Deal Breakers and Christian Essentials

Lately I’ve been seeing some pretty unpleasant discussions at blogs where Christians have been positioning themselves in opposition to other Christians because those other Christians didn’t hold some doctrine that was essential to the faith, or else they did hold it, but they didn’t regard it as essential to the Christian faith. The example I have in mind is the rough treatment that William Lane Craig has received for not holding that an Augustinian take on original sin was essential to Christianity (even though he seemed, in that discussion, to think that something like it was still true). Think about that term: “Essential to the Christian faith.” Essential. Necessary. You can’t have Christian faith without it. Required.

A while back at this blog an atheist asked me what I thought about “modern evolutionary science.” The attempt, in context, was clearly to get me to say something that he could then label as scientifically ridiculous so that he could pretend to be highly amused (I find that things like self described amusement, anger, outrage and so on at blogs are often not genuine but are some sort of rhetorical device to give the right impression). My response was this:

As far as “modern evolutionary science” goes, I don’t believe it – in the same way that you don’t believe in aliens. It’s not that you have certainty that there are no such things, but you just aren’t in a place where you’re compelled to think that they exist.
Strange though many might find it, Christians can genuinely afford to be open minded when it comes to evolution, whereas someone who has settled on atheism really has no choice in the matter.

I am open minded about scientific questions that I know little about, although I deliberately worded my reply provocatively. The truth is I know that the scientific consensus is clearly in favour of evolution and I’m perfectly content to appeal to the authority of the scientific community and assume an evolutionary model of the origin of species, but I think my reply was the right one to make. Now, my correspondent immediately claimed, contrary to fact, that I had said that I had a “problem” with evolution, suggesting that I had denied it (so that he didn’t have to miss out on acting like he was highly amused). Getting back to the real world, however, you can see from my actual comments that I neither denied nor affirmed it.

I’m not all that bothered by how this makes atheist blog visitors see me. Heck, I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, so they already think I’ve sold the farm to crazy beliefs. And in a way, that’s the point of this blog: Which beliefs, exactly, are the ones that really count when it comes to qualifying as having “sold the farm” of the Christian faith? I write this because of how my evangelical peers will react to what I said above. A lot of my evangelical peers are going to think “wait, he doesn’t come out guns blazing against evolution? He’s happy to not even fight that battle? What kind of liberal is he?” I’m sure there are at least a few who will react in a way that interprets these comments in the worst possible way, because there are some blogs that simply thrive on doing this. This blog post is to explain why I can afford to take this fairly lax public stance on the evolution question by just leaving it alone. Lately one term has summed up the issue in my mind: deal breakers.

Let me put it this way. Say you’re a young earth creationist. What if you suddenly came to believe in mainstream big bang cosmology and accepted that the universe was billions of years old? What then, would you give up the Christian faith? What if you found out that evolution is true? What if you decided that a strict inerrancy was the wrong view of Scripture? Would that force you to give up Christianity? Here’s the thing: What if a person holds all of those beliefs, and also believes that God exists, and that God is personally revealed to us in Jesus Christ, whom he raised from the dead? See, if you were considering leaving Christianity, that would be the deal breaker. Because even if (and I am still speaking to a young earth creationist) the universe is billions of years old, the theory of evolution is true, and inerrancy is a mistaken view of Scripture, if God exists and raised Jesus from the dead, then whatever the right worldview is, it should be called Christianity.

That’s what a lot of enthusiasts for Christian apologetics may have missed. When a sceptic comes to you with objections to the Christian faith along the lines of “This verse in the Bible says that events happened in this order, but this other verse says that they happened in a different order,” sure, you can address the issue if you think you know a good response, and there may even be one. But a much larger question you could ask is: “What if you’re right, and yet God exists and raised Jesus from the dead?” If those things are true, and the sceptic is accountable to the creator of the Universe (yes, that would be another deal breaker), then quibbles over biblical chronology won’t save him: He’s in trouble.

