I realize that posts such as these have the potential to create quite a bit of heat and get me in a lot of trouble. As well, I don’t really want to be seen as one who is always trying to unsettle things. I like to be settled, and in a very pastoral way, I like to settle others. However, in Christianity, both for our personal faith and our public witness, we need to speak with the emphasis necessary to carry our faith truly. It is my argument that often – far too often – conservative Christians become identified with issues that, while important, do not make or break our faith. This creates extremely volatile situations (from a human perspective) as believers’ faith ends up having a foundation which consists of one of these non-foundational issues. When and if these issues are significantly challenged, our faith becomes unstable. I have seen too many people who walk away from the faith due to their trust in some non-essential issue coming unglued. That is why I write this post. Whether you agree with me or not, I hope this discussion will cause you to think deeply about what issues create the bedrock of our (and your) faith.
Here is a list of what I believe to be eight issues that do not make or break our faith:
1. Young Earth Creationism
There are many people who spend an enormous amount of money holding seminars, building museums, and creating curricula attempting to educate people on the importance and evidence for a six-thousand (give or take) year-old earth. There is certainly nothing wrong (in my opinion) with holding to and defending such a view. The problem comes when those who hold to this view teach that to deny a literal six-day creation is to deny the Gospel (or close to it). There is simply no sustainable reason to believe that one’s interpretation about the early chapters of Genesis determines his or her status before God.
2. The authorship of the Pastoral Epistles
This is an interesting one. I suppose that the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) are among the most controversial books in the Bible with respect to their authorship. For various reasons, many do not believe that Paul wrote these letters. While I do believe a sustained argument can and should be made for the inclusion of these in the canon, whether or not Paul wrote these letters does not affect the truthfulness of the Christian faith. While these letters are extremely valuable for issues of personal integrity and ecclesiology, the essence of the Christian faith remains intact without them. This goes for 2 Peter as well – by far the most contested book in the New Testament. William Barclay, author of the Daily Bible Study Series (as far as I know, still the best selling commentary set of all time), did not accept Petrine authorship of Second Peter. While I disagree (like Calvin, I believe that Peter was behind the letter, though he did not directly write it) this did not in any way disqualify Barclay from being a Christian and a committed servant of God.
3. The inerrancy of Scripture
This is a tough one. It is not tough because I have my doubts about it. It is tough because I know how important the doctrine of inerrancy is to so many of my friends and heroes of the faith. Many people believe that a denial of inerrancy (the belief that the Bible is without any errors in the original manuscripts – not the translations!) amounts to a denial of the faith. However, this is nearly impossible to defend. While I believe in and strongly defend the doctrine of inerrancy, a denial of this doctrine is not a test of one’s status before God. I might even go further and say that even if the Bible does have some historical or scientific inaccuracies, this does not mean that Christianity is false. Christianity is based on the historicity of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, not whether or not its chroniclers messed up on a detail or two. All biographers and writers of history err, but this does not mean that we discount their value or discredit their entire testimony. The classic illustration of this is the sinking of the Titanic. When we look to the historical records, we find that the eyewitnesses who survived that night were divided as to how the Titanic went down. Half said it broke in two and went down, while the other half said it went down intact. Someone is wrong. However, no historian would say that the Titanic must not have gone down at all simply because there is a discrepancy in the details.
Ironically, this is exactly what happens to many who study the Bible. Charles Darwin tells about how his faith was initially dislodged due to discrepancies in the Scriptures. Bart Ehrman goes in the same direction. But, like with the Titanic, just because one may be convinced that one author disagrees with another about some details, this does not mean that both authors are wrong or that the main events (Christ’s birth, teaching, sinless life, death on a cross, resurrection, etc.) did not happen. This is about the last thing that the historian would suppose. Therefore, while I believe in the doctrine of inerrancy, it does not make or break Christianity.
