(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.


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    14 replies to "A Matter of Perspective"

    • If there is a clear need to stand up for the fundamental truths of Scripture (Romans 16:17). Their is also an error in too easily dividing into factions (1 Corinthians 1:10-17) over peripheral issues. We need to strive for the correct balance here.

    • Chuck

      While Tim needs no defense, I am missing where he argues, in his article, for a such a dogmatic approach to all matters that it needs the kind of caveats offered here. In his first book, “The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment,” he defines primary, secondary and even tertiary doctrinal matters and cautions against holding too hard and fast on anything other than those that are primary and essential. Hard for me to imagine that he would be suggesting anything contrary to that, in the article that you linked to.

    • Alex Guggenheim

      Even the most essential doctrines involve a process of discovery and conclusion which not only asks questions but challenges every single proposition within those doctrines. Hence, the issue ultimately is not whether Bell or anyone else should ask questions (and I do not believe this is what Challies is confronting, actually) but the nature of the approach of those asking questions.

      Bell asks questions as if they have not been thoroughly answered or repeatedly both ignores/refuses to address their arguments in favor of his own pursuit of answers that favor his a priori objectives. Unlike a babe in Christ who may ask questions about fundamental doctrines so he or she may found themselves properly, Bell and such ask questions of the same matters, not for founding but as if they have not been adequately addressed.

      The reason we challenge things is to find them true or not. It seems Bell finds little certain and questioning what has been made certain is not good questioning.

    • Ed Kratz

      Chuck, I was not indicating that he was arguing for a dogmatic approach to all matters. In fact, I don’t think he would. But one can read his recommendation and take that approach. So I was merely nuancing what he said.

    • Ray Nearhood

      OK, so, pet peeve.

      You write, “…which we really need to express concern about and which ones we may disagree with but allow grace in disagreement.”

      I think you mean, “…which we really need to express concern about and which ones we may disagree with but allow graciousness in disagreement.”

    • Gary Simmons

      Ray: care to show her a little grammatical grace/graciousness?

    • Ray Nearhood


      Like I said, “pet peeve.” (that and “begs” v. “raises” the question)

      “Grace” has a meaning. In theological discussion it is a very specific meaning. Used as an idiom (even correctly) in theological discussion muddies the waters and lends to confusion by unintentionally equating the showing of kindness in speech to others on the merit of being fellow Christians with the free, unmerited favor of God.

      Besides, “graciousness” is simply correct in that sentence, even if one is not using the theological definition.

      Hold on tic! Am I not being gracious by trying to help a fellow Christian correct a common grammatical error? Is that even somewhat mean? Heh.

      On subject: Lisa, I think that you’re dead on with the doubt that you express as “ok” (but I don’t think Challies had that in view). That doubt is healthy – driving us sinners back to the Cross in which we find assurance. I think Challies was talking specifically about doubt that would deny…

    • Ray Nearhood

      Got cut off…

      I think Challies was talking specifically about doubt that would deny the very truth of God being.

      All in all, good thoughts. Good post.

    • Leo Chappelle

      The pastor of my Southern Baptist church has said he believes that Christianity falls if the earth is older than about 6,000 yrs. or if Jonah is not literally true. This seems unhelpful to the proclamation of the gospel in a post-Christian culture. The need for a sense of centrality concerning Christian truth claims appears not just reasonable given what we can know but essential to the Great Commission. However, one wonders if it is too much to expect that we could agree to be brothers without being twins. If we know each other personally the chances are better. If we judge each other doctrinally, then not so much. So, is Christ about relationship or law (doctrine)? Unfortunately, the question itself turns out to be a doctrinal issue which makes it harder to resolve. In fact, as soon as there were two Christian congregations there were two denominations, one observant of Jewish customs and one not. But they got along, and even cooperated, at a distance. So one may hope.

    • John from Down Under

      “However, one wonders if it is too much to expect that we could agree to be brothers without being twins”

      Leo, I promise to commit this statement to memory for as long as I can. Great wisdom!

    • Ed Kratz

      Ray, thanks for that. I suppose I have fallen prey to popular lingo that makes for sloppy theology :/

      On the other point, no I didn’t suppose that Challies was referring to doubt in that manner. As I mentioned in my previous comment to Chuck, I was nuancing what he said. I could really see one who is stringently dogmatic in all matters feel affirmed in their dogmatism.

      In hindsight, I probably should have talked about that band of doctrinal issues that are very important but not essential to salvation. I think that is where a great deal of disagreement occurs in consideration of what IS essential.

    • Alex Guggenheim

      If we know each other personally the chances are better. If we judge each other doctrinally, then not so much. So, is Christ about relationship or law (doctrine)? Unfortunately, the question itself turns out to be a doctrinal issue which makes it harder to resolve.
      Let me challenge you with a what I believe is a fundamental error in your construct. Here you state that if we know each other “personally” and not necessarily doctrinally then we have a better chance of getting along? Well, isn’t what we believe part of our person, if in fact as believers quite the core of our person?

      Secondly you use the word “law” and then define it as doctrine in parenthesis. In this case you have just redefined the word doctrine which, while it may deal with considerations of the law, deals with the sum of what is believed and taught. Doctrine is one’s set of beliefs and assumed practices. This is essential for determining spiritual kinship. This is not so hard to resolve.

    • Leo Chappelle

      Alex, I very much appreciate your thoughtful comments. I’ll try to clarify and expand on my own. First, concerning the relationship of belief to our person, I will acknowledge a philosophical mine field in trying to define what is meant by personhood, and not go there. However, my reference is to the contingent nature of belief; we may or may not believe as we do. Some once believed but now do not; some did not believe, but now do. Second, my use of “law” was as an analogue, not a redefinition. Christ (and later Paul) taught relationship before ritual. We should not let ecclesiology get in the way of theology, and by this I mean “keep first things (core doctrines) first”. We do not want to emphasize secondary or tertiary issues, as we are nonetheless prone to do, but to keep our relationship as the greater Body of Christ for the sake of the core of our faith. Easier said than done, but worth the effort and helped by focusing on personal relationships by listening and praying.

    • david carlson

      I suggest Ben Witherington’s blog posts on the subject – really quite superb, and the only ones the I have read that deal honestly with the book.

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