“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” – Jesus, quoted in John 8:32
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” – Jesus, quoted in Matthew 7:15
“Watch your life and doctrine closely.” – St. Paul, to St. Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:16
“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” – St. Paul, to St. Timothy, in 2 Timothy 4:3
“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” – St. Paul, to the Corinthian church, in 1 Corinthians 15:2
“Warn them [the members of the Ephesian church] before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. … Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” – St. Paul, to to St. Timothy, in 2 Timothy 2:14b, 23
After living a long and good and godly Christian life, Ted has just died. Upon arriving at the Pearly Gates, he is greeted warmly by St. Peter, who offers to show Ted to his own brand new Heavenly quarters.
“It’s a bit of a walk,” says St. Pete, “but we have all the time in the world.” So off they go.
Much to Ted’s surprise, Heaven turns out to be laid out like an infinitely large five-star hotel, which huge hallways and gargantuan doors leading off into immense ballrooms, from each of which emanate the sounds of joy and mirth. And on each room, there is an engraved golden sign:
“Anglican Church of Uganda”
But after a while, St. Pete turns to lead Ted down a long hallway with no doors. The sounds of joy fade behind them. St. Pete turns onto another hallway, and then to another. By now all is silence. Then, as St. Pete makes yet another turn, he begins, with exaggerated caution, to walk on tiptoe.
“Hey, why…” begins Ted, but St. Pete instantly shushes him in an intense whisper:
“Shh! Shh! Quiet! We’re getting close to the Church of Christ, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
It is usually a mistake to start a meditation, or a sermon, or a Sunday School lesson, with a single text, unless one immediately goes in search of the other Biblical texts that set your primary text’s boundaries. Human language is simply not adequate to capture the deep truths of God, and certainly there is no single sentence in any human language that can do it with any high degree of specificity. I have said many times (so many times that my friends are now rolling their eyes and saying, “Here comes the Aquinas quote”) that the Bible’s language is analogical rather than literal and that when we are reasoning from the things the Bible says about God and His relationship with us, we must use analogic rather than syllogistic logic. So when the Bible gives us a spiritual principle in one text, there is usually another Biblical text that gives us a principle that is in tension with the first one, because the second passage marks a boundary beyond which we have overstretched the first analogy to the point of breaking. Thus Biblical principles tend to come in sets, rather than as stand-alone propositions; and when a Biblical principle is part of a set, it is dangerously unwise to consider it on its own.
At the moment I am interested in the following set of statements, all of which are simultaneously true and all of which are directly endorsed by Scripture save the last:
- There are some true beliefs that are so fundamental to the nature of the world God has created and the plan He has instituted for our salvation, that to deny them is catastrophic.
- There are some false beliefs that strike so deeply at our true understanding of God and His world and our nature, that to accept them is catastrophic.
- There are many other beliefs that, while it is better to believe the truth than a falsehood, do not go so deep as to endanger our very salvation.
- The Church ought not to compromise on the deep truths.
- The Church ought not quarrel uncharitably over the rest.
- The Church has spent a rather shameful portion of the last two thousand years quarreling uncharitably over the rest.
Let me begin with the first two points: there are truths on which the Church cannot compromise, and lies she must reject. I don’t think I have ever met anybody who believes in God and yet would seriously disagree with me on this. Even people who claim to disagree with me don’t, in my experience, actually live as though they disagreed with me – the same American progressive Episcopalian who insists at 10:43 that the problem with evangelicals is that they are too narrow-minded and wedded to their dogma, can be counted on to be insisting by 10:47 that the Church simply cannot under any circumstances tolerate racism, sexism, or the hurting of the feelings of transgender individuals.
But if we look at the Scripture for evidence of the early church’s rejection of heresy, we find a remarkably small set of doctrines the apostles can be shown to have been willing to draw battle lines over. The New Testament is very much more concerned with how we live than with how we theologize.
