JACKSON, Tenn. – Oct. 29, 2003– The coming generation of young adults in the Western world, those in their teens and twenties, characteristically filter information and the experiences of life through their "post-everything" world. These young people born around 1980 have no recollection of the Reagan era. They had hardly reached double figures when the Soviet Union broke apart and they do not remember the Cold War. Their lifetime has always included AIDS. The Vietnam War seems like ancient history to them. The expansion of technology and the rapidity of cultural changes are the norm of life for them. Often, with rapid change comes the assumption that tradition must go. Most people generally go one more step, confusing tradition with orthodoxy. In this brief article we want to rethink and clarify, and even challenge, the supposition that tradition and doctrinal orthodoxy must go.
A surprising discovery for many is that this coming generation is quite open to spiritual things. They do not necessarily accept the secularist, anti-supernatural presuppositions of previous generations, and in that sense they can be called "post-secular." They also can be described as "post-ideological," that is, they have found the old line liberalism to be too mushy-headed while they think traditional conservatism is often found lacking in social concerns. And as we have heard for several years now, they tend to be "post-modern" in views of art, architecture, and morality. There is, however, a growing exhaustion from all sectors with the rapid changes all about us, and thus the term "post-everything," which in many ways is a description of society's frustrations.
In this context many Bible-believing Christians have been drawn into thinking that we need to redefine or give up on Christian doctrine. Others think that at best all viewpoints on any given subject -- even first order doctrines -- are of equal value. So one hears something like this (even on primary matters like the deity of Christ and the necessity of salvation by grace through faith alone): "Of course I am only sharing my opinion." After all, these biblical claims, like the words of Jesus Christ Himself saying, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes unto the Father except through me" (John 14:6 HCSB), are exclusive. The court of public opinion in a "post-everything" world often declares such exclusive or particular claims to be "intolerant" and thus "unacceptable."
The challenge facing the church today is to communicate to those in the Church as well as outside how and why these claims are important. First of all people need to recognize that exclusive claims are made daily in numerous realms of life, such as in the world of bankers or pharmacists. When a deposit is made at a bank, the persons making the deposit do not think it is unimportant into which account the money is applied. They want the money in a specific account -- a particular account -- their own. Likewise, when they go to the pharmacist with a prescription from a doctor, they don't want just any pill, but the particular one prescribed for the particular health problem.
Similarly, people are generally willing to acknowledge certain behaviors as wrong-headed. It is thought to be unwise to stand in front of a moving car. It is believed to be evil to kidnap a child. It is perhaps not best to eat grass, but it is certainly harmful to try to eat glass. The public at large is willing then, to accept certain truth claims, certain exclusive statements. They are equally willing to rule out unwise and harmful thinking.
If such defining, even exclusive, statements about reality like those above can be made, then I would suggest that doctrinal statements that seek to describe ultimate reality also have a valid place, even in this "post-everything" world. By doctrine I mean beliefs about God, about this world, and about the basic relationships of life, based on the authority of Scripture and informed by history, observation, and experience.
The Importance of Christian Doctrine
Doctrine is an attempt to answer the basic questions of life: "Who are we?" "Where did we come from?" "What has gone wrong with the world?" "What Solution can be found?" The reality is that people are interested in these foundational issues and are ready to look at these questions not only with fresh eyes, but with at least a curiosity about traditional answers that have been proposed. The current scientific emphasis on the inter-relationship of all things allows us to speak of the interrelatedness and interdependence of these foundational questions, particularly as informed and shaped by history. Once "post-everything" people are introduced to doctrinal matters they are often fascinated by the complexity and intricacy of these key issues. As G. K. Chesterton claimed in his work, Orthodoxy:
This is why the faith has that elaboration of doctrines and details which so much distresses those who admire Christianity without believing in it. When one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it's elaboratingly right. A stick might fit a hold or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if the key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.
This is also why Christians must insist on thinking rightly about their faith. Christian doctrine unlocks the answers to these ultimate questions and forms the foundation of the Church's beliefs, proclamation, and ministry. It not only involves calling the Church to believe revealed truth, but it also includes calling the Church to ethical purity and relational wholeness. Christian doctrine, then, is best understood as the study of God and His works. It is the responsibility of the Church seeking to communicate what the Church believes, primarily for believers, but also for others.
