What is Our Statement of Doctrine?

BY JOHN MONTAGUE

Frequently, when I tell people about To An Unknown God or ask them to support the journal, or even to read a copy of our latest issue, I get the same question: “Do you have a statement of doctrine?” When I first encountered this query, I was puzzled because its underlying assumption – namely, that there is a comprehensive statement of belief to which everyone must subscribe – conflicts with the very mission of the magazine. Worse, the question reveals an undue emphasis on possessing correct knowledge, suggesting a grave misunderstanding of the essence of Christianity.

One of our primary goals in founding this journal was to provide a forum for students to discuss and argue about the Christian faith and its implications. The idea of a forum implies that it is impossible to know that we have arrived at the correct answer. Note that this does not mean there is no truth; only that we cannot know when we have grasped it. (As I shall argue, this epistemology is the most consistent with Christian teaching.)

Perhaps those who have asked us for a statement of doctrine may protest: “But we don’t think we can be certain about everything; we’re merely asking about certain key beliefs.” Okay, and what are those key beliefs? Of course, the answer to this question can be found in the creeds published by their own churches or denominations. A sampling of these statements suggests that it is necessary to believe doctrines such as: the number of books in the Old Testament; the millennial reign of Christ; that unbelievers will suffer for eternity in a literal hell; that all people who have not said the “Jesus prayer,” including those who have never heard of Jesus, will be damned; and a variety of other beliefs that might fairly be categorized as “peripheral.” In fact, it seems that these believers have forgotten the core message of the gospel, consumed by trying to believe the right things.

It is ironic that these churches place Scripture in such ostensibly high regard yet neglect many of its very clear teachings on this subject. For instance, they might consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Cor. 2:1–4, NIV)

In the preceding chapter, Paul harangues the church at Corinth for its bitter divisions, manifested in bickering between those who claimed to follow the teachings of Apollos and those who said they followed Peter or another apostle. Paul admonishes them to remember that it is Christ they all follow, and he appeals to them to be unified. He then reminds them that his own teaching was not based on wisdom, intelligence, or knowledge – it was based on Christ, and Christ alone. Later, Paul unequivocally tells them that their own knowledge is, at best, partial and imperfect and that it will die; he commands them instead to love – the only thing that will remain when Christ reveals himself (13:8–13).

We should not assume that we know any better than the Corinthians, and a straightforward reading of this text suggests that many of our own doctrines of God and interpretations of Scripture are wrong. To hold onto our own, probably incorrect, beliefs so tightly that we will not even associate our names with those who do not share identical doctrine seems the height of error. In fact, it appears that these Christians have made their beliefs their religion instead of Christ, skirting dangerously close to Gnosticism.

It was against early Gnostic teachings that Paul was writing his epistle to the Corinthians,[1] and a similar heresy may be alive today under the guise of “fundamentalism.” Although Gnosticism has many strands, one of its core teachings is that salvation comes through knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for ‘knowledge’), and the Gnostics themselves developed very elaborate systems of doctrine.[2] In fact, some scholars have called the Gnostics the “first theologians” but noted that their theology, infused as it was with certain assumptions of Hellenistic philosophy, was a departure from early Christian belief.[3] The Gnostic heresy, memorialized in its own extensive doctrines, forced the church to respond in kind with doctrines that excluded the heretics at the cost of sacrificing much of the freedom preached by Paul (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:29, Gal. 5:1) and practiced by the early church.[4]

Some of those who demand that we subscribe to right doctrine are likewise overly concerned with separating themselves from heresy, but others have gone further, seeming to preach that their knowledge saves. In fact, the Bible teaches that knowledge does not save. Consider just a few examples. First, Jesus tells the thief crucified next to him that he will be saved, even though the only things he professes are belief in his own sin and in Christ’s divinity (Luke 23:40–43). James tells us that true knowledge about God will not save: even the demons believe (Jas. 2:19). Rather, faith must become action, as in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31–46) – from this story we also learn that what we know about God is not as important as that we are known by Christ, which Paul also emphasizes (1 Cor. 13:12).

But are we not concerned that we will be tainted by heresy? Not really. In the first place, because we do not believe that correct knowledge is necessary for salvation and because we think it very likely that many of our own beliefs are mistaken, it would be arrogant and absurd for us to censor others upon our own limited knowledge. Second, because we believe that God will meet those who earnestly seek him and that the process of writing and honest argument are part of that quest, we have faith that God will preserve his truth. Third and finally, because we believe that the concern of those who would keep themselves “pure” by refraining from associating with “sinners” – or entering into dialogue with them – is contrary to the example of love set by Christ himself.

