In Honor of the Burning of a Bull: A THEOLOGY OF DOCTRINAL DISPUTATION


Luther Burning Bull

Today, December 10, is the anniversary of Martin Luther’s burning of a Papal bull which threatened him with excommunication if he did not retract portions of his 95 theses. On January 3, 1521 Pope Leo X officially excommunicated Luther.

So, on the anniversary of Luther’s bold decision, it only seemed appropriate to think about the Biblical basis of doctrinal disputation.

Luthers Excomunication

Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “A most precious possession therefore is the knowledge of doctrines.”[1] The precious possession must be true doctrines. For what value would heresy offer? The post-modern and now post-Christian world is certainly post-Christian doctrine. Generations have arisen who do not know doctrines and largely do not know that doctrine is a precious jewel to be defended and exhibited. “In its most general and best sense doctrine is systematized knowledge, or what ought to be taught. In this sense the system of doctrine taught in Scripture by those “holy men of God who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21), is connected and consistent throughout, and comprises a complete “form of sound words.”[2]

Moses received the Decalogue from God as the first written doctrine. Doctrine is therefore, “leḳah ‘what is received,’ hence “the matter taught” (Dt 32:2; Job 11:4; Prov 4:2; Isa 29:24, ARV “instruction”); (b) shemūʽāh, “what is heard” (Isa 28:9, RV “message,” RVm “report”); (c) mūṣār, “discipline” (Jer 10:8).”[3] Christianity is a religion based upon God’s actions which have determined what must be believed and practiced. “Doctrine is indispensable to Christianity. Christianity does not exist without it.”[4] The apostles “were adamant about the protection, appropriation, and propagation of doctrine because it contained the truth about Jesus Christ. Knowing the truth was and is the only way that a person can come to faith. So, the apostles delivered a body of theological truth to the church (1 Cor. 15:3).[5] This Christian system is recorded in the words of Scripture in the implications of actions and propositional truth.

It was necessary for a written word to be given to the church that the canon of true religious faith might be constant and unmoved; that it might easily be preserved pure and entire against the weakness of memory, the depravity of men and the shortness of life; that it might be more certainly defended from the frauds and corruptions of Satan; that it might more conveniently not only be sent to the absent and widely separated, but also be transmitted to posterity.[6]

Since God has provided such a book which records his actions, the actions of his people, and his direct statements, we ought to value the doctrines provided from God, protect them from error, and present them to the world for God’s glory.




The opening chapters of Genesis record the creation of the heavens and the earth. This opening section is more than just a historical narrative; it is also a systematic attack on the Egyptian deities. God’s creation of light on the first day corrects the Egyptian claim that Atum-Re, the sun god, is not the source of light. Neither Re nor Thoth, the gods of the sun and the moon, are the source of light. God is the Creator of light. This polemical aspect is highlighted when Moses refused even to name the “sun” and the “moon” in favor of the greater and lesser light. To name a deity is to recognize its character. Moses labeled the lesser and greater lights to avoid any “naming” of a deity. Moses argued that the LORD is God and the Egyptian deities are not even to be named.

To create mankind God formed him from the dust of the earth in his image. The Egyptian deity Ptah had to embody creation in order to command and shape it to his will. The LORD fashioned creation without becoming part of the created order. Unlike the deity Khnum, who needed help to create, the LORD created by his power. Moses knew of the ancient Egyptian creation myths (cosmologies) and argued against them in the creation narrative.



Moses’ argument against the gods of Egypt continued with the record of the Ten Plagues. When the water was turned to blood, God demonstrated his superiority over Hapri the god of the Nile. When God sent the frogs into the land, he demonstrated his superiority over Heket, the goddess of fertility, who had the head of a frog. The bringing forth of lice from the dust of the earth demonstrated God’s superiority over Geb the god of the earth. When God summoned the flies, he showed himself superior to Khepri, the god of creation, who had the head of a fly. With the death of the cattle and livestock, God proved his superiority over Hathor, the goddess of love and protection which was often depicted with the head of a cow. Isis, the goddess of medicine and peace, is rendered useless when the ashes turn to boils and sores rendering the Egyptians ceremonially unclean. Nut, the goddess of the sky, Seth, the god of storms, and Ra, the sun god are sequentially shown to be powerless by God’s miraculous plagues. Finally, Pharaoh who was believed to be a god is shown to be powerless before the LORD who takes his firstborn son.



The children of Israel were but grasshoppers before the people of Canaan. The Canaanites served deities of different locations. To displace a Canaanite people group was to displace their deity and replace it with a superior deity. This is one reason why God promised to give the land to the people. They were commanded to trust God, and he would be their Champion. The Israelites were not more powerful than the Canaanites nor their deities. The LORD was superior to all. He and he alone could supply the land by defeating the pagan deities and the people who served them.



Even after the mighty arm of the LORD was revealed to Israel, the people struggled with their idolatry. When God’s glory was manifested on Sinai, the redeemed people grew impatient and ordered the golden calf—a god of their design for their own will. Instead of the LORD who designed people for his will, the Israelites demanded a god for their covetous desires. This sinful act of rebellion was swiftly punished. Idolatry continued to plague the Israelites. As they turned to a false god, the true God disciplined them and proved himself to be the only true God.



