Doctrine. I have been doing it wrong.

Doctrine in the Church is important. I am a fan. The doctrines of the Church have helped me better understand the nature of sin, the salvific work of Jesus Christ, the function of the Holy Spirit and how the Church is to be in relationship with the world. I am going back to school in fact to study doctrine, specifically the doctrines come out of the late antiquity period.

In my studies thus far I have discovered something about doctrine that has deeply affected how I understand that conversations around doctrine. I am embarrassed that I had not seen this before, and in many ways am disappointed in myself for not seeing it sooner.


So what is the discovery? Here it is:

Doctrine is the point of entry.

That is it. Doctrine is the point of entry into the conversation and understanding of the Christian faith. So why is this “discovery” worth noting? It is because I the primary problem I have had with theologians who cite doctrine is doctrine is used as a point of arrival.

It is like when you have a math book in school and all the answers are in the back of the book. There are many ways to get to the solution that is provided in the back of the book, but what is important is that you get the correct answer. Doctrines are often treated as an answer in the back of the book, and you can have many ways to get there, but ultimately you have to come to already stated position.

For example, Christians have a doctrine of the virgin birth. There are many people who will work to prove this doctrine, because the doctrine is the point of arrival - not the point of entry. When doctrines are points of arrival, then we have to defend and prove them. When doctrines are points of entry then we discover more than the doctrine teaches.

If the virgin birth is not the point of arrival, but the point of entry then the questions change. Rather than asking “how did the virgin birth happen?”, we get to ask “what sort of claim is being made about Jesus through the doctrine of the virgin birth?” Oddly enough when I ask the second question, I come to a deeper understanding of God in Jesus than I do when I just search for reasons to justify the virgin birth.

Doctrines are important, because they invite the disciple to enter into the transforming story of God. The irony is when we insist doctrines are the point of arrival, many discover those same doctrines as their point of exit.

God tells Isaiah to preach until the destruction of the city. Wait, what?!

In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet asked asked God how long should he preach this message to the people:

“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.” 
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
   and stop their ears,
   and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
   and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
   and turn and be healed.’ 

In response God said Isaiah should preach until:

Photo by  Oisin Conolly  on  Unsplash

Photo by Oisin Conolly on Unsplash

"Until cities lie waste
   without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
   and the land is utterly desolate; 
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
   and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 
13 Even if a tenth part remains in it,
   it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
   whose stump remains standing
   when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump. 

Growing up this was taught to me that God would make the people deaf and dumb and then because of their deafness and dumbness God would destroy the city. 

I would offer up that the deafness, dumbness and destruction is not from God but from the people. Here is what I mean.

God tells the prophet to listen but do not comprehend, look but do not understand. What is God asking them to listen and look at? God is asking them to listen and look at the way the people are acting toward one another. The land lacked justice and compassion and as a result the people were full of bitterness and hatred toward one another. It was taught by the culture of this time that the only person that mattered was their little tribe. It was taught that to give handouts was a waste of time and enabling freeloading. It was taught that foreigners were dangerous and that you cannot trust anyone. 

As such, God desired for the people of Israel to look and listen to these cultural messages but to not understand, comprehend or embody them. For the cultural values of "self first" were destructive. God desired the people to turn from these selfish ways and be healed.

Isaiah was to preach this message of looking but not understanding until the city lay in ruin. God does not cause the city to fall and people to be homeless, but this desolation was the direct result of their selfish behavior. So keep preaching the message of see but do not embody until the selfish behavior has cannibalized itself. Do not fall prey to this selfish way of life for it leads to destruction. Even is just a little bit of self serving behavior is left in the culture, it will continue to cause destruction. Selfishness, greed and inhospitable are powerful forces for destruction and must be allowed to burn themselves out.

Thus those who remain, those who do not burn themselves out from greed and fear, this group will be the stump by which God's grace and mercy will grow from.

Teachers, Inspirers, and Great Preachers

Like any other person who has a craft they work to refine, I think a lot about the craft of preaching. I refuse to believe there are "bad" preachers. I believe that even the most difficult preacher to listen to has within them the Divine spark (because all humans do) and I can listen for that spark. 

While I do not think there are bad preachers, I do think there are three types of preachers which I label: Teachers, Inspirers, and Greats. 

Teachers are those preachers who are primarily interested in teaching. This style of preaching is gratifying because when you leave, you feel like you have expanded knowledge. Teachers include Seminary students and others who are learning new things they are excited about. Teachers also include those who find learning personally enriching. Teachers are good preachers. I am a teacher about half of the time. However, teachers can also be dry in content or, more often, operating under the Greek myth that knowledge leads to enlightenment. I learn a lot from watching the Food Network, but I am not any closer to being a chef. Knowledge of Jesus does not equate into being Christ-like. 

The Inspirers are preachers primarily interested in inspiring you to action. This style of preaching is gratifying because when you leave you feel pumped up or on a "spiritual high". Inspirers include those who are feel strongly that "faith without works is dead" and find being the hands of Christ personally enriching. Inspirers are good preachers. I am an Inspirer the other half of the time. However, Inspirers can be story-heavy and theologically light. Inspirers also can be overt with nostalgia or fear-mongering to manipulate action. Getting your "Jesus fix" each Sunday is often a nice way of being addicted to the evocative aspects of worship.

So of course the Great preachers interweave the head (Teacher) and the heart (Inspirer). This is more than obvious at this point. However Great preachers do two other things which are by far the most difficult things to do. The next post will expand on what the Great preachers do.

I will pay you double

While so many of us are busy getting ready for Christmas and the end of the year, Rabbi Akiva (who lived around the time the Gospels were written) tells this little story. I remind you of it as a reflection to this Advent season:

I was walking home after the sun had set and while being caught up in my meditation, I took a wrong turn home. I arrived at the gates of a Roman garrison and a voice shouted down to me, "Who are you? What are you doing here?” The night watchman's voice was so loud it jolted me out of my meditating. Additionally, I was so caught off guard by his question that I didn’t respond. He then shouted again, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” I shouted back, “What do they pay you to do this job?” The watchman answered, "A coin a day!” I then told him that I would pay him double if he would come stand at my front door and ask me those same two questions every time I left my home and returned.

Who are you?

What are doing here?