|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
Some three hundred years ago a process began which is only now
coming into full fruit. It is the examination of traditional Church
teaching in the light of contemporary thought. Things have moved fast -
far faster than many would have liked. We are now in a situation where in
the West few are convinced and many scandalised by Christian doctrines.
This short article attempts to put the matter into perspective.
is a technical term for "teaching". But when used by Christians it tends
to take on extra meaning. First, it is applied to the whole body of
Christian teaching over time and all its variants. Second, it refers to
particular beliefs to which Christians must give verbal assent.
In the second of the two
meanings, doctrines have been enforced throughout the history of the
Church. At times compulsion has been vicious. At other times it has been
relatively lax. Sometimes Christians have been killed for their heresies.
At other times they have merely been excluded. This may be done formally
(as in heresy trials) or by making life in a Christian congregation
unbearable for the "sinner".
In theory all doctrine is rooted
in a single source. One author claims that
All Christians agree that the
original statement of Christian doctrine is found in the Bible.
She points out that if one
accepts this then the history of doctrine in the Church is, in effect, the
history of the interpretation of the Bible.
Disagreements about what is
"right" interpretation have been many and profound. To this day, official
pronouncements of the various church parties differ enough to perpetuate
divisions in the Church. There are now some 40 000 churches worldwide, all
exhibiting differing versions of "right" teaching.
For the last 500 years or so
increasing pressure has been put on Church authorities to reformulate some
doctrines in the light of what is broadly termed the "Enlightenment". The
latter term usually refers to deep changes in the way the world is known
and understood. There has been intense debate about the degree to which
doctrines can be revised by insights of reason, by new findings of science
and the analytical disciplines, and by political, social and economic
There have been many doctrinal
controversies over the centuries. But it seems to me that a new crisis is
on the boil. Renewed attempts are being made in many churches to curb the
promotion of new teachings.
There are two main frontiers of
 Westerners tend to be better
educated and more exposed to the wider world and all its variations of
religion and philosophy than those in poorer and less-developed nations.
As numbers of those who formally belong to churches in the West
fall, so numbers of Christians in less-sophisticated countries are rising.
Their leaders seem unwilling to adopt the so-called "liberal" doctrines
often espoused in the West. This is leading to intense conflict over
matters of ethics and morals.
 Traditional teachings in the
West appear to be losing, or have already lost, the power to convince any
but a minority of the population. In the United States and Canada special
circumstances have preserved a nominal Christian majority. Indications are
that they are now coming under the same pressures which have reduced
Church membership in Europe to a small minority. Those who have left or
never joined the Church have evolved a loose set of convictions which
often bear little relationship to traditional teachings. Partly in
reaction to this "New Age" theology some churches show signs of preparing
to sniff out and punish deviant teachings. In the Church of England, for
example, a new measure seeks to discipline or expel clergy who publicly
promote unacceptable doctrine.
These struggles inevitably force
attention towards the capacity of doctrine to be normative. More and more
people are asking, "On what grounds does the Church insist that its
members must assent to verbal formulas such as those enshrined (some would
say entombed) in the creeds?"
Those who ask this and similar
questions have a good point. For if doctrines are to be normative, one
might conclude that the leaders of the Church would agree on the verbal
expression of those norms. Just the opposite is the case. All major
Christian churches disagree about foundational teachings. Many uneasily
tolerate significant levels of disagreement even within their own
leadership. Amongst laypeople everywhere levels of disagreement are great.
In short, there is no such thing in real life as normative doctrine -
except in theory.
We saw above that the New
Testament is supposed to be the bedrock upon which all Christian
interpretation is built. Even if differing interpretations do actually
lead to division, many Christians will maintain that "the faith" (by which
they mean doctrinal formulas) is derived from the Bible, and from the New
Testament in particular.
Unfortunately for them, this
turns out to be very far from the truth for a number of good reasons:
The New Testament is not about theology. The gospels are stories
written with a theological slant. The letters are pastoral documents.