Jesus was widely known to eat with the most despised members of Jewish society: dishonest tax collectors, prostitutes, the sexually immoral, and other “sinners” (e.g., Matt. 9:9–13, Matt. 11:19, Luke 7:36–50, John 4:1–42). We learn that many of these people came to repentance, but we do not know how long it took them to repent, nor do we know how many never repented. Yet Jesus tells those who thought themselves righteous and judged him for associating with sinners: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12–13). By referring his accusers to the Old Testament prophet Hosea, Jesus is reminding them that the substance of religion is more important than its form, and he is turning their judgment back upon themselves.

Likewise, our purpose in these pages is to consider the substance of Christianity. If we believe in the gospel, how does that belief change our behavior? How does it affect our studies, our use of resources, our treatment of our neighbors? What does it mean to show others the mercy that Christ has shown us? Thus, we venture out into uncertainty, acknowledging the failings of our own minds, but putting our faith in God and in the work of his Holy Spirit. We believe it is to show the love of Christ in our practice that we have been called.

Of course, our own beliefs are open to question. If you disagree with us – if you think all Christians must subscribe to some summary of belief – we invite you to publish your arguments within these pages. We may be wrong; you may be right. But unless you first enter into this conversation, explaining the roots of your beliefs and attempting to persuade us of their correctness, we will never come any closer to the truth. Whatever we know about truth, we can be reasonably certain that it comes neither through silence and withdrawal, nor through the censorship of those with whom we disagree. So, please: write.

But for now, the only doctrine we proclaim is this: Christ and Christ crucified.

Footnotes

[1]Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999), 297.

[2]H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 35.

[3]Adolf von Harnack is the most famous scholar to have made this argument. See Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism? (Harvard UP, 2001), 64–65; Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (1979; reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1989), xxix–xxx.

[4]King, op. cit., at 65.

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8 thoughts on “What is Our Statement of Doctrine?

  1. I’m assuming the Jesus Prayer you mean isn’t Kύριε Ιησοὺ Χριστέ, Υιέ τοὺ Θεού, ελέησόν με τὸν αμαρτωλόν.

    But I find even most churches’ statements of doctrine silly. It’s not that I think doctrine doesn’t matter, but what is such a statement of doctrine but a vague rhetorical act? It does say, We believe this. The problem’s that this we is undefined: in these churches, there generally is no requirement on the part of anyone – parishioners or elders – to actually confess these statements of doctrine.

    And indeed, why should they confess these schismatic statements, which belong to one church alone? There’s no catholicity in the act, nor attachment to the Body of Christ, but only a narrow ‘personal’ statement of one’s own idiosyncrasy that condemns all others outside of that idiosyncratic system.

  2. Hmm, it seems rather overstated to me that a forum should imply the impossibility of a correct answer. Isn’t something of a false dilemma being set up when the alternative to Cartesian certainty must be absolute uncertainty? Of course, at this point one may wish to qualify the term “correct answer.” I find the Hellenistic philosophy hypothesis a little worn. It has been repeatedly debunked. The late medieval and reformation theologians saw our knowledge as analogical to God’s, not archetypal (capital-T) Theology as God knows, but ectypal (little-t) theology that is always faith seeking understanding.

    This seems like a saner description of Christian epistemology that can believe with confidence, yet be open-minded and teachable in humility. Your own invitation for counterpoint suggests the possibility to know our correctness at least to some extent. It seems to me that a Christian forum is worth the effort because God has spoken intelligibly enough even if our sin twists truth, and that at least one goal is the joy of “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2).

    After all, if we are called to know and love God (e.g. John 14:7, cf. those who don’t “know” John 16:3), it seems to imply some kind of correct knowledge. If I claim to love a friend, without possessing any sort of correct knowledge about him, then my claim begins to ring a bit hollow. Should this not also apply to our relationship with God?

    And while I agree that getting all the facts straight doesn’t save, there comes a point where getting our doctrine muddled gets very dangerous. Just a few examples in Scripture: Paul charges Timothy to guard sound teaching (e.g. 2 Tim 1:13) as a means to save his hearers (1 Tim 4:16); he pronounces anathema on anyone who preaches another “gospel” (Gal 1:6–9). Additionally, faith is futile apart from resurrection (1 Cor 15:16–19); to deny Father and Son, and Christ in the flesh is to be “antichrist” (1 John 2:22; 2 John 7).

