Nurtured by Cynicism; Spread by Discontent The Gospel/Doctrine Distinction (1)

By Tom M. Roberts

Part One: Bred in Infidelity

One would have to be totally ignorant of the Bible to deny that Jesus Christ is both the center and circumference of all that the Bible contains. There is not a single doctrine or nuance of biblical teaching that does not have Christ as its foundation. If we begin in Eden, the fall of Adam and Eve is tempered by the promise of the Seed of Woman. If one considers the Levitical or Aaronic priesthood, its meaning is found in Jesus as High Priest. Animal sacrifices, the Law, the promises to Abraham, etc., each finds its meaning as it relates to the person and work of the Messiah.

The same is true of the New Testament. Whether one studies baptism, the Lord’s supper, morality, the church or the second coming, each relates directly to Jesus for its meaning and relation to our lives. His perfect life, submissive death and resurrection to David’s throne provides the scarlet thread that explains God’s grace and human need in progressive revelation from Genesis to Revelation. Any who misses this is condemned to a life of ritual, empty ceremony and meaningless liturgy.

It is absolutely true that we must never divorce commands and commandment-keeping from the story of the cross. Blind submission to laws, even those of God, is Pharisaical and ritualistic. Thus, our preaching and our personal faith must ever avoid the sterility that comes from Christ-less conformity to rules.

However, having said that, we must also note that there are those who, under the guise of preaching more about the cross, are guilty of the very thing of which they charge others: divorcing Christ from his commandments! A concentrated attack on the “word of the cross” and “gospel” so as to exclude the doctrines of Christ is underway. While a blanket charge toward all should be avoided, it remains true that some are guilty of redefining Bible terms so as to exclude doctrine from the gospel. Others are guilty of poor scholarship and naive assumptions which parrot cynical attacks by those who would re-define commands out of the “gospel” or “word of the cross.” While seeking to avoid extremes which miss the fulness of truth, we must also avoid elements that would impose a compromise with error because of deliberate evisceration of Bible terms.

Much has been written through the years about those who would make a distinction between gospel and doctrine. Some want these terms to be mutually exclusive so that “fellowship” is never limited because of a difference about doctrine. If the term “word of the cross” is substituted for “gospel,” the same scheme appears. It is a new formula for the old “unity in diversity” that has been around for years and which has compromise and fellow-ship with error at its heart.

I say that much has been written about the gospel/ doctrine controversy, which is true. However, little has been written about the source of this error. It is time that we look at the parentage of this error to show that it has been bred in infidelity, nurtured by cynicism and spread by discontent.

Modernistic Infidelity Promotes This Error

Where did this idea come from that there is a distinction between the use of “gospel” and “doctrine”? It is certainly not scriptural. Gospel and doctrine are used interchange-ably in the Scriptures (1 Tim. 1:8-11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; and many others). The “word of the cross” is not limited only to the facts of Golgotha, but includes the story of Pentecost, the epistles, and all things needed to bring men into a right relation with God (1 Cor. 1:18; Gal. 5:11; Phil. 3:18).

However, brethren are now making this unwarranted distinction and, from it, proposing a decreased emphasis on doctrinal preaching and an increased acceptance of error as though “doctrine is of lesser importance.” Again, where did this error arise?

However ancient it may be, modem references trace the supposed distinction between gospel and doctrine to a Church of England theologian and pastor, Charles Harold (C. H.) Dodd. A prolific writer, Dodd authored over 50 books, pamphlets and lectures while Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. He became a tremendous influence through his printed works and, consequently, upon brethren who have researched his material. It should be pointed out that Dodd (1884-1973) did not believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures. He accepted German form criticism with its attendant dependence on redactors, oral tradition and misplaced documents. “I assume the main results of source-criticism as they bear upon his part of the Gospel Record. Mark is the earliest Gospel. Matthew and Luke depend largely upon it as a source. They also depend upon a lost document, denominated `Q’…” (History And The Gospel, C. H. Dodd [London: Nesbit and Co., Ltd., 1935], p. 78).

Of inspiration, Dodd said: “The `inspiration’ of the prophets is essentially a power of insight into the situation as expressing a meaning which is God’s meaning for His people” (The Bible Today, C. H. Dodd [Cambridge University Press, New York; The Macmillan Co.], p. 105).

“It is nevertheless true that mankind is a `fallen’ race. The presence of evil in the human will, and of error in human thought, makes it inevitable that in the long stretches of human history the divine meaning should be more or less completely obscured” (The Authority of the Bible, C. H. Dodd [Harper Torchbook, Harper Brothers, New York, 1960], p. 10).

“The Bible, we have seen, records a development in men’s notions of God. . .” (Ibid., 248).

“The new thing that the prophets communicated we found to be something essentially something in themselves. Because they were the men they were, and reacted to their experiences in the way they did, they were open to certain aspects of God unopened by other men” (Ibid., 258).

“Creation, the Fall of Man, the Deluge and the Building of Babel are symbolic myths. The Last Judgment and the End of the World, if they are not in the strict sense myths, have a similar symbolic character” (The Bible Today, 112).

“It is impossible to think of Doomsday as a coming event in history. . . we are dealing with symbol” (ibid., 115).

