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Why Biblical Doctrine Matters
September 26, 2007
All Scripture is God breathed and is profitable for doctrine … so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)
For many of us, biblical Christian doctrine seems sometimes like a daily vitamin, sometimes like a prescribed medicine. But no matter how we take our Christian doctrine, most of us would acknowledge that in small but regular doses, it’s good for us.
Biblical Christian doctrine is good for clarifying the Bible’s revelations about God and humanity. While the essential truths about our salvation are clearly revealed in Scripture, we all can use help in discovering the interwoven revelations among the Bible’s various historical records, prophecies, proverbs, poems, and narratives.
These days such help is available to everyone through the many works of biblical scholarship in libraries, bookstores, and on the Internet. What’s evident from all this scholarship is that generations of Christians have not only deepened the church’s understanding of God’s Word, but have also reaffirmed the core beliefs of traditional Christian doctrine. These core beliefs are both our heritage from the church and our legacy to future generations of Christians, a legacy that our generation has the responsibility to enrich.
In its plainest—and perhaps truest—form, a Christian doctrine is the clear articulation of a biblical truth. The truth stated in such a doctrine is unlike the implied insight of a Zen koan (What is the sound of one hand clapping?); Christian doctrine contains an intellectual content that can be communicated in ordinary language. Learning biblical Christian doctrine helps to cure our minds of childishly subjective interpretations of the Bible, enabling us to mature in a more historically inclusive Christian worldview.
Biblical doctrine is intended not only for the discipleship of our minds, but also for the spiritual formation of our hearts. In the context of a Christian community, such doctrine nurtures our heart’s relationship with God and with people.
In addition to restating what the Bible clearly says, biblical doctrine may also articulate our inferences from Scripture about, say, why all people are worthy of love. InterVarsity’s Doctrinal Basis, for instance, asserts that people have worth and dignity because they are created in God’s image. Our gospel witness to students and faculty is rooted in the multi-layered, theological soil of biblical revelation and historic Christian doctrine.
Since plain-spoken biblical doctrine is typically what non-Christians hear when told about what the Bible reveals, we cannot claim that doctrine does not matter. How we articulate the content of the Bible to non-Christians is indeed a matter of life and death. We need to take seriously how we express what the Bible says to ensure that our witness demonstrates truthfulness, intelligence, passion, and artistry.
The articulation and demonstration of distinctively biblical truths within Christian doctrine are fundamental in missions work, particularly when ministering to university students and faculty, who typically demand both intellectual content and an observable authenticity for faith in Jesus.
Indeed, without distinctively biblical beliefs, student missions in the past have foundered. Keith and Gladys Hunt note in their book For Christ and the University that the weakness of the Student Christian Movement during the last century was its lack of biblical distinctiveness.
This great and effective movement had no well-defined theological statement against which to measure truth or personal orthodoxy. When the movement began, theology was not an issue. From the great revivals of the past everyone knew that vital Christianity meant biblical Christianity. It didn’t need to be defined; it needed to be preached. The absence of a clear statement of faith regarding biblical truth put the whole movement in a slippery place in light of what ensued. Men of good will tended to give too much room for differences of opinion or interpretations, because there was no specific statement which served as a plumb line for the organization.1
Biblical doctrine mattered to the early leaders of InterVarsity, and it matters to our president Alec Hill, the Cabinet, and the Board of Trustees. In fact, our staffs have taken seriously our doctrinal witness to students and faculty since our earliest days as a Fellowship.
Our first Basis of Faith statement, carefully composed in 1947, reflected a biblical response to contemporary social and theological issues. Stacey Woods and Charles Troutman held that all InterVarsity staff members affirm this Basis of Faith statement and that it be integral to staff training.