    A statement of faith is a related, but different issue. Even as we desire freedom, there are still implicit boundaries to this forum: Christ and Christ crucified. Is this a parameter (anything relating, whether pro or con to belief in Christ and the cross)? Or is it a promotion (what now, in light of Christ and the cross)? If the latter, is resurrection promoted as well, or is that open for debate? These things might be helpful to ponder and clarify.

    Haha, Lue-Yee, being a bit cynical here? You raise some good points, but to discuss it would be to open a whole host of ecclesiological issues that probably don’t belong in this thread.

  3. Darren, my contention is not that a correct answer is impossible; it is merely that you cannot know with certainty that your answer with regard to some relatively minor point of faith is correct. No doubt God knows the correct answer, but I believe that many of our claims to certainty encroach on his claim to omniscience.

    So we may love God, and we probably love him with some correct knowledge about him. Nevertheless, our knowledge will inevitably also be muddled with incorrect knowledge about him. My argument is that we cannot distinguish with certainty which parts of our claimed knowledge are true and which are not.

    You make the analogy that it is difficult to love a friend without possessing some correct knowledge about that friend. Again, I agree with you, but I would argue that you can still truly love your friend even if some of your knowledge about him is not accurate.

    As to your point that doctrine can become so muddled as to be dangerous: again, I agree with you. I’d argue that correct doctrine is certainly a worthy goal, and that we should be striving to preach sound doctrine, as Paul urges Timothy. However, I believe that the imperative to teach sound doctrine is different from the imperative to exclude unsound doctrine. Yes, Paul does call certain doctrines “anathema,” but he reserves his criticism for those who would deny the resurrection or teach that Christ’s sacrifice was not sufficient for the forgiveness of sins, not for many of the things that modern Evangelicals use it to condemn.

    Moreover, we must keep in mind that we moderns cannot make the claim (or at least most of us won’t) to have encountered and been instructed by the risen Lord, claims that Paul does make. This is another reason why I do not think it is fair to make the analogy that, because Paul condemns certain doctrines, we can also be just as free to condemn.

    Finally, as I argue in my article, we seem to ignore the only biblical advice we have for avoiding false teachers: judging them by their fruit. I contend that, if our goal is to have a good theology and a good practice, the way to go about this is not to expel those who preach what we consider heresy, but rather to be on our guard against those who do not display the fruit of the spirit. Those are the teachers whose doctrine is suspect — because the gospel rings hollow in their own lives.

  4. John, I still think that you’re overstating your case. I would agree that our knowledge of God (and anything for that matter) is always incomplete, and thus prone to error, as we fit the sound doctrine into our own fallen idolatrously sin-filled error-riddled thought systems. It is precisely because of this that I contend that the larger task of systematic theology (which I sense here is under implicit criticism) is valid, beneficial and worthy to weed out identifiable errors.

    I’m sympathetic to some of your concern. I have no interest in defending fundamentalism with its wooden literalism, and moralistic certainties. My interest is defending the weight of the wisdom of the carefully considered conversation of the church throughout the ages. Certainly it will always be incomplete. There will always be imprecisions. The more expansive it becomes, it becomes increasingly prone to error, and every age suffers its particular errors. But to tell the church just to stick with lowest-common-denominator certainties is to throw believers into the deep end to reinvent the wheel without guidance. This seems like a situation that will also produce all sorts of unwarranted certainties, majoring on minors, repetition of thoroughly debunked errors, and shoot-from-the-hip condemnations.

    Teaching sound doctrine necessarily excludes unsound doctrine (e.g. Paul’s anathemas). I think that is a given. I think we also do well to realize that sound doctrine and knowledge is not formed simply from propositions positively stated, but a whole symphony including what we don’t mean. The statement of the Holy Trinity in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds is a good example of this.

    I would also point out that fruit is not the only Biblical advice we have for avoiding false teachers. 1 John 2:22, 4:3; 2 John 7, for example, also point also to false confession. And even by your criteria, we need to know how to identify this “fruit.” Some think it’s success (televangelists and megachurches?), or how much you’re “touched” or “helped.” Even if we turn to Galatians 5:22–23, these are things which believers may be growing in relatively, but I still know plenty of unbelievers who are hands-down nicer and more generous people than most Christians I know. I’m unconvinced that it is better to accept uncritically a preacher showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control who denies, say, the resurrection of the body, while failing to show grace to one who preaches truth but remains rough around the edges.

    By your criteria, every preacher must be suspect because we are all sinners, and at some point or detail, the gospel is going to ring hollow in all our lives. But the gospel is the gospel (i.e. good news) because I am not the gospel (thank God!); Christ is. Christ is true and authentic regardless of our false and inauthentic existences. And grace means receiving it as those undeserving, not deserving.

