Less Doctrine, More Bible Please!

Throughout my childhood and youth I never learned the Apostles Creed, nor was I taught a catechism. I was a young adult before I even heard of such things. This is because I was brought up as a Baptist. Baptists do not recite a creed as part of their order of worship. While some of their churches have produced a ‘confession of faith’ or a ‘doctrinal basis’, Baptists in general avoid creeds and acquire their beliefs through sermons based on biblical texts.

In this they follow the tradition of Luther, who believed that God speaks to us not by the formal teachings of a church but by the living word of the Bible. Luther was a peasant, a man of strong emotions and intense faith, who could often be crude and (for example in his extreme Anti-Semitism) disastrously prejudiced. Yet, with all his faults, he inspired large numbers of people to find a new living relationship with God.

The other great founder of Protestantism, Calvin, was very different. He was a lawyer. While Luther produced polemic writings that expressed his passions and his love for the Bible, Calvin gave us his Institutes, a masterly, tightly argued systematic theology.

Doctrine is logical, consistent, and cold. It is a way of dominating people and establishing order and discipline. Its logic can lead to quite cruel conclusions. Strict Calvinists argue that because God is the almighty Ruler of the universe everything that happens must be the will of God, and because God knows everything God must have decided it before the beginning of time. If people reject the message of salvation, it must be because God planned that it should be so. This logic, combined with a literal interpretation of the Bible, leads to the abhorrent conclusion that God deliberately creates millions of people in order to punish them eternally in hell, and they can do nothing about it. If we argue that a loving God would never do this, the answer is that we human beings are so utterly depraved that we are incapable of understanding the mysterious love of God!

The Bible doesn’t concern itself with that kind of argument. Apart from the letters of Paul and parts of the Gospel of John, there is very little doctrinal exposition in the Bible. Much of it consists of stories, poetry, and the passionate outbursts of prophets. While doctrine speaks from the head, the Bible speaks from the heart and from life. A story doesn’t tell you what to believe – it simply makes you think. Doctrines have one meaning that closes off any alternative: poetry opens up the imagination. The words of the prophets (and Jesus was one of them) are not authoritative statements of eternal truth. They are expressions of anger and love, or exciting visions of a new world.

It is somewhat ironic that those who talk of having a high view of the Bible as ‘the Word of God’ tend to be led much more by doctrine than by the Bible. This is because doctrine tries to take over the Bible as well. Having asserted that the Bible is the word of God, people approach it with a theory of what the word of God should be. If God is perfect and infallible, then his word must be perfect and infallible. Whatever is written in the Bible must be true, because God says it and God does not lie. So the Bible is taken into the captivity of theory and doctrine. Doctrine decides what parts of the Bible people read. There are huge parts out there that are ignored because they are not necessary to establish the doctrines.

Doctrine is neat and tidy and unambiguous, But the Bible is an untidy collection of different kinds of writing. It is messy, inconsistent and often very ambiguous. It doesn’t come from scholars and philosophers sitting in their study and thinking – it comes from the raw experience of people struggling for faith in whatever circumstances they find themselves. If this is the word of God, then God clearly speaks through a variety of people. The so-called ‘contradictions’ are actually disagreements, and God somehow speaks through them too.

The Bible is full of ‘minority reports’. The Book of Exodus says that God visits the sins of the fathers on the children and grandchildren: Ezekiel disagrees. Some of the Psalms say that the Temple in Jerusalem is the house of God and can never be destroyed: Jeremiah disagrees, and so does Jesus. The historical books of the Old Testament are full of stories that illustrate how God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked: Job puts a big question mark against that idea. Deuteronomy says that no Moabite can be counted among the holy people, even to the tenth generation: Ruth points out that King David’s great-grandmother was a Moabite. Nahum gloats over the destruction of the wicked city of Nineveh: Jonah points out that God cares for the people of Nineveh too. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, keeps saying, ‘You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …’.

Doctrine is deadly serious. I don’t think there are any jokes in Calvin’s Institutes! But there is humour in the Bible. We miss it by reading it too solemnly. We see the rather dull prophet Balaam being contradicted by his talking donkey. We see the prophet making fun of the idol-worshippers who take a log home, put half of it on the fire and carve the other half into an image and worship it as a god. We hear Jesus talking about the hypocrites who wash the outside of the cup and leave the inside dirty, or the man who offers to take a splinter out of another person’s eye when he has a great plank in his own. A friend who did a lot of business with Jewish people once told me that Christians often misinterpret the Bible because they don’t understand the Jewish sense of humour!

