We’ve looked at some key terms and some different methods of doing theology. Today I want to take an extended excursion to look at the issue of unity and diversity within Christian belief. To help explain I shall be utilizing a solar system, a sumo-wrestler and a mirror.
Should all Christians believe exactly the same things? Or is there room for disagreement? What defines authentic Christian belief? These are important and difficult questions in need of clear answers. By finding these answers we shall be equipped to answer many other questions, such as how denominations (such as Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, etc.) arose, if similar church splits can or should be avoided, and if other churches, such as Catholics, can rightly be called Christians. In setting up Thinking Matters, conceived as an inter-denominational organization to encourage and support Christian apologetics in New Zealand, we had to wrestle with these very issues, and still regularly are confronted with different perspectives and disagreements within our own ranks concerning what correct theology should be. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a great diversity of opinion in Christendom about certain doctrines. But how much diversity of opinion can be permitted until someone can no longer rightly be called an authentic Christian?
The first point to clarify is this: if Christianity is to claim that it is truly true then it must be about something specific. Truth, by its very nature, is exclusive. To include every belief and exclude none is to abandon reason and create a system with no discernable identity that is subject to all manner of flights of fancy. To be all-inclusive is to have an incoherent muddle. Blasé Pascal said “Plurality without unity is chaos; unity without plurality is tyranny.” The first half of this axiom can be expressed in the words; something that is about everything is about nothing in particular. The second half can be expressed also in other words; something that is about only one thing is cruelty.
There are two ways of thinking about what defines authentic Christian belief: the Bounded-set model and the Centred-set model.
The Bounded-set model describes a set of beliefs defined by a border that regulates what should and should not be believed: all authentically Christian beliefs lie within a boundary. Think of a sumo-wrestling ring that prescribes where you can wrestle: step outside the ring and you’re disqualified. Some people create a ridged list of beliefs where if on any point there is contradiction, no longer can that person truly be called a Christian. This describes an all-or-nothing brand of dogmatic Christianity; obsessed with patrolling and maintaining the border; known by what they exclude, rather than by what they include.
The model tends to describe the mind-set of more fundamentalist Christians. An example could be certain groups committed to young-earth creationism, where denial of that particular interpretation is tantamount to denial of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. It illustrates an adversarial way describing Christian belief; jealously guarding interior beliefs as equally the same; vigilant about staying within; not impressed by people outside calling themselves Christians; and often over-reacting to those who dare to question the boundary. It adequately describes cult groups, who believe they are members of the ‘one (and only) true church.’
The Centred-set model is like a solar system. Christians can be authentically Christian if they remain in orbit around a central magnetic core, as the planets do the sun. As long as one shares in common a nucleus of essential beliefs then disagreement on non-essentials can be accommodated. The centre creates a definitive identity for Christianity making it possible to see those who have been knocked out of orbit and circling another gospel. This model is best suited for retaining diversity of belief and makes inter-denominational unity possible.
So what beliefs should be in the core? What are those essential beliefs? The answer will depend much on your purpose for defining Christian belief. One could be drafting a Statement of Faith for a church or organization, while another may simply desire to spell out to a child or unbeliever what one must do and believe in order to be saved. The diameter of the wrestling ring or the volume of the sun will be influenced by the particular doctrinal concerns of the tradition-community and the importance ascribed to each doctrine. The larger the area the more difficult it will be to please everyone, but fortunately essential truths to the gospel of salvation have remained largely unchanged in two millennia.
How are those truths discovered, discerned or distilled? Next time we shall look at the sources and norms for Christian belief, but before I end I shall describe three different strategies for maintaining unity in the face of diversity.
