Formation of Biblical Doctrine – Part 39 min read
The Principles We Apply
Every professional knows the boundaries of his field and dares not violate those boundaries. Scriptural principles act like boundaries for those who are willing to listen. In our field of study, we must exercise certain disciplines to keep us from surpassing what is appropriate for our field.
We Employ Spiritual Intelligence and Discernment. Whereas the world would say, “Believe what feels right” and the philosopher would say, “Believe anything, because truth is relative,” God says His Word is Truth; and the conviction of this truth must be defended until the end. Our minds naturally gravitate toward ignorance, because that requires little effort. But the truth takes time and thought to find. It takes constant attention and effort to maintain. The Bible student must be a thinker – constantly assessing, constantly discerning, constantly comparing every claim to Scripture. The moment we lose spiritual intelligence and discernment is the moment we lose good doctrine.
We Handle Scripture With Precision and Carefulness. This principle operates upon the assumption that every word from God’s mouth is deliberate and authoritative. Thus, we cannot afford to unite similar but distinct concepts (such as the “body” and the “flesh” or the “old man” and the “flesh”). But it also means we must pay attention to the exactness of Scripture’s words and phrases. Every tense, every word, every structure, everything a text contains, and everything a text doesn’t contain – these were all determined deliberately by God. This conviction must be reflected in our method of study. We cannot add words that don’t exist; we cannot add a context that was not intended. We must approach Scripture understanding that God meant what He said.
We Avoid the Tendencies of Human Pride. Human pride operates by exalting that which is man-made. When man has an opportunity to display his own wisdom, where God’s wisdom apparently has not spoken, he normally capitalizes on it. So then, we find in the world of Bible study a few problems that stem from this factor of human pride:
- Novelty for Novelty’s Sake. Proposing a new idea sets a man apart from those who had not thought of the idea. It makes him known for something. It makes him appear unique and perhaps more thoughtful than his contemporaries. Thus it can be our tendency to say something radical (yet false) just so people can marvel at our wisdom. But we don’t necessarily want something new in theology; we want “that which was from the beginning,” as John put it.
- Speculation Outside of Scripture. To this issue that faced the early church, Paul said, “But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and arguments about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.” Some issues do not need to be addressed, either because they have no answer or because they are so blatantly wrong. We have no time for the hypotheticals of theology. We want to know what we can know and leave the unknowable to God.
- System-Based Defense. Again with man’s wisdom, defending a system of belief can sometimes take precedence over defending Scripture. Though pride would urge this within us, we cannot afford this level of blindness in theology.
We Maintain Balance, While Avoiding Compromise and Extremism. Compromise waters down two factors and melts them together into a hybrid of sorts. Extremism dismisses one factor and holds entirely to its counterpart only. Balance holds two counterparts in their proper emphasis simultaneously. An illustration could be made of Scripture: it is fully of God, but also maintains the authorship of man. Throughout, human authorship and style are not infringed upon, neither is the divine origin compromised. Extremism would be to say it is only a man-made book. Compromise would try to reconcile the two by a multitude of unfounded theories.
Basically, we must let God speak for Himself. He has emphasized certain things in their places for a reason. We have no right to develop a “pet doctrine,” nor do we have a right to ignore clear Biblical truth because we are uncomfortable with it. It is ridiculous to have a “defining doctrine,” such as the sovereignty of God or the responsibility of man; that obscures the emphasis that God Himself embeds. God never calls us to define ourselves by our favorite doctrine; rather He calls us to be Christians – followers of Christ and of the whole body of truth He has committed to us by His authority.
In all of this, there is no substitute for being thoroughly Biblical. The Word of God is the essence of the believer’s life. To throw one’s self fully on it will cover so many principles and will benefit in so many ways that the believer will not even recognize all of them. There will always be oversights made by man and his teachings; but when we immerse ourselves in the timeless, life-changing, authoritative Word of God, we will adopt God’s attitudes and will allow Him to give us the principles we need for the time. Enough with relying on man’s wisdom: God has spoken! By default, let us go to Him.
