Most Christians are likely saddened when we hear folks in our local fellowships speak with disdain about doctrine. It’s not uncommon for saints in our midst to miss the point of what doctrine is and, regrettably, to be unaware of its inherent value and goal. Properly defined, understood, and applied, doctrine should be all about fruitfulness, not just in minds and hearts but also in practical daily living. And don’t forget about unity.
I resonate strongly with Alister McGrath’s trenchant explanations of Christian doctrine, given in his 1990 book Understanding Doctrine:
Doctrine about Christ arises from the need to tell the truth about Christ; to explain who he is, and his significance for the human situation. To fail to develop doctrines about Jesus Christ is to reveal a dangerously shallow commitment to him and to the unremitting human quest for truth. Doctrine reflects a commitment to truth on the one hand and to the centrality of Jesus Christ to the Christian faith on the other (5).
Doctrine is the Christian church giving an account of itself, as it answers to the call of God in Jesus Christ. It is the response of the human mind to God, as love is the response of the human heart (6).
If doctrine at times seems to be little more than a barren repetition of ancient words and formulas, approaching a mindless ritual, it is because we have failed to appreciate its vitality and relevance…Doctrine is an attempt to spell out in human words something that cannot really be expressed in words. (p. 6)
Christian doctrine is the response of the Christian church to God, as he has revealed himself, especially in Scripture and through Jesus Christ. It is an obedient, responsible and faithful attempt to make sense of the cluster of exciting possibilities opened up by the coming of Jesus Christ…Doctrine serves four major purposes. It aims:
- to tell the truth about the way things are.
- to respond to the self-revelation of God.
- to address, interpret and transform human experience.
- to give Christians, as individuals and as a community, a sense of identity and purpose (10).
If our flocks understood these things about doctrine, perhaps their decidedly unpleasant and untoward knee-jerk reactions about doctrine might disappear. Doctrine is not only vital, the making of doctrine is unavoidable if, as McGrath points out, we are committed to the pursuit of truth.
From the foregoing explanations, a few things about doctrine come into focus. First, there is no one-to-one correspondence between Scripture and doctrine. Even if scriptural proofs are provided for a doctrinal statement, that doctrine, and the words of Scripture marshaled in support of that doctrine, are not exactly the same; at least a measure of human interpretation is introduced when a doctrinal statement is written. Second, doctrinal statements are, simply put, a human means of making sense of divine revelation. As we grapple with what God has revealed, the emerging understanding is the doctrine, whether it’s artfully crafted or not. Third, doctrine ought to be practical or lived out. We live—develop attitudes, make choices and decisions, and take actions—on the basis of what we believe to be true about God, Scripture, and, consequently, the nature of reality. Finally, a term often used to refer to core doctrines—that is, those central to the historic Christian faith—is dogma. Dogmas are the sine qua non of what is believed by faith within orthodox Christianity.
In many years of teaching a course initially called “Development of Doctrine” and later “History of Theology,” I encountered resources that helped me personally but also scores of adult and high-school students. One such resource was an illustration proposed by the late British theologian Colin E. Gunton (1941-2003).
His thesis employs a powerful metaphor: a garden and its fenceposts. Before digging fully into Gunton’s illustration, it will be helpful to carefully consider some gardens in the British context. As an island nation, space in the United Kingdom is at a premium; the same thing is the case in many urban settings in the USA. Otherwise unused, space is often rescued from its “passivity” and employed for the public good. For example, easements under powerlines are divided into a patchwork of small plots that meet or intersect only at their fenced or otherwise delineated boundaries. Different individuals tend to particular plots but share the fence lines or boundaries. With regard to the illustration, Gunton’s ideas and words are powerful:
…dogma is that which delimits the garden of theology, providing a space in which theologians may play freely and cultivate such plants as are cultivable in the space which is so defined…But the general point is that a garden is not a garden without some boundaries…so theology ceases to be Christian theology if it effectively ceases to remain true to its boundaries (1; emphasis mine).
Whatever else is decided, it should surely be agreed that if there is to be a place for dogma in the church its function is at once both to delimit and to realise theology’s freedom. This freedom is the freedom of theologians to respond to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in seeking to feed the church and engage the world. If the boundaries are too restrictive, the expression of truth for today will be impeded; if too vague or absent altogether, other masters than the gospel will rule, and the garden will become a desert (2, 3).
Theology done properly is a communal endeavor. No wise theologian ignores their theological forebears nor acts as if they are the first or only ones to grapple with the biblical text. Shared doctrinal commitments, and especially shared dogmas, are precisely what all true Christians have in common.A profound richness characterizes well-planned, well-tended gardens. May our theologizing, collectively and locally, result in such Gospel fruitfulness and unity. Click To Tweet
Perhaps the key element to Gunton’s illustration is the fence post – each is a dogma (core doctrine) that helps define and delimit the Christian faith. If you don’t have the proper fence posts (proper in content and number), you’re choosing to depart from the historical Christian faith as captured in creedal statements such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon, the latter two products of ecumenical councils in AD 325 and 381, and 451, respectively. However, if the proper fence posts are in place, there is an incredible freedom to plant what you want (think here of secondary and tertiary doctrines) within your own garden plot.
