by Contributor Devon Scott
After coming to Christ at a young age, I was almost immediately immersed in a predominantly Christian- conservative context. As a young African-American, crossing over from the inner-city, to Holland, MI was a big leap. Looking back, God’s grace was pretty clear from day one, as I was discipled in Reformed teaching. I learned the creeds, confessions and catechisms. I read about the heroes, and the villains, the tradition and the history. And while I then learned different perspectives, in most of these contexts I learned the same emphasis: The Apostles taught doctrine.
Reading the Bible, particularly with this lens left me with a sense of pride. Much like the catechisms (which I love by the way), I was able to cross reference certain passages to match certain doctrines. “You want to see the incarnation? Look at Philippians 2:5-11. You want to study Union with Christ? Check out Romans 6! Want to learn more about predestination? Well look at Ephesians 1, or John 6, or 1 Peter 1. You want to know about Justification or Salvation? Look at Romans 2-3, or Ephesians 2, or the entire book of Galatians!” And the list goes on.
I thought I was pretty well versed (how about that pun?!) in the text, because my understanding of the Bible resembled a cross-referencing machine! The Apostles taught doctrine, so I thought, and I can point you to the doctrine(s) they taught.
It wasn’t until I started reading the text in a way that is hospitable (shout out to David Smith!) that my view started to change. I started reading the text as if the Apostles were very pastoral, and very concerned about the health of their people….because, well, they were. Getting a Reader’s Bible also helped, as it allowed me to read the text in the spirit in which it was originally written. This, along with a number of hard conversations, debates, lengthy emails, much prayer, along with reading lots of books and commentaries all brought me to this conclusion: The Apostles didn’t merely teach doctrine, they applied doctrine to the Churches they loved.
This conclusion was ground-breaking for me! I fought it as hard as I could, but began to see the effects of believing and advocating that the Apostles only taught doctrine. As if they wanted their churches to only think about God correctly. The effects I have seen with this posture are numerous, yet there is one that stands out.
The biggest effect of this posture (or position if you prefer) I have seen is that it leads one to read, study, memorize the various doctrines the Apostles proclaimed, while ignoring the application of said doctrines to their respective communities. “The Apostle’s didn’t merely teach doctrine, they applied their doctrine to the Churches they loved.” This shift may be small, but it has huge implications.
For example, did you know that more often than not, when Paul expounds on Justification/Salvation, He applies it for the Churches, particularly in relational contexts!
After His famous righteousness passage in Romans 3, He writes: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also…” (Romans 3:29).
In Ephesians 2, where Paul gives His very well known “For we are his workmanship…” passage, Paul applies this truth in the context of ethnic relations: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the diving wall of hostility…” (Ephesians 2:14). The fact that there was an actual wall in Ephesus makes this even more precious and amazing!
After Paul spoke of God cancelling our debt against us in Colossians 2:14-15, He writes: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath” (Colossians 2:16). Paul applies the Gospel/Doctrine He just proclaimed to a community who is being judged and pressured into legalism! Their new life in Christ sets them free!
But someone would say: “Paul told Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine…” (Titus 2:1)! Amen!!! But have you asked yourself how Paul applied that statement? What was the sound (which means healthy in Greek) doctrine He was referring to? Like I’ve told many people who think they’ve backed me into a theological corner (which I’ve been fine with, God is omni-present, so He’s with me in that corner too), keep reading!
“But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness…” (Titus 2:1-2)
Isn’t it amazing that after Paul tells Titus to teach what accords with sound doctrine, He then tells them what sound doctrine should look like when it is applied to life? What does it look like? Self control, love, faith, humility, and so on. If this is true, can we really say we know sound doctrine, if we never promote or live the godliness that should come along with it?
Can we say we know the doctrine of the Incarnation well, if we are not known to be humble? Can we say we know the doctrine of Justification well, if we set standards on other believers that God doesn’t? Can we say we know the doctrine of the atonement well, if we do not walk in love and reconciliation with our neighbor?
I know this is a challenge that many will buck against due to what may be perceived as anti-doctrine (which I most certainly am not), but like Titus, may aim is to “Declare these things, exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15).
My (Flawed) Assumptions
I am using Paul as an example, because Western Conservative Christianity leans heavily towards Paul. But this same truth can be applied with Peter’s teaching of the New Birth, John’s understanding of God’s seed being in us, John’s understanding of Christ’s return, James understanding of trials, and so much more!
I assumed I knew the Biblical doctrine of Justification because I could cross-reference where it is found. I deepened my understanding of Justification by reading how it was applied. I assumed I knew the Biblical doctrine of the New Birth because I could cross reference where it is stated. I deepened my understanding of the New Birth when I read how it was used to shape the original audience. This gives us a window…no, this gives us a ridiculously large oversized movie theater screen, into how to apply it to our lives today.
Some (Possible) Objections
Do I still consider myself Reformed? Absolutely! I love the creeds and confessions (especially 2nd London Baptist), and am not a fan of Reformed being defined in a different way. Do I embrace the New Perspective on Paul (which, as I once read, we may have to give it a new title, it’s been around since the 70s… the later/newer perspective on Paul maybe?) Absolutely not! I firmly believe Luther (while I am not Luterhan) understood Paul correctly when it comes to Justification.
Is doctrine no longer needed? May it never be! Sound Doctrine must, and needs to be upheld. The difference is, I no longer focus only on getting it “right” in my head. I’m more focused on getting it fleshed out in my life, in the way in which the original audience would have been led to.
As stated, one of the biggest ways in which Justification is applied in the text, is in ethnic, and racial contexts. As a Young African American, who reads majority White authors (all whom I love), this is something I have rarely heard preached, taught, or written about. Which causes quite a few questions for me. More on that to come, in part two of this article. Stay tuned! Until then, study doctrine. Know doctrine. Learn doctrine. Just join me in looking to see how it is applied! Grab you a Reader’s Bible (Bible without verses, chapters, and title headings), dive into the first century context of the Scriptures, never ignore the “Therefore”s in the Bible, and ask God to apply the doctrines you see in the text, in the spirit in which the original audience would have been led to. The Holy Spirit after all, has done that for us already. We just have to listen.
Note from the editor: A second article will be coming from this author.