(by Lisa Robinson)
In the wake of the Bell debacle, Tim Challies has written an excellent article here about three notable observations. Overall, I agree with his assessment that the Evangelical world has become too mealy on truth rooted in the historic Christian faith. He challenges the notion that doubt, opaqueness and unanswered questions have become norms across the landscape. By implication and particularly related to the Bell incident, these charges bear merit.
However, I find myself a tad uneasy about the charges when viewed from a different perspective. Meaning, bold proclamations of truth based on the historic understanding of Christian essentials are an absolutely necessity. I do agree with the critiques of the recent debacle, that once the so-called ‘old paradigms’ are questioned and uprooted, its a slippery slope to beliefs that will necessarily fall outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. There must be an unyielding to core truths that make God’s plan for salvation both trustworthy and necessary to make Christian belief Christian belief. There is a foundation by which Christians must affirm the exclusive claims of the gospel and consequences for rejection.
But on the flip side, there has been a divergence of theological distinctions within Evangelicalism. For the most part these are not positions that uproot the Christian faith. These are not positions that don’t necessarily challenge the sine qua non of Christianity, but may represent variations in understanding Biblical doctrine or passages that ultimately impact an understanding of Christian practice.
So when we talk about bold proclamations, I think the perspective from which we are making this statement matters. If it is the perspective of claims that will absolutely uproot the Christian faith, then yes we must boldly declare with Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ”. That is becoming increasingly unpopular in an increasingly pluralistic world. But if the perspective involves peripheral issues that to varying degrees will impact how we live out Christian faith, then I do believe there is a place for epistemological humility. That does not mean we have a strong conviction but it also leaves room that competing positions that do not transgress the core faith, might be legitimate options. Confidence in atonement or the resurrection is quite different than confidence in the age of the earth or the style of worship in the church. There are issues of varying importance that must be weighed accordingly.
I think issue of perspective equally applies to doubt. There is a difference between the Christian who has been told that any doubt amounts to a loss of salvation or that they never had it vs. doubt concerning essential truths. To the former, the Christian needs to be affirmed that doubt is ok. No, not ultimately because our faith IS based on belief. But periods of doubt are not necessarily a product of an unrealized faith. But the person who doubts that essential truths that are rooted in the historic witness of Christian belief are no longer needed, does have a kind of doubt that can result in disasterous consequences. From this perspective, doubt is not ok.
I fear that if we apply the same measure of dogmatic expression to all areas equally in a stand for “truth” that might lead to overzealous and rigid compliance outside of which will exist the path to post-liberalism or even heresy. In this scenario, any uncertainty expressed will necessarily be deemed a move down this path. Unwarranted accusations might abound simply because one has expressed uncertainty, but unmeasured against a standard of significance. Perspective, I think, should cause us to examine which positions are worth fighting for, which we really need to express concern about and which ones we may disagree with but allow grace in disagreement. There are some areas where we can have conviction but have to confess that we ultimately don’t know. I personally believe that rigid dogmatism in areas that require flexibility can be just as harmful of having no dogmatism or certainty at all.
So while I agree with Challies’ assessment and observations, I modify it to say it depends on what it is we are talking about. Every topic related to Christianity cannot be treated with the same degree of certainty or dogmatism. Some must, some need not be and there is everything in between.
See Michael’s post here on essentials vs. non-essentials, which provides a pretty good guide on the range of doctrinal certainty.