A Primer for Christian Doctrine

A Primer for Christian Doctrine

by Jonathan R. Wilson


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Penned by a Christian teacher who has led thousands of students through the unfamiliar terrain of systematic theology, A Primer for Christian Doctrine serves as a friendly guide to theology's topics, debates, and terminology. Telling you what you need to know as you begin your study of theology or doctrine, the book is an ideal companion to more comprehensive texts.

After a brief introduction defending the continued need for doctrine, Jonathan Wilson clearly and concisely maps out each of the main topics of Christian belief in separate chapters. He also traces the differing emphases of theologians while suggesting reasons for their differences.

Whether as a first taste of theology or as a readable summary of its present state, Wilson's Primer for Christian Doctrine will be an invaluable resource for students and small groups pursuing a deeper knowledge of what Christians believe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802846563
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 05/02/2005
Pages: 143
Sales rank: 354,039
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.36(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Primer for Christian Doctrine

By Jonathan R. Wilson

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-4656-4

Chapter One


As you begin your study of Christian doctrine, it would be helpful for you to know what Christian doctrine is all about. How is Christian doctrine different from studying the Bible? How is doctrine related to practical issues of the Christian life? What is the relationship between doctrine and the history of the church? What is the relationship between Christian doctrine and other disciplines like philosophy, sociology, or physics?

The best way to learn what Christian doctrine is, is to study it. As you study it, you will find that your understanding will deepen and your answers to the questions above will develop. Sometimes you will learn to ask better questions and new questions. Growing intellectually and spiritually is not always a matter of finding answers; sometimes it is a matter of learning what the important questions are.

Even though you will learn more about Christian doctrine by studying it, it is important to at least have some orientation to it as you begin. The simplest way to understand doctrine is to think of it as "teachings." So, Christian "doctrine" studies the teachings of Christianity. These teachings are rooted in the Bible and have been developed by the church over the centuries. Some doctrines have been believed and taught by most Christians, in mostplaces and times. Others have generated significant disagreements among Christians. One of the tasks of learning doctrine is to learn to distinguish the essentials from the nonessentials. And of course, not all Christians agree on what is essential and what is nonessential.

Why Study Doctrine?

If Christians have not always agreed on doctrine, then you may ask, "Why study doctrine?" Wouldn't it be better just to ignore doctrine and get on with the practical issues of the Christian life? This kind of question and the attempt to avoid doctrine ignores several important factors.

First, there is simply no way to separate the Christian life from what we believe. How we live is connected to what we believe. Sometimes this connection is clear and well thought out. At other times it is unclear and not thought out. At still other times, how we live contradicts what we claim to believe. The study of doctrine helps Christians check the connection between how we live and what we believe. That process can be painful when we discover that we are not really living out what we say we believe. At other times the process can be delightful, when we discover the reasons for why we live the way we do. This is the process of growing up in the faith.

Secondly, to be a Christian is to be a theologian. Even if you are not a Christian, to study Christianity or to consider it means that you must for a time be a theologian. Theology is basically the study of Christian doctrine. (There are more distinctions to theology that I will introduce later.) If you think about God at all, you are doing theology, because theology is the study of God (from the Greek Theos, "God"). So the question is not whether you are a theologian or not. Rather, the question is whether you are going to be careful and informed, or careless and ignorant, in your thinking about God.

Thirdly, the study of doctrine helps Christians pass the gospel on faithfully and accurately to the next generation of believers. The study of doctrine also helps us present the good news of Jesus Christ clearly and faithfully to those who do not believe. The mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel - the good news of Jesus Christ. We can do this only if we have thought clearly and carefully about that gospel.

Jesus Christ himself exemplifies this concern for doctrine, for right thinking about God. He was constantly challenging and correcting people's ideas about God. Many of his public encounters with the scribes and Pharisees were intellectual contests. Who would win the allegiance and the faith of the people who were listening? Would it be Jesus or someone else? Likewise, Jesus' times with his followers were often times of instruction in the truth about God. Paul also calls Christians to guard the gospel and to think carefully about God. Over the centuries Christians have followed Jesus' example and heeded Paul's call. The result is Christian doctrine.

