent with God’s prior interpretation. Neither of them did this. Nor did Adam go to God to intercede for Eve, as priest in the realm of ethics, thereby obediently responding to God in righteousness. They both rejected responsibility for each other. We might note incidentally here, that the presupposition of autonomy or freewill did not lead to a sense of responsibility, but rather undermined it.
Likewise, they fell in the realm of Ontology, or Being, not presupposing the Creator-Creature distinction that underlies holiness of one’s being. In making themselves — rather than their Creator — the reference point for meaning, they lost both the ability and the authority to act rightly as vice-regents or kings under God over the Creation, for they were now servants of another (Rom. 1:25 and 6:16). As in a game of chess, the rules control what is possible in the game. In the process of thinking, the rules are the axioms or presuppositions we start with. And nobody escapes presuppositions. Presuppositions determine everything.
The offices of prophet, priest, and king were recovered for the believer in the person of Christ, just as they were lost in the person of Adam. The functional elements of the image of God lost in Adam are available to us in Christ, Himself the Image of God (2Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3), as we are being renewed by the process of redemptive regeneration (Eph. 4:24 and Col. 3:10, 2Cor. 3:8 and 4:4, and Rom. 8:29 with 12:1-2).
These verses show how the qualities of holiness (of our being, or ontology,) righteousness (of our action, or ethics), and truth (of our interpretation, or epistemology) are being daily renewed in the believer through the redemptive activity of the Word, thus restoring us as kings, priests, and prophets in these three realms, respectively. Holiness, righteousness, and truth are thus the attributes of God’s image which we lost in the Fall and recover through regeneration.
How vital, then, that our conscious mind be filled with God’s redemptive interpretation of reality! We must deliberately seek to know and accept what God says about everything in order to understand reality aright, in order to interact with His Creation correctly. Only on the basis of God’s revealed presuppositions, and of God’s ultimate rationality, of God’s revealed interpretations of reality in Scripture, can we know truth at all, since we are supported ultimately by God’s exhaustive consciousness of Himself and of His creation, and of us in particular as His beloved children.
It is this view of reality which Scripture variously calls the truth, or sound doctrine, and even “the faith of God’s elect” (Tit. 1:1). Because God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18), He cannot contradict Himself (2 Tim. 2:13). It follows that sound doctrine has the necessary attribute of being wholly consistent with itself, granting, of course, its base in revelation as the starting-point and God as its ever-present integration-point. This does not mean, of course, that all the results of the human task of theology will be always perfectly consistent, but it does mean that the believer has the hope of consistency always before him, and God’s promise of sanctification supports our growth in this as in other areas.
Theory and Practice, Doctrine and Life
We said at the outset that attention would be given to the relation between doctrine and life. Something has already been said about how doctrine fits us for the tasks of prophethood, priesthood, and kingship. These offices are the formal structures or models for our obedience towards God by which we create and influence culture, i.e., contribute to the Kingdom of God as we pray for it in the Lord’s Prayer that “Thy will be done, thy kingdom come,” etc.
God’s redemptive reign is therefore manifested on earth to the extent that believers develop a redemptive culture or civilization. The Christian Church is the pilot plant for the Kingdom. Here the seeds of redemptive cultural influence are cultivated, and the institutions of a redemptive civilization are structured, the principles of the Kingdom formulated for practice in the world at large outside the Church.
The Church is to the world redemptively what the Garden of Eden was supposed to be to the rest of the earth before the Fall. As Adam and Eve were to be obedient in fulfilling the cultural mandate as prophets, priests, and kings over the earth, so expanding their governance over the whole earth to subdue it and rule it, so the believer is to bring all of life on earth under the Lordship of Christ. All culture, whether economics, politics, arts, or the sciences, every thought must be made captive to the Lord Jesus (2Cor. 10:5).
The above is just as true for the premillennialist as it is for postmillennialist. For the amillennialist too, the climactic redeemed culture of the coming Kingdom will be in the New Heavens and the New Earth, transmitted there through the General Judgment in the hearts of believers and fulfilled in the rewards reaped by the elect. For the postmillennialist, the Kingdom grows in history by a slow but inexorable growth until the Millennial Kingdom is progressively established on earth.
Again the principles and fruits of the redemptive civilization are communicated from year to year in the hearts of believers and manifested in progressive historical victory over the Curse. For the premillennialist, the preservation of the fruits of cultural obedience again has its continuity into the Kingdom after the Second Coming in the now glorified hearts of believers who are resurrected, judged, and rewarded with tasks and positions in the Millennial Kingdom. In all three eschatologies, cultural continuity from pilot plant to manifested Kingdom is mediated and preserved from age to age by the renewing of elect minds (as per Rom. 12:1-2 etc.).
We have noted already (first two paragraphs of section V, above) that God’s Law-word for Redemption is as sovereignly efficacious as it was for Creation. The Word of God comes to us in special revelation as a direct, inscripturated, propositional communication, providentially preserved in history as the Canon of Scripture. It is this word that Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Its collective content is “the doctrine” (2 Tim. 3:16), and by giving constant attention to it, Timothy was told that he would save both himself and his hearers (1 Tim. 4:15-16). For the Apostle Paul, the question was not whether one would communicate doctrine or not, for it was impossible to function without doing so; the question was whether it would be sound doctrine or not.
It seems then, that in the Christian vision of reality, theory and practice form an indissoluble unity; all theory has an effect in practice and all practice, whether true or false, is the practice of true or false theory. It follows of necessity then, that it is impossible to function as a believer at all without sound doctrine. At least in the Pastoral Epistles, as we have seen, sound doctrine is an essential part of the apostolic mandate and is the principle pastoral tool.
Dr. Bob Wright - has taught at the high school, college and graduate level, studied in Australia and England, and has a Ph.D. from Iliff Seminary here in Denver. He and his wife Julia are co-directors of the Aquila and Priscilla House Study Center, patterned after Francis Schaffer’s, L’Abri Fellowship. The above article originally appeared in The Shield newsletter in 1991.
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