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What Is Christian Doctrine?

Doctrine is a core part of the Christian church, but what is it?

Although it's a word most familiar to theologians, doctrine is a core part of the Christian church. But what is it?

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3; Rom. 10:9) without speaking in a deeply doctrinal way, because this simple statement rests on profound biblical truths. It assumes that Christ is the eternal second member of the Trinity, who became uniquely God incarnate, was set forth as our substitutionary atonement, was raised from the dead having conquered all evil, and is now reigning sovereignly over all reality (Eph. 1:20–22). This simple statement also makes connections with other doctrines, such as human nature being created and fallen, the work of the Holy Spirit, and God’s redemptive purposes in history, culminating at the return of Christ. All of this is assumed by this declaration, even if not overtly expressed. Take away these doctrinal truths and the statement “Jesus is Lord” becomes empty.

So what is doctrine? It is the way the central themes of God’s revelation in Scripture are summarized and taught. This teaching builds on their development through the OT. It sees them as having culminated in Christ’s incarnation, words, and work. His teaching (Matt. 7:28; Mark 1:22; John 7:16) was then expanded and applied by the apostles. Paul placed his own teaching side-by-side with the “preaching of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 16:25; cf. 1 Thess. 4:2). All of this was committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. These inspired writings are now preserved within the biblical canon. This revealed Word defines for us how we should think about God, ourselves, our world, the church, and the future.

This was where the earliest Christians began their walk before God: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [or doctrine]” (Acts 2:42). It is quite clear that learning this doctrine was a Christian necessity and became part of their regular practice. This doctrine is subsequently called “the faith” (Gal. 1:23; Col. 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:9; 4:1; Titus 1:13; Jude 3). What is meant by this is neither vague nor uncertain. It is the confession of truth formulated into specific doctrines. It defines all who are genuinely Christian. It is sometimes called “the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4; 3:15; 4:3; Titus 1:1). Paul calls it a “deposit” (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14), a legal term for valuables given into one’s safekeeping. This valuable doctrine he also calls “the pattern of . . . sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13). 

This is “the good doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6) that Timothy followed. To the Thessalonians, Paul says, “Stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us” (2 Thess. 2:15; cf. 3:6–12). He means by this, of course, the teaching they had received from God (1 Thess. 2:13)—“the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13) they were to hand on undiluted and uncorrupted. Nothing less will suffice if the church is to be authentic in its life and witness. Paul praises the Romans for their obedience to the “standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17).

Christian doctrine is present in different ways in the NT. Most often, of course, we meet it in the doctrinal sections in the epistles (e.g., Romans 1–8; Ephesians 1–3). But it is there in other ways too, pointing to the fact that doctrine had become part of the daily life of the early churches. Some early hymns are now embedded in the NT text (e.g., Phil. 2:5–11; probably 1 Tim. 3:16), and in them we see strong doctrinal elements. At other times, the apostolic teaching is crystallized into small creedal statements (e.g., Paul’s set of “trustworthy” sayings in 1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:8–9; 2 Tim. 2:11–13; Titus 3:4–8). Other passages seem to have a creedal form (e.g., Rom. 1:3–4; 10:8–9; Col. 1:13–20).

This doctrine underlies and, indeed, explains the practice of Christian faith. There is, in fact, no Christian ethic without a foundation of Christian doctrine. The daily practice of this faith is the daily living out of its doctrine. Apostolic Christianity was nothing if it was not about knowing, believing, living, and preaching apostolic doctrine. There was no such thing, then, as undoctrinal Christianity, nor practices unfounded in doctrine.

This teaching, this doctrine, is an enduring body of truth to which the church is always bound. It is “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Faith in its truth content cannot be individualized. Christian belief cannot mean one thing to one person and something different to another. It is not different from one age to the next, nor is it different from one culture to another. Genuine Christian faith is genuine only when structured around the same enduring biblical doctrines. Christian faith is always the same because the God at its center is always the same, and because the redemptive acts on which it is based, centrally the cross and resurrection, can never be changed. There is only “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5).

Whether in brief, compacted phrases or in the more expansive doctrinal sections of the epistles, it is clear that apostolic Christianity was doctrinal in both shape and substance. It was about the doctrines of God, creation, human nature, Christ, redemption, the church, and the consummation of Christ’s kingdom. Apart from these doctrines, there is no Christian faith.

Excerpted from ESV Systematic Study Bible. Copyright © 2017 by Crossway. Used by permission.

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