For example, when Paul tells the Corinthians that they “have believed in vain” unless they “hold firmly” to the gospel he has preached to them, the specific content of that gospel is much more tightly restricted then many of our Christian logomachists seem to think. He immediately follows that up by telling them exactly what this gospel was. Here is the entire passage:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
And let’s not forget 2 Timothy 2:8: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel.”
The non-negotiable bit of the gospel, as far as St. Paul was concerned in these passages, was simply the literal physical death and literal physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, which, in fulfillment of the Scriptures, together bring about our salvation. Now, we know that he considered it a non-negotiable corollary that we, like Christ, will be raised from the dead, as he continues in 1 Corinthians 15 to argue; we know that he considered it a non-negotiable corollary that The Resurrection (ours, not Christ’s) has not yet taken place (2 Timothy 2:17-18); we know that he considered it a non-negotiable corollary that circumcision was not required for salvation (see pretty much the entire letter to the Galatians). We certainly do not know that Paul would have considered it a non-negotiable corollary that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son – or that He proceeds from the Father only, for that matter.
In other words, it is true, though perhaps less so than we like to think, that if we start with the relatively few non-negotiables, we can reason from them to find conclusions that we believe are non-negotiably implied by the non-negotiables. According to St. Paul, Hymenaeus and Philetus at Ephesus were teaching that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Timothy 2:17-18), and this was endangering the faith of those who listened to them. One can imagine St. Paul reasoning thusly: “The true resurrection is a bodily resurrection that follows a bodily death. To say that one can be resurrected before one has physically died, is to redefine ‘resurrection’ to the point at which one must be saying, ‘The resurrection is not a physical resurrection’ – and that is to deny the gospel.” Or, again, he clearly believes that there is no way to reconcile the teaching that “one must (if male) be circumcised to be saved” with the gospel that Christ’s death and resurrection has fulfilled the Scriptures and suffices for our salvation.
But generally speaking, when St. Paul argues vehemently against false doctrine, he is not arguing against false theology – he is arguing against false moral teaching. “These are the things you must insist on and teach,” he tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:11, but the three and a half chapters preceding this verse are all about practice, about the moral principles by which Christians must commit themselves to live and the proper order and internal functioning of the body of Christ.
And even when it comes to moral teaching, Paul clearly believes that there are many opinions about moral practice that are not worth fighting over – I will not reproduce all of Romans 14 here, but you should go read it right now before continuing any further.
Yet if we look at the history of the Church, what we see is a sad and shameful record of divisions. It seems sadly to be true that we will always have among us those who feel a deep compulsion to announce that there is One True Church, that it is identifiable either by a list of theological propositions or by a chain of unbroken administrative unity, that those who decline to belong to this humanly identifiable One True Church are outsiders and heretics who ought to abandon their obstreperous rebellion and join the One True Church, and lastly that the One True Church conveniently happens to be that to which they personally belong.
Why is that? More importantly, how do we ourselves go about taking a bold stand for the truths of the gospel that are not negotiable, without unwittingly become those who destroy the unity of the Church by quarreling over mere words?
This is no easy question to answer, and I don’t think a single post will be enough. So I will summarize here what seem to me to be the principal points, and then as I have time I will explain what I mean by each of them in more detail, in later posts.
First, I think many such quarrels happen between people who are well-intentioned and are not really falling into any particular temptation to behave uncharitably – they simply do not understand how human language works and what its limitations are, or else they do not understand the purpose for which God has given us the Scriptures. There are principles that we really must grasp if we are to have any hope of rightly dividing the word of truth, and they are certainly not taught in American public schools (a modern-day American public-school education is something one must overcome if one wishes to think clearly and wisely). They also do not seem to be taught in most churches, and after half a century of listening to at least a sermon every week and reading a great deal of Christian literature as well, I must believe that they are not taught in most seminaries, either.
