Doctrine and Life: Let Us Not Divorce What God Has Joined Together

jonathan-simcoe-pSjwUXBMnlc-unsplashKeep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [doctrine].
Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
— 1 Timothy 4:16 —

Doctrine and life. Life and doctrine.

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he calls his pastoral protegé to embrace both and not let go of the other. And for anyone who cares about life or doctrine, we must also care about the other also. For doctrine without life is dead and life without sound doctrine is leading to death.

In truth, when doing theology, if it does not lead someone to the giver of life, it is dead theology. But simultaneously, life that downplays doctrine is equally deadly. This is why Paul repeatedly refers to sound doctrine in his Pastoral Epistles. He knows that sound (lit. healthy) doctrine does not give life; the Spirit of God does. But anyone born of the Spirit needs to know and grow in the life-giving doctrines of God. This is why he says that by paying attention to doctrine, “you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

Simultaneously, because he knows that knowledge by itself can puff up (1 Cor. 8:1), and that not all studies in the Law are lawful (1 Tim. 1:3–11), he calls for Timothy to guard his life and his doctrine. Too many are the knowledgable theologians who did not guard their lives. And too many are the false professors who have general sense of theology but no life. Thus, we must always pursue doctrine for the sake of knowing the life-giving God. To expound this idea further, let me turn to two theologians who knew both doctrine and life.

William Ames (1576–1633) on Theology as Living to God

The first is William Ames (1576–1633). And in his Marrow of Theology, he defines theology as the privilege and necessity of finding life in God. As the Puritans always remind us, theology is never an end in itself; it is always a means of communing with the triune God. Ames definition of theology reflects this approach. And in thirteen points, he helps us to see how and why living before God (Coram Deo) is the essence, or marrow, of theology.

1. Theology is the doctrine or teaching [doctrina] of living to God. John 6:68, The words of eternal life; Acts 5:20, The words of this life; Rom. 6:11, Consider yourselves alive to God.

2. It is called doctrine, not to separate it from understanding, wisdom, art, or prudence—for these go with every exact knowledge, discipline, and most of all with theology—but to mark it as a discipline which derives not from nature and human inquiry like others, but from divine revelation and appointment. Isa. 51:4, Doctrine shall go forth from me; Matt. 21:25, From heaven . . . Why then did you not believe him?; John 9:29, We know that God has spoken to Moses; Gal. 1:11-12, The gospel . . . is not according to man. For I neither  received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation; John 6:45.

3. The principles of other arts, since they are inborn in us, can be developed through sense perception, observation, experience, and induction, and so brought to perfection. But the basic principles of theology, though they may be advanced by study and industry, are not in us by nature. Matt. 16:17, Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.

4. Every art has its rules to which the work of the person practicing it corresponds. Since living is the noblest work of all, there cannot be any more proper study than the art of living.

5. Since the highest kind of life for a human being is that which approaches most closely the living and life-giving God, the nature of theological life is living to God.

6. Men live to God when they live in accord with the will of God, to the glory of God, and with God working in them. 1 Peter 4:2, 6, That he may live . . . by the will of God . . .  according to God; Gal. 2:19-20, That I may live to God Christ who lives in me; 2 Cor. 4:10, That the life of Jesus may be manifest in our bodies; Phil. 1:20, Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

7. This life in essence remains one and the same from its beginning to eternity. John 3:36 and 5:24, He who believes in the Son has eter. nal life; 1 John 3:15, Eternal life abiding in him.

8. Although it is within the compass of this life to live both happily and well living well (eusōia, is more excellent than living happily (eudaimonia). What chiefly and finally ought to be striven for is not happiness which has to do with our own pleasure, but goodness which looks to God’s glory. For this reason, theology is better defined as that good life whereby we live to God than as that happy life whereby we live to ourselves. The apostle therefore called it by synecdoche, the teaching which accords with godliness, 1 Tim. 6:3.

9. Furthermore, since this life is the spiritual work of the whole man, in which he is brought to enjoy God and to act according to his will, and since it certainly has to do with man’s will, it follows that the first and proper subject of theology is the will. Prov. 4:23, From the heart come the acts of life; and 23:26, Give me your heart.

10. Now since this life so willed is truly and properly our most important practice, it is self-evident that theology is not a speculative discipline but a practical one not only in the common respect that all disciplines have good practice (eupraxia), as their end, but in a special and peculiar manner compared with all others.

