“Doctrine”, to many people, is a four-letter word, pronounced \ˈdäk-trən\ but spelled b-o-s-h. They eschew it, and they believe that if you were a real Christian, you would eschew it as well.

This belief originated, as did so many peculiar notions, in the 16th century. Not that the Reformers wanted nothing to do with doctrine. Luther and Calvin set up complex, mutually conflicting doctrinal systems. But in common they pared down the canon of Scripture and revamped the prevailing Catholic belief system for their own use, meanwhile keeping what some would call “the outward trappings,” i.e., the sacraments and the liturgy. The iron corsets of their respective doctrinal systems remained firmly cinched in place.

Those protesting what they saw as the timid reforms of the Reformers axed the sacraments (keeping only baptism and communion, and renaming them “ordinances” because they regard them as mere signs of one’s faith) and the liturgy. Churches like this fly “no-frills,” but they still have one non-negotiable: doctrine.

Those protesting the timid reforms of those who reformed the reforms of the Reformers have a problem with that. “Doctrine, schmoctrine!” is their battle-cry. They view any interest in doctrine as a symptom of spiritual distraction from the Main Event, the Real Deal. To heck with doctrine! Just gimme Jesus!

And that makes the Catholic Church, packed to the gills with 2,000 years’ worth of doctrine, look suspicious. Unfortunately, when someone like Pope Francis then declares that even atheists are redeemed, Believers United Against Schmoctrine (BUAS, Int’l) holds a (poorly attended) press conference raging against this Catholic travesty of true Biblical teaching, until Lutherans or Methodists or anyone with a little more interest in doctrine points out that Francis didn’t say that atheists are all “saved,” but that they have been “redeemed” by Christ’s death on the Cross, which is what BUAS members also believe if they sit down and think about it – they just never really sit down and think about it. BUAS spokespersons then skulk from the stage invoking their patron, St. Emily Litella: “Never mind….”

I majored in Modern Languages, and taught English as a Second Language for many years. My students in Taiwan were always quick to insist that their language, Chinese, had no grammar. They were used to breaking their brains on the peculiar rules of English grammar, and since the grammar of Chinese was to them as simple as living and breathing, they were blissfully unaware of it – they just spoke Chinese. Speaking English, of course, was an effort – thanks mostly to the convolutions of our evil English grammar. Try as I might, I could not convince them that Chinese, like English and all other languages, has a grammatical system.

Likewise, many Americans would say that I speak English without an “accent.” As a point of reference, I pronounce English words the same way Ronald Reagan pronounced them. Jimmy Carter’s accent (Southern – although there is no one “Southern” accent in the U.S.) and John Kennedy’s accent (Bostonian) were different from mine, but I have an accent. One’s “accent” is merely the particular way in which one pronounces the words of a given language. You simply cannot not have an accent, unless you never speak. Only silence has no accent.

Similarly, it is impossible not to have “doctrine.” Doctrine simply means “A belief or set of beliefs held and taught” by a particular person or group. Got beliefs? You’ve got “doctrine!” Set that to music and you’ll be singing: “I’ve got doctrine, you’ve got doctrine, all God’s chillun got doctrine!

Some folks just have a real bias against the concept of doctrine. They scorn it. The anti-doctrine contingent consists of folks who basically spend megatons of time “in the Word” and praising God. Their idea is to read the Bible, and then go do it. They are generally ablaze with love for God, and quite vocal about their relationship with Him and your need to have the same relationship. Their worship is exciting! Drop everything and throw your hands in the air! Praise Jesus!!!

Who wouldn’t get carried away? Christians from other denominations are often enchanted when they encounter this heartfelt enthusiasm, which may very well be absent from their church-going experience. It’s easy then to convince yourself that the presence of “doctrine” equals the absence of the Holy Spirit (Who we all know is noisy, boisterous and impulsive). Want to set yourself ablaze for Jesus? Burn the Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum!

