1-2 Doctrine And Practice Are Linked
Jonah 2:9 contains the enigmatic statement that those who "hold
to empty faiths" (Heb.) "forsake their own hesed".
Hesed basically refers to the capacity a superior has to
show mercy, grace and love to someone in an inferior position. For
over 20 years I wondered what Jonah was really getting at. I think
I then grasped it- those who hold to empty faiths forego the capacity
to show hesed, favour to others- the implication being
that the result of the one true faith is that we are empowered
to show hesed, love, favour, grace, mercy, to others. And
this ties in perfectly with 1 Pet. 1:22- we obey the truth unto,
with the result that, we show "unfeigned love of the brethren".
This is how and where true doctrine comes to its ultimate term-
love of others. Karl Barth put it powerfully: "The best theology would need no advocates: it would prove itself". If each doctrine of the Gospel had its intended outworking in our lives, there would be no need for the explanation of Gospel doctrine; the doctrines would be lived out in our personalities. Perhaps this was why there was so little 'theology', propositional truths or academic doctrine, on the lips of the Lord Jesus. For He was the word of the Gospel made flesh. To quote Barth again: "Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way".
It has been observed that "biography... is characteristic of Paul's correspondence". All the time he makes reference to himself; not in an egotistical way, but because he knew that doctrine and practice were linked, and therefore he understood himself as modeling his own theology. The structure of Paul's letters shows very clearly the link between
doctrine and practice. Colossians 1 and 2 are pure theology, the
precise, analytical Paul at his most flowing, intellectually devastating
and persuasive; but " then..." (3:1) we are lead
on to another two chapters of the practical implications of this.
This theology / doctrinal treatise and the pivotal, crucial then...
therefore... is likewise the turning point of Romans (12:1),
Galatians (6:1-10), Ephesians (4:1) and Philippians (4:1). His theology,
his doctrine, always ends in an ethical demand (see too 1 Thess.
5 and 2 Thess. 3). To use pompous words, our orthodoxy (right doctrine)
must lead to orthopraxy (right behaviour). We can resist the devil
" in the faith" - in that the doctrines of the Gospel,
if allowed to act upon us, empower us to overcome all forms of temptation
(1 Pet. 5:9). We all have a tendency to " drift away"
from " the things which we have heard [in the preaching of
the Gospel to us]" (Heb. 2:1 RV). And yet it is quite possible
that someone schooled in true doctrine will never forget those doctrines,
even if they live a worldly life. We drift away from the doctrines
in the sense that we cease to let them influence our lives. This
is why we constantly need to undertake a study such as this- to
remind ourselves of how basic doctrine elicits a response in practical
life. The 'false teachers' of New Testament times weren't simply misunderstanding the Bible, making innocent theological errors- they were (according to the context of the passages which speak about them) advocating on this basis a wrong way of life. This theme of false teaching being associated with false behaviour is to be found in the Old Testament- for the false prophets in Jeremiah's time were condemned for how they were sexually immoral, not just for incorrect theology (Jer. 29:23).
The Psychology Of Intellectual Failure
Again, the inextricable link between doctrine and practice is brought
out by the Lord in Jn. 7:17: “If any man willeth to do
his will, he shall know of the doctrine…”. My expanded paraphrase
of this would be: ‘If you want to do right before God in practice,
then you will discern between right and wrong doctrine, because
true doctrine leads to true practice. If you really want to be doing
the right thing, then God will lead you to true doctrine’. And not
long afterwards, the Lord hammers home His point: “Why do ye not
understand my speech [teaching]? Even because ye cannot hear [i.e.
accept] my word” (Jn. 8:43). Intellectual failure to understand
the teaching of Jesus is rooted in a resistance to having our lives
disturbed in a moral sense. How many have started studying true
doctrine, only to draw back, perhaps unconsciously even, because
they sense that this stuff is life-changing, and altogether too
demanding for them to handle in practice? That refusing to believe
or understand truth has a moral basis is brought out by the Lord's
comment in Jn. 8:46: "If I say the truth, why do you not believe
me?". He surely implies that it's not hard in itself to believe
and accept His words as true- but He explains that the Jews didn't
believe because they preferred to believe the words of the "devil".