Why study Christian doctrine? Because we want to connect what we believe with how we live. Because we can't avoid Christian doctrine if we are going to consider the claims of Christianity. Because we who are Christians are called to careful thinking by the mission we have been given, by the example of Jesus, Paul, and the church.

Theology and Doctrine

Earlier I introduced the word "theology." Because theology is the study of God, it is possible to have theology that isn't Christian. That is, it is possible to study the doctrines of other religions. So, for example, we could study Jewish theology. One complication may be found in the argument that theology is primarily a Christian development and that when we apply it to other religions, we are imposing on them a Christian notion. That argument need not concern us here, because we will be concerned in this book simply with Christian theology and Christian doctrine.

Even when we restrict theology to Christianity, there are still some significant distinctions. Because theology broadly means the study of doctrine or teachings, we can talk about the "theology of Paul," "New Testament theology," "Old Testament theology," and "biblical theology." If we study the history of Christian doctrines, we call that "historical theology." Some will speak also of "practical theology" when they study the application of Christian doctrine to practices of the church, such as Christian living or pastoral theology. The applications of the term "theology" are almost endless.

In this book we are concerned with theology and Christian doctrine as the systematic study and presentation of Christian teachings. That study involves the teaching of the Bible, the history of doctrines, and even how we practice our faith. So as we study Christian doctrine, we will not be setting aside these other theologies (Paul, NT, historical, etc.). Instead, we will be incorporating them into our purpose as it develops.

To this point I have been referring to theology as the study of God. Now it is time to broaden the term a bit, because we Christians believe that Christianity is not only about God, it is also about humankind. And if God is the creator and redeemer of the universe, then theology is ultimately about everything. That is obviously a project that we will never complete. Nevertheless, we are called by God to begin that task with faith in God's provision, with humility about our own abilities, and in community with other Christians.

Doctrines and Disagreements

As you approach the study of Christian doctrine, you probably have an implicit, unexamined theology that you have absorbed from Christians you have known - your church, your family, your friends. One of the disorienting experiences of studying doctrine more carefully and explicitly is discovering that Christians do not all believe exactly the same way. Of course, you know this deep down, but studying doctrine brings it to the surface and makes you face it. Moreover, studying theology will increase the number of questions you have. Some of your questions will be answered, but new, more difficult ones may arise.

Actually, we should expect these disagreements and difficulties. After all, theology is the study of God and the world. If we can't understand ourselves or the world fully, how can we expect to understand God fully? Of course there are going to be disagreements. At the same time, because we Christians believe that God has revealed Godself to us, we can approach the study of God with confidence. At the conclusion of this part of your study, you will know more about differences among Christians, but you will also know more about agreements among Christians. One of the aims of Christian doctrine is that your understanding of God and the world will be richer. That will happen as you learn how other Christians view God and the world.

The Method of Theology

"Method" can mean a lot of things. Here I simply mean how we do theology. Some theologians think that the best way to learn the method of theology is simply to do it, so they provide very little if any introduction to how to do theology. This doesn't mean they don't have a method, it simply means they don't want to see the method as something that can be separated from actually doing theology. Other theologians think it is important for you to have some grasp of method before you begin to do theology, otherwise you may feel lost and never really figure out what is going on. To help you understand the issues of method in theology, we will consider three topics: structure, sources, and authority.

Although theology concerns itself with everything, a presentation of Christian doctrine has to begin somewhere and display some sort of coherent pattern. That is the question of structure. Theologians must also make decisions about the sources for their theology. To what extent will they draw on the Bible, church history, experience, social conditions, and other disciplines such as philosophy? That is the question of sources. At the same time, theologians must also decide how much weight to give the various elements of theology. Will they weigh their various sources equally, or will one have greater weight? If two sources are in conflict, which one rules over the other? That is the question of authority.

These three - structure, sources, and authority - are intertwined. Where a person begins her presentation of doctrine may not reflect the final authority. For example, to make a connection with students a teacher may begin with experience, but the authority that guides her account of doctrine may be the Bible. Some theologians make their decisions about these issues very clear and explicit, usually at the beginning of their work. Others incorporate these decisions into their presentations so that you learn them as you learn doctrine.

One of your first goals as you study doctrine should be to discern the structure, sources, and authority of the theology you are studying. You may revise your judgment later, but it is always helpful to begin with some provisional understanding. To help you accomplish that goal, we will consider each of these in more detail.