Reading Scripture in order to “go do it” is in all reality a fantastic idea. Look at dear St. Francis of Assisi, who when told by Christ “Rebuild my church,” immediately set about sprucing up the chapel he was meditating in. All too often Christians are “hearers of the Word” only. We can tell you all about it, and someday we are definitely going to go out and do some of it… probably… maybe…, like that ever happens. Reading Matthew 28:18-20, and then going out to make disciples, is the ideal response.

But anyone who devotes time to Scripture-reading needs also to become a ponderer, like the Virgin Mary. What do these things I read in Scripture mean? And not just “what do they mean to me?” but what was Jesus trying to make His Church understand when He did things like allowing Himself to be baptized, and then going out to baptize others? If grace cannot be conferred through matter, why be washed in water? Why not just let believers make a declaration of their faith (which is what most despisers of doctrine believe baptism boils down to anyway)? Why get water involved at all? Why allow some woman to be healed when she touches the hem of His garment? Why spit on the ground and rub the dirt paste on the eyes of a blind man, instructing him to go wash it off in a certain pool? Why not just “say the word” and heal the guy? Why heal people through the agency of Paul’s handkerchiefs and Peter’s shadow? Why tell the apostles to anoint the sick with oil? What kind of circus act are Jesus and the apostles putting on, if grace cannot be conferred through matter? What’s going on here exactly, and why?

Connect the dots….

The fruit of all that thought, the conclusions you reach, will be your doctrine of grace working through matter. You see, having doctrinal beliefs just means that you’ve taken the time to think things through, to think things out, rather than just hollering and laughing and crying, and then tripping over your own ignorance because you never bothered to tie together your thoughts about God. Not that the Almighty is a killjoy Who is only happy when you’re getting all cerebral about the Incarnation and the Ascension, but remember, He did ask us to love Him not only with our whole heart and our whole soul and our whole strength, but also with our whole mind. Do that, and you’ll be up to your hallelujahs in doctrine. And that’s a good thing.

Keep doing that, and you may wanna buy yourself another copy of that Enchiridion you burned….


On the memorial of St. Augustine of Canterbury

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credits: Camp worship by Paul M. Walsh

  1. Good one. I’ve always been baffled by the anti-sacramentalism of many Protestants, given that they generally are down with the Incarnation. Why, I ask rhetorically, didn’t God just *fix* us? Why all this meaningless, dirty and painful ‘took the form of a slave’ stuff? Once you try to get your head around God’s insistence on the holiness of the created world and of us, the very physical people He put in it, it becomes unimaginable that all the world is not a sign that gives grace. It is not nonsense that His Son would become one of us *physically* in order to save us.

    Parenthood is perhaps the clearest example of ordinary physical sacramentality: we parents, acting as instruments of God, are able, are supposed, are required to ‘give grace’ to our children, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Right? Where else, outside of a miracle, would we get the grace to understand God as a loving father, the Church as a a family and bride, Christ as our brother?

    I’ve long been fascinated by this one text that, shortly after the Reformation, got repurposed from being an antiphon at Matins (where few but the monks and nuns would ever hear it) into a Christmas motet where everyone could hear it. Several great composers set this text in, I’ve got to think, response to the anti-sacramentalism and disembodied spiritualism in Protestanism:

    O great mystery,
    and wonderful sacrament,
    that animals should see the new-born Lord,
    lying in a manger!
    Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
    was worthy to bear
    Christ the Lord.

    Even animals and a manger can be instruments of God’s grace. Meaning, even *we* can be.

    • I remember how boggled my mind was when it was first explained to me that my calling as a wife was to be a conduit of God’s grace to my husband. Who, me?? Marriage is supposed to serve to bring both parties closer to God, and in so doing reveal to the world the relationship between Christ and His Church. That all was pretty heavy-duty to someone who was used to looking at marriage as a nice arrangement for raising children!

      I was wondering just the other day if people would think it too weird if I were to have “O Magnum Mysterium” sung at my funeral, since I can’t think of anything more beautiful. You will come, won’t you? 🙂

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