When I coached cross country and track I occasionally received questions that were of little to no significance for the runners training and overall success. Sometimes they were about whether to eat some kind of food, or the best time to run during the day or evening, or whether they should participate in a P. E. class, or wear a particular piece of clothing while running. They weren’t completely irrelevant questions; they were related to their running. One run might not be so pleasant if the wrong food was eaten or wrong piece of clothing worn. Still, one run generally did not play a significant role in the greater whole of years of training. Christian doctrine is like this; it is one very large whole comprised of many smaller details. It’s easy to get too stressed out about small details of the larger whole.
Of the many helpful things I have learned from B. B. Warfield, perhaps the most important is this—Christian doctrine is an organism. Christian doctrine is all about the Triune, Personal God. It is all from him, through him and to him; he is the source, means and goal of it all. Warfield stressed these things repeatedly and explained the organic connections between the various doctrines. This was his way of doing apologetics; to explain how the doctrines of the Christian faith hold together in one organic whole. After Warfield, Cornelius Van Til would talk about a “blockhouse methodology.” Same truth, but Warfield’s stress on the organic relations does a better job of capturing the profound truth of the living nature of doctrinal and theological work and belief.
Living organisms are systemic. Consider the human body. Not a bad option. The church is the “body of Christ.” Jesus tells us that “the Spirit of Truth,” gives gifts by which the church grows in “the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (1Cor. 12; John 14; Eph. 4). Yet, living organisms have some aspects to them that hold a more vital role to the life of that organism than other aspects. We can lose a finger and still live and function pretty well. Lose your head, lose your life. This same principle is present with Christian doctrine, the church’s life and the life of every individual Christian.
It takes learning some things about an organism to know the precise role that its various aspects play within its life. The more complex an organism, and the less we know of that complexity, the more we will misdiagnose the precise role of its various “parts.” We see this with very young children. Sometimes they do not recognize the kind of damage they can do to others with particular objects. They are ignorant of both the object that they have and the vulnerability of the body against which they apply the object. Most of us are sadly too familiar with the tragedies of toddlers using guns, knives or various other objects to unknowingly injure or kill people. Extreme and sad cases aside, there are much smaller and yet still significant examples of the point.
Because Christian doctrine is a systemic organism that grows or matures (read Ephesians 4) we need to work at understanding the living system that is Christian doctrine. There are some things vital to its health and operation, other things that aren’t. Paul said that leaders in the church are to preach and teach healthy or sound doctrine (1Tim. 1:10; Titus 1:9; 2:1). Paul used the Greek term related to our term hygiene. Sound or healthy doctrine is good for life; its food for the individual’s soul and the church’s corporate life. Jesus said his body is the bread of heaven and blood true drink. Growth, both quantitative and qualitative, takes place in and with the church through the proclamation of healthy doctrine, true doctrine, that plants seeds of Jesus’ life (Matt. 13:10-20), and then waters and feeds this life (1Cor. 3:6). Under the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, who is “the Spirit of Truth,” some sinners are regenerated and then renewed (Titus 3:5). It’s God who gives growth (1Cor. 3:6). In this growth God is giving himself or eternal life (John 17:3). Among other ways this can be seen is that to have this sound doctrine is to have both the Father and Son (2John 9-10). These points are not something to merely glance at while one is actually fixated on other doctrinal details. The first and arguably most important part of the living organism of Christian doctrine is that God is the creator. He creates, judges, interprets, nurtures, and redeems life. All these actions by God are seen in people’s thinking and living as they reveal to varying degrees and in various ways their ability or inability, and willingness or unwillingness to make and live in the distinctions that hold within God’s creation.
Essential to this Christian life that is a doctrine, or Christian doctrine that is a life, is learning to understand it as a system. Knowing the system is to know the life. Flowers are an organic system, but what marks them as this is not the same as the organic system present with a dog, or cat, or spider, or snake. In fact, the organic systems that abound in creation are enormously varied. The intricacies of the living system that comprise every human body is fascinatingly and at times confusingly complex. I routinely had to tell my runners: “What works for one runner does not necessarily work for you, or for all runners.”