4. Whether the flood covered entire earth
This is not unlike the previous entry about Young Earth creationism. There is quite a bit of debate about the “global” flood described in Genesis 6. Some believe that the entire earth was covered with water. Others believe it was a local flood, isolated in Mesopotamia. Some even believe that the whole event did not really take place and is not meant to be taken literally. These believe that the story itself is a polemic against other gods and other flood stories, essentially saying in a parabolic way that God is in charge, not your other gods. Whichever view one takes, this does not affect Christianity. If we were somehow able to prove that a flood was or was not global, this neither adds to nor takes away from the truthfulness of Christianity.
5. The character witness of Christians
I have spoken about this before, but it is important to realize that Christianity is not dependent on the character witness of its followers. Many claim to reject Christianity because of the character of the Christians they know. Whether it is the Crusades, the Inquisition, evil Popes, or the hypocrisy of people in their local church, building a foundation of faith upon the character witness of sinners is not only a mistake, but leads to an ill-founded faith. Christianity’s truthfulness has nothing to do with how Christians act. It is about the historical event of the resurrection of Christ. Ghandi’s statement, “If it weren’t for Christians, I’d be a Christian” is simply not true. One does not become a Christian by trusting in the character of Christians; one becomes a Christian by trusting in Christ. Of course, a Christian’s witness (i.e., gaining an audience) is tied to their character, but Christ’s reality is not dependent on our witness.
6. The inspiration of Scripture
This is connected to inerrancy, but takes it a step further just for the sake of getting me in hotter water! My statement is this: the Bible does not have to be inspired for Christianity to be true. Before you jump all over me, think of it this way: Did God have to give us the Bible in order to be God? Of course not. If he never gave us any written testimony of himself, he would still be God. There was nothing that obligated God to this form of revelation (or any form at all!). Christ could have come and lived a perfect life, gained representation, died on the cross, rose from the grave, and never had it recorded in the Scriptures. How would we know about the Gospel? I don’t know. Maybe angels, maybe word of mouth, maybe direct revelation, or maybe not at all. The point is that God did not have to inspire any books in order for him to be who he is and do what he did. The Bible does not make Christianity true; the Bible simply records true Christianity through inspired words and thoughts.
7. The unity of Christianity
Many people stress quite a bit about the unity of the church. While I understand why this is important, the unity of the church is not a test to the truthfulness of the cross. There are thousands of denominations and many traditions within the Christian faith. It is important to note that all of orthodox Christianity has always been united on many things. There is a certain perspicuity (clarity) to the Scripture which has brought about this universal unity. We call this the regula fide or the canon veritas. It is simply an expression of orthodox belief, arguing that there are certain beliefs shared by all Christians, everywhere, at every point in history. There are too many things to list, but in essence we all agree on the person and work of Christ. But there are also many things that Christians disagree about. Historically, many of these things have been called the adiaphora or “things indifferent.” Many act as if this disunity in the church somehow warrants disbelief in Christ. However, like the others, the unity of the church is not the foundation of the Church. The cross and the resurrection are.
8. The theory of evolution
Unfortunately, many Christians believe that the theory of evolution is somehow an anti-Christian theory invented by Satan to destroy Christianity. Many believe that if evolution is true, Christianity is not. This is not true. While I don’t accept the theory of evolution, there is no reason that God could not have used some sort of evolutionary process to create the world. Yes, it will take some reworking of one’s interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, but, as many good Christians have demonstrated, it is very possible to be a Christian evolutionist. Evolution is not a make or break issue for Christianity.
(I had two more that may have gotten me burned at the stake. Luckily I have run past my per-post character limit!)
I hope you understand the spirit of this post. In the end, my argument is that our focus should be on the person and work of Christ. In essence, if the resurrection of Christ happened, Christianity is true. If it did not, Christianity is not true. This is why I call myself a “resurrection apologist.” When I am defending my faith to myself and others, ninety-nine percent of the time, this is where I camp. It is not that these other issues are not important or worthy of debate and discussion. It is not as if these other issues don’t have implications. However, none of them make or break our faith. Therefore, we should adjust our thinking and our witness accordingly.
I am comforted to know that I am not really saying something too original here. Paul seems to whistle the same tune.
1 Cor. 15:1
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
This is a guest post by C. Michael Patton of Credo House Ministries. (Hear his interview with Apologetics 315 here; transcript here.) Find out more about Credo House resources here.