Tonight at a Bible study, the point was made that doctrinal statements in the New Testament are given for practical reasons. As a case in point, Philippians 2 was used as an illustration. One of the most doctrinal statements on the nature and person of Christ is used to urge humble and service-oriented living. Ethics, or godly living, is the theme of the passage and goal of the instruction. The doctrinal statements about Christ play a supporting role.
I’ve always thought that ethics are rightly derived from doctrine, but the illustration of Philippians 2 really brought the point home for me. Doctrine and ethics are inextricably tied together. The more one can think correctly, the more one will act correctly, or, more accurately, one should think correctly in order to act correctly.
The relationship of the two are well noted throughout Christian history. The order of Systematic Theology has traditionally begun with fundamental doctrines: God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Scriptures, Salvation, Church, Last Things. Often, it ends with the subject of Ethics, where it is sometimes treated as an afterthought, if it is treated at all. On a side note, it was refreshing to see James McClendon reverse this order and begin with the consideration of Ethics in order to combat this tendency.
This observation on doctrine and ethics also reveals something about the nature of the Bible, and the New Testament in particular. For example in the epistles, Paul does not write theological treatises, but he primarily writes with pastoral concerns in mind. He writes to churches, urging them to preach the gospel, endure persecution, live godly lives, and pursue peace with others. He is not writing general statements for anyone to read. He is writing to specific congregations with specific problems and issues to address.
This used to be a key point in the study of Galatians and Romans, where some suggested that Paul was writing his most expansive theological statment of Justification by Faith, or some such subject. From what I can tell, this view has fallen out of favor, and most would agree that Romans and Galatians are written to address particular situations, although, I’m sure there is still some debate on this. As I read Romans and Galatians, they do not appear to much different in purpose than his other letters. He is writing to urge godly living, and he uses doctrine to show why they should live godly and the manner they should pursue it. I remember reading an excellent article by Eugene Peterson noting the pastoral nature of Paul’s writings.
So, yes doctrine is vitally important, but it should always be used in service of ethics and godly living.