The Pastor and Doctrine: Some Reflections by Dr. Jeremiah Mutie

The Pastor and Doctrine: Some Reflections, part 1

By Dr. Jeremiah Mutie

            Once in a while, one hears a casual remark—sometimes by pastors and other church leaders—to the effect that we should not concentrate on doctrine because it is divisive. Rather, the church should concentrate on other matters that are less divisive—like worship and Bible reading. While such reminders (and “assurances”) may be comforting to the general folk on the pews, attentive listeners cannot to ask themselves these two crucial questions: what is doctrine in the first place, and, as suggested, what is so divisive about it? I will briefly treat both of these questions in the hope of dissuading pastors and other church leaders from making such damaging remarks.

 What is Doctrine?

            Sometimes used interchangeably with the term ‘Dogma,’ the term ‘doctrine’ refers basically to “teaching” or “instruction.” John D. Hannah, differentiating the term doctrine or dogma from general systematic theology, writes, for example; “while theology may refer to the notions of any individual thinker on the nature of God, doctrine and dogma have a corporate aspect.”[1] In other words, the terms refer to the teaching of the Bible as appropriated by the body of Christ. However, there are some subtle differences between doctrine and dogma, differences which are sometimes unrecognized. This will become clear as the terms’ meanings are further elucidated. Indeed, a conflation of the meanings of the terms ‘doctrine’ and ‘dogma’ may be responsible for the cavalier dismissal already indicated above.
Students of doctrine agree that the term generally connotes the idea of “instruction,” an idea already present in both the Old and the New Testament. For example, in 1 Tim 4:16, Paul instructs Timothy this way: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (NASB). The Greek word for “teaching” here is “τῇ διδασκαλίᾳ” [tē didaskalia].” According to BDAG, the term refers to both “the act of teaching, teaching, instruction,” a role that Timothy would be playing here as he functions as an overseer (cf. 1 Tim 4:13) as well as “that which is taught, teaching, instruction” (with an emphasis on the content of that which is taught.[2] It is from this term that we get the term Διδαχὴ [didaché], a term that means “teaching” and focuses on the content of that which is taught (cf. Matt 16:12; Acts 5:28; 13:12; Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 14:26; 2 Jn 9f and Rev 2:24, among other texts).[3]
Concerning the development of the term, from its Homeric roots, the verb διδάσκειν [didaskein] “denotes ‘teaching’ or ‘instructing’ in the widest sense, whether the point at issue is the imparting of information (cf. Hom. II., 9.442f.: διδάσκημέναι τάδε πάντα…), the passing on of knowledge (cf. Hom. Od., 8, 488…).”[4] From this general understanding of the term, it progressed to a more specific use whereby, as opposed to just “an official reading of an agreement…the word can be used to express the demand that a ‘valid proof should be adduced’: διδαχθήτω (P. Tebt., 72, 453 [2nd cent. A.D.]).”[5] Additionally, a close association was established between the term διδάσκειν and the related term δεικνύναι, a term which emphasizes the accompanying of the theoretical instruction with the practical; “(‘to mediate a skill’), and it leads by way of ‘to instruct (on the basis of better knowledge)’ to ‘to demonstrate.’”[6] In fact, it seems like it is this emphasis on the practical application of doctrine that would eventually separate the religious meaning of the term “doctrine” from any other usage. As Jeroslav Pelikan notes, “When the Old Testament speaks about ‘instruction’ or the New Testament about ‘the doctrine,’ this includes teaching about both confession and conduct, both theology and ethics.”[7] He adds that “A separation of between them is fatal, a distinction unavoidable, just as in the New Testament itself, ‘faith’ and ‘works’ are distinguished without being separated.”[8] This will be revisited here below.
In the LXX, the Greek term διδάσκειν is one mainly used to translate the Hebrew term לָמַד [lâmad] and its cognates. As Rengstorf observes, “למד is normally the original for διδάσκειν in the Torah (only Dt.), the historical books and the Psalms (apart from ψ 17:34).”[9] While the terms are still being used in a general manner, it is to be observed that “the particular object of διδάσκειν, however, is the will of God in its declarations and demands.”[10] In other words, although the terminology is still being used of instruction in a general manner, the content of that instruction is now clarified: it is the will of God for man. Additionally, in a manner that differentiates the use meaning of the term as used in the LXX and opposed to its general usage, “the διδάσκειν of the LXX always lays claim to the whole man and not merely to certain parts of him. This is most apparent where it is applied to a will and a way contrary to those of God.”[11] Thus, this “idea of a total claim is not to be detected in secular Greek, where the aim is to develop talents and potentialities.”[12] This becomes even the case as one proceeds to the later parts of the Old Testament. In these parts, as it is absolutely used, “διδάσκειν, or the corresponding לַמֵּד denotes the manner in which, by exposition of the Law as the sum of the revealed will of God, instruction for the ordering of the relationship between the individual and God on the one side, and the neighbor on the other, according to the divine will.”[13] This seems to be the sense in which the term continues to be used in the New Testament with the specific nuances being provided by the texts ranging from the Gospels to the Epistles.
While it is impossible to analyze all the 95 occurrences of the term in the New Testament, a few comments are in order. First, a majority of the references refer to Jesus’ teaching of His disciples and other groups during His years of earthly ministry. A key observation to be made is that, while in His teaching, Jesus follows the pattern of a Jewish teacher, it is His emphasis on the internalization of the Law that clearly separates Him from them. After comparing the external form of the teaching of Jesus to that of the Rabbis, Rengstorf notes that “On the other hand, He [Christ] is distinguished from these groups by the fact that for Him the Law and the whole of Scripture cannot be so restricted in meaning as to be the only way to enter into and to remain in contact with God.”[14] Accordingly, “for Him the Law and Scripture are rather a confirmation of His own relationship to the Father.”[15] In essence, therefore, “the gap between Jesus and the Rabbis in respect to the subject of teaching is to be found, not in the matter itself, but in His own person, i.e., in the fact of His self-awareness as the Son.”[16] Thus, in addition to the Word of God, Jesus Himself becomes the content of the teaching in the Gospels.