First, remember that all beliefs matter, but not all beliefs matter equally. Think of Christian belief as a dirty mirror that every generation has made an effort to clean. As they have done so, the area in the middle has become clearer and clearer. The third and fourth century’s ecumenical councils, church leaders, theologians and apologists went to work and gave preceding generations clarity on the doctrine of the trinity and Christ’s incarnation. Over the millennia, succeeding generations have revisited this portion of the glass, cleaning again that which had become tarnished. Areas near the edge of the mirror, beside the frame, may not have–and perhaps never will–receive similar clarity. For issues such as the pre-tribulational rapture view or the correct view of the constitutional nature of the human person, it is best to keep an open mind and periodically review the issue, being prepared to change ones mind should fresh reflection lead to different conclusions.
To help, a useful tool is the scale of certainty. Essential truths such as the existence of God, the resurrection of Christ, and he doctrine of salvation we should be most certain of, as in +9 or +10. Issues such as the pre-tribulational rapture view will probably rank less on the certainty scale, as in +2 or +3 and may even pass into the negative numbers, as in -1 and -4. This scale serves to keep things in perspective. Though excellent arguments may be marshaled for controversial doctrines we should try not to become so fixed in our positions that we are not prepared to listen and re-evaluate. The scale of certainty will help us to follow the principle given by the Reformers, “Reformed and always reforming” – that is that every person should have an active mind being transformed constantly by the study of the word of God.
The second strategy is distinguishing between a doctrine and a particular interpretation of a doctrine. For instance, many hold the penal substitution theory of atonement as the best interpretation, but Martin Luther held to Chistos Victor as the best interpretation of the atonement. There are other theories and interpretations available, but all would agree that something cosmic happened at the cross when Christ died, and that this somehow enables sinful people to come into relationship with him. The doctrine of Original Sin also has many different interpretations and nuances, but all agree that people (and the world at large) are, without God’s intervention, currently somehow flawed. It would be careless to discard the whole idea of Original Sin, because one does not believe in the literal fall of Adam or fiduciary headship.
Third, finding the commonality in all traditions. The history of the church, says Roger E Olson, provides a sort of third testament, not inspired like the Old and New Testament, but inspired in the sense that it was formed by the responsiveness of the church to the Holy Spirit. If that is the case all Christians are responsible to know what this Great Tradition has to say. Much of Christian doctrine has been formalized and clarified in response to heresies that arose in history, particularly in the creedal statements of the third to fifth centuries as well as the sixteenth century Reformation when those truths were rediscovered. The creeds were created as rallying standards and remain so today. Even if a church does not officially recognize the creeds, it is almost certain their confession will include their content. An appreciation of the history of Christian thought would harmonize inter-church dialogue, as people become familiar with the reasons why certain specifics are important to others and understand the price that was paid long ago to preserve them.
In looking at different traditions and history, it is helpful to distinguish between dogma, doctrine and opinion as levels of importance within Christian truth. Dogma should be limited to those essential truths in the central core, and that which most Christians of all times have in common, denial of which would constitute rank heresy and apostasy. We hold dogma tenaciously and never let it go. Doctrines (in this narrow use of the term) will be those beliefs held to be important in particular tradition-communities. On this scheme Lutheran dogma is the same as Baptist and Methodist which includes the existence of God, Christ as savior, etc, and Lutheran doctrine includes consubstantiation, whereas Baptists hold the memorial view of the Lord’s Supper. Opinions are those religious beliefs where; no consensus exists; that are not clearly taught in scripture; and do not touch the gospel itself. We should hold opinions tentatively, being prepared to tolerate diversity amongst Christian brothers and sisters who believe differently.
It should be remembered that for all the disagreements there are, we share more in common than that on which we disagree. Even Catholic churches that look and act so very differently to protestant churches can find a far greater amount of things in common than the differences between them. Calvinists and Arminians, who are so often found at one another’s throats, should be able to stand side-by-side in the spirit of brotherhood, and worship the same God who is both three and one; diverse but united. Augustine, the great third century North African bishop once said, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity (love).”
Next time we will look at the sources and norms for Christian belief.
Find them all here: www.carm.org/christianity/creeds-and-confessions