Christian LivingDoctrineMinistry

Creating a culture of doctrinal literacy

My favourite book on Christian doctrine is Peter Jensen’s At the Heart of the Universe. It’s short, sharp, soaked in Scripture, and came about as a result of research for presenting the material orally. Best of all, it begins with eschatology—something that sets it apart, in a good way, from most (if not all) other approaches to Christian doctrine. But whenever I pick up a book on Christian doctrine, I expect to hear some sort of apologetic for its very existence, and Dr Jensen’s work is no exception. In the introduction he writes:

Christian doctrine has a poor name, even among Christians. It is regarded as boring, divisive and irrelevant. Such a reputation, however, is a tragedy which impoverishes the churches and hinders their witness to the world.[1]

I couldn’t agree more with him on this point, and at various times and through various means I’ve sought to address this problem in my own congregation. I reasoned that a good first step would be to help my congregation realise that just because we live in a world with far more literacy than our Christian ancestors, that doesn’t mean we’re more doctrinally literate; and just because we’re well-schooled in exegesis and biblical theology, doesn’t mean our understanding of doctrine (nor our concern for it) is any better than Christians who’ve gone before. I wish to share with you something that I think worked well in taking this first step. 

From time to time in my evening congregation, we have a segment called ‘Old School Gem’. The congregation, made up mostly of youth and young adults, is introduced to a person, practice, teaching or event from church history that strengthened God’s kingdom in some way. For example, the Rood Screen (and its removal from church architecture as a result of the Reformation), the execution of Thomas Cranmer, the Pax Romana, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Pilgrim’s Progress…

Ideally, the Old School Gem helps us guard against thinking that our generation is more enlightened, or does things better by default than the generations that have gone before. In other words, it helps with fostering epistemic humility. Additionally, it shows us that our Christian walk is shaped by our theological heritage; that we can thank and praise God for the way his servants in previous generations have run the race, fought the good fight, and passed on the baton to us. 

Recently, and relevant to the topic at hand, the ‘Old School Gem’ I introduced was the English Puritan William Perkins’ graphic depiction of the Ordo Salutis that is found in his work A Golden Chain (which I had been reading at the time). In terms of fostering this epistemic humility, it worked a rather humorous treat. 

I first read out Perkin’s description of the diagram (in old English): 

A Survey or Table declaring the order of the causes of salvation and damnation according to God’s word. It may be instead of an Ocular Catechism to them which can not read, for by the pointing of the finger, they may sensibly perceive the chief points of religion, and the order of them. 

“In other words”, I explained, “this is a simple diagram for people who want to learn about the order of salvation—especially people who aren’t able to read.” 

Having created the expectation of a simple depiction of the Ordo Salutis, I then displayed Perkins’ Golden Chain on the screen. Some giggles, exclamations of “what?!” and “whoa!” ensued. 

The implication that Christians of a bygone era had a greater concern for doctrinal literacy than we do was striking. 

It so happens that at our church we run a four-week evangelistic course (‘Explaining Christianity’). As I advertised the course I mentioned that it was good not only for curious outsiders, but also as a bit of a refresher for Christians. This time around a number of our regulars have signed up. And of course, the gospel is the right foundation for any study of doctrine!


[1]  Peter Jensen, At the Heart of the Universe, Crossway, 1997.