Theological Issues

What does it mean to call something “theological?” What does it mean to call it “doctrinal?” I’ll give a short answer below, and in good post-modern fashion, you can feel free to give yours in a comment.

People in the church are like everyone else. We compartmentalize our lives and we make distinctions between words and ideas. Sometimes these behaviors are part of the same action. In the Church, we make a somewhat artificial distinction between clergy and laity. It’s artificial because we’re all just people. It’s somewhat artificial because there are real differences between vocations. God brings men and women together in marriage. He makes us fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. He sets rulers on their thrones and gives free citizens their responsibilities. Besides all of that, He chooses and sends His ministers to be His instruments for the work of the Gospel.

But which parts of all that are “theological?” Which are “doctrinal?” That depends what we mean by those words. In my book, “theological” comes from two words: “θεος” and “λογικος,” the first meaning “God” and the second something like “of reason” or “of speech.” It’s in the same word family as “λογος,” commonly translated “word,” but also “thought” or even “thing.” So theology is reasoning in words that involves God. You could limit that to a definitive involvement on God’s part, or you could think of it more broadly. That’s what I prefer, because theology is not really the domain of man, but of God Himself. We are His guests here, both physically and cognitively. We were created in His image. Questions about morals and ethics are theological, because they relate to God’s will. Questions about the past can easily be theological, if we recognize that history is God’s work. Questions about the future are certainly in God’s domain. Some questions are merely issues of fact. “Did Neil Armstrong really step onto the moon?” That’s not theological. “What does this mean?” That usually is, on some level.

Does such a broad application of theology limit the contributions of the laity? Some may think that I’m reserving too much here for the exclusive participation of clergy. That’s not my intention at all. On the contrary, theology belongs to God, and is His gift to all mankind. If you are human, then you can think and speak about things relating to God. That doesn’t mean all our thoughts will be right, but rather that we each have a place at the theological table.

“Doctrine” on the other hand is both easier and harder to define. Literally, it simply means “teaching.” However, it implies different things to different people. To some, it means “unreasoned, inflexible, compulsory, formulaic truth claims.” I wish I could psychoanalyze that, because it would probably be entertaining. While some may treat their doctrine that way, I do not. My understanding of doctrine as a concept follows from my understanding of theology. A doctrine is the way we summarize a particular theological proposition or point. So we come up with statements of doctrine, theses of doctrine and we have controversies over doctrine. Yet a singular “doctrine” can also encompass all the teaching of scripture.

It’s been said that doctrine divides. I don’t think that’s the best way to put it. It’s not doctrine in the singular that divides, but doctrines (plural) that divide when they conflict with each other. That’s not a very post-modern thing to say, but it’s true. (There I go again.) This is not a bad thing. If God says “up” and someone on earth says “down,” isn’t it best to notice the difference? Doctrine is an essential part of theology, and doctrines are inevitable, even conflicting ones, in a fallen world. That doesn’t mean we should avoid doctrine altogether, but that we should do our best to pick it out from the impostors.

I’d mentioned the problem we have with compartmentalization. I think that Christians are prone to compartmentalize part of our lives as “doctrinal” or “theological,” while compartmentalizing other parts as not. That’s completely understandable, because we would like to justify our wrong desires and destructive habits. It doesn’t help if we admit that God might have something to say about them. But that kind of mental discipline helps neither the virtue of our theology, nor the well-being of our faith. It’s another reason why I consider it advantageous to keep a wide understanding of theology and a wide applicability of doctrine. That works against our pride, and helps us to remember that God is interested in every part of our lives.

God’s Son was born and lived a complete human life on purpose, so that our lives could be redeemed. The exchange is His whole life for ours. He also suffered and died for every single wrong we have ever done. There’s no distinction between doctrinal sins and non-doctrinal sins. They all required the blood of Jesus, and He shed that blood for them all. Every part of your life now belongs to God, and has a spiritual significance in His sight. It should have a spiritual significance in your sight too, whether you belong to the clergy or to the laity, whether you think your life relates to doctrine or not.

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