Institutes of the Christian Religion: The Origin and Purpose of Doctrine

There is an autobiographical story of how Lu Xun became a writer, which I read many years ago and cannot forget: Lu Xun studied medicine in Japan, and prepared to be a doctor, for he wanted to relieve human suffering. However, when he saw that those patients who nearly died from opium overdose went right back to opium after their treatment, he decided to take up writing instead — realizing that healing must start with the heart and mind.

The Origin of Doctrine

From a Christian perspective, God is both an Author and a Physician. A Christian’s belief in God reflect the work of God in his heart to make him a new man. He, Who commands light to shine out of darkness in Creation, “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”. This Light is Christ, and this Knowledge is Christian doctrine. A genuine confession of a Christian is an acknowledgement of the work of God in him, nothing more nothing less. In other words, a Christian is a masterpiece of God written in the heart.

All of the Christian doctrine is, as it should be, centered on the person of Jesus Christ, who He is and what He has done and continues to do. Conversely, heresies always detract from the Person and Works of Jesus Christ, in one way or another.

The doctrine of the Trinity is important, because it concerns who Jesus is; the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is important, because it concerns what Jesus has done and continues to do; in Paul’s epistles, as in the whole Bible, theological discourses are always followed by practical instructions and vice versa, because the life of a Christian, every single aspect of it, is intimately bound with the knowledge of Christ.

The Law of God reflects and reveals the divine nature, which is Justice, Love and Wisdom in perfect Unity. The commandments in the Bible are essentially one: a command to imitate God. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The Purpose of Doctrine

Just as there is a difference between a healthy and a diseased body, and one needs knowledge of biology and medicine to live a healthy life, so in spiritual matters, one needs knowledge of God and of oneself to live a godly life, this is the purpose of the Christian doctrine. It is not idle speculation with no bearing on the daily life, but is a light to our path, without which man would “fall into a ditch”.

This is the reason, I think, the Church rigorously and vigorously defends orthodox doctrine and rejects heresies. Just as poisons are harmful to the body, so heresies are pernicious to the soul–they are misleading at the best, and lethal at the worst. The purpose of doctrine, therefore, is not to suppress but to express the truth, not to stupefy but to edify the people.

The difference between faith and unbelief, between orthodoxy and heresy, is not merely academic, but is literally a matter of life and death. As it is written, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In other words, the beliefs of a person are direct indications of his spiritual state, whether healthy or sick, living or dead, and there is a strong correlation between a person’s characters and the beliefs he adheres to. Heresies are indications of spiritual diseases, and must be diagnosed, treated and cured, if possible.

The Christian Progress

In a sense, the Christian life is the progress from heresy to orthodoxy, from ignorance to knowledge of God.

Most, if not all, people are double-minded, even legion-minded, when it comes to pure religion, as the Parables of the Sower and of the Wheat and Tares in Matthew 13 have shown. Although a Christian has received the Word into his heart, he may still harbour uncharitable and heretical thoughts and intents, like the thorns and tares in the field. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” His life-long task is to cleanse himself from “all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God”.

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