There are certain Christian beliefs that I fear are “closet doctrines” for many Christians.
What is a “closet doctrine”? I am glad you asked. Closet doctrines are those doctrines that we might believe, but we hide, especially to those for whom Christian truth is a novelty. In short, they are those beliefs that we are somewhat embarrassed by. In an age of political correctness and empirical demands of verification, many of us don’t talk about some things. While we might believe them, we feel the need to put them in a closet and lock the door. Sometimes this is due to shame others it is due to sting.
Let illustrate by first using Mormonism as an example. According to traditional Mormonism, God was once a man who was elevated to his status of deity. Following this understanding, Mormons believe that we can also be elevated to such a status and one day rule over our own planet or universe. You won’t hear about this from most Mormons that show up at your door. Glen Beck certainly does not bring them up. This bit of eschatological tradition is best put in a dark closet and locked away. Why? Because it, for many Mormons, is a black eye of shame. It is not simply that it redefines the entire concept of what it means to be “god,” nor is it that it necessarily leads to polytheism, but, quite frankly, sounds really silly.
However, “Sounding really silly” should not be a criterion for truth. Nevertheless, whether it is “sounding really silly” or just hard to believe, we often temper our presentation of our faith, leaving out the weird uncles in our doctrinal family tree, whether we believe them or not.
With Christianity, I see the list of “closet doctrines” growing quite a bit. Some of these are not simply doctrines, but specific beliefs. Among them:
Inerrancy: Many believe it is just too difficult to defend that there are no factual errors in the Bible considering, what they believe to be, the plethora of absurdities that one must swallow in order to maintain it.
Snakes talking: Let’s face it, it is hard to keep a straight face and say that a snake talked in the “garden” of Eden.
Demonization: While angels are a bit more palatable and the existence demons is finding its way into the closet, in our age of psychological therapy and medicine, why bother bringing up a belief that some evil creature that we have never seen can actually inhabit the body of a person?
Global Flood: “Two by two, all the animals came on the ark from all over the world, being led by God.” Sounds more like a nursery rhyme, doesn’t it? Let’s soften the blow by making it local. That way we don’t need so many Holy Spirit possessed animals! Either that or just hang it on the coat rack.
Time will fail me if I were to list the plagues of Egypt, the Jonahs in fish’s bellies, and Arks of Covenants killing thousands of people.
The question from the outside—the question from the unbelieving outside world captivated by their own empirical understanding—is “Do you really believe that?” Asked enough times, well-meaning Christians have the tendency to loosen their grip on these things and eventually assign them to the deepest recess of the back closet. If they are in the closet too long, they are either redefined or forgotten about all-together. After all, we do want to be respectable, don’t we? We do want to have a legitimate voice in the market place of ideas, don’t we?
There are three closet doctrines that stand out more than any other. These are the things that we don’t tell our unbelieving friends until they are inaugurated into the faith, and even then, we may never broach the subjection unless heavily qualified and redefined.
- The doctrine of Hell: A belief in an eternal place of suffering and torment for the non-elect called the “lake of fire.”
- The doctrine of imputation of Adam’s sin: A belief that all people are born condemned due to their association with the sin of the first man and woman who ever lived.
- The doctrine of predestination: A belief that God has elected certain individuals to salvation and not others.
My purpose here is not to deal directly with the truthfulness of these “closet doctrines,” but to explore the validity of Christians having closet doctrines.
I believe in sola Scriptura. This means I believe that the Bible is the final and only infallible source of truth. Therefore, how “silly” something sounds is too subjective an approach in our quest for truth. I think that the Bible, rightly interpreted, is authoritative over the rival source of “does it sound silly.”But I also believe in semper reformanda. This means that I believe that doctrine can progress, reform, and nuance itself to some degree based upon advances in understanding, both from the Bible, experience, and the natural world.
However, I am not comfortable with reforming doctrine based on how abnormal it sounds due to culturally influenced norms. Of course I have never heard a snake talk and, yes, it does sound like a fairy tale. But this does not really influence me to assign it a closet of shame. I live in America, the land of freedom and opportunity, but this does not mean that my experience should dictate how I believe the doctrine of election should be interpreted.
After all, think about this: Don’t those who believe in evolution hold to a bizarre theory that goes against everything we experience. I have never evolved through random mutation. Sure, I have seen it on X-Men, but that is fantasy. Don’t evolutionist believe that we are the walking talking decedents of single celled organisms that grew feet, got out of the water, lost our tail, built houses, and flew to the moon? I have never seen such a progression. It falls outside of everything I see and know. It sounds like a fairy tale. It is just plain silly. If anything should be placed in a closet, what about this?
However, we have learned to adjust. While I don’t believe in evolution, my disbelief is not necessarily based on the “silliness” factor (though, I must admit, it does contribute).
I just got done teaching a Bible Boot Camp at a church in Manteca, CA. I am writing this in Denver, CO on a device called a computer fueled by electricity. It will soon be uploaded to my blog on a server somewhere else (I think TX) by way of Boingo Wi-Fi. I will then get on an airplane and fly to Okla. City, OK. If I were to go back in just two hundred years and tell any random person about these events, they would see it as fantasy science fiction. There would be divisions among the empiricists and the more open minded about whether my story is possible. If I were to write it down, some bookstores would have it in the history section, some in the religious, some in the sci-fi, and some in the children’s section (further categorized in nursery rhymes).
My point is that we should not be too quick to interpret truth first through our scientism or criterion of “silliness.” I don’t like the doctrine of hell. God’s universal love along with sovereign predestination is hard to put together. Spirit filled animals two-by-two is not something I have seen. However, if we believe in the miracles of the modern age of technology, if we believe in a sovereign God who created all that there is out of nothing, and if we believe in the incarnate Christ who rose from the grave, these other things are not really that hard to believe.
In the end, we need to be very careful about what we put in the closet of shame. God does not call on us to filter truth through a public opinion poll of political correctness, scientific opinion, or the “does it sound silly test.” If you think about it, existence itself in every facet sounds quite silly. We have just gotten used to it through desensitization. If we interpret the Bible correctly and God says Hell does exist, predestination is unconditional, and snakes can talk then let’s pull them out of the closet. I don’t find the Apostles having any closet doctrines, nor should we.