You probably don’t think of yourself as a theologian. After all, you aren’t some crazy-haired, old university professor in a tweed jacket with elbow patches and a pipe, sitting in a mahogany office filled with dusty old volumes written by dead guys, postulating on the metaphysical and epistemological essence of the existence of deity, right?
Well, while you may not spend your free time pondering questions of existential realities… or even know what that means… you are a theologian, even if not a professional one. You are a theologian because you have a theology: you have ideas about where everything came from, who or what God is (and if He exists), how we can know our purpose, and how we should live as people. And, even though theology might seem like a dirty word, that’s really all it is: the study of – or ideas about – God. Thus, we are all at least armchair theologians.
But, if God and faith are important to you, then it’s probably a good idea to have a good theology, right? And we don’t want to waste our time with trivial things – we want the stuff that really matters. And all of that stuff – the stuff we believe that matters enough to live by and teach others about, goes by another dirty word: doctrine. Doctrine sounds like a nose-in-the-air church word, but in reality it is nothing more or less than the ideas and beliefs held by a group (as in, not just by an individual) that are established by the group as being important enough to teach and hold each other accountable to.
Because on my own, I can have lots of theology – lots of ideas about God and other stuff. And all of that theology can sound logical and sensible and wise… but if it’s all stuff based on my ideas and feelings, am I really thinking about God – or am I playing God by making God in my own image? All of us do this, all the time, without even realizing it. We say things like, “Well, I just don’t believe a loving God would send people to hell,” or, “the God I worship would never allow racism to exist,” or, “I got what I wanted so it must be from God,” and it all makes more sense to us than the alternatives.
Except all we are really doing is putting God into our own little box to make us feel more comfortable with Him, instead of acknowledging that, if He truly is God, there are a great many things about Him that we don’t understand and are going to be uncomfortable with – because we aren’t all-knowing and we can’t see the whole picture of past, present and future. And if God did think and act like we do, He wouldn’t be God, He would be like the ridiculous Greek gods that acted like humans and then disappeared as a religion when people got smart enough to stop believing in them.
But God is so much more than the sum of our ideas and feelings about Him. So if we want to have a theology that is more than comfortable, then we need to step outside of ourselves and find a picture of God that is objective, rather than subjective to ourselves. That’s where doctrine comes in. And good doctrine, solid doctrine, is based not on the ideas or feelings of the group, but on a source that exists outside of even the group – and for Christians, that source is the Bible.
For Christians, the objective source of what we believe is God’s Word, as it is written in the Bible.
Christian doctrine is faithful teaching based on God’s Word, the Bible. It exists objectively outside of our own thoughts and desires, and it has not changed in the thousands of years it’s been around. Now, it’s true that different individuals and groups read and interpret the Bible differently, but that’s because most people don’t take the time to use the Bible as it’s meant to be used. You can read more about that here.
But doctrine is what we believe and why we believe it, based on God’s Word – and even though we may disagree on some points of doctrine (for example, Lutherans and Baptists differ greatly on who should be baptized and when, as well as how), there are some points of doctrine which we all agree cannot be compromised. These are known as dogma.
Now, when you think of dogma, you probably think of two things: either the irreverent movie by Kevin Smith… or else someone who is stubbornly uncompromising: someone who is dogmatic. Which is what makes dogma the dirtiest word of the three – because the idea of being closed-minded about anything is assumed to be a bad thing in our progressive-minded, relativistic culture. But think about it: aren’t we all closed-minded about some things – and isn’t that a good thing? Can’t we all agree that hatred, bigotry, sexism and racism should be condemned, even if we may disagree on what constitutes those things? Can’t we all agree that murder – willingly taking the life of another in a premeditated fashion – is wrong? If there is anything you are unwilling to compromise on, then you are dogmatic about it.
So dogma is not necessarily a bad thing – provided you are dogmatic about the right things! For Christians, there are certain truths which are absolute: that God exists, that human beings were made in God’s image, that human beings have rebelled against God (sin) by breaking His commands to love Him and love each other, and that God has made a way by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to pay for that sin and promise everlasting life to all who believe. Holding these beliefs to be absolute truth is what makes someone a Christian – it is Christian dogma.
So the dogma is what we believe that is uncompromising, unassailable, absolute truth. Doctrine is what we believe that flows out of that dogma, and theology is what we hold individually about all of it. And that’s it. We all have a dogma, we all have a doctrine, and we are all theologians. So stop thinking of them as dirty words, and start figuring out which of your beliefs belong to each category – and which beliefs you need to explore more deeply. And as always, find a community of people to figure it out with – and I’ll see you in church!