Select Bibliography

Barnes, Albert. Notes on the New Testament: The Gospels. Barnes’ Notes, edited by Robert Frew. London: Blackie & Son, 1884–85, Reprint 1983.
Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Liturature. Edited by Frederick W. Danker. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Bingham, D. Jeffrey. “Development and Diversity in Early Christianity.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 1 (2006): 45–66.
Hannah, John. Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001.
Harnack, Adolf. Lehrbuch Der Dogmengeschichte. 3 vols. Freiburg: Akademische Verlagsbuchhandlung von J. C. B. Mohr, 1886–1890.
Harnack, Adolf. History of Dogma. Translated by Neil Buchanan. Vol. 1, 7 vols., edited by Neil Buchanan, James Miller, E. B. Speirs, and William M’Gilchrist. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1894–1899.
Harnack, Adolf. Das Wesen Des Christentums Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1902.
Harnack, Adolf. What Is Christianity? . Translated by Thomas Bailey Sanders. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978.
Klooster, F. H. “Dogmatics.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell, 350–51. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.
McKim, D. K. “Dogma.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.
Pelikan, Jeroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
Rengstorf, Karl Heinrich. “Διδάσκω, Διδάσκαλος, Νομοδιδάσκαλος, Καλοδιδάσκαλος, Ψευδοδιδάσκαλος, Διδασκαλία, Ἑτεροδιδασκαλέω, Διδαχὴ, Διδακτός, Διδακτικός.” In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel, vol II Δ–Η, 135–65. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973.
Turner, H. E. W. The Pattern of Christian Truth: A Study of the Relations between Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Early Church. London: A. R. Mowbray, 1954.
[1] John Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001).
[2] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Liturature, ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 240., s.v. διδασκαλία, ας, ἡ.
[3] Ibid., 241.
[4] Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, “Διδάσκω, Διδάσκαλος, Νομοδιδάσκαλος, Καλοδιδάσκαλος, Ψευδοδιδάσκαλος, Διδασκαλία, Ἑτεροδιδασκαλέω, Διδαχὴ, Διδακτός, Διδακτικός,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973), 135.
[5] Ibid., 136. It is interesting to note that the term διδάσκειν was used in Hellenistic Greek to refer to “the chorus instructor whose task was to train the chorus for great public performances” (ibid). In this case, the emphasis was on the performance or execution of the task.
[6] Ibid, n 9.
[7] Jeroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 2.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Rengstorf, 136.
[10] Ibid., 137.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Rengstorf, 137.
[14] Ibid., 140.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.

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