There is no set pattern for the presentation of Christian doctrine. If you study several theologians, you may discover some similarities in pattern. Although theologians choose different starting points and structures, in the end most cover the same doctrines, even though they do so in different ways.

The starting point for teaching doctrine varies among theologians. Some start with experience and build an understanding of doctrine that reflects on our experience. Their presentation may clarify, correct, and expand the experience with which they started. Others start with the Bible, developing its teaching in a systematic way and making connections with our lives. Still others start with the history of theology and the teaching of the church, then move to the Bible and experience. Today, some theologians begin their study of doctrine with social conditions, such as injustice and poverty, and then explore how Christianity responds to those conditions.

Theologians also make decisions about how to present Christian doctrine. What order should the presentation take? Where should various doctrines be located? Most theologians begin with an introduction to their theology, where they make explicit some of the decisions that we are considering. Sometimes this presentation is very brief, often because the theologian wants you to learn about method in the midst of doing theology. Other theologians provide an extensive introduction, because they want you to understand the method before you begin to do theology.


As theologians make decisions about structure, they are also making decisions about "sources." I am using the term broadly here to include not only the sources of guidance and insight a theologian might use, but also sources of challenge or opposition to Christian doctrine. Often decisions about the use of sources are tied to decisions about authority, but the relationship is not always straightforward, as we will see below when we consider authority in Christian doctrine. The way a theologian uses sources is typically tied to judgments about the authority of the source.

Roughly speaking (there are almost always exceptions to any general statement about theologians), the more "conservative" theologians are, the more they will use the Bible as a source. For some theologians, Christian doctrine is primarily the systematic presentation of the teaching found throughout the Bible. So, for example, a theologian might gather the teaching on creation from Genesis, the Psalms, Isaiah, the letters of Paul and Peter, as well as other biblical passages, and systematize these teachings and present them in contemporary thought forms. Other theologians use the Bible more indirectly, treating it as the source of a vision of God and the world. The theologian then develops this vision as an account of Christian doctrine. Still other theologians may use the Bible only occasionally as a source, judging it to be the product of earlier ages where people believed things about the world that we no longer believe.

Roughly speaking (again), the more "liberal" theologians are, the more they will use experience as a source. For such theologians, Christian doctrine is the development of symbols that represent our experience as people of faith. The teaching we find in Scripture gives us the symbols that previous generations found useful for representing their experience. Today, we may find other symbols more effective. So, for example, in the Bible we may find sin captured by the idea of breaking God's law. Today, however, such an idea, such a symbol, does not effectively express our experience. Thus, the task of theology is to find a new symbol that effectively expresses our experience.

Some theologians will place great weight on the history of doctrine or tradition as a source for theology. Over the centuries the church has developed statements of doctrine called creeds, confessions, and catechisms. "Creed" usually refers to a statement developed by the church before the various splits in the church. "Confession" typically refers to a statement produced by one particular tradition. A catechism is a statement developed by a particular tradition for use in teaching the full scope of doctrine believed by that tradition. It is used primarily to prepare believers for baptism, confirmation, and church membership. For some church traditions, these statements are essential to the work of theology. Most Christians accept the earliest creeds of the church, such as the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. Other traditions look to confessions and catechisms that were developed within their own history. For example, some of the churches that trace their heritage back to John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer of the sixteenth century, may look to the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession and Catechism. Recently, the Catholic Church has produced a new catechism for its members.

Not all theologians make use of the history of Christian doctrine in their theology. Just as some theologians regard the Bible as a product of previous ages where the world was viewed differently than it is viewed today, so also some theologians regard creeds, confessions, and catechisms as "time-bound" and "culture-bound" statements that are of little if any use to us today in a new time and culture.

In recent decades an increasing number of theologians have turned as a source for theology to social conditions, including poverty, injustice, oppression, and marginalization. Drawing on biblical texts such as Exodus (God frees the enslaved Israelites), the OT prophets (who condemn the oppression of widows, orphans, and the poor), and Jesus' ministry to the poor and outcast, these theologians make race, class, and gender important categories for theology. Most of them can be loosely grouped together as liberation theologians because their theology emphasizes the socially liberating power of the gospel.


Excerpted from A Primer for Christian Doctrine by Jonathan R. Wilson Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
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