Divine vs. Human Doctrine

Jesus described two types of doctrine:

Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,But their heart is far away from Me.‘But in vain do they worship Me,Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 15:1-9)

Jesus here contrasted divine doctrine—the doctrine of God—with the doctrine (“traditions”) of Man. In light of our discussion over the past several weeks, can we say that doctrines of God unite us, while doctrines of Man divide us? Or is that an oversimplification? Can we say that doctrines with God at their center are divine and uniting, while doctrines with Man at their center are mortal and divisive?

Here’s what Jesus said about a doctrine concerning the Sabbath:

And it happened that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?” Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28)

We can find three characteristics of God-centered doctrine in the following passage:

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

The first characteristic is self-evident by definition: God—Jesus—is at the center of the doctrine. Second, a divine doctrine is gentle and meek. Third, it is restful, calming, soothing, tranquil, comfortable. In contrast, the doctrine of Man is heavy, oppressive, arrogant:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. …
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:1- 9;15)

Paul remarked upon the heavy, oppressive nature of Man’s doctrines:

Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? (Acts 15:10)

But there is something counter-intuitive here. We rarely read passages in Scripture about light, non-oppressive doctrines. Here is a rare exception:

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me,

And every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. (Romans 14:1-13)

Usually, Scripture exhorts us to bear our heavy burdens, fight the good fight of faith, persevere in the struggle of life, keep climbing the hill, and so on.

Baptism, the Sabbath, and fasting are three examples of doctrines that may be God-centered or Man-centered. Baptism, a common practice in many faiths, involves being cleansed with water. For some Christian denominations, the washing is a symbolic sprinkling with water; in the doctrine of others, it is deep immersion in a river, lake, or tank. In some denominations, the baptized may be an infant; in others, doctrine demands that only adults be baptized. In some, baptism is an option; in others, it is a requirement.

Baptism is indeed encouraged in the New Testament, but is not mentioned in the Old Testament. Jesus Himself was baptized. But nowhere does the Bible specify how it is to be done. There are no instructions, only illustrations from which doctrines have been developed. In some, baptism takes place in “living” water (the river Jordan is the exemplar); in others, it takes place in a pool or a tank within a church, or water is sprinkled from a font. Moslems bathe ritually at prayer times, five times daily. Hindus dip themselves in holy rivers. We Adventists are dipped in a tank in church, but we don’t immerse ourselves—the pastor immerses us. The length of immersion, the temperature of the water, arrangements for people afraid of drowning, what to wear… all these details may be included in a Man-centered doctrine of baptism. But the God-centered doctrine of baptism focuses on its inherent meaning: The forgiveness of sin, the covering from head to toe with righteousness and grace.

The Sabbath is our second example. Man-centered doctrine puts Man at the center of the Sabbath, emphasizing what we may or not do on the Sabbath. A God-centered doctrine shows the Sabbath for what it is: A symbol of grace, of the promised rest, of the easy yoke.

Fasting is a third example, practiced by several faiths or denominations within faiths. Man-centered, it is a public demonstration of piety; God-centered, it is an earnest attempt to honor God through self-deprivation.

Can we discriminate our doctrines as being God-centered or Man-centered, as the case may be?

David: The Scriptural passages quoted seem to me to show Jesus very much in favor of no doctrine, yet in the Matthew 23 quote He seems to contradict Himself by saying that we should obey religious doctrine (“all that they tell you, do and observe”).

Donald: Man-centered doctrines are often burdensome and require some kind of sacrifice—such as fasting. But is the fundamental distinction that Man-centered doctrine is developed by Man, while God-centered doctrine is developed by God? Do we paint ourselves into a corner?

David: As a Daoist, it seems to me the Abrahamic religions paint themselves into a corner, if not by subscribing to the very concept of doctrine, then by failing to adapt their doctrines to the changing times. The doctrine against the eating of pork was established at a time when pork was a health risk, especially in the hot Middle East. Non-religious Daoism avoids these pitfalls altogether by having no doctrine, simply a recommendation to follow the Way. That is essentially the (non-)doctrine of Jesus: “I am the Way; follow Me.”

Jay: If a doctrine is burdensome, it would seem to be non-divine. If it is developed to define a group, to establish an identity for a group, then it would also seem to be non-divine. But can a divine doctrine be hijacked by Man to make it Man-centered? Could the Sabbath be an example, originally established to place God at the center of Creation but later usurped to identify a particular faith group? In short: Does doctrine evolve?

Donald: Come the end time, Adventists believe that the Sabbath doctrine will distinguish true believers from false. But in any case, is Man-centered doctrine ipso facto wrong? As a product of Adventist identity, the Adventist culture of nurturing people through education, healthcare, family camps and activities, etc., seems to be a good thing, something to be shared—but only with others baptized into our faith. Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church, in contrast, invites anybody to participate in its activities, baptized or not.

Jay: Yes, we entangle our identity with our baptism. It strengthens identity, but it runs the risk of denying salvation to those who do not identify with us.

Don: Is it possible to weaponize doctrines of Man that are essentially benign and bland—such as a doctrine of identity—such that they contravene Paul’s injunctions in Romans 14 quoted above (“Don’t judge others by their identity—by what they eat and drink, etc.”)? In theory, it would seem that doctrines could be developed for good ends, such as bringing people together, but at the risk of creating weapons with which to bludgeon others.

David: Quakers and Unitarian Universalists seem to have developed unifying doctrines without harm to anyone.

Donald: On the one hand is God’s plan for our lives; on the other is our plan to live our lives accordingly! Weaponizing does not enter into it unless we want it to.

Jay: Man has to find a way to relate to God, a divine Being. We have to find a way to operationalize God’s divine plan for our lives. So we develop our own ways, in groups (strength in numbers), to accomplish that.

Donald: The problem arises when we try to impose our ways on others.

KB: In South Africa, black Adventists tend to be viewed as whites in black skin! They eat differently, they dress differently (Western versus tribal), their music is different. They have many other distinctions from their fellow South Africans. The differences can be a barrier to reaching out and ministering to others. Yet the community holds even Adventists to some tribal customs. A man is expected to demonstrate that he can slaughter a cow. If one looks at it as thanksgiving for what our forefathers provided for us, it makes sense. But there are many similarly conflicting issues.

South Africa’s black middle class aspires to the Adventist kind of lifestyle but the rest may find it beautiful but say it is not for them.

Jay: One would think that the doctrine of a timeless and universal God would lead to unity rather than diversity. It is disconcerting to hear that it causes confusion and potential discord in a culture in which it did not originate.

Donald: I noticed on a visit to Africa that images of white people on the covers of Adventist publications had been replaced with images of black people. We should accept and celebrate this adaptation.

KB: I tell my family that Jesus came to die for them too and accepts them just as they are. The details can be worked out, and ought not to be stressed over. They have tribal obligations that should be honored, even if the obligations appear to go against Adventist doctrine. I don’t think God wants us to change who we are. God knows we are Africans and He accepts us as we are.

David: Indeed. The Way is open to everybody.

Donald: The dilemma is what to teach the children: The native culture or the adopted culture? If they are given faith-based higher education, it would seem to be at the expense of hitherto highly valued tradition.

KB: Zulu tradition favors polygamy. It’s a problem.

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