Second, we generally underestimate the extent to which we instinctively create God in our own image, as it were. This is particularly evident with most of the systematic theology I have read (and the older I get, the less valuable I think systematic theology is). And as for those who run around talking about how there is – and must be in order for God to be happy – an organizationally identifiable One True Church, I have not myself seen any argument that does not make me want to adapt a line from Sheldon Vanauken: all these arguments seem to be to have a necessary, though always unstated, fundamental premise, namely that the mind of the infinite God is not unlike that of a One True Church systematic theologian. But it is also evident in the way people respond when they discover that one particular passage of Scripture, and more importantly (though they rarely recognize the distinction) that one particular way of conceptualizing the principle behind that Scripture, revolutionizes their own walk with Christ and functions as The Key To The Gospel – for them.
Third, many of us have a deeply ingrained congenital temptation to intellectual pride, and find it pleasurable to prove somebody else wrong – or at least, to be able to congratulate ourselves on having proved somebody else wrong.
Fourth (and as always I thank my friend Rich Pedersen for this insight) a great many Reformation Protestants have unconsciously replaced salvation by virtuous works not with salvation by grace through faith, but with salvation through true belief, which they (not knowing what the Bible means by “faith”) mistake for salvation through faith – and if you start saying that their cherished theological beliefs are wrong, you trigger within them an instinctive belief that you are saying that maybe they are going to hell, putting them psychologically into a deeply defensive, and not at all clear-headed or rational, state of mind.
Fifth, it takes a lot of intellectual discipline to not only think clearly about what beliefs are true or false, but also to think clearly about how certain we justifiably can be that any particular one of our beliefs is true or false. By this I mean…well, say that a citizen is sitting in a jury on a criminal case in which it is true that the defendant is guilty, but the evidence is so weak that a rational person would say there is a 60% chance that the defendant is guilty but a 40% chance that he is innocent. Now imagine that this citizen is certain that the defendant is guilty – he wants to convict because he believes that there is no reasonable doubt that the man is guilty. Note that he actually believes two things: first, that the defendant is guilty, and second, that the evidence leaves no room for honest doubt that the defendant is guilty. He is correct about the first, but wrong about the second. If we are going to take a stand that involves accusing others of being in a False Church, we had bloody well better be right about both the belief itself and the degree of certainty with which the Bible justifies our asserting it. And the proper estimation of the latter is a skill that very few people naturally possess.
Sixth, there are some theological statements that are not true or false so much as they are inapt. This is because, if you conceptualize a problem wrongly, you can make it impossible to find any answer; and if you use the wrong Scriptural analogy in the wrong place, you can create the illusion of a dilemma that does not even really exist. You create, in fact, a statement that is not so much either true or false, or even meaningless, as it is just a sign that you have chosen a really bad way to think about the whole question to begin with; and the only way to get an answer that can meaningfully be described as “true,” is to throw your statement away and start over by thinking about the question a completely different way. This is another fact of life in general (not just religion) that few Americans recognize — indeed the overwhelming majority of Americans reading this paragraph for the first time will not even be able to understand what I am trying to say — but that is simply because most Americans were educated in American public schools, and it is just another way in which an American who wishes to be wise must find a way to overcome the deficiencies of his education.
Seventh, there are some churches who flatter themselves, in their official dogma, that their ruling hierarchy holds an authority equal to, or nearly equal to, that of the Bible — a position suspiciously similar (to my mind) to the Pharisees’ insistence that there was an Oral Law of equal authority to the Written Law. I have taken them seriously enough in the past to try to look into their arguments, or at least those of the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox (there was a time when I very much wished to become Roman Catholic, actually, and it is still true that the worship service that most perfectly suits my temperament is a sung Latin Mass). I will only note here that I have a hard time imagining that the arguments I have seen would be likely to convince very many people who did not already want to believe the conclusions. I have not the slightest intention of dealing with the controversy any further than that — there will be follow-up posts about the first six issues, but not this seventh. Trying to convince a devout Roman Catholic or a devout Greek Orthodox that the Pope or the Councils speak with any less authority than St. Paul is in my experience an exercise in futility, and on that it is best, I think, simply to agree to disagree.
So I think there will be at least six follow-up posts. I just don’t know how long it will take me to get around to writing them.