What is doctrine? Does the Bible use this word? Sadly, many people want to believe that the Bible does not use the word doctrine. They would say things like, “Doctrine divides, love unites” as if this doctrinal statement puts an end to doctrinal statements. There are many problems with this statement. First, it is a doctrinal statement. Second, doctrine does divide. It divides those who belong to Christ and those who do not. For example, John says, Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. (2 Jn. 9 NKJ) While this statement accomplishes more than those two points, we must recognize 2 John verse 9 answers the fundamental question of this article. The Bible does use the word “doctrine” and the Bible gives to us doctrine.
Where does our doctrine come from then? There are two sources from which we receive our doctrine. The one is the primary source of doctrine, namely God’s revelation, both special and general, and both come from how the church has had to defend the Biblical doctrine throughout the course of history. Consider first the primary source of doctrine, the Bible, or special revelation. God has revealed Himself to us. Paul makes this clear in Romans that God’s attributes have been revealed even in creation (General Revelation), but this revelation from God will only condemn man. We, therefore, need another source of revelation. The Bible is God’s very word given to us, so we can know all that we need to know about God and our need for a Savior. We find so much more in the scriptures which is why we find, through the history of the church, conflict. Due to our fallen nature and man’s longing to corrupt the things of God, we find men who twist and distort the Scriptures to their own selfish desires. This is where we get the definitions of orthodoxy, such as the Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions of the church. To put this another way, a doctrine is considered heretical when they do not agree with the Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions of the Church. (We could add as a side comment for some that there is a difference between heresy, which condemns, and error, which may be a wrong view, but does not condemn someone eternally.)
What does the word “doctrine” mean and are there other terms that mean the same thing? First, doctrine simply means, as we can see in 2 John 9, teaching. Doctrine, for instance, is the teaching of Scripture. Doctrine could be broadly defined as the teaching of a given subject, but we will continue to stay within the purview of Christian Doctrine. Doctrine needs to be seen in the church. There is another word that is used by some to describe the doctrine of the church, namely dogma. The dogma of the church is the doctrine of the church summarized by, codified by the Ecumenical Creeds, and Reformed Confessions of the Church. This idea of dogma is as old as the Bible itself. In fact, we find dogma with the idea of decrees. The word and concept of dogma is used for governmental decrees in Esther 3:9 and Daniel 2:13, 6:8. Paul uses this term when he talks about the statutes of the Old Covenant (Eph. 2:15; Colossians 2:14). Luke uses the term for the church’s decisions in Acts 15:28; 16:4. Even Josephus recognize the Tanak (The Hebrew Old Testament) was considered by the Jews to be dogma. What we find throughout these passages is that once the decision has been made, it is fixed. So, the doctrine or dogma of the church which has been codified (such as the Trinity, Person and Natures of Christ, etc.) are fixed. To go against these doctrines, one shows themselves to be outside of the orthodox church.
How should we define doctrine or dogma? The above arguments still need us to rightly define dogma or doctrine today. There have been a wide range of uses for doctrine or dogma such as commands, decisions, truths, propositions, and rules for living. At best we can reduce a definition down to something that established and must not be subject to doubt. This does not mean we cannot reconsider the evidence of said doctrine. Rather, we must reexamine to understand why the doctrine stands creedally or confessionally. And, yet, through it all, we will still find this strange and bizarre objection, “Well, that is just your opinion” or “Well, that is just your interpretation.” We ought to examine this objection a bit further.
First, we must answer the objection with this question, is it just my opinion or interpretation? Or is it the doctrine the church has established for 1700 years or 450 years? In other words, if the statement is found in the creed or confession, then it is not my opinion. I may have failed to explain, which could be, but it is not my own.
Secondly, to answer my interpretation, we can give the same type of an answer. If my interpretation can be seen to agree with thousands of years of agreement, then it is not just my interpretation. In fact, this objection is only begging the question; their opinion or interpretation must not be in line with the church’s confessional statement or the Scriptures.
Thirdly, we must recognize the difference between an official dogma or doctrine of the church which has made it into a creed or a recognized confession of the church and my individual opinion on a giving topic or passage of scripture. Those are two different things. For this article, we are not talking about the latter, but it is helpful to recognize we distinguish between doctrine and opinion.
Here are a couple of definitions which have helped my students get to a proper definition of doctrine. First, Zacharias Ursinus defines it this way, “propositions which must be believed on account of a mandate from God.” Another way of saying it is, secondly, doctrine is “God has said it.” I like this latter, for it helps us to recognize doctrine comes from God and we are simply repeating after God.
There is an implied command with doctrine- namely you must believe this truth. For there is doctrine which has to do with itself and doctrine which has to do with man. The church is given the charge to maintain, teach, comprehend, and defend the truth of God. This truth has been given to her, and we must cherish this fact. The church is called to deliver this truth to the next generation, which is why catechetical instruction is vitally important for our youth in confirmation classes.
We finally come to a proper definition then: dogma or doctrine is a series of faith articles which we must believe, share with others, defend, and pass down to our children. Doctrine begins with the statement “I believe…” Everyone has doctrine, but not all are willing to realize they have doctrine. In the next article, we are going to continue this theme of doctrine by looking at the content of theology.