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, 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. 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. 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.
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.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999), 297.
H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 35.
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.
King, op. cit., at 65.