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What Comes First – Doctrine or Life? (A response to "Beyond Foundationalism" and "Velvet Elvis")

This perpetual “chicken or the egg” question which has been presented to me many times in my educational and personal life over these last years.

Growing up, I had always assumed that doctrine came before life. It was precisely this belief that lead me to Bible school, where I hoped to hear the deep things of God expounded to me, in order that I could spend a lifetime expounding them to others, to be of maximum assistance to my fellow humans. It was at seminary, however, that I first encountered the rival position.

In Grenze and Franke’s book “Beyond Foundationalism,” they argue that the concept of finding truth in Scriptures, then building one truth after another upon these Scriptures (or, “Foundationalism”) is too outdated, “too modern,” and too divisive. They prefer to see theologians as servants of the church – following after her. As she experiences God, the theologians write theology to express this experience. This is basically the same perspective which was presented by Classic Liberalism, which was fond of saying “beware of doctrine!” and urging people to put their experiences, not their ideas of God, as foremost in their spiritual lives. Most recently, Rob Bell has said that the idea that Scriptures can actually speak for themselves, (that is, the idea that the Bible has a trans-cultural message, which can be read in-spite of any biases of the reader) is a toxic, dangerous idea. Later he says that it makes him want to vomit. For him, doctrines help us live and help us love – but the doctrines themselves are not the point (the living and loving is), and they can be changed for other doctrines if we so choose.

With all this preamble, I hope that you see clearly that although you may have thought it only common sense that doctrines precede life, there are many who are teaching exactly the opposite. In fact, there are exceedingly strong winds – both in the academy and Christian-pop-culture which would push the next generation into believing this very thing.

In this post, I hope to briefly, concisely and firmly prove that to be a Christian is to put doctrine before life.

IDEAS ARE IMPORTANT

Paired with the idea that “life proceeds doctrine” is the similar thought that “doctrine is unimportant.” But on what ground can this idea be defended? Doctrines are beliefs, and beliefs are the most important things which exist in the life of a human. Beliefs drive some people to success and other to failure. Beliefs make and ruin marriages. Beliefs push people to climb mountains, and lower them to wallow in drunken stupors.

But doctrines are not just any beliefs – they are beliefs about God, about eternity, about the meaning of life. In short, doctrines are beliefs about the most important things in the world. It was because of doctrine that the armies of Hitler, of Stalin, and of the Allies marched. It was because of doctrine that Muslims flew their planes into the World Trade Center, and because of doctrine that the Christian and post-Christian nations fought back.

In fact, if one was perceptive they would see that only a few of the major wars of the last century have been wars over bare-faced greed and hatred: almost all of them have been wars of doctrine. And this with good reason! For the doctrines of one people raised them to great humanitarian heights – while the doctrines of others caused them to devalue human life, to use and abuse people, to imprison and exterminate, to commit genocide and crimes against humanity.

Hitler was a mighty military genius: but without his propaganda – that is, without his ability to convert people to his way of thinking, to his doctrine – he would have been powerless.

How can anyone say that doctrines are unimportant? Anyone with sense could see that doctrines are the rudders which steers the mighty ships of our turbulent earth.

PLACING EXPERIENCE BEFORE DOCTRINE IS KNOWN COMMONLY AS ‘FLYING BY THE SEAT OF YOUR PANTS’

We know people who act without first thinking. In common language we say they, “live by the seat of their pants.” The Bible calls these people fools. A wise man looks ahead and avoids the pit: the fool stumbles right into it.

No one values this. No one with any sense lives like this: not in marriage, not in finances, not in careers, not in any aspect of life, in fact, except in this one thing, in religion. But if religion is the most important aspect of life – that is, it is that one aspect of belief, from which all other beliefs flow – then why are people cavalier about this aspect of their belief? Should religion not be the most important, and therefore the most studied, most contemplated, most thoroughly accurate portion of our belief system?

