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What is doctrine? Basic belief & big gift of love

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What is doctrine? Basic belief & big gift of love
“Doctrine” = “teaching” or “instruction.” He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son”. -2 John 1:9

What is doctrine? Basic Belief & Big Gift of Love

Doctrine as Policy

When I hear the word “doctrine,” I think of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) that declared North & South America closed to colonization. In this case, the “doctrine” is a policy statement backed up by authority. Over time is has come to mean an agreed-upon set of principles or procedures pertaining to a specific area of philosophy, economics, or religion.

Doctrine in the Bible

Our interest is in religious doctrine, which all the world’s religions have usually based upon the scriptures they honor. For Christians, that Scripture is the Bible.

The King James Bible uses the word “doctrine” 51 times mostly translated from the Greek word διδαχή English “didache,” meaning “teaching” or “instruction.”

The Bible does not use its authority to pronounce upon any single teaching as “a doctrine,” but does make it clear that some teaching is good and some evil. But whether teaching is good or evil depends on how it aligns with what the Bible says. It is a decisive test.

Where “authority” regarding doctrine comes in is in the way that Jesus* taught: (an asterisk* after a name indicates that person appears as one of the 200 short biographies in SPIRITUAL LIVES)

And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes. – Mark 1:21

The same authority by which He called out demons, healed the sick and calmed the wind and wave was in His teaching, and He passed that authority on to His disciples (Luke 9:1) and (Matthew 18:8)

Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Apostolic Doctrine

We call this directive from Jesus “Apostolic authority,” and He gave it because the New Testament was not in place. Jesus knew that His words were from God and that the devil constantly opposed them.

He warned His disciples to beware of the doctrine of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 16:12) and later the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira of the doctrines of Balaam*, the Nicolaitans, and Jezebel (Revelation 2).

We see a progression here. Jesus had overcome the doctrines of the scribes and Pharisees, but the devil never quits. He was already introducing old wickedness to the churches via newly named doctrines of demons as St. Paul* alerted Timothy:

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;

Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;

Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. 1 Timothy 4:1-3

Here we get a hint as to what some of these evil doctrines are as he teaches young Bishop Timothy to warn his church against them and to steep himself in the study of sound doctrine.

All of this occurred before the New Testament was in place. Even so, by the end of the first century doctrine has become more than “teaching” and moved closer to becoming dogma.

Didache: Informal doctrine

While the New Testament gives general instructions for church worship and government there was an immediate need for practical procedures and clarity on what was acceptable and what was not. This came in the Didache, the Greek word for doctrine.

The Didache (80-123): (Full title being The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations) begins by identifying Christianity as the Way of Life and virtue, in contrast with the wicked Way of Death.

This is a contrast Jesus* Himself made in the Gospel of Matthew and has raised the question of whether Matthew himself had a role in the composition of this foundational teaching document. More importantly, it attaches to doctrine the property of direction, of leading to Life or death.

The immediate job of the Didache was to give guidelines for Christian ethics, church organization, and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

It contains a written catechism and speaks to the roles of bishops and deacons and their authority. Baptism was by full immersion, but sprinkling was allowed if that was not possible.

While the order of service would continually develop in the coming centuries, the Didache provided a solid scriptural basis for worship, including the Lord’s Prayer and prayers to accompany Communion. All of this was essential to the full development of doctrine as a standard for believers.

What is important here is the requirement of consensus of believers in evaluating teaching and declaring it an official doctrine or not.

This was not a top-down process but an accumulated consensus of local congregations.

Formal, Official Doctrine

When Constantine* became Roman emperor and Christianity the official religion, there now was a mechanism in place for making top-down decisions, and the Church needed to set doctrine on the nature of Jesus Christ* and the relationship among the Trinity.

There was an Empire-wide division between Believers who believed in Jesus’ divinity and those who did not, the Arians.

To settle this issue, Constantine* invited 1800 bishops to the Council of Nicaea in 325.

