Preparing For Theology 1: Sound Doctrine Is Healthy Teaching
In Paul’s final letters to young preachers Timothy and Titus, he urges them to “teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1 NIV), because “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:3 NIV). When I was growing up, this phrase was actually used as “code:” if a church advertisement said it was looking for a preacher who was “sound in doctrine,” you could bet your bottom dollar they wanted someone on the conservative side of the spectrum. (In a similar way, if an advertisement requested a “Spirit filled” minister, that was an invitation for someone more progressive).
But “sound doctrine” (or “sound teaching”) is far more than a catch phrase. When Paul lists devious sins that represent the very opposite of holy living, he concludes with a powerful description: “Sound teaching agrees with the glorious gospel of the blessed God that has been entrusted to me” (1 Timothy 1:11 CEB).
The gospel refers to the announcement, teaching, or message that Jesus Christ is the long-awaited Messiah, who has come to rescue His people, take our place on the cross, and reconcile all people into one body. Jesus has accomplished this reconciling work through His resurrection from the dead, and God has poured out His Holy Spirit to empower us for kingdom living. This is good news indeed! Since sound teaching agrees with this glorious message, surely there is a problem if we conceive of “sound doctrine” as referring to boring, tired, carefully-crafted allegiance to minute rules. There is a problem if we conceive of “sound doctrine” as referring to boring, tired, carefully-crafted allegiance to minute rules.
There is a problem if we conceive of “sound doctrine” as referring to boring, tired, carefully-crafted allegiance to minute rules.
Our older English translations (such as the KJV) used the term “sound,” and this word was carried over to contemporary translations, even though the original meaning of the word has fallen out of common usage in all but a few places. Consider a nautical illustration. If a ship is “sound,” it means it is well: well-built, well-crafted, and well-able to float. The ship is seaworthy. Consider a medical illustration. If your doctor said you have a “sound’”constitution, that would simply mean that you are fit, healthy, and well prepared for living.
So for Paul, to have “sound doctrine” actually means to have healthy, vibrant teaching – the kind that brings about positive faith that not only grows, but flourishes. The Common English Bible brings this point out well in its translation of Titus 1:9:
“They must pay attention to the reliable message as it has been taught to them so that they can encourage people with healthy instruction and refute those who speak against it.”
Sound doctrine is healthy, vibrant, life-giving teaching that flourishes. tell the world I would suggest, then, that Paul’s deep concern for sound doctrine is a desire for healthy, life-giving teaching that agrees with the good news of salvation and reconciliation by our blessed God. Sound teaching is teaching that fits with, and flows out of, a healthy view of the larger story of God’s saving grace.
(photo: Cambridge, UK. ©nathanguy)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.