The "devil" speaks his own language (Jn. 8:44 NIV), the
Lord says, and the Jews preferred to hear that language
because it was actually their own language. They did not "understand
my word" because they preferred to do 'their own lusts' (Jn.
8:43). Those 'lusts' are paralleled with the language of the devil-
which is exactly what 'the devil' refers to in so many Biblical
contexts. The point of all this is that misunderstanding God's word
is because we prefer to hear the language of our own self talk,
our own lusts, the Biblical 'devil'. "The lusts of the [devil]
it is your will to do", the Lord commented (Jn. 8:44 RV). This
was their "language", and therefore any other language
which was not of their own self talk was 'foreign' to them. And
in this we have the essential basis for why people misunderstand
the Lord's words today.
The Ongoing Gospel
Paul went to Rome to preach the Gospel to those who already believed
(Rom. 1). It wasn't that he was going to reconvert them; it surely
means that the Gospel, in the sense of the basic doctrines, was
the basis upon which he sought to upbuild and inspire the new converts-
for doctrine and practice are linked. And his letter to the Romans
is a great example of practical exhortation built upon basic doctrine.
This also explains why he can speak of having preached the Gospel
at Jerusalem (Rom. 15:19), even though there is no record of this.
He may well be referring to the way he 'preached' to the Jerusalem
believers on the basis of basic doctrine. The doctrines we believed
at baptism were a 'mould of doctrine' (Rom. 6:17 Gk.)- they define
the person we turn into. The calling of the Gospel is ongoing- it's
not that we hear the call, respond to it, and the call in that sense
ceases. 1 Thess. 2:12,13 speaks of how God is constantly calling
us to the Kingdom through the word of the Gospel, and therefore
that word dynamically works in us who believe. The basic Gospel
of the Kingdom works in us throughout our lives, calling us daily,
beckoning us onwards to the Kingdom.
The Gospel demands a response. The Greek word euangelia
actually implies this, although the English translation 'good news'
may mask it. There is an inscription from Priene in Asia Minor which
reads: " The birthday of the god [=Augustus] was for the world
the beginning of good news [euangelia] owing to him"
. The Gospel is not therefore just a proclamation of good news,
e.g. an emperor's birthday. Euangelia meant the response
to the good news; the good news and the response one must make to
it are all bound up within the one word(1).
" For the [Gospel of the] Kingdom of God is not [so much] in
word, but in power" - the Gospel isn't so
much words and ideas, as a life lived. For in the previous verse
Paul has argued: " I will know, not the word of them
which are puffed up, but the power" , i.e. what their
lives show of the things they profess (1 Cor. 4:19,20 RV). And we
must ask ourselves whether our personal Christianity is mere words,
or the power of a life living out those words.
Doctrine And Commandment
Because doctrine and practice are linked, the Gospel is something to which man must be obedient (Acts 14:2 R.V.)- it isn't merely a set of academic propositions. It results in " the obedience of faith" . Probably the greatest temptation for all of us, in all stages of our spiritual career, is to be like Israel of old: to know the Faith, on an abstract, surface level, but not to really believe it in our hearts, and therefore not to act in the way God intends. Paul was aware of this difference; he spoke of us as those who believe and know the Truth (1 Tim. 4:3). Mt. 15:3-9 records how the Lord perceived that “Your tradition…the commandments of men…your doctrines” resulted in the hearts of Israel being “far from [God]”. Doctrine was intended to affect the heart; and false doctrine resulted in the heart being far from God. True doctrine, on the other hand, was and is intended to bring the heart close to God. Doctrine / teaching is therefore to affect the heart; it is not just the intellectual basis for unity in a community of believers. And the Lord goes on in this very context to talk of how “every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up” (Mt. 15:9). The Greek for “planted” is defined by Strong as meaning “Figuratively, to instil doctrine”. The planting of the believer is through the instillation of Godly doctrine, rather than the doctrines of men.
