Theology of Everything
Cos everything's theological
Ultimate Realities 9: The Doctrinal Basis and Tolerance
- Bob Horn (1933-2005) was General Secretary of UCCF. View all resources by Bob Horn
The Basis and tolerance
Dogmatism? No thanks!
Some people are dogmatic about everything; we all know a few like that. Curiously, however, everybody is dogmatic about something. That is true even today, even in an era when dogmatism is widely taken as the sign of the fringe fanatic or a bygone age.
We live in the age of tolerance and the open society; many beliefs exist within our communities - religious, non-religious and anti-religious. This pluralism is a fact and we must welcome living with it, in the name of religious liberty for all. People must have freedom to consider other views, weigh the evidence and, if persuaded, change their beliefs and practice them unimpeded. Often, however, pluralism is turned into an article of faith, an anti-dogmatic faith that holds that all views, religious or non-religious, are equally valid and that no-one must claim otherwise.
This brings out one of the inner contradictions of our age. Everything is relative. There are no absolutes and it is impossible to find any perspective which will yield a coherent overview of life. We cannot work from any sacred book, since nothing any author has written has any objective sense. We cannot learn from history; for that has no discernible meaning either. All that on the one hand, with the logical consequence that there is no ‘capital T’ Truth and that each person can only try to find some personal ‘small t’ truth for himself or herself.
On the other hand, dogmatism persists and grows, even if it is only in the claim that we absolutely cannot be dogmatic about anything. Ride relativism hard enough and it becomes an absolute assertion: ‘There are no absolutes.’ In other words everyone sooner or later comes to a crunch point where they take an absolute stance. Relativism cannot even sustain itself and, logically, ultimately self-destructs.
This dilemma can be seen in the outworking of relativism’s passionate belief in tolerance. All views must be allowed space, all religions have the same validity, all philosophies must be heard. We may not and must not judge between them if there are people who wish to follow them. Every belief-system must be tolerated, except the one that claims that it alone is right. Relativism can turn out to be extremely intolerant of Christianity. The claim that Jesus is the only way to God is offensive.
The assertion that certain lifestyles are wrong before God (for example, that homosexual practice and Christian discipleship are incompatible) causes outrage. Exclusive claims are intolerable; relativism draws a line in the sand after all. A national newspaper article can sweepingly denounce the dogmatism of a student Christian Union (which believed that people were either saved or lost), but the writer is never called on to defend his dogmatism - because he, after all, believes in ‘tolerance’. It is a case of anything or nothing, but not something. Tolerance allows us to have any belief or no belief; but obviously does not like us to have definite belief. Then it becomes dogmatic.
The truth and true freedom
No wonder then, that such dogmatism leads to clashes of views over the nature of Christianity and its truth claims. Many of these clashes are variations on one theme - the relationship of truth (or truth claims) to freedom. It is here that Christians most radically differ from others. Christians believe the words of Jesus, when he said, in reference to his own teaching, ‘you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32). The truth, according to Jesus, does not put blinkers over our minds, restrict our vision or cramp our lives, it sets us free, saying: ‘Get hold of what is authentic and you will find true liberty’ It gives us the spiritual health to enjoy that freedom. Truth includes what the New Testament calls ‘sound’ teaching. As we have seen, ‘sound doctrine’ (Titus l:9;2:1) means health - promoting instruction that encourages spiritual fitness and frees us to live full lives before God. There is no freedom apart from the truth. To be free, we need to begin with what God has revealed.
The opposite view, espoused with equal firmness, turns Jesus’ saying around. In effect, it says: ‘You must seek freedom and that freedom will make your life authentic and true. Break away from truth claims, it argues, cast off the chains of dogma, be free; stop thinking that there is any overarching explanation to life; and then you will find your authentic existence, your own true self, your personal fulfillment and reality.’
Clash of views
We can see this clash of views around us in society. It does not often present itself overtly in exactly those terms. It has sometimes been veiled behind smoke-screen talk of being new, modern or progressive rather than traditional, out-of-date or reactionary. The issue has been buried under an avalanche of words like ‘obstructionist’, ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘anti-intellectual’. Now it is most likely to be hidden behind denials of the existence of any single source of truth or meaning.