It’s hard to say this in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m exaggerating, but there are websites out there that seem to operate under the delusion that unless a person has adopted the entire Westminster Confession of Faith, they don’t have a Christian world view (or at best they’re a liberal), so as apologists that’s the point we need to get people to. My stance is noticeably different: What we need to be working to defend are the Christian essentials: The things that serve as deal breakers for anybody who would otherwise continue to reject the Christian faith. What are these beliefs? I make no pretence of being able to set out the ideal list, but it includes the obvious things: The fact that God exists, some very basic facts about what God is like, that God is uniquely revealed to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus’ death makes it possible for our relationship with God to be restored, our need to repent of our sins, God literally raised Jesus from the dead, a saving relationship with God brings with it our sharing in the resurrection of Jesus and having eternal life, the fact that God calls us to obey him – these would be the big ones. These are the sorts of things that make the difference between a believer and a non-believer. But how old the universe is, whether or not the Bible is “inerrant,” precisely how sin entered the world, facts about biology – however fascinating these might be, they aren’t deal breakers by any stretch of the imagination.

Glenn Peoples

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30 thoughts on “Deal Breakers and Christian Essentials

  1. Just to clarify, are these deal breakers between Christians and their personal faith constructs, God and Christians, or between Christians and other professing Christians? I wasn’t entirely sure which, although from your recent experience is it the last? Anyway, a significant issue with a list of essentials that are deemed mandatory to be ‘Christian’ is that it will be drawn up by fallible man, albeit from the scriptures (but if they aren’t inerrant how does that effect the selection process?) More relevant perhaps is how does God define a Christian (even though that label is rather deficient). There are numerous scriptures, but I suggest that they could be summed up as ‘one who by faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and belief in his resurrection is totally immersed in God the Father, through the Son, being led by the Holy Spirit’ – or some statement to that effect. Very brief, but the longer and more detailed any statement becomes, the more explanation is required until you reach WC proportions.

    Consequently, we can make no call on whether a person who professes faith in Christ yet holds different interpretations to me of, say, eschatology, or a literal creation account, is counted as one to be resurrected from the dead (my doctrine added) – that lies entirely with Jesus. That said, we can certainly see whether good spiritual fruit (Gal 6 style) is exhibited in other Christians, remembering that Jesus stated he never knew some who said they were carrying out ‘Christian’ acts. I totally agree with you that peripheral (90%?) doctrinal differences should not divide those who are walking in Christian faith with one another in love, since each should show long-suffering and patience as the Holy Spirit does his unique work in every true believer.

    I guess the key essential is not whether we know Jesus, but whether he knows us, and that won’t be evident until he returns to issue out replacement spiritual bodies to those he deems qualify. (Forgive any potentially divisive doctrinal statements or inferences I have made along the way here. It’s rather tricky to explains things without some personal understandings to leak out).

  2. It would seem this devotion to a particularly conservative confession makes the job of apologetics harder. After all, if the only game in town is inerrancy then supposed biblical contradictions are a deal-breaker.

    For what it’s worth, this ridicule and character assassination of you over at TB doesn’t put it (or the one-tru-christianity it espouses) in a remotely flattering light). That probably doesn’t help the apologetic cause either.

  3. I think you’re approaching this from the wrong angle. I don’t think the entrance to Christianity is from understanding, but from the right attitude. To become saved, all you need is the right attitude towards God (that you really need His help). Even if you have all the facts wrong, that attitude is something God can (and will) work with. Then the Holy Spirit will show up and guide you into all the truth you can handle. If your surrender is real, then on His timetable, He’ll correct all of your theology that He has a problem with.

    Just think of all the people in the bible who got saved while believing some pretty wacky things. And then there’s Emeth the Calormene.

  4. Just think of all the people in the bible who got saved while believing some pretty wacky things. And then there’s Emeth the Calormene.

    We pretty much agree here, but for that, I think there’s something to be said of a difference between hellbound/saved from damnation and salvation as it is referred to in scripture which is really covenant identity.

    I think of Cornelius in acts 10 who’s prayers and almsgiving went up before God as a “memorial”. And then when Peter met him, he declared that God accepted all men who fear him and does what is right.

    But this is prior to Peter giving him a “message through which [he and his] household [would] be saved.” Acts 11:14

    Are we to believe that his prayers and almsigiving were a memorial before the lord and that he was accepted by the lord (or that peter just happened to spout a random fact that actually didn’t concern Cornelius) prior to his acceptance of the gospel was of a situation of a damned man? Seems to me that what we need here is to recognize that while to become a member of the covanent through faith in Jesus Christ saves one from damnation, it isn’t always the case that one is damned just because he has not accepted the gospel (provided the lack of acceptance isn’t also because of conscious rejection of the gospel). So often, when scripture speaks of salvation, it is of a greater relationship with God, it is the culmination of God’s rescue plan which is far more involved than saving individuals from judgment.