5 Practical Steps We Follow
Step 1: Consideration – Preparing the Heart. The Christian should always be self-reflective when approaching the knowledge of God. Though the Bible student may not always have time to spend hours in prayer before he studies (though, imagine if he did!), he can be constantly receptive of God’s things if he is in a constant state of consideration. Whatever mode this takes on, there must be examination; if there is sin, it must be confessed and forsaken. But further there must be a prayerfulness about the believer. While enlightenment should be his prayer on a continual basis, it is ideal to pray specifically about the topic before him, immediately before studying it. God is the Giver of knowledge; we must seek His face. Finally, there must be a right approach taken – a humble attitude, a devoted heart, an energized mind which is ready to think, etc.
Step 2: Collection – Deriving the Data. After we examine our approach and make needed adjustments, it is time to collect the information we will need. We must find a few things: (1) relevant words: words related to the subject that will guide in the process of gathering information and Scripture references (2) key passages: the top few pinnacle texts that deal with the subject in significant depth or clarity. In this, one must keep in mind the context, setting, and audience. (3) applicable references: this will be found by searching the key words in a concordance. If a topical Bible can be used to find theme-based references, that would be preferable to include as well. Basically, the goal is to find all relevant verses on a topic. (4) the factors of the subject: parties involved, actions involved, purposes involved, things involved, etc. (The who, what, when, where, why, and how). When we understand the factors of a subject, we will understand what areas to focus on in both collecting and studying the material.
Step 3: Compilation – Organizing the Material. Once a list of verses has been compiled, an outline of sorts must be developed. The goal is to have an organization of the material so as to aid the mind in thinking orderly. This will also help in describing the doctrine.
Step 4: Clarification – Describing and Defining the Doctrine. Once the outline is developed, the most intense part of these steps comes into play: actually describing and defining the doctrine. Because of our previous interaction on some level with verses and texts, we should at least have a general framework in mind. As to defining and describing the doctrine, there are five levels we can think in terms of:
- We must define terms. With our list of key factors and key words, we should find what each of them precisely means. Terms must be carefully distinguished and meticulously defined. These will give us keys to think in terms of when interacting with texts and larger concepts.
- We must find facts. Facts are determined by simple statements or obvious connections in Scripture. We can connect the facts later, but for now we just need to know what is absolutely true and undeniable in terms of the doctrine. An example of a fact would be “God created the heaven and the earth.” What that means and all that implies will be developed later.
- We must understand texts. After defining all the obvious facts from the list of references, we should take the larger passages which we listed and thoroughly interpret them. These texts will help form a framework for miscellaneous verses that need a point to reference.
- We must arrive at concepts. After dealing with concrete terms, undeniable facts, and well-interpreted texts, we come to the categorizing, harmonizing, and describing of a set of facts which have a definite interrelation to each other. In doing this, there must be comparison of Scripture with Scripture. At this stage, apparent conflicts may arise. If a contradiction happens on the level of two facts which deny one another, something must change with our interpretation of the facts. But it is possible that in harmonizing facts, we arrive at concepts which seem paradoxical. In this case, the issue may not be with the concepts, but with our limitation of understanding. For instance “Jesus is God” is true, and “Jesus is man” is true. They don’t contradict one another, but in our small minds there may be issues involved in combining these two statements that confuse us somewhat. In this case, we must not deny the obvious fact, but rather trust that God knows the specifics which we are not entrusted with.
- We must formulate coherent doctrines from these. After the concepts have been formed, the doctrine can be articulated as a whole after arranging the concepts in a reasonable order and presenting the relevant Scriptures in their respective contributions.
Step 5: Conclusion – Understanding the Implications. Once the doctrine has been thoroughly defined, described, and articulated, there should be reflection. We should ask ourselves what the purpose of the doctrine is. Then we should ask how it applies to life. Then we should use it as basis for worship. Doing these things will both establish the truth in our minds as well as transform us closer into the image of Christ.