Only time will tell whether these are the best or worst of times for doctrine. On the one hand, many church leaders seem to sense that evangelicals must become reacquainted with Scripture as understood and taught throughout history. On the other hand, surveys indicate that they may struggle to convince younger believers that God's Word trumps experience and prevailing cultural norms. But new efforts to promote doctrinal formation in evangelical churches are trying to overcome Western culture's aversion to theological precision and exclusivity.
Belief in God remains somewhat stable among American evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29, according to data released in February by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Across all age groups, around 80 percent believe in life after death. About the same percentage trust the Bible as the inspired or literal Word of God, though that number spikes between 5 and 10 percentage points starting around age 60.
But the data begins to alarm when you examine other key doctrines. Pluralism in particular has ravaged young evangelicals' confidence in Jesus Christ's claims that he alone shows the way to the Father in heaven. Asked whether many religions can lead to eternal life, 52 percent of evangelicals from the so-called millennial generation agreed. Only 43 percent said Christianity is the one true faith that leads to eternal life. It doesn't help that barely more than half of these young evangelicals read the Bible weekly.
The Pew survey accords with findings from the National Study on Youth and Religion, analyzed by sociologists Christian Smith and Patricia Snell for Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. They observed a fascinating side effect of Western society's value on diversity. Instead of appreciating differences, emphasizing diversity tends to devalue distinctive beliefs. So all religions tend to look similar to someone weaned on Western notions of tolerance and wary of exclusive claims. Nothing is more foundational to American education than tolerance, according to Adam Kotsko, visiting assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College.
"In fact, in my experience my students' commitment to keeping an open mind and valuing others' opinions is so strong that it's often difficult to convince them to express straightforward disagreement with each other," he wrote for Inside Higher Ed in a column advocating a theological approach to teaching Christianity. "We all of course want to avoid the nightmare scenario of a professor who grades on the basis of agreement and attempts to 'indoctrinate' students on that basis, but even such a person would most likely wind up doing a disservice to his cause by definitively turning students off to Christianity due to their very healthy aversion to close-mindedness."
It might appear, then, that doctrine has no pull in this age that shuns indoctrination. Indeed, Smith and Snell find that young adults hold their religious beliefs in abstract, "mentally checked off and filed away." Doctrine does not determine their lives. Religion is about being good and living a good life, not believing the right things. But this approach draws a false dichotomy between belief and behavior. In fact, the idea that religion boils down to good works is itself doctrinal, if erroneous from an orthodox Christian perspective. It makes a doctrinal distinction by privileging Jesus' ethical teachings over his work on the Cross and in the Resurrection. It rejects Jesus' interpretation of his sacrifice as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Young adults who buy into this view follow a well-worn path trod by liberal theologians in the last two centuries.
"The likes of Adolf von Harnack, Albrect Ritschl, Wilhelm Hermann, and Harry Emerson Fosdick would be proud," Smith and Snell write. "People, it is clear, need not study liberal Protestant theology to be well inducted into its worldview, since it has simply become part of the cultural air that many Americans now breathe."
No matter how hard we may try, no one can avoid doctrine. So no matter how bad its reputation, doctrine is a necessary component of Christian discipleship. The March Christianity Today cover story by Darren Meeks notes that Christians today prefer spiritual disciplines and works of mercy to discussing doctrine. Yet however valuable those acts may be, they cannot replace doctrine for spiritual formation.
Publishers have planned to release several resources that call Christians back to their doctrinal foundations. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears wrote Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, scheduled for an April release. J. I. Packer, a self-described catechist, has teamed with Gary Parrett to write Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way. Christians who ignore catechesis, or religious instruction, simply cede the task to teachers, professors, peers, and media. Kevin DeYoung tries to rehabilitate the Heidelberg Catechism as a teaching tool in The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism.
"The chief theological task now facing the Western church is not to reinvent or to be relevant, but to remember," DeYoung writes. "We must remember the old, old story. We must remember the faith once delivered to the saints. We must remember the truths that spark reformation, revival, and regeneration. And because we want to remember all this, we must also remember—if we are fortunate enough to have ever heard of them in the first place—our creeds, confessions, and catechisms."
No one writes with more passion about this topic than Joshua Harris. He testifies in Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters that he didn't always see doctrine as life-giving. He chased after dynamic experiences, which seemed more exciting than mere words on a page. But then he saw friends and mentors who walked the old paths toward a closer relationship with Jesus based on growing knowledge of what he taught and did. He determined to dig deep into doctrine for himself.
"We're either building our lives on the reality of what God is truly like and what he's about, or we're basing our lives on our own imagination and misconceptions," Harris writes. "We're all theologians. The question is whether what we know about God is true."
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and co-author of the forthcoming book, A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (Zondervan).
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Previous Theology in the News columns available on our site include:
Dearth of Jobs, Death to the Family? | Where others have failed, the church must meet society's looming challenge. (Feb. 22, 2010)
Why Pope John Paul II Whipped Himself | New book reopens questions on self-denial and "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions." (Feb. 8, 2010)
Theodicy in Light of Eternity | Theologians see hope for the future based on the past. (Jan. 25, 2010)
Finding Meaning in the Pentateuch | Powerful endorsements bolster John Sailhamer's new tome on the Bible's first five books. (January 11, 2010)