  5. Hi Glenn,

    I remember discussing paedobaptism with you back in the PB days. Question: do you allow the same sort of latitude wrt moral beliefs? Suppose instead of original sin, I answered a question from a skeptic and told him that he doesn’t need to be pro-life, think homosexuality is immoral and gay marriage wrong, think divorce isn’t impermissible, and believe pre-marital sex is a sin in order to be a Christian. If a “leader” in the “evangelical” world said these things, would you come out strongly against him, or critique those who did?

  6. Colin, I agree about people in the Bible being saved in spite of some strange beliefs, but I’m not sure what indicates that I’m approach this “wrong.” I’m responding to concerns that have been voiced about what beliefs count as essentials, so that’s my starting point.

    Paul: That’s a really good question. There’s no doubt in my mind that a person can wrongly hold the belief that abortion isn’t as bad as I think it is, and yet still be a Christian. I guess the stronger reaction that I would have in that case is because of the disastrous consequences that false belief can have – lives are lost over it.

    On reflection I think the reason I would take a harder line over the issues you list is that – in my experience – people who take lax stances on moral issues are often being genuinely liberal: thinking that the Bible took a stance, but then regarding that stance as outdated or too harsh. Not only that, but the New Testament is actually much harsher much more often on wrong conduct than on wrong doctrine, so that by its nature conduct is more “essential” to the Christian life. Not all the issues you mention are on par either, I would think. The circumstances under which divorce might be permissible is an issue where really committed conservative evangelicals do disagree, whereas sexual promiscuity or abortion are areas where they tend not to, and I think that reflects a recognition of the obviousness or gravity of the sins are involved.

    I guess that recognition is a bit like the recognition that some doctrines are essential while others aren’t. Some moral stances are really important, while others are open to more legitimate questions. I don’t claim to be an expert on where those lines are.

  7. Hello Paul, i’m not Glenn but may i refer you to Colin’s comment above

    “To become saved, all you need is the right attitude towards God (that you really need His help). Even if you have all the facts wrong, that attitude is something God can (and will) work with. Then the Holy Spirit will show up and guide you into all the truth you can handle. If your surrender is real, then on His timetable, He’ll correct all of your theology that He has a problem with”

    and of course He will help you grow in Christlikeness which will bring not only your theology but your behaviours into align with Christ’s character.

    Even then your question addresses not the issue of salvation but of maturity in Christ. I guess there are plenty who are saved but the rate and degree to which they “work out their salvation”/ “conform to the image of Christ” varies considerably.

    As to your hypothetical skeptic friend if he “became” a Christian subsequent to your advice but no “new life” was ever evident then we would have cause to doubt the sincerity of his conversion [no doubt positions of leadership would be inappropriate] , but even there would you know what work God was doing on him, what God thought needed to be addressed before the obvious externalities that we can see?
    I have even heard Christians doubt the salvation of other Christians because they havent given up smoking yet!!

  8. I like this post Glen. As you know Im not a young earther, yet enthusiastically endorse Biblical inerrancy and oppose evolution… and believe denial of inerrancy is a great evil, as is agnosticism towards evolution. Both are spineless/faithless positions that render preaching of the Gospel impotent. They certainly are not a bold contention for the faith! They are the position of faithless/ carnal Human reason… devoid of Higher reason.
    Having said that, I will endorse your proposition that what is essential to the Gospel of Grace is belief in the death of Christ for our sins, and his resurrection from the dead as evidence of his victory over sin and death. To add anything to this is to pervert the Gospel. That is all that is necessary to be saved.
    Yet it is highly unlikely that anyone would become a Christian without a whole scaffolding of truth to underpin the Gospel. It is not the gospel, but this extra body of truth exists as presuppositions, eg The historicity of Christ, the validity of the divine message, The reliability of scripture, the refutation of other world views such as atheism and evolution.
    My conversion was a process that involved facing all these questions and realizing both the sufficiency and superiority of the Christian world view over my previous atheist materialism. It was then I realised accepting the gospel was the smart thing to do.
    I would not believe the Gospel any more if evolution was proved to be true…yet I know this will not and cannot happen! I am shocked that Geniuses like yourself have bought into that bogus ‘the God of the Gaps’ sidestep of atheist materialist rationalism, and cannot see that the design argument is Rock solid, and are so lacking in faith as to call yourselves agnostics on this vital issue of evolution.
    I would never have converted to Christianity, had not first my faith in evolution been completely destroyed. And nothing makes Atheists like Dawkins happier than to hear Christians endorsing (or remaining agnostic about) evolution! They will go to their graves atheists absolutely unchallenged in their convictions.
    Tim Wikiriwhi.
    Libertarian. Dispensationalist. King James Bible believer. Christian.