    And yes, we haven’t met the risen Lord as Paul met him. But we are given the Holy Spirit who gives us Christ (John 16:13–15). And judging within the church is not restricted to apostolic office (1 Cor 5:12). Wisdom and discernment are gifts given to the church in all ages. We are not merely parrots, but called to be poets.

    Again, I also feel that churches fight and divide over a slew of issues where we have no certainty, and even issues where I’d say there is no right answer. But it seems to me that your argument effectively throws the baby out with the bathwater. Just because something has been done poorly doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done at all.

  5. Darren, I think you’re misunderstanding my argument. I’m not criticizing systematic theology (although I do have some issues with it). Nor am I reducing Christianity to the lowest common denominator. What I’m criticizing are those who propose to silence those who would disagree with them.

    In other words, I’m suggesting that To An Unknown God should not become like, e.g., those seminaries that would dismiss professors with whom they disagree about debatable points. I’m suggesting that it would be better to argue about these matters. Presuming that one’s position is so certain that one is willing to fire someone because he or she disagrees with that person strikes me as bordering on a claim to omniscience.

    Teaching sound doctrine does not necessitate the exclusion of doctrine that we consider to be unsound. Perhaps we misunderstand each other on this point. Sure, when one has been called to preach, it is incredibly important that one takes the task very seriously, acknowleding how important the responsibility is not to mislead those who look to preachers for guidance. See, e.g., James 3:1; Luke 17:2. But that is a different matter from being so certain that one’s doctrine is the only sound doctrine that one are willing to exclude others who hold different views.

    I’m afraid your references to John’s epistles do not prove the point you’re trying to make. John is merely arguing that those who deny that Jesus is the Christ are deceivers. These people are clearly not preaching Christ and Christ crucified (and, yes, implicitly resurrected). As I made clear in my original article, I am willing to draw a line here.

    Sure, I agree that no one is perfect, but the church has been very lenient with too many whose behavior clearly displays that they have deep spiritual problems. I’m suggesting it is those about whom we should be concerned. It is such individuals who should be removed from their positions within the church, not the Peter Enns of the world.

  6. Ah, now your context is becoming clearer to me. No contest from me concerning the “fruit” of deep spiritual problems you linked to. Those so-called leaders have no business shepherding God’s flock and need to get the boot. Without that context, I imagined your condemnations falling on crusty old curmudgeons holding the line of orthodoxy without much tact… kinda how I imagined Athanasius vs. the world.

    Your comparison, though, is a bit of apples and oranges. We’re talking two unaffiliated ecclesiastical bodies. It’s not like the seminary was caught between hunting either criminals in their ranks or a cool guy who simply had different views from everyone else. The former, as far as we know, didn’t exist, so it’s a bit unfair to say that their heresy hunting has blinded them to those spiritually unfit to the ministry. It may be true, but we lack the evidence to make such a serious accusation.

    John’s epistles prove my point sufficiently because my point is limited to the principle: how do we identify false teachers? Yes they are deceivers, but what is the criterion John provides to make that identification? Here it is not strictly fruit (although fruit is certainly considered in the larger context). Those specific verses are examples where the criterion is the teacher’s confession. And you seem to agree with that principle, even if in practice, we may disagree how far that confession may extend.

    But at the same time, you seem to be working with something of a false dilemma: remove either the bad guys or the heterodox. Why not both/and? Now, as I said earlier, I agree there are cases that are frivolous. And maybe Enns’ teaching didn’t warrant dismissal. I’m not going to declare judgment on the rightness or wrongness of that particular case since I lack a lot of the data. But I would still defend an ecclesiastical body’s or a seminary’s right, in principle, to dismiss those who contradict the confession, and/or the animus of that institution. I think we need to recognize that such a dismissal is not necessarily a charge of heresy; it can simply be a statement of what they stand for. Baptists and Presbyterians generally don’t think of the other as heretics, but I don’t know of many Baptists who would allow a Presbyterian to advocate infant baptism among their churches. And in Enns’ case, we may note that the dismissing institution acknowledged Enns as evangelical; but their intention was to stand for a tradition more specific than broad evangelicalism.

    Churches are not an open forum on theological ideas: they are the communities created through the Word, the unapologetic preaching of the gospel. Not even seminaries are open forums; they are entrusted by the churches to equip her ministers for the harrowing task of feeding the sheep. I’m glad we do have open forums between churches and between seminaries, such as this journal. And I’m also glad we have our local churches who stand to proclaim a more particular witness, whether rightly or wrongly and more or less erroneously (and for better or for worse), to what they believe is most faithful to whole counsel of the Word of God.

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