Doctrine: Reductionism vs. Wholism

Doctrine gives us rules to live by, and (to some extent) gives us an identity. Obedience and doctrine go together: The more rules, the more we have to obey, and the greater the risk of disobedience. But perhaps all rules can be summed up in the Golden Rule stated by Jesus:

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

The rule is “golden” because it is rich—the most comprehensive, the most complete doctrine. It summarizes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the unidoctrine. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus condensing rules—doctrine—down to core principles. He was often asked by the Pharisees to define in greater depth some rule, belief, regulation, or law of Judaism, but He never gave a detailed or complex answer. He is a minimalist, a principlist.

This is why I think Scripture remains relevant even in the postmodern era. Answers to questions can change, depending on the availability of data at any given time and by the degree of understanding at that time; whereas questions are timeless. 

God asked Adam: “Who told you you are naked?” and Moses: “What is that in your hand?” and Elijah: “What are you doing here?” and Jonah: “Do you have a right to be angry?” These questions have not grown old over the millennia. They are just as important and relevant to us today as they were to those individuals in ancient times. The answers may change with the times, but questions He asks for our own self-introspection—about the nakedness of Adam, about the tools He gave to Moses, about Elijah’s calling in life, and about the plight of the people around Jonah—never change. 

Unfortunately, we don’t want questions. We want answers. We want them so badly we will make them up if necessary; not from malice, but because human nature abhors a knowledge vacuum, and because we fear uncertainty more than we fear erroneous knowledge. This would not be so bad if we had a system, a mechanism, and the resolve to correct error. Without such a system and resolve, made-up knowledge becomes accepted, permanent, doctrine. This leaves us highly vulnerable.

Religious organizations have never shied away from providing answers. Things of the spirit are the most uncertain, the most demanding of knowledge, of answers. Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? What does God expect of me? What must I do to inherit eternal life? These and many other existential questions seem built into our very nature. 

Jesus told the disciples:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-20)

Jesus followed up with nearly 30 verses illustrating what He meant by saying He did not come to abolish law—doctrine, but to fulfill it. He took some specific laws/doctrines and generalized them into principles. It is the very opposite of what the Sadducees expected when they asked Jesus about the law regarding re-marriage of a widow. They expected a detailed analysis; He gave them a general principle. 

This still does not seem to explain what Jesus meant when He said He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. His mission and His messages seem to show the opposite: He was careless about the laws of Sabbath-keeping, ritual purification, and any number of other rules and customs constituting Jewish law. So in what sense can it be said that He was “fulfilling” that law?

If He had said simply that He came to fulfill the law and then conducted His mission as He did, then it would seem reasonable to say that the fulfilling of the law meant getting rid of it. But He seemed to scuttle that by saying that there would not be the slightest change in the law and that whoever doesn’t teach it the way it was would be the least in the kingdom of heaven. 

What kind of law was He talking about? As the passage unfolds, He contrasts time-honored viewpoints and traditional ideas with religious understanding of what a fulfilled law would look like. “The ancient prophets gave you laws that said this, but I tell you this,” He said.

Is it possible to build a religion around principles only? Around doctrinal simplification? Or does our identity demand more granularity? Scripture says:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

That’s about as simple and general as it gets. 

David: Is it possible that Jesus was being sarcastic in saying that He came to uphold the law, not to abolish it? I am tempted to think so because the statement is utterly at odds with His other statements and behavior as described in the Gospels. He strongly implies in other passages that to be least in the kingdom of heaven is the right place to be, and to be more righteous than the Pharisees is the wrong thing to be. It sounds like sarcasm.

Donald: A patient really wants to understand from his or her physician exactly what is going on concerning his or her condition, so s/he is not likely to be satisfied with a generalized answer. Jesus seldom gave a direct answer, and was often not a little obscure. But we want answers, and religious organizations will provide them even if Jesus won’t. In doing so, they define their identity. Members of most religions are guided more by doctrinal detail than by general principles. 

Jay: In a sense, Jesus did give straight answers about the particular laws He used to illustrate what He meant by His “fulfill, not abolish” statement. But He also made them harder to obey:  It is much harder to turn the other cheek than it is to take an eye for an eye.

But as for sarcasm: Righteousness is not at all a sin if it is based upon practicing the principled law of Jesus, as opposed to the rule-based law of religion. 

Donald: If we don’t like the answers we receive, we often ask our questions again, from a different angle. 

Don: Doctors see patients with a wide range of inquisitiveness, from the very curious who want to know everything, to those who don’t want to hear an explanation at all—who just want to be told what to do. There seems to be an even spread between these two extremes, though increasingly patients come loaded with information from the Internet (which is a good thing because it involves them in their own care and care decisions). 

