Doctrine is “right teaching”. True doctrine corresponds to reality; and it cannot be altered by opinion. “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions”, G.K. Chesterton remarked. Fallacies are forever. But where false beliefs about reality are possible, so too are true ones. My argument is that all Christians should seek true beliefs with absolute and unceasing determination.
St. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, leaves no room for obscurity about the importance of right Christian teaching. He writes to the young priest (or presbyter):
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16, NIV)
A couple days ago I published a post titled, “What Every Protestant Can’t Not Know”. The title was meant to be provocative (so people would read it, of course). My intention when writing the article wasn’t to stir the pot (nonetheless, I expected it would) but to challenge both Catholics and Protestants alike to go deeper and continue to ask questions. Question-asking is healthy, and a sign of intellectual vitality.
As hoped, the post has stimulated back-and-forth dialogue (mostly civil and productive, I think) between Christians in the comment boxes – and probably across a few kitchen tables. And that is exactly what I was going for.
We are commanded to love God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. But we can’t love what we don’t know. That’s why I am absolutely convinced that God desires for every Christian to be a continuous learner, through and through, ever coming to a fuller knowledge of the truth.
Further, I am convinced Catholicism is true; and that the Catholic Church is therefore right in what she teaches. The pillar and bulwark of truth founded by Jesus must be “correct”, by necessity, no matter how unpopular or incongruent with the common cultural opinion. For that reason, I am committed to doing my part in spreading the Gospel message through word and action. The Church is missionary by her very nature; so as a member of the Church I see no other option but to desire to bring others into the fullness of Christian truth as Christ intended – and as I see it.
“Baptism, as corresponds to [the flood which cleansed the world of wickedness in Noah’s time] now saves us” (1 Pet 3:21). This is not a small statement regarding our salvation. Does baptism save us now or not? The Bible says it does. These are the sort of “doctrinal questions” that need to treated seriously.
Yes, faith saves us. The Bible says that clearly (Rom 3, for example). What the Bible doesn’t say is that we are saved by faith alone; indeed it says we are not saved by faith alone (James 2:24). And we are saved by grace (Eph 2:8). But how can we put all this together? The Bible says we are saved by grace, faith, works, baptism, doctrine…. As I said in the last post:
Catholics believe – and have always believed – that we are saved by grace, through faith, working in love (Gal 5:6; 1 Cor 13). Baptism is the initial means by which we receive the grace of God which saves – confession, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is where we receive the grace we’ve lost through sin after baptism – and the process of justification leads ultimately to our inner sanctification, making us fit for heaven where “nothing unclean shall enter it” (Rev 21:27).
Justification takes time – it is not automatic. We have been saved objectively by Christ on the cross – no contention there – but subjectively we are “running the race”. We are “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Paul writes:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18)
Former evangelical pastor, Ken Hensley, writes in his 10-part online series “”Luther Fundamentally Misunderstood St. Paul“:
“In simple terms, “justification” is the theological term Catholics use to describe the entire process by which we are forgiven our sins and made internally righteous and fit for heaven. (in Part 3)
Now here’s my point: getting our interpretation of Scripture right is critically important. Right interpretation of the Word of God leads to right Christian practice and worship; right interpretation leads to living a life of faith – and believing – as Jesus intended for all Christians.
As we all know, interpretation of Scripture is not done on our own authority or opinion. It comes by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and through the lens of apostolic tradition (see 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15). The “Body of Christ” – the Church – is the means by which Christ intended for this to happen (see Matt 18:15-18).
As the Scriptures tell us:
“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things” (2 Pet 1:20)
Wrong interpreation – or twisting – of Scripture is not a light matter. It can lead to one’s “destruction”. Regarding the writings of St. Paul, Peter writes:
“His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Pet 3:16)
The Church, says St. Paul, is the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“Christ and his Church thus together make up the “whole Christ” (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ.” (795)
If the Catholic Church is really the “pillar and foundation of truth” on earth – if she really is necessary to make up the “whole Christ”, then what she teaches matters.
Doctrine is not a bad thing. We hold to it all the time. Every time we say or think “you’re wrong” or “you’re right”, we are either affirming or denying one’s conformity to our “doctrine”; to what we believe is true.
The New Testament makes it clear that doctrine matters, especially for the Christian, as we’ve seen. And a great way to test whether we’ve got our doctrine right is by testing our beliefs (1 Tim 5:21) through the writings of the early Church. It’s the same method we use to prove Jesus’ existence and true divine identity to skeptics: we go to the early, independent sources, written by credible authors, and we investigate whether there is consistency in the sources.
Now here’s what we need to avoid:
We must avoid falling into the tragedy of religious indifference. This applies to Christians as much as the rest. “Liberal Christian indifferentism” occurs when believers in Christ throw up their arms and say “It shouldn’t matter which church we go to as long as we all believe in the same Jesus!” But it should matter; because holding to right doctrine is a matter of salvation. Being in full communion with the right Church means being in full communion with Christ. In the final analysis, what Jesus and the apostles really taught really matters.
The famous convert from atheism, C.S. Lewis, wrote:
“Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Indeed. Surely no Christian would disagree with this. But our task, once accepting the infinite importance of Christianity, is to get it right.