“If you want to make it in journalism, you’re going to have to learn to write what people want to hear.” It was my first day of undergraduate journalism, and my professor’s description of what people want to hear was ironically contrary to what I found myself hoping to hear that day. I wanted to be a truth-teller on the front lines, and this introduction confused me. According to this academic, reporting was no longer about the facts but about what it made the reader feel. I changed my major to literature and philosophy that afternoon, hoping to hear from truth-tellers in exploration of knowledge and reality.
The type of attitude that my professor voiced permeates many aspects of our culture, but this is not a modern issue. A fundamental part of learning involves hearing. The active hearer asks questions. A self-aware hearer knows best how apply this learning, but only when anchored. Paul confidently prepares Timothy with the reality that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4). Paul does not tritely critique the human condition. This distaste for sound teaching and attraction to myths motivates Paul’s charge to “preach the word” with readiness “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). In moments of achievement, at minor roadblocks, in dire straits, what motivates what we ourselves most long to hear?
Exercising discernment towards what we hear often feels like American short-story writer Stephen Crane’s description of the sea: “After successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats.” When we approach truth as one option in a sea of noise, any grasp for a clear methodology can be overwhelming. Moderns described this as a “widening gyre.” This anxious dread reveals that we often come to the biblical text with our philosophical baggage unawares. Sometimes we’re afraid to ask the deeper questions, and oftentimes we don’t realize the ways that we are products of our times, students of our philosophers, and introspective instead of objective. Paul seems to speak with conviction here. What does he really mean by “sound teaching,” and what does he suggest “suit[s] [our] own passions”? A close read shows that there’s no need to speculate. Paul was able and willing to offer further insight here. You can hear this imperative to preach the gospel echoed throughout his letters.
Our Anchor, the Doctrine of Christ
Surely, if anyone ever knew what it meant to wander off into myths, it would be the Apostle Paul. He counted his former mastery of systems as rubbish (Phil. 3). Paul repeatedly warns again and again of this distraction. Recognizing the undercurrent of chaos and change, Paul calls us to hold fast to doctrine—not every doctrine, but to biblical doctrine alone. The only unchanging thing in the world—the God “who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17; see also Num. 23:19; Heb. 13:8). Biblical doctrine has no need for change; it was breathed out by an unchanging and eternal God. This is a foundational truth for doctrine, for teaching, for participation in Christian worship.
This urging to build on solid ground is seen in many ways throughout the New Testament. Paul urges the Ephesians to take hold of our confident access to God through Christ, which is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). This Apostolic foundation acts as an anchor so that “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14). Paul also exhorts the Colossians to “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:18). Paul calls his audience not to himself, nor some complex ideology, nor something abstract. Each time Paul calls his audience to Christ, describing the Christian life with prepositions—in Christ, to Christ, into Christ (Col. 2:15). This is the appeal for biblical doctrine that Thomas Watson called principles: “Knowledge of principles is to the soul as the anchor to the ship, that holds it steady in the midst of the rolling waves of error, or the violent winds of persecution.” Biblical doctrine, put simply, answers the question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15) and finds that answer in Scripture time and time again.