Monday, September 29, 2014

F5. There is a spectrum of Christian thinking on many issues.

This is the final post in the first section in my series, a theology in bullet points. (Here are three of the later sections that I've already done).
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There is a spectrum of Christian thinking on many issues.

1. In Romans 14, Paul tackles the never-ending situation when two groups of Christians do not agree on how a Christian should live. The issue there was meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan god. Paul adopts a "don't ask" perspective. Since everything belongs to God anyway, eat meat set before you with thanksgiving and don't ask where it came from (1 Cor. 10:25-27).

He alludes to other issues in Romans too. So what about observing the Jewish Sabbath, do Gentiles need to do that? "One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind" (Rom. 14:5). A Gentile whose conscience is clear should not let someone judge them if he or she does not observe the Jewish Sabbath (cf. Col. 2:16).

These are examples of the apostle Paul writing at the very beginning of Christianity. Since then we have had two thousand years for Christians to disagree and split time and time again. Paul did not feel so flexible on other issues. When it came to sleeping with your father's wife, there was no debate for him (cf. 1 Cor. 5).

So apparently there are essentials and there are non-essentials. In the essentials, there is no room for variation. In the non-essentials, we need to allow for freedom of conscience. There is a well known quote that sums it up nicely: "In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things, charity." [1]

The same goes for Christian beliefs as well as practices. There are essential Christian practices, namely, those that come from a love of God and others (cf. Matt. 22:34-40). So there are essential Christian beliefs. Paul mentions one in 1 Corinthians 8:6, our belief in one God and one Lord.

For Jesus and the early Christians, beliefs were not the primary focus. How we behaved toward one another was more important, as you would expect for a movement that flowed from Judaism. The focus on belief would rise in the centuries after Jesus when Christians began to debate the details of who Jesus was and how he and the Spirit fit together with God the Father as one God.

Yet even for Jesus, the heart that led to action was more important than the action itself. We see this dynamic in his argument with the Pharisees over his disciples washing their hands. It's not the things that go in a person that make them unclean, he says. Rather, clean or unclean comes from the inside out (e.g., Mark 7:20-23). Paul implies as much in Romans 14 when he says that it is whatever we do that we do not do from a heart of faith that is truly sin (14:23).

So the Christian priorities are: heart first, then action, then belief. Our attitudes and character are of the most importance, our intentions. Then how we play those out in our actions toward God and others is of secondary importance. Finally, the beliefs we have are the third order of business (cf. Jas. 2:19).

In this series, we will discuss the centrality of intention in our section on sin. We will discuss the question of action and living in our section on Christian ethics. The rest of this series focuses on Christian beliefs. As we embark on this journey, it is important to keep in perspective that these beliefs are the least important of the three: heart, hands, head. Yet what we believe can be important, especially as it leads to action or reflects our heart.

2. The two words, dogma and doctrine, are usually used to distinguish two levels of importance in belief, where dogma refers to the absolutely essential Christian beliefs and doctrines to areas of belief where there is more disagreement among Christians.

Dogma relates more directly to the creeds of Christianity. The earliest centuries involved debates over questions like whether Jesus was as God as God the Father or whether he was fully human. These debates ended with various creeds and confessions. One of the earliest was a form of the Apostle's Creed.

"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

"And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again from the dead and is seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

"I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."

Given how ancient these affirmations are and how commonly held they are, they would seem good candidates for Christian dogma--absolutely essential Christian beliefs. For example, we have the fact that God created everything. We have the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. He is in heaven now and will come again. There is a Holy Spirit that works in the world and in the Church. We have the possibility that our sins can be forgiven and that we might participate in the resurrection of the dead.

The earliest form of the "Apostle's Creed" dates from as early as AD200. But Christians continued to work on the details of basic Christian belief in the centuries that followed. Was Jesus completely human? Is he still? The Council of Chalcedon in AD451 finally concluded that Jesus was and is both fully human and fully divine.

A little more than a hundred years earlier, Christians had come to a conclusion on the question of whether Jesus was the most important of God's creations or whether he was God himself. The Council of Nicaea in AD325 famously decided that there was only one God with one substance, but that the one God also had existed from eternity past as three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed captured these conclusions about sixty years later. It spelled out what Christians have generally believed about the "Trinity" ever since.

