The Absolute Need for Doctrine and Theology

Who wrote those marvelous words, and when? Okay, I know it’s a tough question, so I’ll make it easier. Guess a decade in which you think these words were written (they’re all from the same essay).

Here’s a picture of the author: I’ll tell you more about her on the next page.

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“Theologically, this country is at present in a state of utter chaos, established in the name of religious toleration, and rapidly degenerating into the flight from reason and the death of hope. We are not happy in this condition, and there are signs of a very great eagerness, especially among the younger people, to find a creed to which they can give wholehearted adherence. This is the Church’s opportunity, if she chooses to take it.”

Those words, which perfectly describe the situation today, were penned in 1949 by the brilliant Dorothy Sayers, friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. She was part of a group of friends called the Inklings, which included Lewis, Tolkien, and other writers.

Sayers herself penned a number of mystery novels, featuring the debonair detective Lord Peter Wimsey. wimsey.jpg

I find her essay, “Creed and Chaos” to be a desperately needed corrective in today’s church. It is an especially needed antidote to much of the anti-theological stance that I find in some (not all, but some ) emerging church leaders… who seem to disdain theology in favor of “just loving Jesus.” An impossibility apart from theology.

Here are some highlights in Sayers’ beautiful argument for the absolute need of doctrine and theology.

“It is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion of what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.”

How can you practice a faith you don’t know?

“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.”

womenhuman.jpgThe more we lose our scholars, and the more ignorant the average church person in theology, the more unloving our society will be.

“It is a lie to say that doctrine does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let poeple suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.”

“It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealist aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.”

“If the average person is to be interested in Christ at all, it is the doctrine that will provide the interest. The trouble is that, in nine cases out of ten, he or she has never been offered the doctrine. What has been offered is a set of technical theological terms that nobody has taken the trouble to translate into language relevant to ordinary life.”

Amen. Dorothy’s title says it all: “Creed or Chaos”

Lord, bring your church Back to the Bible!

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6 thoughts on “The Absolute Need for Doctrine and Theology

  1. Couple thoughts…

    I think that there is a disconnect between what the ‘traditional’ thinkers and the ’emergent’ thinkers are hearing each other say…

    (the terms here are problematic, but lets leave off the semantics, as we know what we are trying to say here; I am trying to prevent us from discussing whether tradition is good, as I see both groups trying to get at the message of Jesus (tradition) just disagreeing about what it is)

    I don’t in any way think that doctrine is a bad thing. I don’t think that I have ever read any serious author (emergent or otherwise) who would disparage it.

    I don’t feel like what is said on one side is heard correctly by the other…

    Certainly if your post is a response to our little online dialogue, I don’t feel like I was understood. (This isn’t a huge problem, because I have a lot of respect for you and what you stand for, so if we never see eye to eye on some of this, its no big deal; and I don’t feel like you are attacking me personally or that you want to distance yourself from me, just from what you perceive me to be saying.) I feel like we both stand to gain from a deeper understanding of the way the ‘other side’ is perceiving what it means to follow Jesus.

    In general I agree with what you posted. We live in a world that is tossed back and forth, and God wants to bring us to a place of strength, maturity, and health. The answer to this condition is a very deep, intellectual, spiritual, and personal knowledge of, and love for, Jesus. (Ephesians 4:10-24) (Matthew 22:37)

    There are two things, however, in your post that gave me pause, one of your comments, and one of hers…

    You wrote:

    emerging church leaders… who seem to disdain theology in favor of “just loving Jesus.”

    Aside from the simple fact that I disagree with the statement on a factual level (I see in it the ‘straw man’ fallacy), I see in it a deeper problem that has driven my side of the discussion we have been having. I see in this statement a disconnect between what we say we believe, and what we actually believe.

    I see the statement you wrote being the opposite of some of Jesus words (Matthew 7:15-28, John 5:38-40) where He calls us to trust Him, not our own doctrines. If we will seek to know Jesus, we will find that the doctrines will be helpful in that process (indeed proceed from that historical, communal, process). If we seek to know doctrines we will often lose sight of Jesus.

    I guess the main problem I have with what you wrote is that it can easily be construed to mean say, “I don’t need to love Jesus, I only need to know a lot of facts about the Bible, the history of the Church, theological discussions, Church growth, apologetics, and why evolution is a tool of satan.” (I know you don’t believe this, but many people in our churches do; and I believe they are the way they are because we have emphasized doctrines over Jesus)

    She wrote:

    “If the average person is to be interested in Christ at all, it is the doctrine that will provide the interest. The trouble is that, in nine cases out of ten, he or she has never been offered the doctrine. What has been offered is a set of technical theological terms that nobody has taken the trouble to translate into language relevant to ordinary life.”

    This stands in stark contrast to the four gospel accounts. No one was ever interested in Christ because of his doctrine (and I am glad that she also distinguishes between the doctrine itself and the terminology that needs translation), but rather in Him!!! If anything, people were usually confused, offended, or scandalized by the doctrines He offered!!!! If we offer someone doctrines, we may eventually lead them to salvation, but the way to salvation is Jesus, not doctrines; and offering them doctrines is only an extra hurdle on their path to Jesus. When people encounter Jesus, they are encountering truth, doctrine, theology, etc. etc. When people encounter ‘truth, doctrine, theology’ often they are not encountering Jesus, and so are not really encountering ‘truth, doctrine, theology.’

    Catherine LaCugna (a Catholic theologian) argues forcefully in her book God For Us that the doctrines of the church (when they are true at least) are simply descriptions of the church’s experience of, and relationship with, God. Doctrine follows relationship, it does not precede it; just as my intellectual description of my wife is most accurate because it flows out of my intimacy with her.

  2. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for the comments… no, I didn’t put this up just in response to you. I do value our dialogue though.
    I put up these quotes because I’m passionate about their subject, and I love Dorothy Sayer’s way of saying things.
    I also posted them because, though they were written almost six decades ago, they are as relevant today as they were back then.
    Bill
    P.S… for the sake of our dialogue, and my readers, please try to shorten your posts a little. I think it would be easier to respond to them.
    Thanks…

  3. I don’t know that we can put an order to doctrine and relationship. If anything they are simultaneous. Doctrine informs our relationship as we can understand who God is. And the relationship incarnates our doctrine. Somewhat symbiotic. Old Testament believers knew about Jesus and believed. That probably would never have lasted had He not come in the flesh. But He did. Those who spent time with Him, and listened to Him teach, then spread the message eventually to us. And their message was inspired. If all I ever heard of your wife, Steve, was what you knew about her from your relationship with her, I would eventually conclude that it was in some ways inaccurate. You would have difficulty giving me an objective view and it would be “broken,” because we are all broken. It could be intentional, a la Dr. House’s “Everybody lies,” or just wrong. Either way it’s just the human condition.
    To separate doctrine and relationship can perpetuate errors of the church: to be either too impractically didactic, or too ethereally relational.

  4. I like Dorothy Sayers, too. And J. B. Phillips. His translation of I Peter 3:15–“Simply concentrate on being completely devoted to Christ in your hearts. Be ready at any time to give a quiet and reverent answer to any man who wants a reason for the hope that you have within you.” That answer is doctrine. If we talk about Jesus, our talk is doctrine. To present Jesus apart from doctrine is not undesirable; it’s impossible.

  5. Hey Steve,
    You misquoted me and misrepresented my position, and then accused me of a “straw man fallacy.”
    Read my original statement, and you’ll see I was careful to NOT build a straw man.
    Bill

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