Truth and doctrine are words that sometimes stand at the opposite end of the spectrum. Doctrines are thought of as dogmatic positions which cannot be tested. They are things which you must hold on to blindly if you wish to belong to a certain community. Doctrine is like the commands you must accept before you can operate a computer. The space key does what it does whether you understand it or not but without it typing is near impossible. Truth is seen on the other hand as something that you might discover or stumble on. It is not something that is handed to you by some autocrat or power monger. It is something free of blindness or prejudice. In a sense it defies all human institutions and establishments. The modern consensus on the truth, unlike doctrine, is that it sets you free. Free from what?
When we look at our world there is no such thing as absolute freedom. Yes, the lunch is always paid for. A possibly harrowing thought about “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” is that we might have a huge debt to pay. Debt was usually something that only the poor had to think about. In recent times even rich industrialised nations worry about how much they owe the lunch lady. The funny thing about the universal motto, “The truth sets you free” is that it’s from a place where truth and doctrine are inextricably combined.
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free ‘?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:31-36 NAU)
The universal debt of mankind is not in currency or gold reserves. Humanity is enslaved to sin. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23.) Jesus was saying if you accepted his teaching you would know the truth, the truth that sets you free from sin and all its entailments and entanglements. In other words his doctrine was the truth.
Right from the onset of Jesus’ public ministry, they often noted the authority with which he spoke. In the Gospel narratives many questioned and debated his authority. Coupled with miraculous signs and wonders he performed in his generation, he simply was on another level. Yet the Son of God of was very much the Son of Man. His physical appearance was usually so mundane that sometimes it was difficult to identify him. What I am pointing out is there are certain inescapable realities about Jesus. As much as there are certain realities about our world, there are certain things you cannot ignore about Jesus Christ. The Gospel message is built on such realities. The authority of Jesus is that without him nothing makes sense. Without him we cannot know the Truth. The Truth is in fact found in him.
The New Testament contains many wonderful summaries of the Gospel message. No matter which account you pick, they deal with things that can be demonstrated, things the believer can testify to. When Paul speaks of doctrine he is not only referring to something that is in accordance with the Gospel. It is something that proceeds organically from the Gospel. Since the Gospel was real, and doctrine proceeded from the Gospel, doctrine was something practical and not theoretical. However, the current popular Christian understanding of doctrine, is much like theology, something confined to academic and denominational walls. It is not seen as something you can necessarily live by.
A tradition is something that is delivered to a community or a society usually from its forbears. The apostles and the early Christian community passed on traditions, but they were not ones contrived by men. Based on the authority of the Son of God and the certainty of his Gospel they knew, no they rather received, how to be Christians. (It’s quite interesting how, without theological institutions, they lived and thrived even in the midst of severe persecution. Perhaps today we are missing a few things.)
When you study the New Testament carefully, what they believed or taught was not neatly codified and indexed. There was no Encyclopædia Christianus. The reason why this is so conspicuously missing to the modern student of doctrine is simple. They were simply followers of the Way. There doctrine was the Truth found in Jesus the Messiah. The Scriptures were not written to support this ism or that ism. They were written to testify of the Truth. That is why they faithfully preserved and passed on the scriptures and the sayings of the apostles, carefully observing the way of life of their leaders who spoke the Word of God to them. It is not a doctrine, it is the Doctrine, the Truth. Truth does not suspend on nothing but it firmly hinges on the man Christ Jesus. We have not been enrolled as students in a cerebral programme. We have been called as disciples, following Christ.
The doctrinal divide is a real thing that sometimes looms like a deep chasm over Christianity. The solution, as it might seem to some, is the interdenominational dialogue and participation we see today. Some might go so far as to say we need a radical change, a reinvention of sorts. What I propose is an “uninvention”. An uninvention because we have encumbered ourselves with so many things that just don’t matter. Our standard has already been set by the Father, he is Jesus the Son of God. We need to first of all agree with God and we will naturally agree with one another. We need to embrace the pure simplicity of Christ.
This is not to say doctrinal differences are unimportant. We need to be able foster dialogue and discussion about issues that are near and dear to us in Christ. What I am saying is the hunger for the truth should guide our discussions and not holding on to entrenched positions for their own sake or for private benefit.
The following happened when Jesus was being interrogated by Pilate,
Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out… (John 18:37-38 NAU)
What Pilate unfortunately missed is Jesus is the truth he should follow. It is time we allow the Spirit of Christ to lead us into all truth. In the end, the truth is the only doctrine we need.