They condemned Arianism (that Jesus was not fully divine) and coined the term homoousios (Greek: “of one

substance”) affirming Jesus’ divinity and defining orthodoxy in the Nicene Creed.

This creed gives us the first definitive and official doctrines of Christianity, and they all hold to this day. The Nicene Creed is based on the doctrine of the Trinity. Here is a summary of these official doctrines:

There is one God who exists in three persons.

  • God the Father is the creator of all things.

  • Jesus, as God the Son, suffered and died as a fully human being to save other humans from sin.

  • Jesus rose from the dead and is seated in Heaven as the Son of God.

  • God the Holy Spirit gives life to all things.

  • The Holy Spirit inspires people and shows them the will of God.

This creed has been foundational in the definition of Christianity to this day. Those who do not accept it, particularly the belief in the Trinity, are not considered Christians; among them are

  • Quakers,

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses,

  • Oneness Pentecostals,

  • Christian Science practitioners and

  • Mormons.

In the late 20th century “non-denominational” churches became popular, their identification as Christian coming through their acceptance of the Nicene Creed.

Medieval doctrine

During the Middle Ages, the establishment of monasteries brought forth a greater discussion of doctrine, and

Thomas Aquinas*(1225-1274) wrote the Summa Theologica which has become the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. (It contains 3,125 articles.)

What was taking place was the gradual translation of the Bible into the language of the people. As people began to read the Bible, they saw differences between what it said and what the Church was doing.

More importantly, people saw the Church doing things that were not in the Bible or even contrary to it.

Protestant doctrine

As the Bible became more available and valued, reformers like Martin Luther*, John Calvin*, and Thomas Cranmer* challenged the doctrine of the Church in the 16th century. Their “protests” against the Church’s authority resulted in the Protestant Reformation (1517), which saw the Bible as the final authority, not the Pope.

They developed Protestant Confessions, or statements of faith, like the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1571) and the Westminster Confession (1646), that clearly stated doctrines for their church. Common among them were the “5 sola’s”

  • Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)

  • Sola fide (“by faith alone”)

  • Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)

  • Solus Christus or Solo Christo (“Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”)

  • Soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”)

Roman Catholic doctrine updates

The Roman Catholic Church did not accept the sola’s and began a counter-Reformation (1563) to reassert and affirm Catholic doctrine.

There were no new Catholic doctrines proclaimed until the 19th century when the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and Papal Infallibility (1870) become dogmas and lastly, the Assumption into Heaven of Mary (1950).

How many doctrines are there?

The overall count of existing doctrines is hard to pin down and ranges from the six stated in the Nicene Creed to the 3,125 examined by Thomas Aquinas.*

The Gospel Project has issued a booklet called “The 99 Essential Doctrines” organized around seven large subjects:

  • God’s Revelation

  • God

  • Creation

  • Fall

  • Redemption

  • The Church

  • Restoration

Essential and Nonessential Christian Beliefs

While all of these are of interest, all are not essential, and everyone does not need to be a theologian.

Charles Spurgeon pointed out that the scribes and Pharisees knew their doctrine, but doctrine to Mary Magdalene was of less concern that the grass under her feet. She loved Jesus, and that is #1.

Why doctrine matters

Kathleen Nielson writes succinctly on why doctrine is important to women. The principles she mentions are instructive to us all:

  • Doctrine Summarizes God’s Word

  • Doctrine Guarantees the Health of God’s Church

  • Your doctrine will determine how you live your life.

Healthy doctrine, far from being a cold set of propositions, is God’s gracious means of letting his people learn and live and share his gospel truth.-– Kathleen Nielson

In St. Paul’s letter to Timothy, the Apostle powerfully states the essential link between the Scripture and doctrine and how it benefits us:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17

We value good doctrine in our personal lives. It is essential there but even more so where we worship as a church:

Like a mighty army moves the church of God;

brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.

We are not divided, all one body we,

one in hope and DOCTRINE, one in charity.


Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,

with the cross of Jesus going on before.

Sabine Baring-Gould, 1834-1924

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