Creeds like the Apostle's and Nicene Creed give us the basic dogmas of Christianity. For example, the Nicene Creed records the dogma that God is the Creator both of everything that is seen and unseen. Beliefs like Jesus' birth from Mary before she had sex and that he rose physically from the dead have been essential beliefs of historic Christianity since its earliest centuries. Some call these essential beliefs, "Christian dogmas."

3. There are obviously many, many other issues that Christians have discussed throughout the centuries. And as you might expect, there are different answers they have given in relation to these questions. When we move beyond dogma to these individual "doctrines"--or beliefs about key areas of Christian faith--we often find more variety in what different groups of Christians think. Doctrines are important areas of belief where we find a lot of common ground among Christians, but we also find a little more variety of belief than we find with what we have called dogmas.

For example, take the "doctrine of God." Some Christians believe that God's authority does not allow for any creature to truly disagree with him. These Christians would suggest that God decides every single thing that happens. Indeed, they would argue that God is the one that even causes individual believers and unbelievers to disobey him. In other words, some would say that God in his authority even decides who will disobey him.

By contrast, there are other groups of Christians, such as mine, who believe that God, in his authority, has allowed individuals to disagree with him. What we see is that there is not just one position on this particular doctrine.

The articles that follow address the central doctrines of Christianity. They include topics like the doctrine of God, the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of salvation, and more. In all of these areas, there are both some commonly held Christian positions and have been some variations among Christians throughout history. Sometimes Christian thinking has even developed over time. Ideas that at first were debated eventually became firm and solidified.

We call those ideas that are commonly held by Christians since the earliest centuries of Christianity, orthodoxy or "right belief." When someone has ideas that disagree with the core dogmas of Christianity, we call that, heresy. Another word sometimes used is "heterodoxy," which also refers to thinking stands outside of the usual norms of Christian thinking.

Some Christian groups draw the lines between acceptable and unacceptable belief very narrowly. In many respects, this seems unwise. On the one hand, it is perfectly acceptable for smaller communities of faith to have specific understandings of things. However, it is a different thing entirely to say that those who disagree with these specific "takes" on things are not truly Christian--especially when we are talking about ideas where there is no commonly held position among the vast majority of Christians.

It is also significant to realize that in many cases the lines that are now drawn clearly were not always so firm at one time. Take an issue as basic as the Trinity. There was a time when belief in the Trinity was not firmly established and there were faithful Christians who believed Jesus was the first and most important of God's creations (e.g., a man named Arius). Since the issue was not fully decided and commonly agreed on within the Church until the 400s, we cannot really consider anyone a heretic on this subject until after that time. Now 1600 years later, it is a matter of common agreement that has stood the test of time, including the test of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s when many issues were revisited.

Some Christians take as their motto, "No creed but the Bible." This sentiment builds upon the kinds of dynamics in the Protestant Reformation, when many Christians went back to basics and went to the Bible to find them. As noble as these intentions are, the interpretation of the Bible simply does not work this way. The Bible was not written in the form of a systematic theology. It was written as dozens of different books in several different forms to address the specific issues of many different audiences at different times in their own categories. Those who think of the Bible in creedal terms inevitably impose some system onto the Bible from the outside. And what is dangerous is that they may not know they are doing it, which means they are inevitably confusing their mind with God's.

It seems best for individual Christian groups to show what John Wesley called a "catholic spirit" toward other groups that agree on the basics but have different understandings of specific Christian doctrines. That does not mean that any group has to give up on their particular understanding. It's just that we do not have to de-Christianize other groups because they see things differently.

4. So we might see concentric circles of Christian belief. In the center circle are the absolutely essential dogmas. Then in the circle outside of it are the basic doctrines with a good deal of agreement but also some variations among Christians. Finally on the outside are the areas where there is now official answer. These are issues where we are welcome to have our own individual opinions on those questions.

This last category is sometimes called adiaphora. These are areas where Christianity does not have a final answer or a commonly accepted one on a particular question.

There is a spectrum of Christian thinking on various issues, and we should not de-Christianize each other over them. God is primarily interested in our heart and our actions. There is room for much disagreement with our heads. Indeed, we may find many people in the kingdom of God whose ideas were quite mistaken on many things.

Next week: C1. The earthly Jesus was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

[1] The saying comes from a Lutheran named Rupertus Meldenius in the 1600s.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Good job! Thanks!