Great liberty characterizes the theological enterprise—that is, what happens within the bounds of the garden—if the proper fence posts are in place; however, there’s one key proviso: whatever is done in the garden should contribute to the whole point of the garden—productivity or fruitfulness. Can one intentionally plant “weeds” (biblically unsupported teachings) in their garden? Yes, they have that freedom, but their exercise of that freedom will negatively affect their garden’s fruitfulness. As Gunton notes elsewhere in his chapter:
Dogmas are rules, but like all rules they become oppressive if they do not fulfill two requirements. The first is that rules should not be multiplied beyond necessity; that is they should be subjected to Ockham’s razor… the second requirement…is that rules achieve what they set out to do…In our case, dogmas are rules for safeguarding the gracious character of God’s work in Israel and Christ (20).
If rules (dogmas) are multiplied beyond what is necessary, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination—or biblical knowledge, for that matter—to realize that a needlessly increasing number of fence posts means a greater likelihood of being incapable of sharing fence lines or boundaries with other gardeners, that is, other theologians, and of burgeoning doctrinal Pharisaism. The same problem can happen on the other end of the fence post spectrum: if everything is boiled down to just a single fence post (dogma) or two, there’s not much of a garden—and thus little fruitfulness—and a little fence line that’s shared with adjacent plots.
We all know of ______-only churches. When I was doing pulpit supply for a small church in Florence, South Carolina, back in the 1980s, I met a fellow who excitedly explained that he was going to be a part of a new church plant in the area—an NIV-only fellowship! Perhaps such a group would have fit in with the pharisaical folks that Jesus challenged in the first century. Again, tiny gardens just can’t produce the fruit that larger plots can. Although the Pharisees and others of their ilk may have had large followings, that doesn’t translate into fruitfulness—rather, the contrary! Gunton’s words given above are on the mark: “If the boundaries are too restrictive, the expression of truth for today will be impeded; if too vague or absent altogether, other masters than the gospel will rule, and the garden will become a desert.”
If productivity is desired, gardens must have fences; otherwise, the garden will be indistinguishable from the surrounding countryside and overrun by weeds and pests that directly undermine fruitfulness. If we unnecessarily limit the garden, its fruitfulness will again be profoundly affected. Our commitment to doctrinal clarity and rigor need not engender stodgy narrowness, inflexibility, or holier-than-thou attitudes. Rather, when viewed from the standpoint of the aforementioned goals of doctrine—fruitfulness and unity—what should emerge from our doctrinal discussions is joyful, Christ-magnifying worship in all of our lives as well as steady, abiding charity toward those with whom we may differ on secondary or tertiary doctrines. Gunton writes,
In so far as dogmas and confessions are properly summaries of the gospel, or aspects of it, they liberate the theologian by providing a properly delimited subject matter. One is freed by being given a rich but not infinite subject matter on which to work…This, however, works only when dogmas are truly summaries of gospel material: that is to say, proper specifications of the being of the God of Israel and Jesus, and of his action towards and in the world…It is this –eschatologically founded– space between the gospel expressed in Scripture and the summary confessions of it which frees dogma and the dogmatics it empowers from dogmatism: the merely authoritarian and unargued assertion of merely didactic material. Only those dogmas should be affirmed which save from dogmatism (21, 22; emphasis original).
As should be apparent, this is decidedly not a masked plea for some liberal, relativistic form of ecumenism; on the contrary, it is a call to ecumenism in the best sense of the word—a staunch commitment to dogmas that define spaces of fruitful abundance where grace and graciousness are in place. A profound richness characterizes well-planned, well-tended gardens. May our theologizing, collectively and locally, result in such Gospel fruitfulness and unity. At the same time, may we revel in the dogmas of our faith without succumbing to dogmatism.
 This illustration appeared in an underknown book, The Task of Theology Today: Doctrines and Dogmas, edited by Victor Pfitzner and Hilary Regan, and Gunton’s lead-off chapter in that volume was entitled “Dogma, the Church and the Task of Theology.”
Gunton is certainly best known for his influential books about the doctrines of the Trinity and creation, perhaps the most significant being The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (1991, 2nd ed. 1997) and The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (1998), respectively. His impactful book, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (1993), was originally the content of the 1992 Bampton Lectures he delivered at the University of Oxford. For those unfamiliar with Gunton, Bruce McCormack’s preface to the 2005 book Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology aptly describes this gifted theologian: “At his death on 6 May 2003, Colin Gunton was widely regarded as the most significant English theologian of his generation, a man who helped to restore dignity to the study of dogmatic theology at a time when its fortunes were in decline.”
Constitutes or marks the boundaries of.
 This idea is discussed by me in my 2012 article, “Research Paradigms and Their Use and Importance in Theological Inquiry and Education.” Journal of Education and Christian Belief 16/1, 23-40: “What is clear is that theology is a dynamic enterprise pursued within the context of the Christian community (Wright, 1998, 105), such that traditional understandings of various doctrines guide and shape contemporary inquiry. The ancient Christian creeds as well as more recent statements of faith have emerged from a crucible of communal interaction and evaluation, and thus represent ‘common ground’ or consensus constructions. Present-day theological study operates, or should, on the basis of give-and-take—a commitment to dialectical interchange. This, of course, does not mean that truth is negotiable, only that theology is done in community.” (p. 31)
Of course, just believing certain things to be true (that is, simple mental assent) is not salvific; only trusting Christ as the only hope of salvation can rescue a condemned person from the law of sin and death (cf. Romans 8:1-2).
Steve and his wife of almost 40 years, Dana, are active members of Worthy Redeemer Church in Huntsville, Alabama. They served cross-culturally in Ankara, Turkey for 23 years; roughly half of his ministry time there was in church planting and the other half in adult theological education and resource production. Ever the student, Steve has three degrees in geology, one in intercultural studies, one in theology, and one in educational leadership. As his day job, he currently teaches Earth Science at Randolph School in Huntsville.