Is it not strange that a man with such a warped view of Scripture could exert such an inordinately powerful influence upon the religious world in general and the church of Christ in particular? Yet it is from this perspective of modernistic infidelity that Dodd predicated his view of a gospel/doctrine distinction. Unable to escape the power of religion altogether, he sought to weaken the authority of the Scriptures by denying true inspiration and relegating Scripture to oral traditions of myths. And it is no less than the arrogance of worldly wisdom that suggested to Dodd that he could investigate the epistles, isolate these buried “oral traditions” and “original sayings of Jesus” from the “evolutionary doctrine” added later by Paul and others.

Dodd, and others, speak so boldly and confidently of having found the “original gospel” that one would think one could turn easily to it in the Bible. But one reads in vain for any identification of a “buried message,” or “oral tradition.” Is it out of reason to ask, “Where is it to be found?” How do we identify Jesus’ own words with certainty beyond the written text? Are these utterances written in red in the “red letter editions”? Must we read between the lines to find an early catechism that is not recorded in Scripture? Are they identified in any significant way by recognized men of inspiration? Or do we only have Dodd’s authority that he has located the original message?

Dodd has significantly admitted: “It is true that the kerygma as we have recovered it from the Pauline epistles is fragmentary. No complete statement of it is, in the nature of the case, avail-able. But we may restore it in outline somewhat after this fashion… .” (The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development, C. H. Dodd [Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., London, 1950], 17).

But even with this weak admission before us, we must nevertheless admit that he is the modern father of a heresy that has widespread popularity. Robert C. Worly, writing of Dodd’s position said: “The significant features of Dodd’s theory which have been described in their developmental sequence are:

“1. In the earliest church a distinct activity called preaching was practiced.

“2. Preaching had a particular content, the kerygma, which was the earliest missionary message of the church.

“3. Fragments of this earliest message are discernible in the written record, Scripture.

“4. Teaching is a second, distinct activity of the early church.

“5. The content of teaching is primarily ethical instruction and exhortation. Its form is derived from Jewish antecedents.

“6. The practice and content of teaching are the product of the evolutionary development of the earliest church as it awaited the second coming of Jesus” (Preaching and Teaching in the Earliest Church, Robert C. Worley, 22-23).

This “core gospel” or “kerygma” that Dodd advocated consisted of seven facts to be believed. They were:

The prophecies are fulfilled and the New Age is inaugurated by the Coming of Christ.

He was born of the seed of David.

He died according to the scriptures, to deliver us out of the present evil age.

He was buried.

He rose on the third day according to the scriptures.

He is exalted at the right hand of God, as Son of God and lord of the quick and dead.

He will come again as Judge and Saviour of men (The Apostolic Preaching And Its Development, p. 17).

Dodd further developed a distinction between gospel and doctrine by advocating a distinction between preaching and teaching. “The verb `to preach’ frequently has for its object `the Gospel.’ Indeed the connection of ideas is so close that kerysein by itself can be used as a virtual equivalent for evangelizes Thai, `to evangelize’, or `to preach the gospel.’ It would not be too much to say that wherever `preaching’ is spoken of, it always carries with it the implication of `good tidings’ proclaimed” (Ibid., 2).

The final step in this synthesis of error is that of application. Dodd, a Calvinist, made the natural step in connecting the gospel with preaching so as to produce faith (justification by faith alone). He saw doctrine as that which produced law by which a believer works for sanctification but which is not essential to salvation. Any student of Calvinism should be aware of the gospel doctrine, faith/law (works), justification/sanctification distinction which is the natural out-growth of the gospel/doctrine distinction.

This final step should also explain the antagonism that is expressed against doctrine by the New Unity Movement people and the New Hermeneutic people among churches of Christ. Though reluctant to accept Calvinism openly, they nevertheless flirt with it by advocating a gospel doctrine distinction that mitigates against doctrine, law or works. Faith is essential to salvation; doctrine is not! When brethren today decry the emphasis on doctrinal preaching and charge that not enough gospel is being preached, they are making the typical application of Calvinism. Baptists have, for years, taught “The Man, not the Plan.” Now it is being heard among churches of Christ. But it is couched in new terms and now we hear: “More gospel; less doctrine,” “More `word of the cross’ and less legalism,” or “more Golgotha and less Pentecost.” But it is all cut from the same cloth. To be sure, not all are aware of the source of this error, but it is past time to realize what is going on by some who are informed, well read, and who make this application because they have accepted the premise of Dodd.

Let us be sure to understand, therefore, that when brethren begin to advocate that the gospel is different from doctrine they are not teaching biblical ideas. Let us also understand that this concept is not limited to a debate about definitions of words, but that a major application of error is contemplated, with widespread changes in churches of Christ. Anyone who holds this unscriptural distinction is headed for fellowship with sectarians because doctrine, law and works become unimportant to fellowship with God or with the people of God. Finally, let us understand the source of this error. Though it may be bathed in an aura of scholarship and suffused with a sense of tolerance, it is as destructive as any evil Satan ever produced. It is the child of infidelity.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 12, p. 13-14
June 16, 1994