By Mark Soto, B.A., Th.B., M.A.R., M.S., M.Div., Th.M., D.Min.
“I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God,” A. W. Tozer stated.[i]
Today we are watching the systematic dismantling of orthodoxy by those who would claim to be orthodox. One might ask, how is this possible? The answer is that we have left the gate of theology unguarded because we do not have a proper understanding of theology and how it should work in the church. We need to do some hard work in the days ahead if we expect to be able to properly proclaim the Word of God in a manner that is able to engage the culture, youth, and those who are disillusioned with the Church.
When I was taught theology years ago, almost every theological statement carried the same weight and importance. Theology was used to divide those who were fellow believers but who wanted in some way to be culturally “relevant.” The term “relevant” is used quite liberally in evangelical circles but I doubt one could find five people with the same definition of the term.
When I engage college and seminary students in the study of theology, I establish early on that not all theology is equal. Throughout this short article, I will use illustrations to help make my point.
Dogma is the top of the theological spectrum. These are explicit statements of Scripture regarding those beliefs that are necessary to determine whether one is saved or lost, a believer or an unbeliever. This might be called orthodoxy, or the beliefs outlined in some of the great creeds of the early church. There are frankly not many theological propositions that can be put into this category because everyone who is saved should in some way be able to understand its implications.
This category demands that we begin with explicit statements about the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the Nature of the Gospel, and the key elements related to the entrance of Christ into the world and his life, death, burial, and resurrection and physical return to the earth. Again, this is what we who are Orthodox believe.
The next category comes below dogma and I have called this doctrine. These are logical constructions of theology that define us as groups, denominations, assemblies, fellowships, etc. Each group has a theological bent that is drawn from Scripture but is logically put together to draw conclusions compatible with the historical commitments, beliefs, and articulations of those who have come before. We forget that these are believers who embrace the dogmas above!
In fairness, some of these constructions are more significant than others, but essentially I encourage students to consider their own theology and to begin to hold this area with a little less willingness to fight, call one another apostates, or condemn those with whom they disagree.
Now the great challenge is to work through (with the leadership of church, group, or denomination) what theological beliefs belong in the category of doctrine. What are the implications for cooperation, and how should one treat those who are different in these areas? Too often we hold the right view of Scripture but a wrong view of doctrine!
The third area I call tradition. These are things that are a part of our culture, our preferences, what we like when we think of “church.” This area separates us by placing an emphasis on culture, preference, and opinion. We use Scripture to justify our beliefs but they are really only cultural traditions and not Biblical doctrine.
It is a struggle trying to determine what theological issues and beliefs go into each category. Asking what is dogma, what is doctrine, and what is tradition is an absolutely necessary exercise that too many groups have never engaged. When I teach this, I give my students a list of more than a hundred theological beliefs and ask them to place them in the proper category. The exercise is instructive as they struggle at times to determine which concept goes into what category. Translate this to a practical understanding of what is happening in evangelical churches across America. For too many years, young people have watched my generation and those older make issues of doctrine and tradition equal with issues of dogma. It looks like this:
We then have condemned others for not only issues of dogma but also tradition and doctrine. These very astute young people recognize that some of those things are just not that important. Then along came the emergent movement, which helped young people question everything. What we now see looks more like this:
Issues of doctrine and dogma have been lowered to the level of tradition and everything is culturally discerned. There is not a list of dogmas or even doctrines that inform us how we should live in this culture. Everything is up for grabs because everything is really unimportant.
The problem is the older generations often have made everything about truth and have shown no grace to those who differ. Yet this present culture has lowered everything to the level of tradition and has thus eliminated any truths that can be known with assurance. The end result is a theology with an abundance of grace and almost no truth. Jesus should be our example where in John 1:14 we read that Jesus, the Word, “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace AND truth.”[ii] We need desperately to do the hard work of identifying what belongs in each category. It should look like this:
We should be willing to die for dogma. When it comes to doctrine we should make practical decisions about how to band together and cooperate around a common set of beliefs. Tradition should be completely negotiable. I should be willing to surrender any preference for the sake of others!
As Christians, we need to begin the hard work of knowing which battles to fight and what we should be willing to surrender in order to teach our young people how to “understand the times” (1 Chronicles 12:32 NASB). Maybe we would keep more of them in the church, instead of losing them to the secular culture.
[i] Tozer, A. W. (1961). The Knowledge of the Holy. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, page 2.
[ii] NASB (1977).
Editor’s Note: Dr. Mark Soto teaches in the School of Ministry Studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary where he is the program director for the M.A. in Ministry. He and his wife, Carol, are members of the Winona Lake (Ind.) Grace Brethren Church.