Once we start reading the Bible without the blinkers of imposed doctrine, we can begin to see what a wonderful and fascinating book it is. We can be entertained, amused, encouraged, challenged and inspired by it. It can even get us questioning some of the doctrines we have been told it teaches. So out with boring doctrine and let’s have more of the Bible!

Faith: A Journey of Discovery

New thinking and the questioning of inherited beliefs is not an aberration from Christianity, nor a sign of heresy or disloyalty. It is deeply embedded in the nature of the Judaeo-Christian heritage itself. From the very beginning faith has evolved through questioning and argument.

At an early stage in the history of their faith Jewish people began to move away from the old idea that their God had chosen them for special favour irrespective of how they behaved. The stories of the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their families – show them getting up to all kinds of things we would consider reprehensible – deceit, trickery and theft – and prospering by them just because they were specially favoured by their God. In time this changed. People began to see that God was not an arbitrary, capricious despot, but a God who was consistent, fair, and just. God expected standards of behaviour from his people. They must not worship another god or make idols. They must not murder, commit adultery, steal, deceive, or plot against their neighbours.

In the book of Deuteronomy (ch 28), the conditions of God’s relationship with his people are set out at length. If the nation serves God faithfully and obeys the commandments, it will be blessed in every way. The people will live safely in their land, enjoy rich crops and abundant harvests, good health, long life, and many children. They will be defended from all their enemies and win all their battles. But if they turn away from God and act unjustly, they will face disaster on all sides.

The history of Israel in the books of Samuel and Kings are a long illustration of this principle. When there was a good king who reigned justly and encouraged people in the pure worship of God, there was peace and prosperity, but when there was a king who disobeyed the commandments, there was famine, disease, natural disasters, defeat in war, and all kinds of misfortune.

Sometimes the historians had difficulty in explaining certain parts of the history. King Josiah, who instituted a thorough reform of religious practice and was a good and faithful king, was killed in battle at the age of 39. The historian explains this by saying that the nation was still being punished for the terrible sins of his grandfather Manasseh (2 Kings 23:25-30). As an old scripture said, God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5). But there was one prophet, Ezekiel, who disagreed with this. He was addressing the Jewish people when they had lost their freedom, their holy city, and their land to the Babylonians. They were in a depressed and defeatist mood, believing they were being punished because of the sins of their forefathers. Ezekiel offered them hope by asserting that God’s judgment does not go down through the generations – every individual is rewarded or punished according to their own behaviour (Ezek 18).

But some people realised that this too is not always true. Many of the Psalms and other writings drive home the message that good people are rewarded with long life, health, prosperity, and large families. The wicked may appear to prosper for a time, but they will eventually suffer for their sins. The Book of Job is a passionate argument against this. It presents the hypothetical situation of a man of impeccable piety and virtue who loses all his property, his family, and then his health. His friends (‘Job’s comforters’) preach to him the conventional message that suffering is a punishment for wrong-doing, and that his only hope is to confess his sins and pray for forgiveness. Job refuses to believe that he has deserved what he is suffering. He insists on arguing his case with God. In chapters of profound poetry, the whole question of the working out of God’s justice in human life is pondered. There is no ultimate answer, but the interesting thing is that in the end God commends Job for having the honesty and courage to argue with him, and rebukes Job’s friends for having the audacity to try to defend God’s justice with shallow arguments.

The belief that the Jews are God’s chosen people also undergoes some questioning and development within the Bible. It was probably at a time when Jewish leaders were becoming increasingly strict in maintaining the purity of the ‘holy people’ that the little Book of Ruth was written. One of ancient Israel’s close neighbours was the nation of Moab. There was a long history of feud between the two peoples, which was enshrined within the Scriptures in a commandment saying that no Moabite should be admitted to the congregation of the Lord even to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 23:3). Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman who remained faithful to her Jewish mother-in-law and was rewarded by marriage to a prosperous Jewish farmer. The story ends with a little genealogy showing that the great King David was a great-grandson of that marriage!

