I have run in widely varied circles over the past ten or so years. But from the evangelical megachurch to the small missional church plant to the mainline seminary—and everywhere in between—you can run into almost the exact same suspicion of Doctrine.
Don’t get me wrong. There are active theologians in each context, as well as people who care about Christian teaching beyond one or two hobbyhorses. But each place can have its own way of radically prioritizing practice, or denigrating serious theological inquiry as divisive logic-chopping. And most of them have people itching to call the cops on the doctrine police.
The doctrine skeptic can push towards a real truth, though I have rarely seen one hit directly on it. Christian theology is a system—or better, a seamless garment woven in one piece from the varied strands of Scripture—but it is so not in the sense of being a free-standing structure. It is not the Doctrine Tower, overlooking Good Works Park and the Port of Missions. It is better understood as the skeleton of the inner man.
The study of scripture, sitting under good teachers (in the flesh and on the page), prayer, rote memorization, and sheer force of habit together change one’s mental shape and build spiritual reflexes. In that sense, better the simple Christian who stammers at describing justification but implicitly trusts in Jesus for all things than the sharp fellow who memorized three heavy theology books but despairs of his salvation over the smallest sin. But better still is the one who is aware of the truth, lives the truth, and recognizes it joyfully on sight. So growing in the knowledge of God, in the love of God, and in the good works for which we were created, are more connected than we often assume.
I think that is also the grain of truth in often problematic discussions of “head knowledge” vs “heart knowledge.” One should not pit reasoning against emoting. They are different activities, but each makes a bad mess when practiced without the other. You either end up with Spock minus the charm, or Anakin Skywalker minus the writer’s fiat that makes him a protagonist. (Episode II, I’m looking at you…)
So perhaps it is the same error to let doctrinal learning outpace sanctification as it is to try to be conformed to the image of a hazy, indistinct Jesus. Either way, the outcome will look more like a tacky plaster statue than like the Man Himself.
But what of those who make idols out of doctrine, or of doctrinal systems? Many respectable people these days tell me that’s a big problem. I don’t deny that idolatry is a serious matter, or that we are prone to turn all kinds of good things into idols. Calvin was right to call the human heart “a perpetual idol workshop.” (Or however you prefer to render fabricam idolorum from Institutes I.11.8) A sufficiently meta person can even make an idol out of denouncing idolatry.
I suspect the temptation to make an idol is more a problem for the Doctrine Tower than it is for a doctrinal ribcage. Doctrine Tower, standing tall and disconnected from individual and church practice, or from practical working principles, is doctrine that is not serving its purpose. Its right use neglected, it is easier to set it up in the place where it should not be.
But taken internally, so that the teachings shape mental habits and give form and direction to piety, doctrine is much harder to abuse. Rather, it becomes a valuable protection against idolatry. False images of God and misguided forms of devotion will stop fitting right. The eye gains the skill of spotting excellence and becomes harder to fool with fakery. It is easier to have the right posture before God when the spiritual backbone is the right shape.