None presents theology as what we would today call a topic or subject.
Thus Christian theology must in most part be inferred rather than
reproduced from these documents. They prove to be a weak vessel for
Some of the most important Christian teachings are barely
referred to in the New Testament. An example is monotheism, the teaching
that there is only one God. Does the elaborate and normative theology of
the Trinity accurately reflect a biblical norm? Most scholars now agree
that it does not - and yet it continues to be touted as a doctrine
necessary to salvation.
The New Testament consists of writings by a number of different
authors, each with his own emphases and interests. Each gospel author
responds uniquely to the person of Jesus. Many theological terms are
used differently by different authors. Any normative use of these terms
in formulating doctrines does not reflect the true nature of the
biblical texts. There is something which can be called "the theology of
Luke". But there is no such thing as the theology of the New Testament.
The Bible can only be partially understood, no matter how much we
research it and think about it. This is because we find many aspects of
its background barely comprehensible. Our cultural distance even from
first-century Palestine is too great for close understanding. We can
only partially grasp the thoughts and worldview of New Testament people
The history of the Church is now better known and understood than
it ever has been. One consequence is the recognition that all doctrinal
formulations are filtered by the personal and cultural spectacles of
those who develop them. For example, no matter what the Bible says, no
societies now allow legal slavery and few the subservience of women in
law. As a result, no honest interpreter of the Bible in the West can
approach either of these in precisely the same way as did first-century
Christians. Even the most intense awareness of interpretive
subjectivity, and even the most profound immersion in biblical
background, cannot completely bypass this factor.
The upshot of this is that all doctrines based on the Bible have, in
the final analysis, derived at least in part from the personal needs,
interests and preconceptions of those who interpret it. If this needed
demonstrating for the modern age, Albert Schweitzer did so brilliantly in
his The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906. If the above account
is correct, the same undoubtedly applies to doctrine throughout the ages.
To sum up so far: Even the most dispassionate, detached scholarly study of
the Bible issues in some degree in doctrine - if only because of the Bible's
central place in Christianity. But research into the New Testament can't be
normative, given the nature of the Bible and our cultural distance from it.
The only other source of normative doctrine is those in authority in the
Church who claim to infallibly (that is, normatively) interpret the Bible.
Despite their claims, it is clear, given our understanding of both the
source and the interpreters, that any resulting doctrines are biased in many
A number of pressing questions arise from this analysis. Can
anything be done to make Christian doctrine more persuasive? Given the
present highly fluid and uncertain situation, is it possible to restore the
Bible to its previous pride of place? Is that even desirable? Can those who
claim access to absolute doctrinal truths rightly be given authority to
discipline their Christian brothers and sisters for error? And should Bible
scholars be allowed a decisive role in formulating normative doctrine?
Two immediate problems present in trying to answer these questions:
Those who want clarity and consistency of doctrine may look to
biblical scholars for their norms. But if they do they will find only
complexity, confusion and irredeemable variety. The New Testament does
not present a corporate view of Jesus. Even the existence of a coherent
body of thought we might call "Paul's theology" is in doubt.
If New Testament scholars look to doctrine for a reference point,
they will find a pseudo-discipline neither tidy nor attractive. This is
an anarchic field of study, lacking clear criteria. Even its subject
matter is uncertain.
Leslie Houlden makes a similar point:
The land of doctrine is not a tidy or a pleasant sight. Who knows on
what principles matters are conducted there? Are its inhabitants
committed to expounding the authoritative doctrines of Christianity ...
[or] Are they interested in the New testament evidence? ... Or are those
who live in the land of doctrine committed to something much closer to
the philosophy of religion? In that case, New Testament scholars find it
hard to discover a point of attachment, yet they know that such a point
must be found. 
 Shirley C Guthrie Jr in
A New Dictionary Of Christian Theology,
SCM Press Ltd, 1983
 Alternative Approaches to New Testament Study, Ed. A E Harvey,