J. Gresham Machen, in his classic 1923 book, Christianity and Liberalism (ch 11), notes a commonly-held objection to doctrine: creeds (it is often said) are merely the changing expressions of a unitary Christian experience, and insofar as they express that experience they are equally good.
But, replies Machen, this objection will not stand. After all, liberalism itself has its doctrines, as tenaciously held as those embraced by orthodox believers. Such, for example, are the liberal doctrines of the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. In seeming to object to all things doctrinal, the liberal merely replaces one system of theology with another.
Moreover, all creeds cannot be equally true, since they contradict each other at many points. A creed is not a mere expression of religious experience; it is, rather a setting forth of the foundations upon which that experience is based.
Again, it will be objected: Christianity is a life, and not a creed. In order to answer this, we will need to examine the historical basis of the Christian faith. And in doing so, we should assert the inalienable right of the founders of Christianity to legislate for all those who, in later generations, would choose to bear the name of ‘Christian’.
It is perfectly clear that the founders of the Christian faith did not conceive of it only as a way of life but, rather, as a way of life founded on a message. It was based on a proclamation and an explanation of a set of facts. In other words, it was based on doctrine.
There can be no doubt that Paul was a champion of doctrine. While he was intolerant of those who preached the true gospel in an unworthy manner, Phil 1:18, he was very intolerant of those who perverted the truth of the gospel, Gal 1:8. He asserted that a person (a) first believes on Christ; then (b) is justified before God; then (c) proceeds to keep God’s law. In contrast, the Judaizers said that a man (a) believes on Christ; and (b) keeps the law of God as best he can; and then (c) is justified. To many today, the difference between the two would seem to be a mere theological subtlety, but to Paul the contrast was crucial. It was the difference between a religion of grace and a religion of merit.
Paul, it must be admitted then, placed doctrine at the centre. But there are those who say that he was wrong to do so. There was no such emphasis on doctrine, it is suggested, in the primitive church. But this is to ignore the essential unity that existed between Paul and the original disciples of Jesus; a unity which is nowhere more apparent than in passages such as 1 Cor 15:3-7.
Gospels and epistles; history and doctrine; – these are inseparably wedded together. ‘Christ dies’ – that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins’ – that is doctrine.
The primitive church was concerned not merely with what Jesus had said, but also, and primarily, with what Jesus had done. The world was to be saved by the proclamation of an event, along with an explanation of the meaning of that event. When we recall that he ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried’ – that is history. When we confess the ‘he loved me and gave himself for me’ – that is doctrine.
When we consider the life and teaching of Jesus himself, we note that he did not limit himself to the enunciation of certain moral principles; he announced a certain approaching event, and he did not do so without giving some account of the meaning of that event.
In another way, too, the teaching of Jesus was rooted in doctrine. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, his teaching is based on an extraordinarily bold proclamation of his own person.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity is that the former appeals only to the will, whereas the latter announces, first of all, the gracious act of God. Liberalism is entirely in the imperative mood; Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative.
To assert the importance of doctrine is not to claim that all doctrines are of equal importance. Differences over millennial views, over the sacraments, over the nature and prerogatives of the Christian ministry, are important, but not critical. Even the differences between Calvinists and Arminians, far-reaching as they are, do not preclude true fellowship between them. Far more serious still are the divisions between Catholics and Protestants: the gulf here is indeed profound. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of Christianity; liberalism is not Christianity at all.
That does not mean that conservatives and liberals must live in personal animosity…many ties – ties of blood, of citizenship, of ethical aims, of humanitarian endeavour – unit us to those who have abandoned the gospel…But Christian service consists primarily in the propagation of a message, and specifically Christian fellowship exists only between those to whom the message has become the very basis of all life.