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Christianity and Liberalism, Part II – Doctrine18 min read

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In Part I of this series, I introduced this book.  In this post, I summarize the author’s points in the topic of Doctrine. The author covers these topics:

  • Christianity is not just a lifestyle, but a lifestyle rooted in a doctrine
  • Doctrine is rooted in historical events, not just religious sentiments
  • Pauline tolerance regarding motives of others, intolerance of bad doctrine
  • Jesus was not just a moralizer who lived a life of example, but firmly oriented his life to a specific doctrine of salvation, and a historical act of doctrinal importance

1. Christianity is not just a lifestyle, but a lifestyle rooted in a doctrine

But, it will be said, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The assertion is often made, and it has an appearance of godliness….Is it true, then, that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life? The question can be settled only by an examination of the beginnings of Christianity….But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine.

Christianity was founded on historical facts and a message.  That message, which is a doctrine of salvation through Jesus, is the essence of Christianity.  Liberals who shy away from the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus may have a religion, but the author argues that such a religion is not Christianity.  Christianity is not a religion of mere ideals and ideas, but of historical events that serve as the groundwork for a doctrine, which is the real faith.

From the beginning, the Christian gospel, as indeed the name “gospel” or “good news” implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened. And from the beginning, the meaning of the happening was set forth; and when the meaning of the happening was set forth then there was Christian doctrine. “Christ died”–that is history; “Christ died for our sins”–that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.

2. Paul the Apostle:  Tolerant of Poor Motivations, Intolerant of Bad Doctrine

The author mentions two events in the life of Paul.  In the letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about his imprisonment in Rome, and about how certain teachers are promoting themselves at his expense.

They sought to raise up affliction for Paul in his bonds; they preached Christ even of envy and strife. In short, the rival preachers made of the preaching of the gospel a means to the gratification of low personal ambition; it seems to have been about as mean a piece of business as could well be conceived. But Paul was not disturbed. “Whether in pretense, or in truth,” he said, “Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice” (Phil. i. 18). The way in which the preaching was being carried on was wrong, but the message itself was true; and Paul was far more interested in the content of the message than in the manner of its presentation. It is impossible to conceive a finer piece of broad-minded tolerance.

In the second event, Judaizers were requiring new converts to keep the Jewish law.  Note the parallels between these Judaizers and Catholicism – it is the same error which Paul condemned, and which the reformers rightly condemned:

“But though we,” he said, “or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. i. 8). What is the reason for the difference in the apostle’s attitude in the two cases? What is the reason for the broad tolerance in Rome, and the fierce anathemas in Galatia? The answer is perfectly plain. In Rome, Paul was tolerant, because there the content of the message that was being proclaimed by the rival teachers was true; in Galatia he was intolerant, because there the content of the rival message was false. In neither case did personalities have anything to do with Paul’s attitude.

Paul as well as the Judaizers believed that the keeping of the law of God, in its deepest import, is inseparably connected with faith. The difference concerned only the logical–not even, perhaps, the temporal–order of three steps. Paul said that a man (1) first believes on Christ, (2) then is justified before God, (3) then immediately proceeds to keep God’s law. The Judaizers said that a man (1) believes on Christ and (2) keeps the law of God the best he can, and then (3) is justified.

Paul saw very clearly that the differences between the Judaizers and himself was the differences between two entirely distinct types of religion; it was the differences between a religion of merit and a religion of grace. If Christ provides only a part of our salvation, leaving us to provide the rest, then we are still hopeless under the load of sin. For no matter how small the gap which must be bridged before salvation can be attained, the awakened conscience sees clearly that our wretched attempt at goodness is insufficient even to bridge that gap. The guilty soul enters again into the hopeless reckoning with God, to determine whether we have really done our part. And thus we groan again under the old bondage of the law. Such an attempt to piece out the work of Christ by our own merit, Paul saw clearly, is the very essence of unbelief; Christ will do everything or nothing, and the only hope is to throw ourselves unreservedly on His mercy and trust Him for all.

This doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, with a correct relationship to works, is the essential core of the Christian message.  It is the “good news” because it means we are justified freely, and are not under the burden of having to do good.  This doctrine is what separates the true Christian faith from all counterfeits or other systems of faith.  It is awesome.

3. The Other Disciples Preached Doctrine, not mere Piety

It is perfectly clear, then, that the first Christian missionaries did not simply come forward with an exhortation they did not say: “Jesus of Nazareth lived a wonderful life of filial piety, and we call upon you our hearers to yield yourselves, as we have done, to the spell of that life.” Certainly that is what modern historians would have expected the first Christian missionaries to say, but it must be recognized that as a matter of fact they said nothing of the kind. Conceivably the first disciples of Jesus, after the catastrophe of His death, might have engaged in quiet meditation upon His teaching. They might have said to themselves that “Our Father which art in heaven” was a good way of addressing God even though the One who had taught them that prayer was dead. They might have clung to the ethical principles of Jesus and cherished the vague hope that the One who enunciated such principles had some personal existence beyond the grave. Such redactions might have seemed very natural to the modern man. But to Peter, James and John they certainly never occurred. Jesus had raised in them high hopes; those hopes were destroyed by the Cross; and reflections on the general principles of religion and ethics were quite powerless to revive the hopes again. The disciples of Jesus had evidently been far inferior to their Master in every possible way; they had not understood His lofty spiritual teaching, but even in the hour of solemn crisis had quarreled over great places in the approaching Kingdom. What hope was there that such men could succeed where their Master had failed? Even when He had been with them, they had been powerless; and now that He was taken from them, what little power they may have had was gone.

Yet those same weak, discouraged men, within a few days after the death of their Master, instituted the most important spiritual movement that the world has ever seen. What had produced the astonishing change? What had transformed the weak and cowardly disciples into the spiritual conquerors of the world? Evidently it was not the mere memory of Jesus’ life, for that was a source of sadness rather than of joy. Evidently the disciples of Jesus, within the few days between the crucifixion and the beginning of their work in Jerusalem, had received some new equipment for their task. What that new equipment was, at least the outstanding and external element in it (to say nothing of the endowment which Christian men believe to have been received at Pentecost), is perfectly plain. The great weapon with which the disciples of Jesus set out to conquer the world was not a mere comprehension of eternal principles; it was an historical message, an account of something that had recently happened, it was the message, “He is risen.”

The disciples didn’t preach a “good life” message either, but a message of faith in a historical act – that is, a doctrine.  The same one that Paul the Apostle preached.

4. Jesus was doctrinal too

It is popular these days to say “I don’t really think Paul represented Christianity well, I think Jesus’ words in the gospels, especially the Sermon on the mount, reflect the true spirit of Christianity.”  There is a strong desire to get rid of Paul’s doctrinal focus altogether:

Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of Jesus; he was not interested merely in general principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its center. If Christianity is to be made independent of doctrine, then Paulinism must be removed from Christianity root and branch.

So how about Jesus?  Can he deliver us from doctrine?

“But,” it may be said, “even if the Christianity of the primitive Church was dependent upon doctrine, we may still emancipate ourselves from such dependence; we may appeal from the primitive Church to Jesus Himself. It has already been admitted that if doctrine is to be abandoned Paul must be abandoned:it may now be admitted that if doctrine is to be abandoned, even the primitive Jerusalem Church, with its message of the resurrection, must be abandoned. But possibly we can still find in Jesus Himself the simple, non-doctrinal religion that we desire.” Such is the real meaning of the modern slogan, “Back to Christ.”

That last line is very insightful – half of the search for the historical Jesus may be to free ourselves from the abuses of Church doctrine, but half of it is probably to escape doctrine altogether in order to neuter Christianity to a religion of works and ideals.  In fact, here’s a nice description of the liberal “search” for Jesus:

Yet we are now asked to believe that the thing that has given Christianity its power all through the centuries was a blunder, that the originators of the movement misunderstood radically the meaning of their Master’s life and work, and that it has been left to us moderns to get the first inkling of the initial mistake.

Alright then, what about Jesus?  Was he an evil doctrine-head like Paul and the disciples?

