Ask Anonymous
By Anonymous Bosch

Hey Anonymous,

We haven’t heard much about doctrinal controversy from Calvin College lately, and that, frankly, worries me. What are you people at Calvin trying to hide? If there’s nothing to hide, why don’t we hear more about heresy and doctrinal disagreements? Has doctrine become less important than it used to be?

Suspicious in San Diego

Dear Suspicious,

Letters like this warm my heart. It’s been years since such clear evidence of malice yoked with lack of information and self-deception has come across my desk — even if this is no more than a perverse sort of playing with the genre. All’s well with the world, or at least with the world we used to know.

In spite of that, you have managed to fuss and blunder your way into an interesting question: Has doctrine become less important to us than it used to be? My short answer is, no — doctrine is as important as ever, and its reach is expanding.

I think it’s fair of me to assume that your graceless question is intended to focus on what are usually thought to be specifically Reformed and Christian doctrines — the doctrines of grace, for instance, including doctrines dealing with election, creation, fall, redemption, kingdom and covenant, perhaps even the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, but not, say, the Doctrine of Perpetual Responsibility or the Petrine Doctrine.

But I’ll bet you are interested in a whole lot more than those doctrines of grace. Some people, and perhaps you among them, devote themselves to the understanding and mastery of various doctrines of works. A few study the Doctrine of Usage (more about that in a bit). Others are preoccupied with the Fairness Doctrine, the Fair Use Doctrine, the Employment at Will Doctrine and the Doctrine of Due Process. Others would say that they’re interested mainly in Military Doctrine or its subfields of Intelligence and Security Doctrine, Air Force Doctrine or Space Doctrine. You and many other citizens of the world are currently quite interested in Just War Doctrine as it morphs into the Monroe Doctrine and, by subtle gradations barely discernible to the naked soul and the young soldier, changes further into the Truman Doctrine, the Powell Doctrine, the Bush Doctrine and the Cheney Doctrine. These are doctrines we live and die by, and they are therefore of enormous interest to almost anyone who pays attention to matters of life and death.

Actually, among the classical theological doctrines that you would probably claim to be interested in, the Doctrine of Man seems to have gone almost entirely underground in the last generation or two. For one thing, the Doctrine of Usage has wrestled with the Doctrine of Man. Today this field of study is more likely to be called anthropology (there are other possibilities, too, of course), and rightly so, given the problems with former so-called generics such as “man.” But apart from labels, even you must have noticed that we’re having a hard time thinking about human nature in the ways we used to.

For one thing, we have fallen out of love with many features of what it means to be human. The Doctrine of the Fall or the Doctrine of Total Depravity seems superfluous, gratuitous, for many people today, an act of piling on and running up the score. The violent century we completed just a few years ago provides all the evidence any college graduate would need that humans have nothing to be vain about, nothing to be proud of — a quick glance at 20th-century wars, starvations, genocides large and small, and annihilation with every kind of weapon humans have invented should have proved the point. It’s also difficult to market the belief that we humans are made in the image of God, sharing something like crucial divine attributes with God and putting them to work in the world. How can we sell this doctrine to a culture entranced by unworthy distractions, addicted to the low passions, enthralled by the liberation of packaged reality?

We’ve grown weary of classical Christian doctrines about being human — suspicious of them, cynically sure that they can give us nothing that we need. Add to this our growing awareness of the challenges from Artificial Intelligence, cloning and genetic engineering, and it’s not surprising that there is weariness with being human, wariness about our prospects. Why, a woman asked Samuel Johnson a few years back, do men become drunk and behave like such animals? “To avoid the pain of being human,” said Johnson, and those pains are perhaps even more common today.

The Doctrine of Usage, by contrast, is endlessly fascinating and open-ended, especially with the arguments among its High Church, Broad Church and Low Church practitioners. Should doctrinal, for instance, be pronounced DOC-tri-nal or doc-TRINE-al? Is Hey used only and always as a salutation and greeting, or does it also sometimes mean “Behold, here is the provisional truth”? Hey, that may be, but at least people can talk about such things without getting into the messy details about being neither beast nor angel.

All around us, there is enormous interest in doctrine. Let me assure you, Suspicious, that Calvin College presses on, regardless of the doctrinal preferences of the present moment. The Doctrine of Invincible Ignorance lifts the burden from some folks, but not from us; Calvin College hopes to employ new and old ways of violating the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine for larger Kingdom purposes.

Sincerely yours,

Anonymous Bosch