PARENTS PUT RIGHT THOUGHT BEFORE LIFE EXPERIENCE

Let us put the large words aside – or, rather, boil them down to more common and manageable words. By “doctrines,” we mean things that Christians think about God and life. By experience, we mean daily life. Now tell me – which do you expect to come first for your children? Do you tell your two-three-and-twelve year-olds, “go, my children – experience the world! Learn for yourselves what is right and wrong!” Of course not. That is just silly. As parents, we have a wealth of information to pass on to our children. Our intention is not (usually/hopefully) to control them or stifle their growth. Rather, we hope to set them on a firm foundation of learning and of sound living. Before our children are in their teens, we expect them to be acquainted with literally millenia of accumulated human knowledge and lessons. We also expect them to have a strong sense of morality – treating others with fairness and compassion. In short, we teach our  children what/how to think in order that they may have long, happy and prosperous lives. We do not expect them to experience the world with an empty head, then come back to us and tell us what to think about it. Of course, this does happen – and broken-hearted parents beat on the doors of heaven, crying out for their children to be quickly delivered from the arrogant self-sufficiency of adolescence.

There is a critical phase of development when parents (ideally) begin to back off, to let their children learn for themselves. However, this cautious freedom is really just another teaching method. The hope is that children given guidance from a distance will be able to learn for themselves the lessons which the parents have tried to instill in them from childhood.

A few very foolish parents attempt to give their children absolute freedom from diapers to graduation. The result is almost universally one of absolute disaster.

But if we cannot even raise our children without first giving them thoughts to build their lives on, how can pastors, churches, and even theologians say that the thoughts of people on this topic of religion are unimportant?

A STRANGE DIVISION BETWEEN SPIRITUAL AND EARTHLY MATTERS

Perhaps it could be said that these are all secular matters. On finances, on career and life planning and such things, it is essential to have a good education. However, in spiritual matters it is the questioning and the journeying which are far more important than the destination.

In reply to this we must ask two questions: first, is God real, or only a figment of our imagination? Secondly, we must ask whether right knowledge is necessary to relationship.

Many people – even many Christian people – believe that religion is a deeply private affair. And in certain ways it most certainly is. Nobody should tell anybody else what they must believe about God. However, when we make the statement that “everybody’s beliefs about God are valid,” we are making a very definite theological statement. We are, in fact, denying the real existence of God: for the only way that mutually contradicting statements can both be “equally” valid is for neither of them to be valid.

EVERY PERSON HAS CERTAIN FACTS, WHICH ARE ESSENTIAL TO THEM

Let us imagine three girls – all bereaved of their father in early childhood. Naturally, each of the girls has a “relationship” with her father in her memories of him. And just as naturally, the father of the imagination is slightly different for each girl. The oldest remembers her father as a wise and quiet man – slow of speech, but full of wisdom and kindness. The middle child remembers him on his knees giving her “horsie-rides” and tickling her with great affection. The youngest, however (who in reality has no memories whatsoever) has invented a father by gluing together the TV characters of Mr. Christie, Santa Clause and Willy Wanka. The other sisters regard her mythological conceptions of father with quiet and respectful amusement. Each one is welcome to her own opinion – and the very young are welcome even to deceive themselves. However, at some point if the youngest will not grow out of her delusion, an older sister is sure to set her straight: “Look, sister, dad was not magical. He did not wear a top hat. He did not have a snowy white beard. He did not go to the land of leprochans and umpa-lumpas. Dad was a real person. And these stories you are making up are totally fictional. Your fantasies do not match up with the actual reality which I remember. Please – if you want to hold on to these delusions, keep them to yourself. They are an insult to me, because you make it sound like dad did not really exist, was not a real person. And he was. I remember him!”

Surely God shows a different aspect of Himself to each person. However, if we begin to say that wildly contradicting ideas about God’s nature and character (for example, “He is Trinity” versus “He is not Trinity) are equally valid, we have just made the statement that God is not real, except in the human imagination. At this point, “God” differs nothing from the tooth-fairy, the imaginary friend, or Santa Clause.

FACTS ABOUT PEOPLE ARE ESSENTIAL TO RELATIONSHIPS

Further, it is my firm belief that beliefs about a person are foundational to a relationship of any sort. Let us use the internet phenomenon of a chat room as one bare example. Let’s say we are in an open chat room – discussing, for example, global warming. A user by the name of Gl831 has said some interesting things, and so you want to talk to them directly – perhaps even become (as scary as this is!) their friend. What is the first thing you would likely ask them? “Hello, Gl831 – just curious, what is your a/s/l?” As we techies know, that stands for “age, sex, location” – the bare minimum of information which you can know about a person, to have an online conversation/relationship. If you don’t know this, or if the person lies to you, a real deep relationship is impossible. If you do not know whether Gl831 is, for example, 38/m/United States or 12/f/Japan, you will have no idea how to visualize the person, how to respond, how to term your questions, where they are coming from, or, in short, who they are. They will be nothing but a phantom to you.

