The place of doctrine and Jesus in Christian faith

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Among Christians, including Adventists, there has recently been a renewed emphasis on the centrality of Jesus within the Christian faith. This focus has produced a spate of lyrics uplifting the name of Jesus. For example, “Jesus at the Centre of it all”, “Jesus, only Jesus”, “Christ is Enough”, “It’s all about Jesus”, “Jesus, all for Jesus” and “None But Jesus”. In some ways this is a refreshing emphasis, for it is certainly true that if you take Christ out of Christianity all you have left is “ianity”, which sounds too close to “insanity” to be comfortable.

This focus on Jesus is a healthy reaction to theological nitpicking and disputes over the minutiae of doctrinal orthodoxy. Doctrine without Jesus is as dry as a rack of Norwegian stockfish, but the opposite, Jesus without teaching (that is, doctrine), is as vacuous as a hot air balloon. In fact it is impossible to proclaim Jesus without teaching (doctrine). The profound depth of the truth about Jesus cannot be captured in a slogan or a grab-line, no matter how often it is repeated.

The name “Jesus” is not a magical charm that induces tangible transformation of one’s life simply by uttering it repeatedly. Matthew seems to be warning us against just such repetitious zeal in 6:7 and 7:21. As soon as we declare that Jesus is the answer or Jesus is all, we invite such questions as: “Answer to what?”, “Who is Jesus?”, “All of what?” Any attempt to answer such questions is immediately “teaching” or “doctrine” no matter how simply or briefly we word our responses. [pullquote]

The first thing that any non-Christian seeker would want to know about Jesus is who He was, what He said and what He did.

On reading the gospels carefully any seeker of understanding would soon find that Jesus’ life and teachings do indeed dominate their narrative. But at the same time they would discover that God the Father is central to Christ’s mission.

The most frequent use of the name “Jesus” is found in the Gospel of John, which refers to Him 244 times (27 per cent of the New Testament’s total usage), so there’s no denying that it’s all about Him in John. However, this must be balanced by the fact that Jesus’ purpose was to make known the Father who sent Him (John 1:18; 3:17, 34). Then, when he had finished the work of making His Father’s name known (17:4–7, 26), He returned to the Father who had sent him (vv 11, 13; 16:5, 17, 28).

Generally, when the terms “Father” and “Jesus” are conjoined, the reference to God comes first. An example is Philippians 1:2—“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”; and there are many such texts. The point of all this is to remind ourselves that an over concentration on Jesus could easily lead to a tragic downplaying of the role and place of God the Father in the Scriptures.

The common queries in the New Testament that Jesus elicited were: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23); “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41); “Who are you?” (John 8:25); “Where are you from?” (John 19:9). The answers to these questions are profound and have enormous implications that should not be trivialised. The Gospels guide us to the various possible responses:

“You are the Messiah the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16); “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24); “Everyone was amazed at all that he was doing” (Luke 9:42); “Rabbi you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel” (John 1:49); “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon” (John 8:48); “He has a demon and is out of his mind” (John 10:19); “So there was a division in the crowd because of him” (John 7:43).

What were the topics that Jesus focused on when He preached? In the Synoptics (the first three gospels) the major theme is the kingdom of God (or heaven), which immediately raises the question, “What did He mean by that?” Jesus taught that in Him God’s kingdom was breaking into the world: a world that the Roman Empire dominated. God’s kingdom, according to Jesus, challenged Rome’s autocratic rule and reversed all its values. Humility and not pride is the key to entering the kingdom of God, and compassion is the value that characterises it. Therefore “be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36 author’s translation).

Jesus’ general mode of teaching was to use stories, stories such as: the Parable of the Sower, the Generous Vigneron, the Ten Maidens, the Good Samaritan, the Midnight Guest, the Rich Fool, the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Steward, the Rich Man and the Poor Man at his Gate, and the Unjust Judge. A superficial reading of these stories will not plumb the depth of their message, and singing “Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus”, no matter how passionately or loudly, will not exhaust their teaching (doctrine).

Yet on the other hand, these stories are not about the speculative niceties of theology; they stress the practical consequences of entering God’s world (kingdom). The Generous Vigneron, the Midnight Guest and the Unjust Judge are about the generosity and compassion of God. The Rich Fool, the Unjust Steward, and the Rich Man and the Poor Man are about our generosity to the poor. The Ten Maidens remind us that the deeds of the kingdom are to be maintained even if the time of Jesus’ return is not as soon as expected. The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son demonstrate the impartiality of God’s compassion and love.

Song lyrics can take us only so far in expounding the biblical teachings (doctrines). As much as, or even more than lyrics, we need biblical preaching, Bible study groups and good books on Bible topics. One can preach doctrine without Christ, and that’s tragic; but one cannot preach Jesus without teaching (doctrine). As soon as we try to answer the normal and legitimate questions, we have to teach to answer them: “Who is Jesus?”; “Why did He die?”; “Did He rise from the dead?”; “So what if He did?”; “Where is He now?”; “What did He say about money?”; “What was His attitude to marriage?”; “What did He mean when He said, ‘On this rock I shall found My community’?’”; “What was His view of the Jewish law?”

Phrases such as “Jesus only”, “Jesus all” are fine as far as they go; but they do not go very far when we consider the height, the breadth and the depth of His and the New Testament’s teachings (doctrines).

Dr Norman Young is a theologian and former senior lecturer at Avondale College of Higher Education (NSW).

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