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On Noun and Verb Doctrines

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I recently came across an interesting distinction between noun doctrines and verb doctrines. What are those? Wayne Chesley explains:

“Noun doctrines are beliefs that are ‘descriptive’ in nature…While they may be foundational to our understanding of who God is, or how the world was created, or how it will end, they don’t necessarily call us to action. ‘Verb doctrines’ on the other hand, change how we live because they are ‘prescriptive;’ they spur us on to walk in the way of Christ” (see here).  

That’s a helpful distinction.

Normally, I would refer to the difference between systematic theology and Christian ethics. But putting it in terms of noun doctrines and verb doctrines helps me realize I might have been relegating “ethics” to something less important than “theology.” I’ve focused a lot on the former, not the latter. Have you? What might change if our thinking was more “balanced”? As Dan Ziegler writes:

“In many Christian circles there seems to be an inordinate amount of energy (and strife) focused almost exclusively on parsing and defending ‘noun doctrines.’ One wonders how the witness of the Church would be different if even a portion of the time, effort, and emotional energy that has been focused on doctrines like when the Lord is returning, or the mechanisms of atonement, or the age of the earth, or if God has pre-selected each of His followers, would instead have been given to simply putting the self-denying teachings of Jesus into practice” (ibid).

Mea culpa. I confess to spending much more time on “noun doctrines” than I do “verb doctrines.” I’ve thought a lot more about the mechanism of the atonement than, say, about caring for orphans and widows. I haven’t completely ignored those duties, but I certainly haven’t emphasized them as much as I have those other doctrines. And yet, as Ziegler says:

“It is through the ‘verb doctrines’ that the poor are fed, the naked are clothed, the cheek is turned, the extra mile is walked, the good news is preached.  It is the ‘verb doctrines’ that call us to meet together with glad and sincere hearts, to enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise, to confess our sins one to another, to forgive seventy times seven, to flee from the lusts of the flesh.  Through the ‘verb doctrines,’ love takes flight; for our neighbor, for our enemy, for the brotherhood of believers, for the Lord our God.  It is the ‘verb doctrines’ that, through the power of the Spirit, transform our lives into the image and likeness of Christ, for the glory of God the Father.”

While I’ve always had a serious interest in Christian ethics, my thinking has been changing over the last several years due to studying and writing about the original situation of the New Testament house churches—how they lived together as little “colonies of heaven” in a hostile pagan culture. I realize that I’ve paid a lot of attention to thinking about increasingly specialized and somewhat esoteric debates in Christian doctrine and not as much attention to, say, what it means to live out the Christian life together as a community of disciples. But as I say, that’s changing. My thinking is becoming more church-centric, and so I’m paying more attention to the verb doctrines. For example, my book on the one-another commands is almost done, and those are a lot of verb doctrines!

Generally speaking, I have a growing conviction that my thinking should be more balanced. I wonder if I should be more careful to emphasize what Scripture emphasizes and to de-emphasize topics I’ve considered a high priority but which rarely, if ever, get mentioned in Scripture. In other words, where should I invest most of my mental energy?

Although I can’t foresee where that might lead, I know that God’s grace is perennially important. It is central to everything. Gospel truth is both a noun and a verb.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.

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