At the beginning of his journey down from the mountain of enlightenment, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra runs across an old saint living in the forest. The saint confesses to Zarathustra, “Now I love God: men, I do not love. Man is a thing too imperfect for me. Love to man would be fatal to me.”
By contrast to the saint’s view, it has long been the tradition of a major strand of American Christianity that engagement in practical ministry is an important way to express one’s love and devotion for God. But the once vibrant synthesis between doctrine and practice seems to be under serious threat.
In modern times, things have been different: “we take for granted that there must be an absolute divide between vital Christian experience on the one hand, and careful doctrinal theology on the other,” writes Fred Sanders. “To us, action and reflection seem mutually exclusive, especially when it comes to Christian faith.”
Indeed, many post-modern evangelicals or participants in the emerging church movement eschew the importance of doctrine, hearkening rather to the primary importance of acts of love. But either extreme, that doctrine can be separated from practice or vice versa, skews the great Christian tradition in troubling ways. The “absolute divide” between doctrine and practice is a false dichotomy.
Augustine wrote a handbook on faith, hope, and love, illustrating that the Christian religion involves not only things to be believed and hoped for, but also things to be done. The Apostle Paul advised Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
One of the best examples of the way to relate doctrine and practice in my opinion is the symbol of Reformed Christianity, the Heidelberg Catechism. Dr. Lyle Bierma, professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, writes of the catechism, “The staying power and worldwide popularity of the Heidelberg Catechism can best be explained by this marvelous blend of doctrine and piety.”
For more on how creeds and confessions can function in a contemporary context, check out Carl Trueman’s essay in Reformation21, “A Good Creed Seldom Goes Unpunished.”