What is the relationship between doctrine and theology?

As readers of this blog know, The Surprising God deals primarily with theology, though occasionally looks at doctrine. But what is the difference between theology and doctrine? How are they related? This post offers brief answers for your consideration.

Doctrine (and dogma)

As used in Christian circles, the word doctrine typically refers to the primary teachings of a particular denomination or church. Orthodox Christian doctrine elaborates the dogma (core beliefs) that have been set forth in the historic and orthodox creeds (e.g. the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed). Though most churches embrace the creeds as the core of their doctrinal teaching, different doctrines have emerged from this core.

Holy Eucharist at the Council of Nicaea (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Dogma comes from the Greek word for a thought-out idea—a particular position you hold. Doctrine comes from the Latin word meaning “to teach" or "teachings.” We teach (through doctrine) what we hold to be true (as dogma). The word doctrine is used 56 times in the Bible (51 in the New Testament). There are two Greek words translated doctrine in the New Testament: didaktos and didache. Both mean teaching or instruction. Here are two examples, one each from Paul and Jesus:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine <didaskalia>, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. (2 Tim. 3:16, KJV)
My doctrine <didache> is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine <didache>, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. (John 7:16-17, KJV)


Theology is related to doctrine and dogma in that theology explores the ways in which doctrine (and dogma) are understood. Theology tends to be the principal study in which doctrine and dogma are expressed.

Theology comes from two Greek words: theos meaning God, and logos meaning word. Theology essentially and primarily means the word about God, or the more common definition—the study of God. Christian theology is the study of God based on the teachings of the Bible—a study that includes all aspects of God, including his deity, nature, purpose, attributes, relationship to the world and other beings, and more.

Why study theology?

We often hear Christians say they don’t need (or want) theology because it’s hard to understand and/or seems irrelevant to everyday life. Such statements show a lack of understanding concerning the nature of theology. In the broadest sense, any person reasoning about God is doing theology. The question is this: Are they doing it well?

In elaborating on the official theology of Grace Communion International (and its affiliate, Grace Communion Seminary) this blog explores what GCI, GCS and others refer to as "incarnational Trinitarian theology." (ITT, for short). This descriptive label brings together doctrine and theology by referencing two doctrines that are foundational to the dogma expressed in the Nicene Creed: the Incarnation and the Trinity. Looking through the interpretive "lens" of ITT, GCI and GCS (and so this blog) seek to understand God in both his triune being and acts as revealed to us in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Sadly, many Christians merely accept doctrinal statements and dogma without understanding the theology that undergirds them. Theology helps correct this deficit in that it provides a reliable and accurate means by which to think “Christianly” about all sorts of doctrinal/dogmatic issues, including the ethical issues that are informed by doctrine. Theology thus shapes a person's worldview, providing a framework for reasoning/thinking and acting (for more on that idea, click here). 

As a theological discipline, ITT begins by addressing the most fundamental theological question: Who is God? It then proceeds to the corollary question, Who is Jesus Christ (as the full and final revelation of who God truly is)? On that basis, ITT moves to related questions, including How then shall we live?

ITT answers these questions by referencing Holy Scripture as the authoritative written word of God, which testifies to the Living Word of God (Jesus Christ) in all its words, but principally in the apostolic word (the gospel). In that way, ITT is Christ-centered, biblical and gospel-shaped. Though the word theology does not appear in Scripture, we are able to go "behind" the words of Scripture to discover its underlying theology—seeking out, through Spirit-led, biblically-informed, deductive reasoning, the theology that undergirds what Scripture declares (i.e. its doctrine).

For example, Scripture declares that Jesus is one with the Father (John 10:30). That is doctrine—but in what way is Jesus one with the Father? What are the implications of that oneness? Answering those theological questions requires theological thinking—reasoning out of (out from) the doctrinal teachings given to us in Scripture.

Now, many Christians disagree with the very idea of reasoning “out” of Scripture—their concern being that this might mean reasoning “beyond” Scripture. While that concern is understandable (and to some extent justified—people often do reason beyond Scripture right into error), to reason is unavoidable. The act of reading Scripture is unavoidably one of reasoning (we necessarily are interpreting as we read). The question then is not “should we reason?” but “because we reason, what shall be the basis of our reasoning?"

Theology: faith seeking understanding

We certainly want to reason out of Scripture, however, as already noted, one's reasoning on the basis of Scripture in formulating doctrine is shaped by one’s underlying theology (understanding of God). In some (many?) cases, the underlying theology is either not recognized by the person, or is not carefully thought out. Sadly, the result either way is often error.

In The Surprising God, we seek to reason on the basis of an incarnational Trinitarian theology—what we understand to be the mind of Christ. This means reasoning on the basis of the biblical revelation concerning who Jesus truly is and thus who God truly is, and how and why God acts in the  world. That reasoning leads us to an understanding of how to believe, to reason on the basis of those beliefs, and then to act accordingly. We invite you to continue with us on this journey of faith seeking understanding.