by Lamin Sanneh
Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.
This article appeared in the Christian Century October 8, 1989, p. 930. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Sound doctrine has deep social roots, not merely the ephemeral ones in wealth, strength, prestige and power — though, thank goodness, the church as its share of those — but also in humanity’s awesome diversity.
In II Timothy 1 Paul speaks with confidence about the genealogical roots of faith, and now in II Timothy 3:14-4:5 he returns to the theme with an eye to preparing someone for the Christian vocation. He encourages Timothy to "continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings."
It is hard to imagine the world of first-century Christians. Our arts of ministry courses are a far cry from those that guided Paul. So different, in fact, that we may say that churches today would rather "accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings" (II Tim. 4:3) than hire those with sound doctrine. We call it by many fancy names: ministry of relevance, contextualism or empowerment, finding meaning for ourselves, taking charge of our lives, liberation, and so on. The basic premise in all of it is that what the church teaches is secondary, a distraction from what it does. Our activist natures extol the material and social at the expense of theology and orthodox doctrine.
But if the church is wrong in what it teaches, then it cannot instruct in what it does. And if its actions contradict its words, then the church has failed in both heaven and earth. Christianity may be easier said than done, but it is not done unless it is said. In our age of conflicts, the church may be the one institution where two extremes join. We may speak of the church as "Mens sana in corpore sano," "a sound mind in a sound body." The socially committed branches of Christian outreach must have their roots in sound doctrine. Western philosophy has been bedeviled by the controversy of whether being precedes thought, or vice versa, leading often to arid speculations about, for example, whether God created the world or thought it. The apostles, however, speak confidently of Christ’s visible body as the focus and expression of the creative word in sound doctrine.
This vital connection between word and life is evident in the story of a man suffering from a fatal motor neurone disease, called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He had read an article by a secular journalist, Michael Ignatieff, who criticized those who suffer from terminal illness and refuse to accept death without a struggle.
According to Ignatieff, such patients are proof that modern people "lack a category of fate and a language for accepting it." They are victims of "the unrelenting language of American uplift" in contrast to the "European virtues of irony and stoicism." Ignatieff and the hospitalized man who read his article met at the care center in British Columbia, and conversed by means of a computer terminal and a printer and tube next to the patient’s mouth. The patient blew a Morse code signal into the tube which then generated letters on the computer screen.
The patient’s strong religious faith irked the journalist, who rebuked him for not throwing in the towel. The patient explained that he knew the difference between "giving up and letting go," and that even people in his apparently hopeless situation could make that choice. Stoicism, he said, catching something of Zeno’s original despair, is not much of a motivator. As a stoic, he said, he would have caved in long before. Instead, he said, "I face each day with a prayer." The journalist protested: "I can’t pray, won’t pray, to someone who makes [you] suffer like this."
Ignatieff departed, less impressed with the spirit that sustained the patient than by the precious words he flashed on the computer screen. Ignatieff later wrote, "He has become the word man, the one who taps out messages from deep inside the dark well of illness. I think: we are the word" (the Observer, June 18, 1989) Ignatieff did not understand that it is because the "dark well of illness" is ablaze with the word that was with God at the beginning that words in general are of great account. For it is "in thy light that we are bathed with light" (Ps. 36:9)
Ignatieff correctly points out that most people have exchanged Christian hope and encouragement for an austere and disenchanted stoicism. However, stoicism has a knock-out boomerang effect: it elevates matter only to despair of it. It is, more than Ignatieff suspects, just as true that "the spirit lives by the word" as that the spirit lives in the word and the word dwells with us. The church transmits the word of life and hope in doing as in teaching.
Christian teaching, as Paul admonishes, is passionate and consistent, fearless and compassionate, truthful and patient, challenging and encouraging, embracing and discriminating, affirming and critical. If we lose confidence in that, nothing else will compensate. Sound doctrine, of course, is not the same as doctrinaire stubbornness, nor a facade for secondhand faith. Like a sound pillar, sound doctrine can uphold a house of many mansions, more spacious than our triumphant modem "little boxes" sitting on top of featureless, impersonal elevators.
Sound doctrine has deep social roots, not merely the ephemeral ones in wealth, strength, prestige and power — though, thank goodness, the church has its share of those — but also in humanity’s awesome diversity. Doctrine is the timeless beam that skirts like steel girdles this mansion of our earthly life. Our enemy is not fear or anxiety, though they perturb and distract, but doubt and despair, for they deny and enslave. And so we must heed the apostle’s words and in everything give thanks to God. The church must "preach the word, be urgent in season [when it is relatively easy] and out of season [when it is unfashionable], convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and teaching" (II Tim. 4:2) and "always be steady, endure suffering," anchored in sound doctrine and nurtured from Scripture, to the end "that the people of God may be complete. equipped for every good work" (II Tim. 3:14)