Isn't Doctrine Divisive?
Our task is to think rightly about God based on what He has revealed about Himself in His Word, the Bible. Ultimately, it may not matter what we think about football, movies, or politics, but it does matter what we think about God.
Some in our "post-everything" world suggest that doctrine is divisive so we should de-emphasize its importance. But doctrine is the backbone of the Church. Without right doctrine the Church cannot and will not mature in the faith. The apostle Paul says that believers with an immature faith will be "tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching" (Eph. 4:14).
Healthy doctrine that nurtures the heart and the head enables believers to move toward maturity, and it results in the worship and exaltation of God. While it may be true that the writings of some Christian thinkers lead us into obscurity or distract us from aspects of the Christian life like evangelism and worship, we should not conclude that doctrine itself is distracting or divisive.
Evangelism based on unsound doctrine will be unsound and even dangerous. Worship that does not see God as He has revealed Himself does not rightly glorify God. Doctrine can help us understand the Christian faith so as to communicate it effectively for a "post-everything" world. Moreover, it can lead us to an awareness of the grandeur, greatness, and goodness of God, when we gather for worship.
The reality is that everyone has beliefs about the foundational questions we raised earlier and those beliefs direct one's thinking, attitudes, and actions. The big question then in this "post-everything" world is that if everyone has beliefs about these things, how can we know that what we believe is true and sound? After all, the apostle Paul exhorted the Church to be faithful in sound doctrine (Titus 1:9; 2:1). This is a vitally important question because of the large number of challenges to the Church at this time, including unbelief, cults, the rise of the new age, secular and post secular worldviews.
I believe we can communicate and understand right doctrine -- that is we can think rightly about God with confidence because God has revealed Himself in a meaningful way to His people (1 Cor. 2:10). Men and women have been created in the image of God. As rational and spiritual beings, we can think God's thoughts after Him and organize these thoughts. Believers can know and experience God because our hearts and minds have been made new by God's regenerating grace and thus we can interpret and apply Holy Scripture. The ability to perceive spiritual truth is made possible by the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14-15; Ps. 119:18). Spirit-enabled Christians can indeed think about, understand, and communicate right doctrine in a way that is pleasing to God.
Drawing Insights From the Past
Furthermore we have great resources from the past on which to draw to help answer today's searching questions and apply Christian truth to the challenges of our time. These questions in many ways are not altogether new; they are just re-clothed. For those who want to know if the Christian faith is authentic, there is Martin Luther. For those who want to know it coheres, there is John Calvin. For those who want to know if the Christian faith is rational, there is C. S. Lewis. For those who want to know if it can be consistent with our experience, there is E. Y. Mullins. For those who want to know if it is comprehensive, there is Carl F.H. Henry. For those who wonder if it can relate to and connect with the rest of life, there is Abraham Kuyper. We must make sure we are listening to the questions being raised in our day, but we do not need to reinvent the wheel. The resources of Holy Scripture and the great Christian thinkers of the past are rich indeed. In the 21st Century we can stand tall on the shoulders of those who have gone before us as we seek to communicate the meaning of the Christian faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3).
The Benefits of Right Doctrine
In doing so we can then better understand what we believe and why we believe it. We can grow in our appreciation of tradition, even of our Baptist heritage, and enliven our future hope. The truth content of the faith can be preserved.
Right doctrine can enable "post-everything" people to recover a true understanding of human life, a sense of the greatness of the soul. It most importantly helps us recover the awareness that God is greater than we are, that the future life is more important than this one. A right view of God gives genuine significance and security to our lives. We understand that happiness is the promise of heaven and that holiness is the priority in this world.
Finally, a recommitment to right doctrine will strengthen the Church. The gospel can be proclaimed in its fullness with renewed confidence. Without sound doctrine there can be no effective long-term preaching, evangelism, or missionary outreach. Those who suggest that "what you don't know can't hurt you" could find themselves in great difficulty if this attitude is taken toward ultimate matters like heaven and hell.
On the other hand, doctrine based squarely on God's word offers reassurance and hope. We can rededicate ourselves to the express task of expounding the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:7). Yes, the world around us is constantly changing, but we must hear what God has said in His unchanging Word and rest our case there.
This article first appeared in Southwestern News, the alumni magazine for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Dockery is president of Union University.
By David S. Dockery