  9. Yet it is highly unlikely that anyone would become a Christian without a whole scaffolding of truth to underpin the Gospel.

    You know, there are Christians in countries who don’t even have a bible, but they have given up far more than you or I have and face persecution even to death. They live the presence of Christ in the world more than anyone else. But they don’t have much of a scaffolding (granted some of what you call a scaffolding is merely the opposite of not believing the gospel).

    nd nothing makes Atheists like Dawkins happier than to hear Christians endorsing (or remaining agnostic about) evolution!

    I hardly consider what makes Dawkins happy or sad to be any guide at all to orthodoxy or heresy. I just don’t see the point in giving him that much credit.

  10. Tim, actually it’s not highly unlikely that anyone would become a Christian withoput first giving up evolution. There is a huge number of Christians who believe in evolution. I know, you call them “faithless,” but the fact is, they are Christians.

  11. As both a YEC and inerrantist, I agree with much of what you have written here. I would add that neither Creation Ministries International, nor Answers in Genesis state that one must believe in YEC or inerrancy to be saved.

    To me the question is how these things modify our belief in the resurrection. The resurrection is central! But I think creation is foundational, that is the resurrection is grounded why it needed to happen.

    So a person may be an evolutionist, yet also a resurrectionist, and a Christian, how do the beliefs affect each other. As we get much of our confirmation about the resurrection from Scripture, if we call into question what seems to be a teaching of Scripture elsewhere, that affects how we consider teaching of Scripture on the life of Jesus. And there are a large number of people where there understanding of Genesis does eventually have a huge effect on their thinking in the gospels, both positively and negatively. This may not be the case for you, nor for many, but it is the case for an enormous number of people.

  12. Bethyada, I don’t think I’m aware of any Christians who are evolutionists who also take the stance of calling into question what Scripture teaches. Now of course, they call into question what young earth creationists think the Scriptures teach, but their attitude is definitely not one that says “I can take liberty with what Scripture teaches about one thing, but not another.”

    EDIT: Also, I definitely didn’t want to give the impression that Creationist organisations think that you have to believe in YEC to be “saved.”

  13. Tim
    “I would not believe the Gospel any more if evolution was proved to be true”

    My friend i sincerely hope your faith is in Jesus Christ and not in the untruth of evolution.
    If evolutionary theory ever becomes so complete that there are no inconsistancies or contrary evidences at all, that wouldnt in way way discount the reality of Jesus and His sacrifice for us.
    It would show one of the means which God used in the process of creation, it would show that one tradional understanding of Genesis was incorrect. That wouldnt make God a liar, just mankind failible, and we knew that already.

    “I would never have converted to Christianity, had not first my faith in evolution been completely destroyed”

    Thank God your faith in evolution was destroyed then, because it was faith in the wrong kind of thing and needed to be destroyed. It is entirely possible to have a misplaced faith in true things. Only God is worthy of your worship. Evolutionary theory [true or otherwise] was never going to be able to answer questions about “why”, “ought”, “good and evil”, any kind of faith that it had these questions answered was always wrong. Even truth can be used to mislead and misdirect.

  14. In terms of central beliefs I would guess I am similar to Colin. I think defining beliefs is a common approach, albeit not a preferable one. It is based on bounded set rather than centred set thinking. For an individual salvation is essentially a following of Christ. Thus it is far more important what direction one’s beliefs (and behaviour) are headed than what they specifically are. We may have someone who believes that drunkenness is wrong (a right belief) and is not saved, and one that thinks it of no consequence (a wrong belief) and is saved. But one expects those that follow Jesus would transform their thinking over time to be more orthodox and those who do not follow Jesus to abandon right belief, especially in the areas where it is countercultural, or a temptation.

