College was an exciting time for me as a young Christian engaging in dialogue during the peak of postmodernity’s influence in the university. Students were greatly influenced by Jacques Derrida, one of the fathers of postmodern thinking, who taught regularly in our philosophy department.
Yet in the midst of this secular postmodern heyday, I did not find the university’s environment threatening to my faith. Instead, it was a conversation with another student who professed to be a Christian that challenged my Christian views. He was a member of the Boston Church of Christ (of the International Church of Christ). We spent many hours debating doctrine, trying to convince each other that our respective positions were biblical and therefore correct.
I left that conversation struggling with the question, “Whom do I trust?” when it comes to understanding doctrine or what the Bible teaches. That student was utterly convinced of his doctrines, so how could I be sure that my doctrines were correct? The diversity among doctrinal positions is vast, whether comparing individual theologians, denominations, or even cults. How should we build trust in the doctrines to which we hold?
The Starting and Ending Point
Second Timothy 3:16–17 states, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” This is our starting point. Christian doctrines are grounded in Scripture because Scripture is inspired by God. No other book can claim that it is absolutely trustworthy and authoritative. To understand Christian doctrines, we must recognize that our doctrines are grounded in an ineffable and inerrant Scripture that speaks truth at every point.
Scripture is not only the starting point but also the endpoint, in that we must continually return to it. Any doctrine that is not grounded in Scripture should not be trusted, so we must study whether a doctrine is consistent with what the bible teaches. For example, if someone states that his doctrine of Jesus Christ teaches that He was only human and not also God, we should study Scripture to test if that is true. How does that position compare with passages such as John 1:1 or Colossians 2:9? In these verses, Scripture teaches us that our doctrine of Christ must include the fact that Jesus is God.
The Help of the Holy Spirit
The study of biblical doctrines requires the help of the Holy Spirit. God has not left us alone to determine whether a doctrine is to be trusted, but He has given us the Holy Spirit so that we might understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14–15). Without the Holy Spirit, we cannot of our own accord understand anything that is spiritual. The illuminating work of the Holy Spirit comes through diligent study and prayer, as He will teach us and give us confidence in the doctrines that are found in Scripture.
Building on the Wisdom of the Ages
In addition to the study of Scripture and the necessary help of the Holy Spirit, our discernment of Christian doctrines must include a basic knowledge of the history of the church. Christian doctrines are the result of the rigorous study of Scripture by faithful Christians through the ages. Throughout the centuries, God has blessed the church with individuals called to be teachers (Titus 1:9). While these teachers are not infallible and their writings must be tested by Scripture in every generation, there is much to be gained from reading their works. Particularly worthy of study are those books that have stood the test of time, having received the affirmation of Christians in every era.
There are periods in history when the church reached strong conclusions regarding certain doctrines and recorded them in creeds and confessions for all to see and understand. This is an ancient practice dating to the very beginning of the New Testament church. The Apostles’ Creed (first or second century A.D.) gives us the basics of the Christian faith. The Nicene Creed (A.D. 381) explains the doctrine of the Trinity. The Chalcedonian Definition (A.D. 451) lays out the relationship between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. The church throughout the ages has agreed that these creeds reflect what the Bible teaches and should be trusted by all Christians.
Another fruitful enterprise is to read the works of significant theologians of the past as well as the works of contemporary theologians. A list might begin with the writings of Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and B.B. Warfield. More contemporary theologians might include John Gerstner, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, Carl R. Trueman, and Kevin DeYoung.
Despite how complex and nuanced biblical doctrine can get, God in His wisdom and love has provided us with a wealth of resources to discern doctrine through the diligent and faithful study of Scripture, the necessary help of the Holy Spirit, and the wisdom of the ages as we study God’s work in church history.