For our first discussion, we wanted to start with a fundamental and foundational topic. Doctrine has been a source of contention and division throughout church history, and because of this, Faithful wonders how important doctrine should be to the modern Christian. He and Christian take the issue head on and discuss a few possibilities for selecting and grasping onto different doctrines.

 

Faithful: Recently I have questioned myself on the necessity of doctrine in the Church.  Sure, we have to believe something… but what and how tightly?  How much freedom is there for alternate viewpoints to still be considered Christian… and why?  Recently, I came across a discussion regarding Creation vs. Evolution where most of those posting all but discounted a Christian’s ability to reason.  Do we hold so fiercely to what we believe that we refuse to recognize and believe truth?  Obviously, God gave us our ability to reason and think.  In fact, the word ‘logic’ itself comes from the Greek Logos, which is the word John used in his gospel to refer to Jesus.  If Jesus is the Logos, or fulfillment/embodiment of logic, then as we aspire to be like Christ, we must ourselves attempt to be more logical as much as possible.
How does this relate to doctrine, you ask?    Doctrine is, by definition, a belief that is accepted as authoritative by some group.  So what should be authoritative?   Certainly, as we are followers of Christ, then we must put Jesus’ teachings on that pedestal.  Other things, however, seem far less clear.   For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity is more of a philosophical argument than anything else (clutching to ONE God while still trying to account for the roles of Jesus and the Holy Spirit)–should it be considered authoritative as it is only man’s attempt to put meaning into what the Bible says?  We must also decide what to do with “cultural” commands, such as clothing, food, and other commands that some or all don’t feel need to be practiced today.  So why do we have official doctrine?   What purpose does it serve other than simply as a rallying point for people that agree?  Is it worth the hassle?

Christian: Doctrine is unavoidable. Authoritative doctrine is dangerous, though. Who are we to say what is authoritative and what is not? Doesn’t each of us see the truth differently? I’m not advocating that the truth is relative, only that our perception of it is. And we can never get away from our perception of it. Even if everything contained in the Bible is true, we must still interpret it, and that gives room for error. So the logical conclusion would be to remain as ambiguous and open-ended as the Bible itself is, right? Why not focus on living Christlike rather than filling all the pieces in? Do we really need resolution to all of the questions the Bible brings up? Does something convince you that it’s true? Accept it. But you may be wrongfully convinced. Does something convince you that it’s false? Reject it. But you may be misunderstanding it. Does something do neither? Investigate it. In my opinion, any doctrine beyond the Gospel is negotiable and has room for improvement.

Faithful: The problem lies in the fact that if we are open-ended and ambiguous, then those in the world do not know what we believe or wonder if we believe anything at all… and they might be right.  Perhaps the key isn’t in being ambiguous, but rather simply hitting the highlights, and leaving the details to God.   However, by doing this, we tend to alienate the philosophical among us since they wish to try to put all the pieces together.  (off topic:  This is what concerns me most about the discussion linked above… not the statements made, but that this is true, and that’s why so many people had rejected Christianity–we already “knew” everything.)

Christian: What I mean by ambiguous is this: you can believe whatever you’d like to believe, but allow for others to believe differently than you. If you hold to the Trinity, allow for someone not to. I question what you mean by “hitting the highlights and leaving the details to God.” What you consider the highlights/details may be different than someone else. For example, do you, Faithful, consider the Trinity to be a highlight or a detail? Perhaps we’re saying the same thing…if you believe in the Trinity, don’t appeal to the Bible in such a way as to say that if the Bible says it, it has to be the truth…no room for discussion.

Faithful: A “highlight” would be something that would be completely spelled out in Scripture and defined by it as a requirement to our faith.   Examples would include:  Jesus died for our sins (and the death did cover them), God is love (yet still just), and, as Christians, we are called to be like Christ as much as we possibly can.  However, I am not satisfied with your response to the concern that outsiders to the faith might well see our lack of a detailed foundation as no foundation at all.

Christian: In other words, you’re saying that the Gospel is the “highlights” and (to quote from a statement I made earlier) “any doctrine beyond the Gospel is negotiable and has room for improvement.” The idea that there is only one God would probably be an exception to my man-made standard, I suppose. To answer your concern of outsiders noticing our lack of detailed foundation, I don’t think they could care less what Christians believe, other than moral beliefs. It’s not until they’re interested in becoming a Christian that these doctrinal beliefs become important to them. As for a lack of a detailed foundation, Paul said that our foundation is Jesus and Him crucified. The rest of these things aren’t foundational…they’re details. So I would argue that your “detailed foundation” would better be understood as “details” and “foundation.” And you have yet to answer me if the Trinity is “highlight” or “detail.”  🙂

Faithful: The Trinity must certainly be a detail.  Its conception is due to the inability to compromise that there must only be one God, but still account for the fact that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit all seem to be at the same level in Scripture (such passages as “I and the Father are one.” “Before Abraham was, I am.” and “I must go… and then I will send the Helper to you.” seem to imply that the three have a sort of unique connection to God the Father).  Thus, it is more for philosophical, not Scriptural, reasons that the doctrine was created.  Perhaps this very example is useful to demonstrate good and worthy approaches to understanding Scripture and how we can possibly get so caught up in our own personal understandings that we try to subject God (and everyone else) to what we can come up with.  Even though whether or not the Trinity should be a promoted doctrine is irrelevant to this discussion,   I would tend to think that the belief is as close as we have been able to come so far to understanding the nature of God… but certainly, I would have hope that we could come to understand Him in greater accuracy and detail.  I concede that perhaps we do indeed agree on the practicality of being flexible with doctrines and beliefs that are defensible in Scripture (and maybe even try to determine what beliefs don’t really matter anyway and allowing for an even greater flexibility with those), however, I do think it is important to realize why the doctrines we have were created and realize that there are still people trying to resolve the nature of earth, man, God, and the universe to more fully understand who we are and why we’re here.

Christian: Your affirmation of Trinity as a detail will surely raise eyebrows within the Church. Many will disagree with you. This is why I brought this specific doctrine up. It’s nice to say that for the “highlights” we should be rigid, while loosening our grip on the “details.” But in order to do this, we’d have to agree on what is “highlights” and what is “details.” And for those in which we disagreed, we’d just start up different denominations and find ourselves in the same predicament today (although I should say we’d have far less denominations). You said, “I would have hope that we could come to understand [God] in greater accuracy and detail [than the present Trinity model espouses].” Is this a call for progressive revelation?    – [Faithful:   Ah, but the doctrine of the Trinity is a philosophical deduction, not revelation. ]

I would like to conclude my side of the discussion with the following two statements. First, you are right to say that we need to be flexible with doctrines and beliefs that are merely defensible in Scripture. This is because MANY beliefs are defensible in Scripture, but aren’t necessarily true. Just because you can defend your belief using the Bible doesn’t mean the Bible intends what you say. Even if it does intend what you say, there may be other passages of Scripture that intend otherwise. (We’ll save that discussion for another time.) As Christians, I believe it’s a waste of time to say, “The Bible says it, so there’s no need for discussion or questioning.” We’ll run more people away from Christianity for reasons other than rejecting God’s gift at the Cross. Second, and finally, it would be difficult to come up with an agreed list of those doctrines which are “highlights” and those which are “details.” Yet, should we really strive for this? Wouldn’t it be good enough if we would permit dialogue and disagreement in these matters without exercising “holy judgment,” and instead maintaining close fellowship with each other? This brings up many questions on how to do that practically, but maybe we should start focusing on those in order to see it become a reality–not just preaching from our pulpit that Christians must have unity. What are we (or our pastors) doing to promote this unity between denominations?