KB: As I see it, Jesus wants us to know and understand what we are following and what we are doing, whether it is rules or principles. God doesn’t want us to pay tithes blindly. 

Jay: On the other hand, we are called to be like little children, whose hallmark is innocence and lack of understanding.

Donald: We trust that Christ knows our hearts and motives, which takes us back to principle rather than rules.

Don: Perhaps God messed up in not laying out the rules in absolute and unambiguous detail. 

Anonymous: We ask questions because we lack trust. 

KB: The Rich Young Ruler had a valid question. Jesus did not give him a detailed list of things to do to earn eternal life. 

Donald: If He did, we would be robots. 

David: Some people treat their doctor as a God whose word is sacrosanct. Whatever the doctor says, this patient will obey. So it would be sufficient for the doctor to tell such a trusting patient: “Take this pill and start leading a good life (stop smoking, stop drinking, eat a balanced and nutritious diet, and exercise daily).” But other patients treat the doctor as though they have doubts about his or her godliness: “You’re telling me to do or take this, but on the Internet I read something different.” Such a patient requires more detailed explanation. 

Don: Doctor God could demand of such a patient (especially one called Job): “Where were you when I went to medical school? Where were you when I was laboring over a cadaver dissection? Where were you when I was learning all the physiology and biochemistry and other things I had to learn and do in order to be a doctor?” 

Donald: A prescription today comes with a long list of warnings about possible side effects, drug interactions, and so on. If one were to read the detail one might decide not to take the pill! 

Don: Is it the same for things of the spirit? Do the details become frightening, disabling? 

Jay: How does evangelism tie in to the notion of a religion formed around principles, vs. around rules? What is the message of the evangelist? Public evangelism tends to be scripted. Some is Christ-centered. Some want to stress Christian principles. We have certain doctrines that help us to operationalize the principles. If a religion or denomination structures its evangelism in this way, does it risk losing its distinctive identity? 

Robin: If one is trying to say that we need humility—which is what the call to be as a little child is about—and knowledge, then Paul had this to say:

…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19)

But in the next several verses, Paul talks of spiritual gifts:

 (Ephesians 4:7) But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 


And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)

But with our human minds we will get to the point where we cannot understand it, and at that point we must rest in faith that His love and grace will make up for our deficiencies. So we cannot say that one is more important than the other in our daily lives. Grace saves us, but it does not mean that we eschew knowledge and stay in a permanent stage of childhood. But when we do reach a point beyond our understanding, then we must accept that our Father understands. 

Chris: Perhaps God has already revealed all that He wants us to know. Perhaps there isn’t more to it. We want to think there is, because in the garden of Eden we found out that there is more. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that there is nothing more that we need to know—that as long as we know what He tells us (which is simple enough) and live by it, nothing else matters. Indeed, if we all could live our lives as He did, what more could there be to learn? 

Mikiko: Jesus opened his Sermon the Mount with a series of nine statements that describe persons who are truly happy. In the first of these “happinesses,” Jesus said: “Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them.”​ (Matt. 5:3, NW; An American Translation.) So Jesus teaches people to be truly happy in life and to pray for God’s will to be done, to keep a focused eye, and more.

Anonymous: We chose our future in the garden of Eden. That’s why we’re in this world. We chose to know more. In the spiritual realm, faith is the key word. I don’t need to know anything and I can believe what is coming from God; and that is enough. I experience this in my own spiritual life. But with regard to daily life, we have been asking to know more and more since day 1. We want to know how to build, purify, heal,… everything.

Our problem is that we all left God’s way and look for other ways. If we just took God’s word! Worldly knowledge is a source of stress and misery, since we can’t help but want to know. But with God, we don’t need to know. Patients take the word of their doctor because they feel powerless, that they have no other choice. This is the curse we acquired at the Fall.

Donald: Churches say “We know more.”

Robin: People can get confused and even discouraged by the amount of knowledge their churches expect them to learn. 

Jay: The giving of oneself to Christ can have nothing to do with the specific doctrine of any church, otherwise what about all those who lived before that particular church was established? Baptism in a church has a strong implication of giving oneself to the church. As long as this is made clear to the people being baptized, it is OK, but there is great danger in tying any particular church doctrine to salvation. 

Anonymous: Good religious knowledge comes through experience more than through education. But worldly knowledge is acquired through education more than through experience. There is no need for an education with God. Churches should not be in the business of educating people about God. God is there to be experienced in people’s lives. He does not want to overwhelm us, but patiently to lead us to good knowledge through experience. 

Don: We still haven’t figured out what Jesus meant by His abolish/fulfill statement. To be continued…

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