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Limbering up for the doctrinaire

On the Sola Panel, Tony Payne of The Briefing considers ‘generous orthodoxy’ and writes,

I for one have a new-found determination to bend over backwards in order to be kind, generous and forbearing with any brother of a more fundamentalist cast of mind.  I will not nitpick and be censorious.  I will give them many free passes.  And where I do have to express disagreement (even over issues that are significant and have serious implications), I will do so in the spirit of gentleness and brotherhood because I am dealing with brothers.

However, I don’t think I should retain the same sort of generosity for those who have given up on the fundamentals and who seek to teach others likewise — people, for example, who no longer believe in the supreme authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures, or who deny penal substitutionary atonement or justification by faith alone.  The New Testament urges me to fight with people like this, even if they are the kind of people I naturally warm to because of cultural preferences, affiliation, shared history, intelligence, sophistication of mind, personal charm, political views, and so on.

In a way, I find this a strange point.  I suspect that the fundamentalists to whom Tony refers actually share something significant in common with him: a clearly defined belief system.  They certainly have some differing beliefs but, like him, they probably know their own beliefs.

The thing is that Tony and friends, including me, are the hyper-articulate Christians.  We strive to mark out the corners of faith with precision.  We explain, analyse and synthesise the lines of faith with conscientious and exacting regularity.  And this great gift can be our great weakness — we are particular to a fault.  (I’ve just started theological study, so I’m becoming even more concerned with doctrine!)

Yet for most of the world’s Christians, faith in the Christ is a simpler thing.  All Christians have the notion that Jesus saves them, but many brothers and sisters have not thought or sought much beyond that.  Not everyone is as hyped about doctrine as we are!  And that’s completely okay, because true faith in the Christ really can be so simple — faith that even a child can hold.  Now, when Tony is determined to fight those who don’t believe in “the supreme authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures, or who deny penal substitutionary atonement or justification by faith alone”, has he considered that many Christians just might not have thought about such things?  These brothers and sisters are not liberals or apostates; they just don’t think a whole lot about doctrine.  

While even the simplest Christian faith might imply doctrine, such a saving faith need not be articulate.  What then could be the point of thinking about doctrine?  Its importance lies in its ability to build faith.  Much of the church lives in peril because, when tested, its faith is not equipped to robustly interact with the stuff thrown at it.  So, like Peter writes, an articulate faith is a faith ready to bear up in the world.

Now I reckon one challenge for us supreme articulators, like The Briefing crew, is to ensure we’re not just preaching to the choir of ‘thinking’ Christians but serving the whole of God’s people as best we can.  Of course, continuing to articulate the faith for articulate Christians is useful, even when such Christians, like me, may be lacking in joyful simplicity.  But let’s remember the whole body, the whole scope of Christian expression and discipleship, and work out how to exercise our gifts for the benefit of all.  The elbow’s not much good if it’s just in a perpetual chatter with its arm!  How can we winsomely show other brothers and sisters the importance of biblical thinking, doctrinal clarity and mindful cultural engagement?  More than that, how can we build broader relationships so that we can broadly model such things?

Of course, let’s not discount questions of doctrine (as if we were actually thinking of doing that, anyway!) but let’s also consider questions of culture.  Amongst the spectrum of Christianity, I reckon our best contribution could be cross-fertilisation rather than self-reinforcement, playing our part to build our polychromatic church.

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

3 replies

  1. Thanks for sharing your thougths on this stuff Arthur, I reckon your point is well made.

    I reckon Tony would agree with you. The people he pledges to take to task are those articulate people who consciously deny certain doctrines.

  2. In this case, the people I’m concerned about are not the doctrinal deniers but the ones who aren’t engaged on a doctrinal level (which I suspect is most of the church). How can we, who are strong on doctrine, serve them?

    (I’m not sure I expect an answer to the question — it’s a big one and I tend to think in the abstract!) :)

  3. [quote]
    Now, when Tony is determined to fight those who don’t believe in “the supreme authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures, or who deny penal substitutionary atonement or justification by faith alone”, has he considered that many Christians just might not have thought about such things? These brothers and sisters are not liberals or apostates; they just don’t think a whole lot about doctrine.
    [/quote]

    Whilst I do agree that many people haven’t thought about what role scripture plays in there lives or even understand the vocabulary used in the phrase “penal substitutionary atonement” I would say that if it were explained to them that they would agree with it. Their faith is simple in that they expresses it as “Jesus died in my place for the forgiveness of my sins. He paid the price I could not pay” rather than write an essay expressing the points and counter points with extensive scripture references and footnotes.

    As to those who would rightly be called Hyper-Calvinists, they need to be rightly identified as the older brother in the parable of The Prodigal Son (or as Tim Keller puts it, The Prodigal God) found in Luke 15:11-31. They need to be shown that God’s grace extends to them even though they may not see that they need it.

    At the other extreme for those who chose to redefine every doctrine there is (read Rob Bell and other Emergents), they need to be loved and cared for. They need to see the Gospel lived in both word and deed. The sick, homeless and poor need to be served and cared for as well as (and in my view more importantly) having the Gospel proclaimed to them.

    The role of the Church is one of teaching the congregation about a Grace that is big enough to save, Truth that is deep and Love that is great. It is from this foundation that people’s lives will be changed and as a result they will go out and serve the poor, sick and homeless. They will advocate for social reformation (that is a deep change in society) and most importantly proclaim the truth of Christianity in all that they do.

    As to your question of diversity, you need not look too far. Christ Church, for better or worse, has a diversity of people with different views on doctrine. Some are articulate, others not. It is my personal view that in such an environment the Gospel needs to be made clear. The depth of Scripture (Truth) needs to be articulated. The love of God must be shown to all people, rich and poor, healthy and sick, old and young.

    Ultimately it is by the work of the Holy Spirit in peoples lives through the means of Grace that they are saved from death to life.

    Hopefully I haven’t rambled too much in a response and provided some insight into what I as a layperson have observed and also long for in a Church.

    A good resource that became available earlier today is The Gospel Coalition run on a social network platform known as The City. http://tgcn.onthecity.org

    God bless,
    Matt Delves

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