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!