We must train Christians and even ourselves to know—and to defend—the law of God in all its fullness. But we must also understand how the indicatives of God’s Word ground and inform those imperatives, lest the message that we bring to a dying world not be as compelling or beautiful as it ought to be.
Given the intensity of the unfolding ethical crisis in the Western world today, the church must redouble its efforts to learn doctrine. We, of course, must continue to encourage Christians to live out the Christian life and to speak out in favor of God’s gift of marriage and God’s creation of men and women in His image. We must thoughtfully address the sad fact that public knowledge of the chief end of man is systematically suppressed in a world where people are assaulted, aborted, and consumed with fine food, junk food, more sex, better screens, free drugs, and worldly dreams. But we especially need doctrine.
J. Gresham Machen wrote his classic book a century ago when the church was facing, among other things, enormous ethical challenges, some of them greater than he himself could conceive. In his day, ministers posing as prophets insisted that the real task of the church was to address the urgent need for improved democracy, civility, and moral reform. He himself insisted that a faithful church, especially a church in crisis, must believe and teach doctrine.
But why doctrine? Before and since Machen’s day, the church, especially in the face of social turmoil and ethical ambiguity, has often been tempted with tastier-looking options than Christian doctrine. Some teachers insist that the church has no creed but the Bible. People in the pew have no need for doctrinal excess and the subtlety of seventeenth-century confessions or catechisms. This has a certain plausibility. And as Machen says, speaking of the common man in the pew, “Since it has never occurred to him to attend to the subtleties of the theologians, he has that comfortable feeling which always comes to the churchgoer when someone else’s sins are being attacked.” But as Machen explains, after one hears about the dead orthodoxy of the creeds or the Puritans, and then turns to read the Westminster Confession of Faith or John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, “one has turned from shallow modern phrases to a ‘dead orthodoxy’ that is pulsating with life in every word.” What is more, Machen points out, under the guise of critiquing crusty old confessions, those opposed to doctrine are often opposing the Bible and its most basic teachings. And, we might add, those teachers most opposed to doctrine often set themselves up as the standard to follow.
Machen was principally dealing with people who had devious motives for opposing doctrine. They claimed to oppose doctrine in general because it was easier to sell than the honest admission that they had problems with some doctrines in particular: the virgin birth of Christ, His bodily resurrection, and more. But others have opposed doctrine because they are trying to follow Jesus, and Jesus Himself “just told stories.” Some scholars have added that this is the main approach of the whole Bible: it presents narrative and poetry, not systematic theology. Certainly narrative—or better, history—is important for Christians. We have a historical religion: Jesus taught this in the way that He spoke about the Old Testament; early Christians valued this, as we can see in Luke’s explanation of his own research; and the Apostle Paul announced this when he reminded the Corinthians of the historicity of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1–8).