The Eight-Letter, Four-Letter Word

beware-dogmaWhen I was in seminary, I went to dinner with some family friends. The conversation eventually turned to what I was learning in school, and I went through my course schedule, which included one of the three dogmatics classes required by the curriculum in Fort Wayne. Because things were simple back then, I was a little blind-sided when one person made a comment that went something like, “Isn’t being dogmatic a bad thing?” In hindsight, this really shouldn’t have surprised me, because my wife and I were the only Lutherans at the table. Doctrine, to them, was akin to a four-letter word that Christians ought not be using.
Now, I won’t make the claim that all non-Lutheran Christians aren’t interested in doctrine. You just have to look at the internet to see that there are many doctrinally interested and literate folks outside of Lutheranism, many of whom are even lay people! But it’s also undeniable that there is a large strain of Christianity that will claim that doctrine is too divisive or that it detracts from a simple faith in Christ Jesus. However, the Scriptures tell a different story about this “dirty word.”
One place to which I often turn to remind myself of my ordination vows is I Timothy 4, where the Apostle Paul instructs the young Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” The Greek word Paul uses that is translated “teaching” by the ESV is didaskalia (διδασκαλίᾳ). In the Authorized Version and the NIV (both ’84 and ’11) both translate it here as “doctrine” (It isn’t very often you’ll find me rooting for the NIV, but I literally cheered when I discovered this). Both of these are acceptable translations, of course. According to BDAG (s.v. διδασκαλίᾳ), can be translated as “the act of teaching, teaching, instruction” or “”that which is taught, teaching instruction.”
Before I get too convoluted, I want to make my point clear: doctrine is simply another word for teaching. Teaching is doctrine and doctrine is teaching. They are one and the same. One of the reasons I love I Timothy 4:16 is that it shows us how important right doctrine is. Paul even goes as far as to say that it saves us! It’s not because Christianity is simply a list of propositions that one must mentally assent to in order to get eternal life. Doctrine, however, is the means by which our Lord makes us one of His disciples. In Matthew 28, Christ our Lord commands the Church to make disciples using two verbs: Baptism and teaching (the verbal form of doctrine). It’s significant that our Lord spends much of the New Testament Gospels teaching. The crowds in Luke 5 were pressing in on Jesus to hear Him teach them the Word of God.
Going back again to I Timothy 4:16, Paul tells us that right doctrine saves us. This must mean that Christ is present in His teaching. Think especially of the Lord’s statement in Luke 10: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” This means that the Church can be confident that they are hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd (John 10), when those whom Christ sends speak according to that Word. That’s why the Lutherans have defined the Church as those gathered around the right teaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments rightly administered (AC V). Christ is with us even to the end of the age through the right teaching of His Word (doctrine) and His Sacraments. If we reject the Apostolic doctrine, we reject Christ and His Father. But if we hold the Word and the preaching of that Word as sacred and keep it holy, it is clear that Christ is present.
Doctrine isn’t a four-letter word. It’s simply the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. It would be difficult to establish when and why Christians began to reject doctrine as important. Again, I’m not saying that this is true of all Christians, and perhaps we’d better admit that even some Lutherans don’t care much for doctrine. But in many circles, this is true. I’m wondering, though, if it’s related to the way the word didaskalia is translated in our Bibles today. I don’t know what the correlation between a disdain for doctrine and preferred Bible translation is. I also don’t know if disdain for doctrine has caused translators to avoid using the word doctrine, nor do I know if a translation’s avoidance of the word doctrine causes people to despise doctrine as a concept. I do, however, find it interesting that the King James Version renders didaskalia as doctrine 18 out of the 20 times it appears in the New Testament. I also find it interesting that the NIV ’84 uses doctrine only six times, and the NIV ’11 uses it only five times. The ESV uses doctrine 8 times. All three of those are a big drop off from 18.
On top of that, the only time Jesus uses the word didaskalia is in Matthew 15:9 and Mark 7:7 (these are parallel passages), the ESV says, “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” This use of the word doctrine is in a decidedly negative context. Now, I can’t read the mind of the translator. I don’t know if he thought that doctrine sounded like a nasty word, so it should be used in this place, but its use here surely has some sort of impact on ESV readers and hearers.
Add to this that the Church is often accused of “indoctrinating” impressionable children. Indoctrination, as you can probably surmise, is a pejorative term meaning to teach. According to the dictionary Steve Jobs put on my MacBook Pro, indoctrinate means to teach “uncritically.” Is this a fair criticism of the Church? That’s probably a topic for another article, but I think my point is made: doctrine has become a bad word for many. The archaic definition of “indoctrinate,” however, simply means to teach. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
So, what do we do? I suppose the easy thing to do is admit that language is not static. Words do take on new meanings. But I am a little bit of a stick in the mud. I think fathers should teach the catechism, remember? The word doctrine is a part of the language of the Church. It’s part of our “sound pattern of words.” I think the better solution is to indoctrinate—to teach. Teach that doctrine has a place in the Church. It’s distinguished from what a schoolteacher does in a math classroom. The doctrine of the Church isn’t simply about the effective communication of a body of knowledge to a student or a group of students.
The Apostle St. John writes the 21st chapter of his Gospel, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” If the point was just the communication of knowledge, there could have been more apostolic-era books written about Jesus. However, back in chapter 20, St. John writes this instead, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The aim of the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures is faith in Christ resulting in eternal life. After all, Christ promises to be with us, even to the end of the age by virtue of Baptism and doctrine (Matthew 28).
“Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.”