One of the Lord's pen pictures of the rejected included that of the man who thought that because he had preserved the talent (the basic doctrines of the Gospel) intact, therefore he was entitled to a place in the Kingdom. We are left to imagine him half-proudly, half sheepishly, holding it out to the Lord (Mt. 25:25). But he should have traded with his pounds (Lk. 19:13 RV)- done something with it all. The crowds hung upon Jesus' every word and teaching; it was so fascinating for them, so wonderful (Lk. 19:48 RV); and yet they still crucified Him. Those words, those wonderful ideas, didn't pierce deep within. " Doctrine" refers to a code of behaviour, not just a set of correct propositions concerning God and His plan with men. Thus we don't read about " pure doctrine" anywhere in the AV; but rather " sound doctrine" : living, active doctrine. The things which become sound doctrine are soberness, etc. (Tit. 2:1-4). Note how the Lord speaks of doctrine as a command in Mt. 15:6,9: " Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition...in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" . And He taught earlier that the doctrine of one God was in fact a command to action, as explained later. Doctrine, didache, is teaching, not just theory; it is commandment towards action. For doctrine and practice are linked. In this we are helped to assess whether any idea or interpretation is indeed a 'first principle doctrine' or not. What does it inspire in practice? Or is it merely the academic interpretation of the human brain cells? Paul taught the Thessalonians after their baptism " the Gospel of God...which effectually worketh also in you that (already) believe" (1 Thess. 2:9,13). That basic Gospel powerfully worked in them. The light of the Gospel is not just light which we behold and admire for its beauty; it is a light which by its very nature opens the eyes of blind people (Jn. 8:12)! It may be that those who have " a [the] form of Godliness" but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5) are those who merelyaccept the propositions as outlined, e.g., in a statement of faith, but deny their living power in practice. And let us note that Paul lists this as an especial temptation of the last days. 2 Tim. 3:5-8 has some telling parallels:
Having a form of Godliness
denying [Gk. ‘contradicting’, ‘going against’, the power thereof
Ever learning [Gk. Studying]
but never acknowledging the truth [the ‘form of Godliness’]
Resisting the truth
All this implies that there is a power in the “form of Godliness”, the basic
“form” of doctrinal teaching delivered to baptism candidates. This
power can be resisted in that lives remain unchanged; yet acknowledging
the true implications of the Gospel will radically transform life.
One can ‘hold the truth’ and study it academically, yet not acknowledge
it’s power. Thus one can hold to a statement of faith and regularly
study Scripture, and yet live the life outlined in 2 Tim. 3:1-3,
of lying, deceit, boasting, dividing etc.- all because we do not
acknowledge the power of the demands of the doctrines which we study.
Hence, there is an urgent need to discern and accept the practical,
lifestyle demands of each of the doctrines which are fundamental
to the Gospel. If we do not see the connection between doctrine
and practice, if we don't perceive how doctrine and practice are
linked, then the life of thought without action reduces our faith
to mere intellectualism and endless theological debate, with all
the resultant division this creates.
The Difference Between Hebrew And Greek Thinking
Many of us have a tendency to think of God in terms of a set of
doctrinal propositions rather than as a living relationship. It
seems to me that this is an outcome of a failure to recognize that
the Bible is a Hebrew book, using language in a Hebrew way. Marvin
Wilson comments: "Because the Hebrews liked the concrete and
tended to avoid the abstract, the idea of doctrinal formulation
was alien to their mind. In Hebrew thought the essence of true godliness
is tied primarily to a relationship, not to a creed" (2). And
in passing, this is useful window into the apparent problem of Bible
paradoxes. Greek thinking involves 'step logic', whereby you reason
in a series of logical extrapolations. But Hebrew tends to reason
through placing 'blocks' of ideas are put in opposition to each
other, or 'dialectic', in order to come to conclusions. That's why
we can read of God hardening Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh hardening
his own heart (Ex. 7:3; 8:15). To Greek, step-logic thinkers, that's
a worrying contradiction- only because they don't pick up the way
that Hebrew reasoning involves these kinds of statements being put
in opposition to each other, so that through the dialectic process
we come to understand what is meant. Summing up, our covenant relationship
with God is a "living intercourse" as Abraham Heschel
put it; it's not merely knowing a set of doctrines and information
about the covenant promises, the terms of the covenant etc. In that
case the covenant would be a tether or chain; but instead it is
(1) This point is expanded upon in P.T.
O'Brien, Gospel And Mission In The Writings Of Paul (Paternoster,
1995) p. 78.
(2) Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1989) p. 138.