Ironically, then, dogmatism refuses to lie down and die. Even though the whole climate of our age, in pop culture as in academic circles, proclaims that no-one can make universal claims because everything is relative, people persist in asserting such generalizations. Maybe this is because of the way we are (the way God made us?). Since everyone is prone to some dogmatism, Christians will want to ask: ‘What is the basis of any dogmatism?’ They will want to answer ‘God and his revelation, both in the Bible and in his Son, the living Lord.’ There is ample evidence for that answer. Other answers are subjective and lack such evidence. Christians can properly challenge others about their basis. In the end, if God has spoken, we have enough to build on. What he says is a matter of truth, not opinion.
How we treat people on the basis of truth is also important, of course, as this quotation shows: 'Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to truth. Tolerance applies to the erring, intolerance to the error' (Fulton J. Sheen in Old Errors and New Labels).
Why have a Basis?
As we have seen, people argue today against having any clear statement of belief at all. Some object on theological grounds. It is said to be too exclusive in its truth claims, too narrow in its outlook and too rigid in its application. Such comments generally come from a theological stance that dislikes absolute affirmations and is much keener on an open-ended approach. The starting-point, rather than the evidence, determines the outcome.
What we have seen is that the truths in the Basis come clearly from Scripture. We may or may not find them congenial, but they are there - and together they form an objectively based and coherent worldview.
Others reject the term from a different theological stance. When one invited speaker was given the Doctrinal Basis, his response was along these lines: ‘Our church is into what comes from the Spirit, not this doctrine stuff and bits of paper.' He saw doctrine as cerebral and deadening, the opposite of life. But if we reject what God has revealed, where will we end up? How will we keep instep with the Spirit, if we neglect what the Spirit himself gave us?
Some object on academic grounds. They say that a strong confessional statement is incompatible with an academic institution like a university, which ought to instill a proper skepticism into its students. Surely however, minds are like mouths in this respect, meant to open only to close on something solid. Academic enquiry is not opposed to definite conclusions, provided that they are well grounded. As Martin Luther said, ‘The Holy Spirit is no skeptic’, so why should we be? And as Harry Blamires pointed out, it may be humbler to accept God’s revealed definites than to hold on to our ‘open-minded’ indefinites, in the presumptuous belief that one day we will get ourselves to the truth without God’s help.
Other objections spring from psychological theory - that people pass through a phase in which they tend to conform and to seek the security of a defined group. To such people, of the student age-range, a Doctrinal Basis is attractive; it gives them an identity and a sense of certainty. The argument is that the Basis is a crutch, a psychological security token; needing a doctrinal basis is a stage through which people will pass.
Nice theory and full marks for ingenuity, but not so hot on the evidence. It may well be true that some people look for such a crutch; a Christian Union has all sorts in it and welcomes them all. But people of all ages, down all the centuries of history, including some of the most able intellectuals and stable personalities of their generations, have held to such confessions. They are by no means the preserve only of insecure adolescents. And such a theory neglects the fact that many people come to such convictions from having been very secure in their atheism or opposition. They were not ‘seeking security’; they just happened to find that the Bible was true! Then the sense of security followed.
Basis for co-operation
Some object to a doctrinal basis on the ground that those who hold to such convictions tend to shy away from cooperating with those who hold conflicting or vague views. But if they hold back, it is only because they believe truth is vital. People’s eternities depend on the core truths of the gospel, and it is unloving and misleading to engage in co-operation that would muddy the waters on those issues. We have to decide whose voice we will heed. If God has spoken, we can but follow.
If we are invited to join, say, a mission which will include views which do not seem biblical, how should we respond? We need to think carefully. First, we need to ascertain what those views are and, centrally, what place they give to Christ’s atonement on the cross. Then we need to know what tests to apply. To Paul the test was: what will make the gospel clear? This was the thrust of his argument in Galatians 1:6-9. It was the same with Jesus: if it is the truth that sets people free (John 8:32), what will make the truth clear? It is obviously good to have many people doing this, but the basic question is not ‘Can we all get together?’, but ‘What will avoid confusion and clarify the biblical gospel?’ A doctrinal basis is a summary statement of what we are privileged to proclaim to a confused and dying world.
