Here are a couple of thoughts on the subject that I carry around with me:
1. Divine Revelation vs. Human Discovery: There is a difference between Divine revelation and human discovery. Often, in the name of humility, we back away from absolute declarations about the nature of God, etc out of a desire to be respectful of people of other faiths (not denominations, faiths). Humility is certainly a good thing when speaking of God. And yet, we should not dismiss the gift of God’s self-revelation and chalk up our beliefs as being essentially, like others, a common human desire to discover the divine. I do believe that there is a common human desire for the divine. With Augustine, I affirm that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. But we dare not refuse the gift of God’s having revealed himself to us through Christ by putting doctrine down as merely arrogant and passe, even though we all must avoid a spirit of arrogance in the way we hold and express the doctrines we adhere to.
2. Talking about the Same Person: Doctrine is essentially something like this. Two people enter a party (a Christmas party perhaps). In the midst of their conversation, they seem to discover that they have a mutual friend. At least, they think they do–he is called by the same name and seems to be about the same age. So, how to figure out if they are in fact talking about the same person? Well, describe them, of course:
Joe: The Josh I know is average height, dark eyes, dark hair, has a serious personality, but knows how to laugh with you too. His life really is for the sake of others.
Bill: I know a guy named Josh, but the one I know is tall and red-headed with blue eyes. He’s a little reserved and awkward around big groups, but he’s pretty nice once you get to know him.
Clearly, Joe and Bill have discovered they’re not talking about the same person after all. This is what doctrine does for us. It helps us know if we’re talking about the same Person or not. This is why I think it is critical to be sticklers about the essentials, but only about the essentials. Distintives of various theological traditions can be wonderful gifts if they are understood as non-essentials. Orthodoxy needs boundaries, but it also needs to be sufficiently generous too.