About Pastor Jordan McKinley

Rev. Jordan McKinley is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Vallonia, IN. He’s a 2012 graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN, and a 2006 graduate of Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He served his vicarage at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, CO, and served from June 2012 to August 2015 at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Bennett, IA, and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Stanwood, IA. He is the husband of one wife, Andrea, and the father of three (Naomi, Collin, and Theodore). Though he has a deep and abiding love of all things Star Trek, he will not likely be writing any theological treatises in Klingon.

Comments

The Eight-Letter, Four-Letter Word — 9 Comments

  1. An excellent article, Pr. McKinley. I love the words “doctrine” and even “indoctrinate,” but I confess that I have more commonly used “catechesis” for teaching and training in doctrine over the last several years. It seems so alien a term to modern hearers, that they must stop and think about what it is…

  2. there are many doctrinally interested and literate folks outside of Lutheranism, many of whom are even lay people!

    Good article, but I’m not too impressed, as a lay person [inside Lutheranism] with that “!”

    If lay people [inside and out] weren’t interested, you’d have a small audience to teach/indoctrinate.

  3. Deut. 32: 45: “When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, 46he said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. 47They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.””

    Note that second to last sentence.

  4. Dear Helen,

    Pr. McKinley can correct me, but I took the exclamation point after lay people as a semi-sarcastic riposte to a culture that says Doctrine is for professional pastor type people only. His ! point was a response to the absurd notion that lay people shouldn’t care about doctrine. You and many other lay people and pastors clearly do.

    Another dogmatic piece, Pr. McKinley! And I mean that in the best way.

    Cordially,
    Pr. Boehringer

  5. Very good article, Jordan. One thing that I understood a little differently than you was in the quote from Jesus, “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” The way I read this, Jesus is contrasting “good doctrine” with “commandments of men.” That is, I think this is actually putting a positive light on the word “doctrine” rather than a negative one. Otherwise, I think you make some very good points, which I have seen and experienced with other Christians (non-Lutherans) and the often negative reaction to the word “doctrine.”

  6. “Isn’t being dogmatic a bad thing?”

    What’s the answer? Perhaps there is a useful distinction to be made between dogmatics and being dogmatic, between doctrine and being doctrinaire, between teaching and pedantry, between living faith and bookish ideology.

  7. @Carl H #7
    Carl, what do you suggest? I’m simply positing that these words, in their original meaning, are not bad. They’ve been co-opted to do harm to the simple fact that we can and ought to think of the teachings of Christ in a systematic way, so that we can, indeed, observe all that Christ teaches us (Mt. 28:19-20).

    Forgive me if I’m presuming too much, but it appears in the alternatives you offer (dogmatics/dogmatic, doctrine/doctrinaire, teaching/pedantry, and living faith/bookish ideology) that you’ve perhaps made my point, especially with regards to your last two alternatives. Why do we get to decide what’s important in Scripture and declare other parts pedantic? Why does living faith have to be separated from what the books of Holy Scripture teach us? As Carol Broome (comment 3) points out above, the doctrine contained in Scripture IS our life.

    Also, sorry for not responding sooner. I admit that I’m not good at this whole having a blog/responding to comments thing.

  8. Pastor Jordan McKinley :
    Also, sorry for not responding sooner. I admit that I’m not good at this whole having a blog/responding to comments thing.

    Having other things to tend to – such as your flock and your family (if you have one of those) is really not something for which you have to apologise, nor feel bad in any way …

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