On the Study of Doctrine and History

What value is the study of history for the Church universal? What also is the value of doctrine? In an age where the Church, whether Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, et cetera, seems mired in too much doctrine and too little Scripture, would it not be better for the Christian community to simply reject all else and study Scripture alone?

No.

Maybe you are a part of a church that is struggling spiritually, or seems dead or shallow. Maybe you’ve left a toxic church or have seen one from the outside. Perhaps you in any of these scenarios you thought, “I wish they would just adhere to the Bible.”

But have you ever considered that perhaps the reason for the problems in any of these churches is rooted in their interpretation of the Scriptures? Perhaps the issue lies not in the fact that churches do not read the Bible enough, but rather that they read it too much. Bear with me.

Why Just Using Scripture Isn’t Enough

No doubt many of you know someone who is afraid someone accountable for their sins because is “judgmental.” “Judge not lest ye be judged,” they say. More deeply, perhaps you once asked your Sunday school teacher what makes God one God and yet three persons. Their response? “There are some things about God that are too difficult to understand.”

Huh? How can one claim to be a Christian and not know the nature of God as revealed in Scripture? Do they worship something they do not know? But yet the problem does not lie in how they read the Scriptures, but that they only read Scripture. No where in the Bible is the word “Trinity” ever used. And yet as Christians we use this term to describe the relationship of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, identities of God that the biblical authors wrote and made much of.

Why Doctrine and History are Important

The term “Trinity” itself came from an early Church Father named Tertullian who used the term Trinity, Latin “TRINITAS,” to describe the triune God. But he did not answer how the Trinity is one God. When he died in A.D. 240, the answer to this question remained unsolved for the next eighty-five years. During that period, heresies which denied the deity of Christ, created different and lesser gods, or claimed that Jesus at one time did not exist grew and festered like poison in the Church, misleading the body of believers and creating false gospels. Christian leaders, concerned with the growing misunderstandings of God’s nature and how it related to the salvation of man, created a Creed upon which the beginnings of Trinitarian theology at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. This creed stated that God is three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, who are coequal with one another and yet of one substance. Three in one.*

The creed itself is not Scripture. But it interprets the meaning of Scripture so that Christians may guide their understanding of Scripture. Those who do not study doctrine in favor of a Scripture-only approach do to themselves and others a disservice because they are much more vulnerable to misinterpretation, as the heretics hundreds of years before them.

Says John Piper, “The gospel is not only [good] news. It is first news, then doctrine. Doctrine means teaching, explaining, clarifying. Doctrine is part of the gospel because news can’t be just declared by the mouth of a herald–it has to be understood by the mind of the hearer.”

Doctrine explains and interprets what Scripture means for the purpose of helping believers and nonbelievers alike to understand the message of Scripture so that they may know why the Gospel is necessary and sufficient for the salvation of mankind. Think: the writers of the Gospels, the Apostle Paul, James, Peter, and Jude all interpret the meaning of the Old Testament. They all interpret message of the Old Testament in light of the message of Jesus Christ. As Piper wrote, the Gospel is doctrine. It puts the Old Testament in proper perspective. And yet the New Testament is also Scripture that must also be clarified and and explained. So studying doctrine, even doctrine not directly from Scripture, is essential to the understanding of the Christian faith.

How to Use Doctrine and Why To Study It’s History

This does not mean that doctrine is all-important. Without Scripture as its root, it means nothing. Piper writes, “And all the while, doctrine does this with its head bowed in wonder that it should be allowed to touch the things of God. It whispers praise and thanks as it deals with the diamonds of the King. […] And on its knees gospel doctrine knows it serves the herald. The gospel is not mainly about being explained. Explanation is necessary but not primary. A love letter must be intelligible, but grammar and logic are not the point. Love is the point.”

Good doctrine, then, understands that the Gospel is the point of its existence. It serves Scripture. But then the question arises, what is good doctrine, and where is it to be found? That is where the history of the Christian Church comes into play. As with the previous section, it is first necessary to know why doctrine developed the way it did. If you don’t know the history behind Trinitarian theology, how can you really understand the Trinity? If a nonbeliever asks why you believe in the triune God, or challenges you on the history to disprove God, as a Christian you must be able to defend the Gospel. “…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15) [Emphasis added].

History answers the question of what doctrines developed and how? What caused heresy to be dubbed heresy? How do we as believers avoid it? How do we use doctrine to guide our understanding of Scripture so that we are not misled by those who would deceive us?

Doctrine and history are the reason that there are many denominations of the Christianity today. Why are there Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Baptists, Presbyterians, et cetera, in the Church today? Which one of these are you and why? Do you attend church because you have all your life or because you believe in God? By that token, what denomination are you and why? Doctrine and history force one to consider his or her beliefs, what causes them and what makes them right or wrong.

For better or worse, I am nondenominational and Charismatic. I am the first because I have studied the history of the Church, the reason behind the original split and creation of new denominations, coming to the conclusion that each has great truths to offer. I am the second, because I have studied the work of God through the Spirit throughout Scripture, the history of the Church, and the Church today, coming to the conclusion that the Spirit works the same way today as He has from the beginning.**

I came to these conclusions based on a study of Scripture, of doctrine, and of history. Many who carefully study each of these may come to different conclusions. And that is perfectly okay. As long as the Gospel is core to the foundation of one’s faith, one’s study of doctrine and history can properly teach one how to serve the Lord and to interpret Scripture. Our ultimate guide is the Lord. As long as our study is done for the glory of God, we may have confidence in our faith.

John Piper, God is the Gospel. Crossway: Wheaton, Illinois. pp 21-22.

*I will write more about Trinitarian theology in a future article.

**More about my theological beliefs in a future article.

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