Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 3

For conservative Christians to conserve the whole counsel of God, it is necessary that they know the relative importance of the various Christian doctrines to each other. This is because not all doctrines are equally important.

We know this because Jesus told us the greatest commandment of all is to love God with the whole heart. This means that it is the most important commandment, stemming from the the most important doctrine: Yahweh is God, Yahweh alone. If this is the greatest commandment, then there are others not as great, others of lesser importance. Certainly every doctrine found in the Word is important. But when weighed against each other, some are more important than others.

Therefore, believers committed to the whole counsel of God must be able to categorise doctrine as fundamental, secondary and peripheral. They must have a taxonomy of doctrine, and be able to order, arrange and classify teachings according to their importance.

Why is this important? For at least three reasons.

1) It balances our study and teaching.  To effectively teach the whole counsel of God and pass it on to others, we must understand how the doctrines of the Word relate to each other, how they fit into the entire system, how each doctrine functions. A teacher who does not have a concept of the relative weight of doctrines will become like a DIY mechanic – pulling bits and pieces out of an engine, tinkering and fiddling, giving the appearance of competence, but ultimately doing more harm than good.

If we do not know the grand design of God’s Word, we will never be able to relate the parts to the whole. They will either become an impossibly tangled up mess of facts, or they will become little ends in themselves. Not knowing the relative importance of doctrines to each other leads to two opposite and equally harmful errors.

One is the error of minimalism, mentioned in an earlier post. The Christian here decides that the whole counsel of God seems like too much trouble to know, classify or work out, so he will relegate most of it to the place of ‘non-issues’ and focus only on the gospel and its fundamental doctrines.

The other is the error of specialism, where the person becomes so fond of (or consumed with) a particular doctrine that he weights it far heavier than it deserves, artificially trying to make it more important than it is, magnifying certain teachings out of all proportion, and minimising others. Certainly the Pharisees had become specialists in a certain sense.

Matthew 23:23-24 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24 “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

We all know specialists who have magnified apologetics, or eschatology, or spiritual warfare, or spiritual gifts, or evangelism, or Calvinism, or Bible versions, out of all proportion. We have a limited amount of time on this earth to study and to teach. We must determine how much attention we are going to give each doctrine, leaning more heavily on what is most important, ‘without leaving the others undone’.

2) It helps us pick our battles. Conservatives battle against false doctrine because it undermines the whole counsel of God. However, because we do not weight all doctrines equally, we do not fight for them equally either. A taxonomy of doctrine leads to the understanding of what to battle, when, and how vigorously. A conservative Christian must be able to see if a false teaching is catastrophic, urgent, isolated, or tolerable. In other words, arising out of a taxonomy of doctrine is a corresponding taxonomy of militancy toward error.

An error can threaten the gospel itself, making it catastrophic to believe it. An error might not threaten the gospel, but so skew the entire system of doctrine as to be a very serious error. An error might not skew the whole system, but be significant enough to present real differences in doctrine and practice. An error might be over a peripheral teaching (say the identity of the sons of God in Genesis 6), one that should not seriously affect fellowship – a ‘tolerable’ error. For each type of error there is a type of response, ranging from the censuring of apostates commanded in  2 John to the friendly parrying of ideas about Genesis 6 between two believers.

A conservative Christian can see what an error does to the whole system, where it is heading, and where it may lead. The irony of the minimalists who want to conserve only the fundamentals is that, lacking a holistic view of doctrine, they become unaware of how, very often, errors in secondary doctrines by implication deny the fundamental doctrines.

Further, to grow in this mindset is to be able to distinguish between one articulation of a doctrine and another. One man might word his understanding of Calvinism or Arminianism so as to constitute an isolated error. Another articulation could constitute an urgent error. The way a teacher relates the doctrine to the gospel and to the whole system of faith can determine how one must respond to it.

Once again, we have limited time on this earth. We must pick our battles and the ‘hills we will die on’. Conservatives do not fight for a finger if the beating heart is under threat.

3) Finally, this weighting of doctrine informs how we fellowship with other Christians, the subject of the next post.

How do we come to understand the importance of doctrines relative to each other? Once again, it requires training. It is helpful to study systematic theology, Old & New Testament theology, historical theology, biblical theology, along with studies and surveys of books of the Bible. How long does this take? At least a few years to build a solid foundation. Not everyone needs to be a theologian, but every Christian should understand some basic theology. Not everyone needs to be an expert (though we do need some experts), but everyone should at least aim for competence. It is the role of the Christian family, the local church, and on certain levels, educational institutions to build this understanding into Christians.

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