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The Biggest Idea (part 1)

Doctrine is huge. Bigger than life, in the minds of many. Too much for feeble minds on Sunday morning, say others. Here's how to keep your feet on the ground when preaching about the things of God.

Preaching Today: What's the difference between a doctrine and all the other ideas taught in Scripture?

Haddon Robinson: In some ways, you could say all the ideas of the Bible make up doctrine. Usually when we think of doctrine, we think of the great affirmations in the Nicene Creed, the affirmations most Christians agree to and embrace. Different churches have doctrines that distinguish them from others, but on a basic level, when you talk about the great doctrines of the Christian faith, you're thinking of those expressed in the ancient creeds.

Do you resonate with the phrase "Doctrines are the most important ideas from the most important Book"?

Yes, I would agree with that very readily, though when you talk about the "most important" ideas, that begs for some definition. There are doctrines that most Christian groups agree with, and I would say they are the outstanding ideas from the Scriptures.

One of the problems people have with doctrinal preaching is that it is often done in an abstract way that doesn't seem to impact life. But ultimately, the most important things we embrace are ideas about God and God's relationship to us, and out of those flow things that affect our lives.

So I've got to realize these big ideas of Scripture actually do affect my life?

Yes, and they may affect what I think God is about in the world. If I believe the Bible is a book of remedies for practical problems, that's one approach. If I believe the Bible is a revelation of God and the major thing it's doing is to reveal God to us, that's another. Only as I clearly understand who God is and what God is doing can I say, "This affects my life." Those are two different approaches, and I think the second has far more validity than the first.

If doctrines are the most important truths from the most important book, and they affect everything we do, how should these ideas find their way into our preaching, practically speaking? How should someone who's committed to expository preaching preach doctrine?

There are at least two answers to that. One is, when we preach doctrine we are doing what I call a "subject exposition." If this is a great doctrine of the faith, then it appears in a number of places in the Bible. In order to preach this doctrine, I usually have an anchoring passage, but I also have to look at other passages in the Bible that speak to this doctrine. This is actually more difficult to do with validity than going through a book one passage at a time, because I have to take each of the passages I think refer to this doctrine and look at them in their context to be sure they are saying what they say and not what I want them to say.

The world doesn't need good advice—it needs the power, authority, and wisdom of God.

A second way is, as you preach through a book of the Bible and come to a literary unit—a pericope—say to yourself, "What do I know about God from this passage?" If you ask that question, you will find that the same basic truths about God emerge again and again. So as you're preaching through a book, it's helpful to take time to see the doctrines in which the biblical writer is basing his thought. Both of those are legitimate doctrinal approaches.

Should I limit myself to the ideas within one large passage of Scripture, or should I branch out now and then? As you said, you often have to go wider in the Bible to embrace the whole doctrine. How do you do that well?

It's no use chasing through the Bible and looking up ten references, all of which essentially say the same thing. Sometimes it would be far better to stay in one passage. Years ago, Donald Barnhouse used to do that. He would preach through a book like Romans, and every so often he would stop and preach the doctrine that was behind this book. Jim Boice did the same thing. He felt two things: It helped his people see the doctrines and understand them, and it was a good thing to do for homiletical purposes because it gave variety to his preaching.

A while ago, I was working in 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul is dealing with the question of food offered to idols. He is arguing that there are two ways of deciding whether or not you should eat the offerings. One is through the knowledge of doctrine, and the other is through love—not love for your brother, love for God.

So you look at that passage and say, "What do you learn about God in this passage?" Paul says: We know that there is only one God, and if there is one God, there can't be five or six or seven gods. So an idol is nothing, and offering food to an idol doesn't change the nature of the food. It's just stone or wood.

In the course of that discussion, Paul talks about the fact that we have one Father who is the Creator of all things, and we have a Savior through whom all things are created. But it's clear in that passage that there is plurality in the Godhead, because he makes the major assertion that there is only one God.

Paul is saying that knowledge helps you in dealing with idols, but it would be helpful to stop the congregation and say that this passage points to a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith. It's pointing to the reality that there is a Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In the Corinthian letter, you have the Father, you have the Son, a chapter later you have the Holy Spirit, and it could be helpful to say: "Paul is dealing with a very practical problem. These Corinthians didn't know whether they could eat food that was offered to an idol. But he goes back to an understanding about God that helps him to answer this very practical problem. What was that understanding?" And then go from there. It would be helpful for Christians to realize that, while Paul is addressing some very down-to-earth questions, he does so out of a knowledge of God. We need to be sure we understand what the Bible is teaching us about God.

This is part one of a two-part interview. In part two, Robinson discusses the challenges of preaching doctrine and shares practical ways to face them.

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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