And if we are unclear about our beliefs about God, He is only a phantom to us: no relationship is possible. If we do not know whether “God” is Zeus or Gaia, whether He is Allah or Buddha, whether He is Yahweh or “the force,” whether He is, kind or mean, all-knowing or limited, all-powerful or impotent, personal or impersonal, how could we begin to have a relationship with Him? If we are keeping our minds “open” to all possibilities, we are really admitting we have landed on none, and thus are very far from even attempting a relationship.

Let us push it further. Let’s go ask that couple – the one over there, walking on the beach with stars in their eyes – whether they have beliefs about one another, or are motivated by pure sentimentality? On the surface, yes, the two are simply madly, illogically in love. But let us push deeper. “Maam, do you believe that this man is a cruel person?” “No! Of course not!” “Do you believe he will be a good father?” “I certainly do!” “Do you think he will abuse your children?” “Certainly not! Why – do you know something I don’t know?” See now how this relationship is actually built on real beliefs. Only a little digging and experimentation shows how very weak those foundation-stones are in this case, for in reality most of the woman’s beliefs about the man (and vice-versa) are founded only in a projection of desire: however, without concrete beliefs, a relationship is impossible. Of course, a person is more than a list of facts (e.g. 5’3″, male, Canadian, kind, good at math, Christian, good provider, virgin, well groomed, etc.) but they are never less than these facts. These facts provide the bedrock of a relationship: alter or move the important “rocks,” and the relationship shatters.

CONCLUSION

So it is with a relationship with the Living God. He is real. As such, He has real facts – or, attributes – which we can learn about. He has a real history, and He really spent time in the flesh, on this earth as recorded in the Bible. In reading, studying and cross-referencing the Bible, we can arrive are real “doctrines,” or “beliefs” about God. Our relationship to God is built upon these beliefs. Our life, in turn, is built upon our relationship (or lack thereof) with God.

Therefore, Christian doctrines do not flow from experience, but experience flows from doctrines. There is likely no more important task for each individual Christian than finding out exactly what it is that God has revealed of Himself in Scriptures, and seeing how that intersects with their own lives.

By contrast, the idea of theology or doctrines coming from experience is at best agnosticism and at worst an anti-God religion, which makes humanity the inventors of “God,” who is merely a figment of each individual’s private imagination.

The only religion where doctrines flow from life would be Hinduism, or various eastern spin-off religions from Hinduism. In this religion, each individual is the center of their own universe: they, themselves are or at least contain god. Therefore, whatever conception they hold of God is valid for them – as god, they have the power to create spiritual realities for one’s self. For Christians, however, who believe in a real personal God who is outside of us, the notion of “creating doctrine” is nonsense or (to put it into religious terminology) blasphemy.

I would like to close with one illustration. In the introduction of an episode of “the white-horse inn podcast,” one of the hosts told a story about a very liberal university professor, who was trying to convince the class that all religions are basically the same thing. The man’s aims were supposedly good – he was trying to achieve world peace by helping all religious people realize that they are all part of one big happy family. “The only uniting which he accomplished,” said the host, “was to motivate myself [a Christian] and my Jewish and Muslim friend to meet in a pub later that night and rage about how mad we were at him!”

And why wouldn’t they be mad? For if all religions are the same, they are all equally false. Wasn’t that teacher basically saying that all religions basically are myths which help us be good people? But to believe this would not be to be a “better” Muslim, Jew or Christian, but to cease to be a person of faith, and become an agnostic or humanist.

People who place life before doctrine should not be surprised at the angry back-lash from people of real faith: for there is no insult more deep and profound than to say that the beliefs which one has founded their entire life upon, has sacrificed for, has fought for, are mere fantasy.

8 Comments »

  1. Josiah wrote: “There is a critical phase of development when parents (ideally) begin to back off, to let their children learn for themselves.”

    I think there is not a “critical phase of development” when this happens, I think it happens continuously along a spectrum as the child grows up, you give more and more freedom to choose and responsibility for their choices.

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