Before that time, the prophet Amos had already questioned what it meant to be the chosen people. He asserts that being chosen does not mean God is always on their side – it means that God will judge them more strictly than others (Amos 3:2). In another place he suggests that they are no more special than any other nation anyway. They may boast about God giving them the land of Canaan, but did not the same God give other nations their lands (Amos 9:7)?

The Jews’ long experience of oppression and suffering generated a deep change in their perception of the meaning of being chosen. Even when they were at their best and most faithful to God, they suffered. A prophet at the time of the Babylonian exile came to see this as part of what it meant to be chosen. They were somehow fulfilling a purpose in the world by the very fact of their undeserved suffering (Isaiah 53). This became a central part of the way Christians saw the whole story of Jesus, the crucified Messiah who embodies the nature and destiny of the holy people. In the New Testament we find the firm belief that God is above all a loving God, and the daring insight that real love shows itself in weakness more than in coercive power: ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (1 Corinthians 1:25).

When sceptics point out that the Bible contradicts itself. they are really missing the point. The contradictions are part of the essential nature of the Bible, and of the whole history of Jewish and Christian faith. Faith in God is an ongoing journey of discovery, constantly dealing with the unexpected, interpreting experience, and discovering new truth. As God says to Moses, ‘I will be who I will be’.

The Physical is Spiritual

‘Love God’ … ‘love your neighbour’ … ‘We’re in love’ … ‘let’s make love’ … ‘I love my children …’ ‘I Iove my job …’ ‘I love being out in the fresh air…’ ‘I love chocolate’ …

There seem to be so many meanings to the word ‘love’. Sometimes it is even used in a negative sense. To say someone has a ‘love child’ tends to imply a dark history of adultery or illicit sex. In some parts of the world there are establishments called ‘love hotels’ where you can book a room by the hour for a ‘quickie’. It has even been known for posts containing the word ‘love’ to be removed from social media because some censoring algorithm has assumed they are indecent.

Clever theologians claim that there are different kinds of love. The love of God, or the kind of love Christians should have (agapē in Greek), is quite different, they say, from ordinary human friendship (philia), and even more different from romantic or sexual love (eros). This distinction owes a lot to the Greek philosophical idea that the more ordinary or physical a thing is the less ‘worthy’ it is, the further it is from the spiritual, or from God. The Hebrew way of thinking we find in the Bible doesn’t bear this out. To that way of thinking, a human being is not a pure soul trapped in an earthly body, but a thinking, feeling, breathing body with passions that can be good or bad.

When the prophet Jeremiah says (in the words of the King James Bible, Jer 4:19) ‘My bowels! my bowels!’, he is not complaining of the result of a rather too spicy meal. He is expressing his ‘anguish’ (as modern versions more politely put it) as he foresees terrible times coming for the nation. He goes on to say ‘my heart maketh a noise in me’. Strong emotions, whether of fear, love or human sympathy, are felt in the body. Rational biologists can say what they like about emotions being a function of the brain and the heart being just a muscle to pump the blood around, but we know from experience that fear sets the heart racing, that a shock can bring on a heart attack, and that the unexpected sight of a loved one can make your heart miss a beat. Further on in the same book (31:20) Jeremiah talks even of God’s bowels. He hears God expressing his deep love for the wayward Ephraim (another name for the nation of Israel): ‘my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the LORD’.

The apostle Paul expresses his love for his friends at Philippi by saying, ‘I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ’, and goes on to appeal to them to be of one mind ‘if there be … any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies’ (Phil 1:8; 2:1). In his mind there is clearly no separation between spiritual life and the feelings of the body.

We find the expression ‘heart and reins’ in a number of places in the Bible, as in the saying in the Psalms (Ps 7:9 etc.) ‘the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins’. We usually miss the significance of this by not realising that ‘reins’ is an old English word for ‘kidneys’. People in biblical times thought of the heart as the seat of the intellect and the kidneys as the seat of the emotions. We often feel an emotion ‘in the pit of the stomach’, and sometimes nervousness or strong emotion can give us a need to pass water.

So love, whether we think of the love of God or of human love, is bodily. Sex is spiritual. Being attracted to another person in a way that makes us want to get close, to be united with them, is as spiritual as prayer. Like prayer, it can be superficial or short-lived, and it can be hypocritical and mixed up with all sorts of selfish motives. Loving sex that honours the partner and their needs as much as one’s own is part of the love of God, but even the most superficial sexual attraction that lasts only a moment is a brief taste of that love.