In the contemporary world, there is a great variety of different Christian groups. Many of these groups make doctrinal statements in an attempt to convey their specific interpretation of certain Biblical concepts, as well as values and viewpoints. Doctrinal statements are a significant part of Christianity, and they serve three different purposes: providing instruction, creating and securing group identity, and establishing common beliefs. The present paper will focus on the use of doctrinal statements by Christian churches to argue that doctrinal statements are used instead of quotations from the Bible as they serve these three separate purposes better.
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Doctrinal statements are also called statements of beliefs, as they reflect the beliefs, values, and principles of a particular religious group. Various Christian groups are the principal users of doctrinal statements, which are either published on their websites or distributed among members as physical texts. Doctrinal statements issued by different groups may vary slightly in terms of their content, but usually offer a set of key viewpoints regarding the Bible, God, and religious practice. For instance, the doctrinal statement of the Watermark Community Church sets out the group’s key teachings with references to the Bible: “We believe the Bible to be the verbally inspired Word of God, without error in the original writings, and the supreme and final authority in doctrine and practice. (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:21; John 17:17)” (“Full Doctrinal Statement”).
Similarly, Sovereign Grace Churches’ statement of beliefs identifies the group’s core principles regarding the Scriptures, the Holy Trinity, angels, and other important concepts that constitute religious beliefs (“Statement of Faith”). Thus, a doctrinal statement issued by a church can be viewed as an explanation of its interpretation of the Bible and core teachings.
The churches’ use of doctrinal statements instead of excerpts from the Bible is an important notion, as it influences people’s alignment with particular religious groups. As such, doctrinal statements can attract people with similar beliefs to a particular church and ensure that the existing church members’ beliefs are coherent and there is no internal conflict on the core concepts. Exploring the reasons for using doctrinal statements instead of citing the Bible can show how various churches ensure the coherency of beliefs and principles, attract new members, and connect to other religious groups. It can also help to understand how the use of doctrinal statements was affected by the contemporary religious and cultural environment.
Initially, doctrinal statements were used for catechesis, or religious instruction of new Christians. McGrath states that early Christian statements of beliefs were often short so that they could be easily memorized by repetition (55). Indeed, religious instruction in early Christianity consisted primarily of statements that could be repeated by newly converted members as an expression of their faith (McGrath 55).
These statements were based on the Bible and its fundamental teachings, which were often cited. Citations were used to connect the interpretations to the source material, thus ensuring that all members of a religious group have a similar understanding of the text.
Using doctrinal statements for instruction as opposed to the Bible also had other advantages. Firstly, it allowed for quick conversion, which was imperative during many points in history. For example, in England, the clashes between Protestantism and Catholicism caused many people to convert out of fear for their lives. Reading the bible was more time-consuming than short religious instruction, which is why doctrinal statements were particularly helpful in this context. Secondly, doctrinal statements allowed providing religious instruction to illiterate people. Until the late 19th century, the vast share of the global population remained illiterate, which means that most people could not study the Bible on their own.
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Thus, religious instruction required priests either to read the Bible to uneducated people or to summarize its concepts and teachings in brief statements. The latter method was more practical, and thus doctrinal statements received more attention in religious instruction than the source material. Overall, the use of doctrinal statements as opposed to excerpts from the Bible in catechesis was justified by its effectiveness and practicality. To this day, statements of beliefs can be used to provide religious education to young children and adults who do not wish to study the Bible on their own.
Creating and Protecting Group Identity
Another essential purpose of doctrinal statements is to develop and preserve group identity and distinguish one church from the others. Cimorelli and Minch note that doctrinal statements often function as “indicators of revealed truth”, thus summarizing specific interpretations of the Bible or other religious texts (327). In this sense, doctrinal statements connect with the very definition of religion. Yandell explains that “a given religion is defined in terms of the beliefs its adherents accept that make them adherents of that religion” (16).
