One of the things that often strikes people when they read the Gospels for the first time is how much the disciples do not get it. It’s a running theme, or a running gag, take your pick.1 Here we have Jesus, teaching important things everyone needs to hear. But over here we have his chosen disciples, getting nary a word of it. From time to time, non-disciple foils are brought in briefly who do get it, as if to highlight the disciples’ doltishness even more. I’m thinking here of the Roman centurion who had “faith greater than anyone in Israel,” for example.
In studies that try to determine who the actual, historical Jesus really was, one of the tools used is this: if something that was embarassing to the Early Church was left in, it must have really happened, because anyone with any sense would have left it out otherwise. In other words, most people won’t embarass themselves on purpose unless they can’t get around it, so we can probably safely assume that the disciples got that they didn’t get it and couldn’t get around that fact. So their doltishness is there on the printed page for everyone to see because the disciples couldn’t get around it. The disciples were dolts, and they knew it.
Here’s the problem we have then: the entire New Testament was written by people who didn’t get the subject they were writing about. They wrote in full knowledge of their lack of knowledge, which shows either courage or foolishness, or perhaps both at the same time.
But this is not how we’re taught to read the New Testament, is it? The disciples got it, we’re led to believe. Otherwise, why read their book?
We started with their doltishness in the Gospels, so maybe there’s a way out there. Maybe after the death and resurrection they get it?
But we’re not in the clear there either. Just get to Acts 5, and we have Peter (the doltiest disciple from the Gospels?) shaming a couple to death.2 Think of Paul’s letters. Most of them have to do with trying to fix something that’s gone wrong. So the Early Church, post-disciples, didn’t get it either.
It gets better (or worse, depending on your perspective). We have in Revelation 2-3 Jesus himself dictating letters to seven churches letting them know precisely how each of them doesn’t get it. (They’re quite short. Jesus, thankfully, is much more to the point than Paul.) Even post-Resurrection, post-Pentecost, the Church does not get it. It’s all there in black and white for anyone to see.
Now why, I ask you, would anyone take a book written by people who don’t get it to people who don’t get it because they don’t get it—and then use that book to write doctrines that say, in effect, yes, but we’ve got it?
Because they’re dolts, just like the disciples they follow. But double dolts, because at least the disciples confessed to not getting it. Most people who proclaim doctrine are blissfully ignorant of their doltishness.
Let’s go back to the beginning again, to the disciples not getting it in the Gospels. That the disciples did not get it was not lost on Jesus. He could plainly see it for himself. He struggled with it. To be honest, he toyed with them a little too. I mean, you don’t teach in parables if your main goal is people getting it. If you want to lead them into a new experience, a new way of life, yes. But not if you’re trying to communicate doctrine.
I’ll just come out and say it. If Jesus had in mind the passing down of doctrine, his teaching method utterly failed at it. Mustard seeds? Virgins with lampstands? Where’s the theological anthropology? Where’s the doctrine of this, that, or the other? He only mentions “the Father, son, and holy spirit” once in passing, while giving instructions on how to baptize, and wer’e supposed to get the eternal nature of a triune God from that? It took four hundred years to work that one out! That’s what I call a slow cooker of a teaching!
No, if Jesus meant to communicate doctrine, he sucked at it.
Yes, the Apostles’ Creed is much younger than than the four hundred years it took to work out the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. But go read it with fresh eyes. Don’t read into it any doctrine that’s not there. A triune God like the one taught in Sunday School confirmation classes doesn’t really appear. Sure, the three main characters are there, but it doesn’t say how they relate to each other. It doesn’t even say that Jesus is God. There’s not much there there. Any in any case, it’s named after the dolts themselves. So it’s the Dolts’ Creed, the best that they could pull off. So go hang that on a Sunday School wall and make people memorize it.
Now, I’m not saying we can do without doctrine altogether, if by doctrine you mean theological teachings of any kind. I’m just saying that as the spiritual descendents of dolts, we should have absolute humility about what doctrine we do have, and have as little of it as we can get away with, and then probably a little less even than that. Because we probably need even less than we think we need.
Jesus largely did without doctrine, and aren’t Christians about trying to follow his lead? Do you think you should have more doctrine than Jesus?
Far better than doctrine is to describe what God is doing in our lives, to tell those stories. That’s what Jesus did, isn’t it? Tell stories? If doing a little theology helps us get there, all the better. But the good news of what God is doing in our lives always come first, the theology always second. Beware the theological ideologists. They’re selling something, but good news is free.
Here’s an example that I think pulls it off pretty well. It’s from the United Church of Canada:
We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
I don’t see how we need much more doctrine than that. In fact, we could probably get by with even a little bit less.
(Photo by jugbo. Used under Creative Commons license.)
- If you don’t believe me, take twenty minutes to go read Mark. It’s the shortest Gospel, and it’s there on practically every page. [↩]
- No, the text does not say God struck them down. People have been reading that into the text. [↩]