What Is Doctrine?
The Article by Scott Swain first appreared in Tabletalk magazine.
When I was young, I only thought of my future: Whom would I marry? What vocation would I pursue? Where would I live? Now that I am the father of four children, I think only of their futures.
As he approached the final days of his ministry, the Apostle Paul set his thoughts on the future well-being of Timothy, his “beloved child” in the faith (2 Tim. 1:2). He wrote to him about the things that matter most for life and ministry. Not only did Paul commend to his young protégé the glorious gospel of God (vv. 8–10) and the divinely inspired Scriptures (3:16–17), but he also instructed Timothy regarding the importance of sound doctrine: “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (1:13– 14). According to Paul, doctrine is among the things that matter most for the well-being of the Christian and the church. Sound, or “healthy,” doctrine provides a pattern that, when followed, promotes healthy faith and love. Sound doctrine is a valuable heritage that is to be treasured in this generation and faithfully transmitted to the next (2:2).
What is doctrine? In its basic sense, doctrine is any sort of teaching. The Bible, for example, talks about the teachings of men (Mark 7:7–8), the teachings of demons (1 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 2:24), and the teachings of God (John 6:45; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 John 2:27). Here, we are concerned with divine teaching, the teaching of God. According to one definition, doctrine is teaching from God about God that directs us to the glory of God. This definition provides a helpful anatomy of sound doctrine, identifying doctrine’s source, object, and ultimate end. We will consider these elements of sound doctrine.
The Source of Sound Doctrine
The triune God is the ultimate “doctor,” or teacher, when it comes to Christian doctrine. The God who knows and loves Himself in the perfect fellowship of the Trinity has graciously willed to make Himself known to us and loved by us (Matt. 11:25–27; 1 Cor. 2:10–12). This doctrine, taught by the Father through the son in the Holy Spirit, informs our faith and guides our love.
Though the triune God is the ultimate source of doctrine, He has chosen to minister doctrine to us through His prophets and Apostles in Holy Scripture. until the day when God speaks to us face-to-face in His eternal kingdom, Holy Scripture is the source and norm of sound doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16; see Mark 7:7–8). Doctrine is drawn from Holy Scripture as from a fountain. Doctrine is measured by Holy Scripture as by a rule. Furthermore, doctrine leads us back to Scripture by equipping us to become better readers. Indeed, those “untaught” in sound doctrine are most prone to twisting the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (2 peter 3:16).
The Object of Sound Doctrine
Christian doctrine has a twofold object. The primary object of doctrine is God; the secondary object is all things in relation to God. Doctrine teaches us to see God as the one from whom and through whom and to whom all things exist, and doctrine directs our lives to this God’s glory (Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 8:6).
When we examine the twofold object of doctrine as it is presented to us in Holy Scripture, a definite pattern emerges (Rom. 6:17; 2 Tim. 1:13). The pattern of sound doctrine is (1) Trinitarian (1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:4–6; Titus 3:4–7), (2) creation affirming (1 Tim. 2:13–15; 4:1–4), (3) gospel centered (1 Tim. 3:16; Titus 2:11–14), and (4) church oriented (1 Tim. 3:14–15). The Bible’s distinctive doctrinal pattern has left its mark on some of the most widely accepted summaries of Christian teaching, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Heidelberg Catechism, and has informed the shape of historic Christian worship.
The End of Sound Doctrine
Doctrine promotes a number of ends. Sound doctrine delivers us from the snare of false teaching (2 Tim. 2:24–26; Titus 1:9-11), which otherwise threatens to arrest spiritual development (Eph. 4:14) and to foster ecclesiastical discord (Rom. 16:17). Doctrine serves God’s saving work both inside (1 Tim. 4:16) and outside the church (Matt. 5:13-16; Titus 2:9–10; 1 Peter 3:1–6). Above all, doctrine promotes God’s glory. Doctrine shines forth as one of the glorious rays of the gospel of God (1 Tim. 1:10–11) and, by directing our faith and love toward God in Christ, it enables us to walk in His presence and give Him the glory He deserves (1 Peter 4:11; 2 Peter 3:18).
God loves us; and in His goodness He has given us the good gift of doctrine (Ps. 119:68) that we might learn of Him and of His gospel, and that we might please Him in our walk. Doctrine is the teaching of our heavenly Father, revealed in Jesus Christ, and transmitted to us by the Holy Spirit in Holy Scripture, and it is to be received, confessed, and followed in the church, to the glory of God’s name.
Dr. Scott R. Swain is associate professor of systematic theology and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. He is author of Trinity, Revelation, and Reading.