Part 2 of the Series The Pastor and Doctrine: Some Reflections 

By Dr. Jeremiah Mutie

You can read part 1 here

Doctrine is What is Believed, Taught, and Confessed by the Church

In Early Christianity, because of the tradition that had now emerged, three main but related usages of the term διδάσκειν, emerge. Again, Rengstorf summarizes; “To the first belong passages which use διδάσκειν after the model of לִמֵּד: to the second those which refer to διδάσκειν about Jesus: to the third those which speak of teaching as a function of the church.”[1] However, there is no sharp distinction between these usages in early Christianity.

Paul personalizes his use of διδάσκειν, speaking of it “only in reference to his own instruction of the communities at the time of their foundation (2 Th. 2:15; Col. 2:7; Eph. 4:21) and in the sense of an internal function of Christianity.” Of course, this is understandable because Paul is dealing with communities that were not accustomed to the teachings of Christ. Therefore, what he resorts to is to situate his διδάσκειν on the διδάσκειν of Jesus Christ. He, for example, calls the Gospel of Jesus Christ “my Gospel” (cf. Rom 2:16; 16:25; 2 Tim 2:8). In so doing, Paul (and other NT writers), constructs a body of truth, which now begins to be passed on as doctrine. To teach anything contrary to this truth is to accord oneself the position of what Peter calls ψευδοδιδάσκαλος in 2 Pet 2:1. A term not used elsewhere outside the NT, Peter used it here to refer to false teachers, arguing that they are false teachers because “in every respect they are a perversion of the Christian διδάσκαλος, since they reject the claim of Jesus to dominion over their whole lives.”[2] To make this distinction as clear as possible, the New Testament can even talk about the “διδασκαλίαις δαιμονίων [doctrines of demons]” (1 Tim 4:1), by which “it seems to be referring chiefly to distortions of the standards of Christian conduct.”[3] This distortion emerges from a misunderstanding of Christian doctrine.  Understood correctly, “Christian doctrine may be defined as the content of that saving knowledge, derived from the word of God.”[4] It is from this knowledge that Christians derive their proper conduct, in other words.

Indeed, this knowledge now becomes the tradition of the Church from her earliest times, and there is a sharp distinction between those who teach the doctrine of Christ and those who do not. The latter are identified with such identifying epithets as “antichrists” with some being referred to elsewhere as the firstborn of Satan. For example, Polycarp writes in his Letter to the Philippians in 7.1: “Πᾶς γὰρ ὃς ἂν μὴ ὁμολογῇ Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθέναι, ἀντιχριστός ἐστιν· καὶ ὃς ἂν μὴ ὁμολογῇ τὸ μαρτύριον τοῦ σταυροῦ, ἐκ τοῦ διαβόλου ἐστίν· καὶ ὃς ἂν μεθοδεύῃ τὰ λόγια τοῦ κυρίου πρὸς τὰς ἰδίας ἐπιθυμίας καὶ λέγῃ μήτε ἀνάστασιν μήτε κρίσιν, οὗτος πρωτότοκός ἐστι τοῦ σατανᾶ [For whoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist; and whoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan].”[5] Therefore, as the early centuries of Christianity progresses, the term διδασκαλία [didaskalia] “now meant the ‘sum of teaching,’ and especially of that which had come down from the lips of the apostles.”[6] Doctrine, therefore, becomes “what is believed, taught and confessed” by the church. Later on (in the 18th century, particularly), doctrine (and its development) become areas of scholarly investigation.[7]

Is there a Difference Between Doctrine and Dogma?

Before looking at the final question of whether or not doctrine is divisive, as indicated above, a comment needs to be made about dogma. On the one hand, there are those who don’t see any difference between doctrine and dogma, treating them synonymously. For example, treating both terms as synonymous, D. K. McKim states that in the NT, “the Greek dogma refers to a decree, ordinance, decision, or command (Luke 2:1; Acts 16:4; 17:7; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 11:23).”[8] He adds that “in late Greek philosophy legal usage was subsumed under dogma as the doctrinal propositions that expressed the official viewpoint of a particular teacher or philosophical school.”[9] The same sediment is seen in F. H. Klooster’s definition of dogmatics as “that branch of theology which attempts to express the beliefs and the doctrines (dogmas) of the Christian faith—to set forth ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27 RSV) in an organized or systematic theology.”[10] Understood this way, dogma/doctrine is no different from systematic theology.