Therefore, when a particular church issues a doctrinal statement, it shows the specific values and beliefs that are shared by all members of this church. This helps to create group identity and ensure coherence in religious viewpoints, thus also preventing internal conflicts and creating a safe and supportive environment for people to practice. If quotes from the Bible were used directly, it would not be possible to establish shared views and values due to the plurality of interpretations.
When comparing doctrinal statements of different churches, it is also possible to note some specific differences that serve to protect the created group identity. For example, the North Boulevard Church of Christ states: “We believe in the God of the Scriptures, a just and loving God who lives in the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit […] God wants everyone to be in a relationship with Him” (“What We Believe”). Sovereign Grace Churches, on the other hand, explain, “He made man for fellowship with himself, and intended that all creation should live to the praise of his glory” (“Statement of Faith”).
Although the two statements appear to be similar in their content, their portrayal of God’s plan for humankind is different. The North Boulevard Church of Christ implies that there are many forms that a relationship with God may take, and all are accepted by God. On the contrary, Sovereign Grace Churches show that fellowship is the only form of relationship with God that is acceptable to Him. Hence, the two examples of doctrinal statements illustrate the fundamental differences in the teachings of the two churches. As these statements also reflect the shared beliefs of the churches’ members, doctrinal statements help to preserve group identity.
Establishing Shared Values
Globalization is one of the key trends affecting the contemporary world. It has a significant impact on cultures and religions by facilitating diversity. However, diversity can pose challenges when people cannot accept their differences and find common ground. Spickard explores the concepts of diversity and pluralism, stating that pluralism is only possible when there is a balance between social unity and the people’s right to individual beliefs, including those stemming from their culture or religion (169). The absence of balance can lead either to conflicts between people of different backgrounds or to the decay of cultural identity.
In this context, doctrinal statements receive a new purpose because they can help to define shared ideas and values with other religious groups while also preserving group identity. For example, in its doctrinal statement, Watermark Community Church states that people’s sins lead to their physical and spiritual death, a belief that is likely to resonate with Islamic religious groups (“Full Doctrinal Statement”). Similarly, doctrinal statements can be used to create bridges between various Christian churches operating in the same community, or between different branches of Christianity (e.g., Catholicism and Orthodoxy).
Using quotations from the Bible for the same purpose would not be possible for two reasons. First of all, each religion has a different primary source that is comparable to the Bible, such as the Quran. Comparing the Quran with the Bible would result in far more differences than similarities, and thus it would not help to create bridges between the two religions. Secondly, using excerpts from the Bible would make it impossible to preserve the group identity of different Christian groups. Doctrinal statements explain interpretations instead of citing the material from the Bible verbatim, thus allowing to promote religious and cultural pluralism.
All in all, the research shows how the purpose and use of doctrinal statements evolved over time. In the beginning, doctrinal statements were only used for instruction. As Christianity developed and different forms of it began to appear, statements of beliefs helped to establish and protect group identity. Today, doctrinal statements can be used to find common beliefs and values among members of different churches and religions, thus facilitating pluralism.
The use of direct quotations from the Bible instead of doctrinal statements would make it impossible to achieve all of these goals, which explains why Christian groups make doctrinal statements instead of merely reciting verbatim Biblical texts.
Cimorelli, Christopher, and Daniel Minch. “Views of Doctrine.” Louvain Studies, vol. 37, no. 4, 2013, pp. 327-363.
“Full Doctrinal Statement.” Watermark Community Church, 2018. Web.
McGrath, Alister E. Christianity: An Introduction. 3rd ed., John Wiley & Sons, 2015.
Spickard, James V. “Diversity vs. Pluralism: Reflections on the Current Situation in the United States.” Religions, vol. 8, no. 9, 2017, pp. 169-179.
“Statement of Faith.” Sovereign Grace Churches, 2018. Web.
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“What We Believe.” North Boulevard Church of Christ, 2018. Web.
Yandell, Keith E. Philosophy of Religion: A Contemporary Introduction. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2016.