Christians are called to ‘keep the faith once delivered to the saints’. Such a doctrinal basis is simply a way of affirming that faith today. In this atmosphere it is an amazing honour to make known the great revealed truths. Christians down the ages have had to make plain what the Bible teaches and to express that in creeds and other statements. They have counted it a privilege to do so, to be stewards of God’s truth.
How a doctrinal basis arises
Confessional statements can be put together in a variety of ways, and have been down history. Some of them, for example start with God as the Ultimate Being and then move on to how he has revealed himself (as in the UCCF statement); others speak first of the Bible as the source of our knowledge of God and then move on to what it says about him. These differences of order are generally of small consequence.
All summaries of Christian belief are a balance between the unchanging truths of God on the one hand, and the pressing circumstances at the time of their compilation on the other. Most of the great creeds (like many of the New Testament letters) were drawn up to combat particular errors. The letter to the Galatians counters those who wanted to add something (circumcision) to what Christ had done as a condition of salvation. Colossians counters those who claimed that they alone had the secret knowledge necessary for salvation. We do not ditch these letters because they come out of a particular historical, geographical, sociological or religious context.
Some of the early creeds set out to confound views which misled people about Christ’s person. The confessions of the great Reformation period set out the freshness of God’s justification of sinners against the background of a ‘we must earn it’ religion.
The UCCF or IFES Basis is no different in respect to this balance. The prevailing theological trend of the last hundred years or more up to the present time is to deny the supernatural, to debunk the Bible as being (not just containing) the Word of God, and to decry the ‘Christ in our place’ view of the cross.
All the classic creeds and confessions that set out the biblical faith thus have some marks of their origins, but remain true. Fresh heresies may arise and need to be confronted - but few heresies are totally fresh. Often the older statements clearly contain or imply the truths needed now to refute current errors. (Is there anything new under the sun?)
At other times there may be reason to add or replace a clause. It could be argued that a basis for today should unpack more of the biblical view of creation in an environment-conscious society; or that it should say more on the church at a time when we are becoming more aware of the dangers of western individualism; or that it should talk about the role of the Christian in society and how evangelism relates to social action.
All these are important truths, but should they be in a basis? It is, after all, only a basis, not a commentary or explanation of all the implications of those beliefs. It is not an exhaustive statement, since it claims only that the fundamental truths of Christianity include the clauses that follow. Some truths are not included in the UCCF Basis because Christians, who equally hold to the core truths, differ on them - baptism, church government and spiritual gifts are obvious examples. Others are not touched on because they surface only from time to time, perhaps according to whatever is a contemporary issue at a given period.
A précis or summary
So we can take it enthusiastically for what it is, no more and no less. The Bible, the Word of God, comes to us in words and propositions in many literary forms – story, poetry, allegory, argument, and so on. The Basis simply tries to précis the message and thrust of the Bible and, as a summary helps us to articulate what the Bible teaches.
It is obviously not infallible as is the Bible; it is always to be tested by what the Bible says. It is subordinate to the Bible. Yet it also comes to us in the great, continuous stream of biblical confessions expressing the faith of God’s people down the running centuries. It is not an aberration, not a sectarian sideshow, but stands in the central flow of historic Christian belief. It comes with the weight of that good tradition behind it.
In that sense it is also incidentally a statement about the importance of the church, as it expresses the faith of God’s one people from the New Testament. It does not put forward the views of a few individuals, but of the company of those who have run the race before us and have now entered their rest. To be unfair to Martin Luther’s words, it is not so much an affirmation of ‘Here I stand’ as ‘Here we stand’. It enshrines the corporate, humble; accepted wisdom of God’s people down the years.
In these pages we have tried to explore the main truths of the Bible. We have done so in the spirit of the Scots Confession, drawn up in 1560 by John Knox and five other Scottish Reformers. The language is quaintly dated, but the meaning clear.
The doctrine taught in our kirks is contained in the written word of God, to wit, in the Books of the Old and New Testaments ... If any man will note in this our confession any article or sentence repugnant to God’s holy word, that it would please him of his gentleness, and for Christian charity’s sake, to admonish us of the same in writing; and we upon our honour and fidelity, by God’s grace, do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is from His Holy Scriptures, or else reformation of that which shall prove to be amiss.