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Which Came First, Doctrine or Practice?


Tony Jones has put up a post talking about how the earliest of Christians were concerned about how one lives and not really about what one believes. He makes the argument that if you read the earliest texts of Christianity they were about living and not about doctrine.

But I’m curious how Jones defines “doctrine.” The most open definition simply means a set of beliefs that a church or organization teaches. If this it the case, then practice and doctrine were intertwined in the early Church. The examples he cites do encourage believers to live the right way, but then turn to doctrine to explain why they should live the right way. So which came first? Neither.

Both Christian practices and doctrines arrived at the same time and neither is the origin of the other. Rather, back then (as now) both were necessary for a Christian life; one had to know what one believed and how one should live in accordance with those beliefs. Then, as now, we discover more and more about doctrine, which in turn challenges how we should live. Some of these discoveries are also caused by how we do live. Thus, the intellectual aspect of Christianity will impact the existential impact, but in other cases the existential impact will influence the intellectual aspect of Christianity. The two work off of each other. 

Some might protest and say that one of them has to be the beginning point. Yet, neither of them are; rather, the beginning point of all Christian thought and living is a Person, the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. God cannot be divided and the Word is God, so the doctrines and the actions are the same within God and not divided. When the Father sent the Son, the Divine nature was found in Christ as was the human nature. It is from the Word that Christian practice and doctrine come from. Thus, the origin point of Christianity isn’t existential or intellectual, but personal, as it comes from a Person. When we think rightly about doctrines, we are thinking rightly about Christ. When we live rightly with the Christian message, we are living rightly with Christ.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to get tied up in the “either/or” divide, or the “one is greater” divide. My initial response to what he said was to point out that doctrine is found in everything and controls everything. But this is simply moving to the other side of where Jones is; he says that practice precedes doctrine and I say that doctrine precedes practices. Yet we would both be wrong (which would explain why we could both give numerous conflicting examples of doctrine coming before practice or vice versa).

The correct answer is that both arrived at the same time, relying on each other, for they really are one in the same. Christ gives us the doctrine to love God and love our neighbors, but how is this doctrine complete if we don’t live it? In fact, how do we live it? We can only know that by attempting to live it, which in turn will change how we view this doctrine. So again, which came first, the command or the action? Both arrived at the same time in the Person of Christ.

I have an icon of Sts John of Damascus and Ephrem the Syrian sitting in front of my books (in front of my Church Fathers section of the library). The reason I have it there is because one represents the intellectual aspect of Christianity (St. John of Damascus) while the other represents the more existential and mystical side of Christianity (St. Ephrem the Syrian). While both put an emphasis on their respected field, they aren’t in contradiction with each other or even in competition with each other, for both are necessary in Christianity. We must have the intellectual foundation, something that will not sway with the slightest movement, but we must also have a well-designed building that is functional; without either, Christianity is nothing. Both, therefore, just have come at the same time, and this is only explained by the Incarnation.

Christ said He is the way, the truth, and the life. If He is the way, then He is the existential aspect of Christianity. If He is the truth, then He is the intellectual aspect of Christianity. If He is the life, then He is the salvation of all. It would also mean that the way cannot be more important than the truth and life, nor can the truth be more important than the way and life. Both would be equally important and one would always lead to the other, because both are found in Christ, both are Christ.

This is the importance of taking a “both/and” approach to Christianity. Rather than simply adopting an arbitrary divide, as Jones’ does or as I initially did, it’s better to see if beliefs are mutually exclusive first or necessarily hierarchal. When applied to the existential vs intellectual arguments within Christianity, we see that while both aspects are different, they fulfill different roles that make the Christian life complete.

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