So when believers disagree about doctrine—about their interpretations of what the Scripture says—how do we decide whether these disagreements are worth making an issue about?
A friend of mine, Tom Wheeler, wrote his PhD dissertation on that very question at the same time I was writing mine. For folks who are near Greenville, it’s available in the BJU library; for folks who aren’t, there’s interlibrary loan. 🙂 Tom looks at a number of ways we can discern which doctrines are most important, and better yet, he does so without killing you with boring dissertationish prose. It’s a valuable piece of work.
I won’t give away all his ideas, but here are a few—
- We can look at what the apostles emphasized in their sermons in the New Testament.
- We can look at the context of NT references to “the faith” or “doctrine” (e.g. 1Ti 6.3).
- We can look at NT confessions of faith (e.g. Mt 16.13-16).
There are other places we can look as well. And then we can compare all the doctrines indicated by those different methods and see where the substantial overlaps are.
I’d like to look more closely at the first suggestion: NT apostolic preaching. This idea isn’t original to Tom; earlier in the 20th century, C. H. Dodd nearly made a whole career out of the study of the NT “kerygma,” or preaching—though I would disagree with a whole bunch of his conclusions. And the concept was studied long before Dodd as well.
Why would the apostolic preaching help us answer the question? Several reasons—
- Directed by the Spirit himself, the apostles were ordained by Jesus himself to relay inerrantly the facts and significance of his earthly ministry (Jn 14.25-26; Jn 15.26-27; 16.12-15). They’re going to relate the most important stuff, and they’re going to get it right.
- While several apostles—Matthew, John, Peter, Paul—wrote portions of the New Testament, not everything they wrote was of primary doctrinal importance, as Paul himself said.
- But there is a record of several sermons, almost all of them preached to unbelievers with the purpose of defining this new “religion.” If the sermon is definitional, it’s going to highlight the uniquely identifying ideas.
- All the apostolic sermons are contained in the
book of Acts.
- Peter preaches several—
- The foundational explanation of Christianity at Pentecost (Acts 2.14-36)
- The popular explanation of the healing of the lame man in the temple (Acts 3.12-26)
- The official explanation before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4.8-12)
- The Sanhedrin defense of the apostles’ continued preaching (Acts 5.29-32)
- The introduction of Christianity to Cornelius, the first Gentile inquirer (Acts 10.34-43)
- As does Paul—
- His first “synagogue homily” in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13.16-41). This is likely very similar to all his later synagogue preaching, which is not recorded for us.
- His sermon to a pagan audience at Mars Hill in Athens, which is rhetorically very different from his synagogue sermon but evidences similar doctrinal content (Acts 17.22-31).
- His “farewell address” to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20.17-35). This is unique in that the audience consists of believers.
- His defense of his ministry to the angry Jewish mob in Jerusalem (Acts 22.1-21)
- His defense before Felix, the Judean governor (Acts 24.10-21)
- His report to Festus, the new governor, and Agrippa, the figurehead king, after his appeal to Caesar (Acts 26.1-29).
- Peter preaches several—
The last two are different in that they are mostly personal reports of his conversion experience, but they do have doctrinal content as well.
There are other sermons in Acts, most notably Stephen’s defense before his execution (ch 7), but since Stephen is not an apostle, we’ll set him aside.
Now. What we can do is list the doctrinal content of each of these sermons and then compare the lists to see whether there’s a pattern. Do the apostles emphasize the same doctrines throughout their recorded preaching? If they do, then we can argue that these are the defining doctrines, without which Christianity is not Christianity at all—and that they are thus worth fighting for.
So here’s your homework. I’ve made a chart for you. Download it and fill it out by reading each of the sermons noted above. Next time we’ll talk about what we’ve found.