The New Testament is written that we might know Jesus is the LORD, an equal member of the Triune God, who added humanity to his person in order to redeem his people and present the church as a present to the Father. Jesus is proven to be the divine Messiah through prophecies from the Old Testament and the reenactment of the history of Israel in the Gospels. John gave seven signs from Jesus to prove that he is the Christ and that we must believe in him in order to have everlasting life.

Jesus himself argued from the Old Testament Scriptures that he is the Christ. This method was engrained in the lives of the apostles who were commissioned to teach the world the good news. When Peter preached the Gospel, he reasoned from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ whom the people had crucified. Even after the crowd asked what they must do, Peter continued to reason with them through many other words.



Jesus commanded his disciples to go and teach the gospel. Having baptized disciples, they were to continue teaching them the things of God (Matt. 28:19-20). Acts 15 records the events of the Jerusalem council. This council was necessitated because of doctrinal error. This doctrinal error was a matter of salvation (Acts 15:1). The decision was written and dispersed throughout the kingdom of God. Paul reasoned with the people in Thessalonica for three weeks about Jesus. Luke recorded that Paul was “explaining[7] and proving[8] that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:3). Paul viewed this aspect of his ministry to be of vital importance. In Philippians 1:7 Paul wrote that he was in prison because of “the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (ESV) In Philippians 1:16, he wrote that he was “put here (“appointed” CSB) for the defense of the gospel.”

The doctrines of the New Testament are to be defended against heresy by Christians of all ages as Jude had to write “appealing to you to contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once and for all,” so to we must defend the faith. Christians are to be able to say that they have “kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). Timothy, and all preachers are commanded to “preach the word in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (didake). Titus, and all preachers are commanded to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The inspired Scriptures are given “for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Each elder is to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to instruct in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). 1 Timothy 6:3 warns against the corrupt heart of those who teach a different doctrine and do not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness.

The churches of Galatia were rebuked for “turning to a different gospel” which resulted in “deserting him who called you” (Galatians 1:6). Paul wrote that there is no other gospel than the one Jesus delivered to him and through him. Those who would preach a changed or different gospel are “accursed” (Galatians 1:8, 9). The gospel’s pristine essence was so important to Paul that he “opposed” Peter “because he stood condemned” (Galatians 2:11). His actions were not in step with “the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). Those who create divisions through false doctrines are to be noted and avoided by the Church (Romans 6:17-19).



Jesus is the revelation of God. Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” God is not only the teacher of truth or revealer of truth. He is the truth. Since he is the truth, then all truth must flow from him as heat flows from the sun. Any true doctrine must from God’s character. Any false doctrine is then an attack on the nature of God himself. To teach a false doctrine is to present a false God. This is why the Bible has placed such a premium on true doctrine. “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 9-11).

The Christians of Asia Minor were exhorted to stand firm in the faith against the temptation to confess the pagan theology of Rome. The one who was faithful to the point of death would be saved and receive life (Revelation 2:10). The one who confessed the Roman religion would not have his name written in the Lamb’s book of life. This Christians’ allegiance to Christ was to be manifested in allegiance to doctrine. To reject the doctrine would be to reject Christ.

Christians are to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” in everything (Titus 2:10). The Christian life is based upon the doctrine of God. The Christian life is the reflection of the doctrine of God. The Christian life is to be a constant backdrop upon which the doctrine is hung for display.


Since doctrine is the revelation of God’s character and interaction with mankind, then doctrine becomes essential for the study of soteriology. Paul thanked God that the Romans had “become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were entrusted” (Romans 6:17). Their salvation from sin was described as becoming obedient from the heart.

This is the application of God’s choice that salvation would come through the message of the cross—a doctrinal message (1 Corinthians 1:21). This “message of the cross” or doctrine of the cross is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Jesus described the worship of the Pharisees as “vain” because it was according to the tradition of men rather than of God (Matthew 15:9). The first Christians were “devoted to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) as a result of their salvation. Cyril wrote, “For the method of godliness consists of these two things, pious doctrines, and virtuous practice: and neither are the doctrines acceptable to God apart from good works nor does God accept the works which are not perfected with pious doctrines.”[9]


Since the doctrine of God entrusted to us is so important, how dare we not contend for it? God has shown us who he is. God has given us the gift of the incarnate Son. God has given us the gift of the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. All these gifts are doctrinal. They are truths revealed from the One who is the Truth. We must, therefore, strive to know God’s doctrines. We must protect these doctrines against heresy. We must also teach others the gospel–the doctrine of Christ.

            [1] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. R. W. Church and Edwin Hamilton Gifford, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 19.

            [2] Thomas J. Shepherd, The Westminster Bible Dictionary (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1880), 165.

            [3] T. Rees, “Doctrine,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 866.

            [4] Sam Hamstra Jr., “Doctrine,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 185.

            [5] Sam Hamstra Jr., “Doctrine,” 185.

            [6] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 58.

              [7] Διανοίγων, “to explain, interpret” (BDAG).

              [8] Παρατιθέμενος, “ to set forth in teaching” or to “demonstrate, point out” (BDAG).

            [9] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. R. W. Church and Edwin Hamilton Gifford, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 19.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.