Acton Institute Powerblog

Doctrine and Practice

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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.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • We presbyterian reformed like to think we have the best ships in the fleet. Unfortunately we seldom leave the harbor. The work is getting done with ships that we consider unfit to sail.

    David Hays
    Grand Coteau, Louisiana

  • In my experience, I find there is generally something so inherently wrong in Nietzsche’s work that engagement with his thought, or the followers of his thought, is not worth the trouble. Here the fault is elementary. The person who confesses to Zarathustra that he loves God, but does not love man, is not a saint.

    Responding to the core concern of his post, I am in full agreement with Jordan J. Ballor that, “The ‘absolute divide’ between doctrine and practice is a false dichotomy.” I would say that when that happens there is something wrong either with the doctrine or with the practice.

  • David Pendleton

    It is interesting to note that the great expounder of the Superman, Nietzsche, himself suffered a mental collapse before his death. As the general account goes, Nietzsche witnessed the senseless beating of an old tired horse, ran to the horse, threw his arms up around the horse’s neck, interposing himself between the defenseless creature and the brutal owner, and wept bitterly. Novelist Fiodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment captures an amazingly similar scene in which a character witnesses the whipping of a horse. While Nietzsche’s voluminous published thought may not have linked compassion with his otherwise over-arching philosophical view of the world, his own actions show the intuitive connection inherent in even fallen human nature.