11. Nor is there anything in theology which does not refer to the final end or to the means related to that end—all of which refer directly to practice.

12. This practice of life is so perfectly reflected in theology that there is no precept of universal truth relevant to living well in domestic economy, morality, political life, or lawmaking which does not rightly pertain to theology.

13. Theology, therefore, is to us the ultimate and the noblest of all exact teaching arts. It is a guide and master plan for our highest end, sent in a special manner from God, treating of divine things, tending towards God, and leading man to God. It may therefore not incorrectly be called a living to God (theosōia), or a working towards God (theourgia), as well as theology. (pp. 77–78)

As you read Scripture or study theology, keep these words in mind: “theology is not a speculative discipline but a practical one.” Thus, doctrine is for life.

J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) on the Error of Life Without Doctrine

At another time and under different circumstances, J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) also spoke about life and doctrine in his classic volume, Christianity and Liberalism. Only, he warned of seeking life without doctrine. Addressing the errors of liberalism, a bankrupt system of religion that was wholly unChristian, he warned of those who traded in doctrine for life. Here’s what he says,

It must be admitted, then, that if we are to have a nondoctrinal religion, or a doctrinal religion founded merely on general truth, we must give up not only Paul, not only the primitive Jerusalem Church, but also Jesus Himself.

But what is meant by doctrine? It has been interpreted here [by Machen] as meaning any presentation of the facts which lie at the basis of the Christian religion with the true meaning of the facts. But is that the only sense of the word? May the word not also be taken in a narrower sense? May it not also mean a systematic and minute and one-sidedly scientific presentation of the facts? And if the word is taken in this narrower sense, may not the modern objection to doctrine involve merely an objection to the excessive subtlety of controversial theology, and not at all an objection to the glowing words of the New Testament, an objection to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and not at all to the first century?

Undoubtedly the word is so taken by many occupants of the pews when they listen to the modern exaltation of “life” at the expense of “doctrine.” The pious hearer labors under the impression that he is merely being asked to return to the simplicity of the New Testament, instead of attending to the subtleties of the theologians. Since it has never occurred to him to attend to the subtleties of the theologians, he has that comfortable feeling which always comes to the churchgoer when some one else’s sins are being attacked.

It is no wonder that the modern invectives against doctrine constitute a popular type of preaching. At any rate, an attack upon Calvin or Turrettin or the Westminster divines does not seem to the modern churchgoer to be a very dangerous thing. In point of fact, however, the attack upon doctrine is not nearly so innocent a matter as our simple churchgoer supposes ; for the things objected to in the theology of the Church are also at the very heart of the New Testament. Ultimately the attack is not against the seventeenth century, but against the Bible and against Jesus himself. (45–46)

Here is the point Machen is making: Many in his day (and ours) champion “life” at the expense of “doctrine.” In so doing, they think they are ridding themselves of the chaff of religion and getting to the kernel. But such an approach comes from an ignorance of true doctrine, and for many, an ignorance of true life. In response, Machen calls for doctrine and life.

Later, he recognizes, as Ames did, the problem of doctrine without life (p. 47). But speaking to an era who had slandered doctrine and the creeds which defined them, he rightly called for a return to the Scriptures and to those doctrinal teachers who made their stand upon them. Here’s how he puts it.

In theology, vituperation of the past seems to be thought essential to progress. And upon what base slanders the vituperation is based! After listening to modern tirades against the great creeds of the Church, one receives rather a shock when one turns to the Westminster Confession, for example, or to that tenderest and most theological of books, the “Pilgrim’s Progress” of John Bunyan, and discovers that in doing so one has turned from shallow modern phrases to a “dead orthodoxy” that is pulsating with life in every word. In such orthodoxy there is life enough to set the whole world aglow with Christian love. (46)

There really is nothing new under the sun. While Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism in 1923, its words are just as relevant in 2022. Today, progress is marked by forsaking the theology of dead white guys and embracing the lived experience of oppressed peoples. Yet, such life divorced from biblical doctrine will never “set the world aglow with Christian love.”

“Love is love,” “reproductive rights,” and “climate justice now” are all doctrines unto themselves. The problem is that their underlying worldviews reject God and the life that he alone can give. In this way, doctrine matters—and it matters for life eternal and life now. Therefore, let us learn from those who have gone before us—from Paul, from William Ames, and from J. Gresham Machen—and let us hold fast to what God has joined together. Doctrine is for Life. Life depends on Doctrine.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

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