In an article for InterVarsity’s HIS magazine, Stacey Woods wrote,
In preparing this Basis of Faith, leaders of the Fellowship have not tried to enunciate everything they believe about Christ and the Christian faith. . . . Instead, the Basis of Faith is an expression of the spiritual and doctrinal purpose of the organization. . . . A question sometimes arises for an Inter-Varsity chapter executive; just how should this Basis of Faith be used? It is not a flag to be waved aloft and saluted. Rather, it is an anchor that keeps the organization from drifting from its doctrinal and scriptural moorings. An anchor that is working is under water and thus invisible.2
Linked to the historically biblical teachings of the universal church, our subsequent affirmations of faith—from our theological solidarity with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in 1947 to our Bear Trap Statement of 1960 to our present Doctrinal Basis approved in 1997—all assume the value of knowing and teaching biblical doctrine.
How InterVarsity staff composed our present Doctrinal Basis illustrates the graceful guidance of the Holy Spirit and our commitment to unity in Christ. In the fall of 1997, InterVarsity’s president Steve Hayner convened a diverse group of staff known for their ability to think theologically. To this theological consultation group, he posed the question: “Is our current Basis of Faith statement still useful, not only as a touchstone of evangelical faith, but also as a theological teaching tool for the Fellowship?” (By 1997 our Basis of Faith statement was fifty years old and, reasoned Steve, “over time most doctrinal statements need to be updated and revised to reflect the theological issues of the current context.”) The theological consultation group decided that our Basis of Faith statement needed revision, and Steve charged this group to produce a brief, new version.
By the spring of 1998, the theological consultation group had generally agreed on a new Doctrinal Basis. This Basis was then submitted to the entire Fellowship for review and comment. Staff from every region of the country affirmed the Basis, but also offered helpful recommendations for its improvement. Some of these recommendations were incorporated into the next version. Afterwards in early 1999, the Executive Office Team sent a revised Basis to InterVarsity’s Board of Trustees for its approval.
In June 1999 the Board appointed a final task force under the leadership of Trustee Dr. Walter Liefeld (a former InterVarsity staff member and retired faculty member of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) to consider this last version. The Board’s task force worked for an entire year, consulting with people inside and outside of InterVarsity, all the while making further revisions to the new Doctrinal Basis, until in June 2000 the task force recommended that the Board adopt the document. All staff reviewed the document again. Then on October 20, 2000, the Board of Trustees adopted our present Doctrinal Basis.
“This is a statement that will teach well and become the basis of a new course to encourage greater theological literacy among students and staff alike,” said Steve Hayner.
Since 2000, InterVarsity’s Doctrinal Basis has well expressed the theological beliefs in our Purpose Statement, Core Commitments document, and Vision Statement. The biblical foundation of our Doctrinal Basis has ensured that we continue to affirm the essential beliefs of the church universal and remain consistent with our historic missions. The biblical beliefs we InterVarsity staff hold in common help to unify us in Christian love.
InterVarsity’s president Alec Hill asserts that teaching biblical doctrine is essential in our Fellowship. Indeed, Alec likens our Doctrinal Basis to life-giving things, such as a mountain’s well-spring and a fruit-bearing tree that is deeply rooted in rich soil.
“Our Doctrinal Basis grows out of biblical truth and makes possible the praxis of evangelism, discipleship, and missions. It’s also aesthetically pleasing—it sings with dignity like a beautiful, liturgical hymn. And it’s a public document that other Christian ministries have adopted as the model for their own doctrinal statements. Our Fellowship’s Doctrinal Basis not only articulates biblical truths, but through its clear and poetic language, inspires us to live passionately for God,” said Alec.
During InterVarsity’s Staff Conference in St. Louis next January, we will reflect on Paul’s letter to the Romans and talk about our Doctrinal Basis and its implications for our ministry on campus. As we deepen our understanding of biblical Christian doctrine, we will strenthen our witness for Christ.
^ 1. Keith and Gladys Hunt, For Christ and the University: The Story of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A/1940-1990 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 47^
^ 2. Ibid, 81, 82^
Jonathan Rice is Managing Editor of InterVarsity’s Print Communications Group in the Advancement department.