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I recently read Strange Glory, an excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh (Knopf). I noticed an interesting phrase that kept appearing in the book: doctrine matters. I must have read it a dozen times. It could almost have been the title of the book.
The reason Marsh repeats this refrain so often is that the life and work of Bonhoeffer and others in that terrible time reveals how true it is.
We live in a time when doctrine doesn’t count for much, if anything. It’s one’s inner faith, one’s personal attachment to Christ that counts. Doctrine is, at best, a distant third or fourth in terms of perceived importance for the Christian church.
But in their time, Christians like Bonhoeffer, Niemoller, and others risked their lives for doctrinal truth. It was not just that these Christians found Hitler abhorrent, or that they were horrified at the treatment of the Jews. Their real fight was with the German church and its confessions, which demanded total allegiance to the Nazi regime. Can we pledge total allegiance to any other Fuhrer than Christ? Can the church exclude anyone by reason of race or ethnicity? Are the Jews God’s chosen people, and therefore to be respected and loved?
These were finally issues of doctrine. Marsh shows how the liberal Protestantism that reigned in Germany discounted both the Bible and the doctrines that were derived from it. Besides, most church-going people were doctrinally illiterate and were therefore not prepared to smell out the false doctrines that crept in. It can be said that false doctrine and ignorance of true doctrine became the cause of millions of deaths.
Doctrine matters. It matters immensely.
Teaching doctrine in the church today, even the CRC, has come to have a relatively low priority. I think it can be said that doctrinal ignorance is especially broad among youth, not for any fault of their own, but because it’s no longer a priority for parents and churches.
We are facing huge life or death issues in North American culture and politics: immigration, value of life, economic inequality, racism, to name just a few. They aren’t just matters of political opinion, but of doctrinal truth. Doctrines like the image of God, God’s measure of justice, ecclesiology, and the lordship of Jesus Christ are all deeply relevant and decisive.
To be doctrinally ignorant in a time of change and crisis is a very dangerous thing, as Bonhoeffer found out. It can literally be a matter of life or death.