On the other hand, there are those who see a difference between doctrine and dogma. For example, according to Hannah, while doctrine has been universally understood to mean “teaching,” dogma, on the other hand, “is a term that, unfortunately, has come to be perceived as a negative word—a word that speaks of imposed authority and oppression.”[11] This is because, as Hannah observes, since it means a “decree or formal public declaration,” dogma, then “implies those doctrines that have been defined by a particular group or community as essential by its universal consent to them and articulation of them in creedal form.”[12] Understood this way, therefore, dogma is seen as a negative term. Indeed, it can be argued that the entire project of the German liberal historian of doctrine, Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) in his 7-volume History of Dogma, was to demonstrate how the church “lost” the Gospel (the Kerygma) of Jesus Christ when it became “dogmatic.” He argues, for example, in the opening pages of the first volume, that although the church teaches dogmas as “truths revealed in Holy Scripture,” the truth, according to him, is that adherents of the Christian religion “had not these dogmas from the beginning, so far, at least, as they form a connected system, the business of the history of dogma is, in the first place, to ascertain the origin of Dogmas (of Dogma), and then secondly, to describe their development (their variations).”[13] For him, therefore, dogmas (and doctrines—for he sees no difference), are to be viewed as negative developments in the church, resulting in a significant departure from the pure Gospel of Jesus. Elsewhere, Harnack defines the Gospel as “the Fatherhood of God applied to the whole of life; to be an inner union with God’s will and God’s kingdom, and a joyous certainty of the possession of eternal blessings and protection from evil.”[14] As such, he sees the formulation of Christian doctrine/dogma as the greatest perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is because, according to him, doctrines/dogmas were scientifically-formulated by the church using Greek thought, itself a negative development of the church.

Since this view has been adopted by a good number of people in various churches as well as within some ranks of the academia, a few more comments are in order. According to Harnack, although the Gospel “entered into the world not as a doctrine, but as a joyful message and as a power of the Spirit of God,”[15] this soon changed. Rather, the Gospel “stripped off these forms with amazing rapidity, and united and amalgamated itself with Greek science, the Roman Empire and ancient culture, developing, as a counterpoise to this, renunciation of the world and striving after supernatural life, after deification.”[16]  For Harnack, therefore, “Doctrinal development in early Christianity…meant change in the gospel, its misdirection, its impairment.”[17]  In other words, in its interaction with the “Greek soil,” the Gospel lost its original joyousness, only to be recovered later by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.[18]  And, according to him, this was a gradual process. As Turner explains, for Harnack, “If Gnosticism represents an acute form of the invasion of Christianity by Hellenism, orthodoxy implied a more gradual process, a low-grade infection by the same germ.”[19] While a full exploration of the question of doctrinal development is beyond this brief treatment, one cannot avoid the conclusion that, a simple conflation of doctrine and dogma inevitably results in such negative assessments of both. This leads to the second of the two questions: is doctrine divisive as sometimes suggested?

  Is Doctrine Divisive?

The second question for consideration here is this: is doctrine divisive? It seems that the answer to the question is both yes and no. That is, if we understand doctrine to be the clear representation of the teachings of the Bible in a summarized manner, then these ought not divide believers who are orthodox in their beliefs. In fact, the opposite should be true: true doctrines of the Bible should unite all who hold onto the truth of the teaching of the Word of God. At this level, it seems that the only division that doctrine ought to create is between orthodox believers and both liberals and non-believers. Indeed, Jesus speaks concerning the possibility of this kind of division, when, for example, He declares in Matthew 10:3438 (NET):

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it.