Jesus did not content Himself with enunciating general principles of religion and ethics; the picture of Jesus as a sage similar to Confucius, uttering wise maxims about conduct, may satisfy [liberal theologians], but it disappears so soon as one engages seriously in historical research. “Repent,” said Jesus, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

Jesus was certainly not a mere enunciator of permanent truths, like the modern liberal preacher; on the contrary He was conscious of standing at the turning-point of the ages, when what had never been was now to come to be. But Jesus announced not only an event; He announced also the meaning of the event.

But when He gave an account of the meaning of the event, no matter how brief that account may have been, He was overstepping the line that separates an undogmatic religion, or even a dogmatic religion that teaches only eternal principles, from one that is rooted in the significance of definite historical facts; He was placing a great gulf between Himself and the philosophic modern liberalism which today incorrectly bears His name.

So Jesus kept referring to this Kingdom thing.  And not only that, but his Messianic purpose.

the strange fact is that this supreme revealer of eternal truth supposed that He was to be the chief actor in a world catastrophe and was to sit in judgment upon the whole earth.

OK, well maybe we can just have the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule?  A simple non-doctrinal ethic?

Even those parts of the Gospels which have been regarded as most purely ethical are found to be based altogether upon Jesus’ lofty claims. The Sermon on the Mount is a striking example. It is the fashion now to place the Sermon on the Mount in contrast with the rest of the New Testament. “We will have nothing to do with theology,” men say in effect, “we will have nothing to do with miracles, with atonement, or with heaven or with hell. For us the Golden Rule is a sufficient guide of life; in the simple principles of the Sermon on the Mount we discover a solution of all the problems of society.”

It is indeed rather strange that men can speak in this way. Certainly it is rather derogatory to Jesus to assert that never except in one brief part of His recorded words did He say anything that is worth while. But even in the Sermon on the Mount there is far more than some men suppose. Men say that it contains no theology) in reality it contains theology of the most stupendous kind. In particular, it contains the loftiest possible presentation of Jesus’ own Person. That presentation appears in the strange note of authority which pervades the whole discourse; it appears in the recurrent words, “But I say unto you.”

Jesus plainly puts His own words on an equality with what He certainly regarded as the divine words of Scripture; He claimed the right to legislate for the Kingdom of God. Let it not be objected that this note of authority involves merely a prophetic consciousness in Jesus, a mere right to speak in God’s name as God’s Spirit might lead. For what prophet ever spoke in this way? The prophets said, “Thus saith the Lord,” but Jesus said, “I say.” We have no mere prophet here, no mere humble exponent of the will of God; but a stupendous Person speaking in a manner which for any other person would be abominable and absurd.

This is the real problem with Jesus – he is not just espousing principles, but HimSELF as the cure for man’s ills – not merely good living, but his own person.  “Without me you can do nothing” he says.

5. Regardless of the historicity of the scriptures, history shows Christianity to be Doctrinal, not just principle centered.

The character of Christianity as founded upon a message is summed up in the words of the eighth verse of the first chapter of Acts–“Ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” It is entirely unnecessary, for the present purpose, to argue about the historical value of the Book of Acts or to discuss the question whether Jesus really spoke the words just quoted. In any case the verse must be recognized as an adequate summary of what is known about primitive Christianity. From the beginning Christianity was a campaign of witnessing. And the witnessing did not concern merely what Jesus was doing within the recesses of the individual life. To take the words of Acts in that way is to do violence to the context and to all the evidence. On the contrary, the Epistles of Paul and all the sources make it abundantly plain that the testimony was primarily not to inner spiritual facts but to what Jesus had done once for all in His death and resurrection.


While people who are oriented only to doctrine can be Pharisaical and spiritless, the liberal disdain for doctrine, which by definition makes distinctions that lead to inclusion and exclusion, often tries to reduce Christianity to mere generic principles.  However, this is inconsistent with the message and life of Jesus, the Apostles, St. Paul, and true Christianity.

I leave you with this little aphorism of mine:

Experience without doctrine leads to heresy
Doctrine without experience leads to Pharisee