Let me calm, perhaps, some of your fears. I am not about to move us to relativism. God is the creator who brought into being distinct realities and he distinguished them from one another. Part of what marks our knowledge of these realities for what they actually are is that they are distinguished over and against other distinct realities. Light is distinguished from darkness. Day One is Day One in part, because it is not Day Two. Land is distinguished from water, etc., etc. I know, seems rather, uh, duh, obvious. Not so, actually.
This distinguishing is not only between large realities like land and water, but within the larger realities themselves. In fact, when you think about it, what we have in creation is a seemingly endless variety of distinctions among billions of created realities, yet within one coherent whole. The distinctions are just that because there is not an absolute disconnect between the realities nor a dissolving of them into each other so that two or more realities no longer exist or function as the two or more realities that they are . This is one of the most vital points of Christianity: the Triune God created various realities and they can and should be distinguished from one another. The Triune God alone knows the distinctions and he reveals, at least in part, these distinctions through his word and Spirit. All human knowledge and living is based on understanding and choosing to live in the truth of these distinctions. What marks Christian doctrine and living as Christian is that it is beliefs, thinking and actions that discern the truth about the distinctions that God’s word says hold between realities, and then living according to those distinctions. I do not and should not have sex with other women, men or animals because I am a human male married to a particular female. My wife is distinguished as my wife, therefore I have sex with her, not anyone or anything else. In fact, no human is to ever have sex unless joined to a married spouse of the gender distinguished from their gender. God created the male human and distinguished him from the female human. God created marriage and distinguished it from other human relationships.
It is safe to say that nearly every doctrinal error can be understood as not rightly discerning the distinctions that hold between the various doctrines. Instead, we either function with a particular kind of disconnect between them or a dissolution of them. Note: We in our thinking and conduct disconnect or dissolve particular doctrines that are, in reality, distinct. If you need some examples, take the relation between God’s Law and God’s grace, or the Church and the State, or justification and sanctification, or God’s blessing and God’s curse, or doctrine and practice. Every doctrinal affirmation is the expression of the various distinctions between the truths that someone believes comprise those doctrines. This is not all doctrine is, but it is at least this.
Within the organism that is Christian doctrine the actual length of the creation days is not nearly as important as the truth that there was a distinguishing between the creation days by God. Think this issue of distinctions is not practical and profound? What is fundamental to the sin of homosexuality and bestiality? Is it not that two realities that God created distinct and that God commands are not to be united in a particular way have not been regarded according to their God given distinctions? Years ago, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) openly announced the following statement: “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” There you have it. No distinction between organisms that God himself declares are distinct and are in fact only known and responded to rightly as we understand the character of their distinctions.
To the degree that a person or an entire culture, willfully rejects the Christian faith and life, to that same degree they reject the distinctions that God created and declares do in fact hold between the realities of his creation. They trade distinctions for disconnections, or setting particular realities off against each other that actually harmonize. Or, they dissolve realities so that two or more realities are treated as one. Boundaries or borders disappear in the latter, while they are isolated from each other in the former. Wonder why relationally, sexually, politically and geographically some people in American culture in particular swing between these extremes of either disconnecting or dissolving the realities that mark relationships, sex, politics, and geography? Of course, none of this began with American culture; it has been present and persisting since Adam and Eve failed to make the proper distinctions between themselves and a piece of fruit, themselves in relation to each other, and thereby themselves in relation to God. We just happen to be living at a time and place where disconnects and dissolutions are becoming increasingly more severe in some quarters.
One of the great ironies of the often unfruitful debate over the length of the creation days is that it misses a much more profound point within the organism of Christian doctrine. It is failing to understand the vital point that every day is distinct from another day and that within every day particular distinctions were made by God between the realities he created. The Distinctions of the Days of Creation not their duration is the crucial point within the organism of Christian doctrine.