While the context here is that of Jesus’ teaching about the nearness of the Kingdom, it is clear that His teachings would result in divisions even within the most basic of all human relations’ unit: the family. This is based on how various members in the family respond to Jesus’ teachings. As Barnes notes, “we must be ashamed neither of the person, the character, the doctrines nor the requirements of Christ.”[20] Thus, depending on which side of the divide one is concerning the Person and message of Jesus, a legitimate division can and does result. In this case, therefore, doctrine can be said to be divisive. But the division is based on one’s response to the offer of salvation made by Jesus.

Finally, dogma can be legitimately divisive. While, again, the focus here is not a full exploration of doctrinal development, the reader will be well-served to note that, during the Middle Ages, “the Roman Catholic Church developed the view of the depositum fidei (‘deposit of faith’), in which the church was seen as having been entrusted with a certain treasury of truths whose ramifications could be rightfully developed by the church.”[21] While this concept in and of itself may not be problematic (one needs to remember the words of Jude in verse 3 where he writes: “I now feel compelled instead to write to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints”), the problem was to equate dogma with the inspired Word of God. McKim notes that “eventually, through the Council of Trent (1545–63) and the First Vatican Council (1870), the church’s dogmatic pronouncements came to be considered as infallible.”[22] As expected, since the Protestant Reformation, “Protestantism has rejected the association of dogma with infallible ecclesiastical pronouncements.”[23] In this case, dogma (or its conception thereof), has become legitimately divisive. Correctly, Protestantism has insisted that “all dogmas must be tested against the revelation of God in Holy Scripture.”[24] Thus, the tradition of Protestantism has been to subject dogma into a critical examination based on the Word of God. This has been especially so through the works of these three main Scottish historians of doctrine: William Cunningham, Robert Rainy, and James Orr.


The purpose of this synopsis was to respond to the occasional remarks pertaining doctrine to the effect that pastors (or believers in general), should not focus on doctrine because it is divisive. It has been suggested that, properly understood, doctrine, which basically means a summary of the teachings of the Bible should unite rather than divide orthodox believers. But it distinguishes these believers from both liberal Christians and non-believers. Again, this is to be distinguished from dogma, which tends to carry with it ecclesiastical ramifications. As well, at this level, since different ecclesiastical bodies appropriate dogma differently, divisions are to be legitimately expected here. For example, an equation of dogmatic pronouncements in the Roman Catholic Church either by the Pope or the Magisterium with the infallible Word of God, is to be rejected by believers. All in all, it comes down to the ability of the pastor to define and explain doctrine through his weekly teaching and/or preaching of the Word.


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] Ibid., 144.

[2] Ibid., 160. See also Did. 11.10 where ψευδοπροφήτης

[3] Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pol. Phil. 7.1.

[6] Rengstorf, 163.

[7] Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 3.

[8] D. K. McKim, “Dogma,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), 350.

[9] Ibid.

[10] F. H. Klooster, “Dogmatics,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), 350.

[11] Hannah, Our Legacy, 21.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, trans. Neil Buchanan, vol. 1, 7 vols. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1894–1899), 1. Originally, these 7 volumes were published in German as Adolf Harnack, Lehrbuch Der Dogmengeschichte, 3 vols. (Freiburg: Akademische Verlagsbuchhandlung von J. C. B. Mohr, 1886–1890).

[14] Adolf Harnack, What Is Christianity? , trans. Thomas Bailey Sanders (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), 65. Originally, these lectures were published as Adolf Harnack, Das Wesen Des Christentums (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1902).

[15] Harnack, History of Dogma, 7. 272.

[16] Ibid.

[17] D. Jeffrey Bingham, “Development and Diversity in Early Christianity,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 1 (2006): 49.

[18] Harnack, History of Dogma, 7. 273.

[19] H. E. W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth: A Study of the Relations between Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Early Church (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1954), 19.

[20] Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament: The Gospels, Barnes’ Notes (London: Blackie & Son, 1884–85, Reprint 1983), 115.

[21] McKim, 350.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.