    Adding the qualification about being a leader modifies the issue because as well as following Christ, there are a set of beliefs that are important; one is teaching others how to be disciples. So if someone is a long time in changing their belief structure they may not be appropriate for leadership. That being said, those far away can see the difference between them and Christ, and may make allow God to work huge changes in their lives.

    I think the issue is murky because of conflation about individual belief and the Christendom worldview. The former is not a set of beliefs as mentioned, rather an attitude of become like Christ. The latter affects opinions in every aspect of life, but some are clearly more important than others. We need to identify what is central according to God’s perspective, and what is peripheral. There may be central issues that are already embedded in our culture that we do not identify clearly. There may be others that are less central but are brought into view because it is where secularism challenges the church. The fact we are fighting a particular secular inroad into the church (and we must) does not mean this is the most central dogma, even if it is the issue of our age.

    What is the ageless most central? Charity.

  15. I’m an evolutionist and a Christian.

    Tim, I think the point Glenn is making is that it doesnt matter if evolution is true or not. Fact is, it has nothing at all to do with whether or not there is a God. Nothing. At. All.

    I think a point is missed here. To be saved only one thing is required, faith in God’s work (ie Christ dead and resurrected as Glenn said). However, AFTER salvation conduct is all important. AND it is also quite certain that one will not act in a certain way without knowledge, and in Christianity, the Spirit to empower/teach/correct/guide (ie impart wisdom and the actual “power” required to do something opposed to ones will) is also required.

    Someone who is not learning, growing, changing going forwards or backwards is.. dead
    So, faith (believing) is all thats required for salvation, but that is not the end of the story. I think, personally, that people who act like Glenn is describing are showing “conduct” which shows pretty much that they didnt really believe in the first place.

  16. Hi Glenn,

    Thanks for the interesting answer. If Craig gave those kinds of answers you’d be harder on him on those than the doctrinal answer he gave. Perhaps others weight flawed doctrinal answers as high or higher than giving flawed moral answer. Considering that you would respond harder if he gave a flawed moral answer and could thus find yourself on the other side of things (someone would blog in a way similar as M&M and you have, but against your response, you would respond, etc), do you see the gap between you and those who took issue with Craig’s answer as narrowing upon reflection?

    In thinking about the points you made on reflection, I have some thoughts:

    (i) Liberalism: I have found the opposite to be the case (though there’s truth to your anecdotal remarks as well). Traditionally, Liberals were more about deeds than creeds. The former was weighted heavier than the latter, and joining hands on moral issues is what they took to be the uniting element of Christianity, creeds divided. Machen, among others, pointed this out. Conversely, in today’s climate, there’s no small number of very doctrinally conservative thinkers who hold more (politically) liberal views on various social issues. Case in point: contemporary two kingdoms proponents. So, one could argue that the elevation of deeds over creeds (i.e., as something worth getting more heated about, and as what unites more than doctrines like original sin) is the liberal tendency.

    (ii) I disagree that the NT is harsher on bad deeds than false creeds. Indeed, the vast majority of times Paul speaks harshly is over doctrinal matters. We think of the Galatians controversy, the controversies in Corinthians, the anti-Christs, and those who said the resurrection already happened. At best I’d grant you that the NT is equally as hard, but then that justifies a response like the kinds Hays gave since you’d give a similar one over moral issues.

    (iii) I think we’re seeing more disagreement on those issues. And we may see more in the future. The doctrine of original sin doesn’t have meager numbers either. And of course, one could argue that denying various doctrines “could” have unsavory consequences too.

    Thoughts?

  17. Paul:

    “If Craig gave those kinds of answers you’d be harder on him on those than the doctrinal answer he gave.”

    Why would you say that? What I indicated – and this is a view that I haven’t given up since I typed it in response to you ( 😉 ) is that just as there are weightier and less weighty doctrinal matters, so too there are weightier and less weighty moral matters.

    I consider abortion to be one of the greatest moral tragedies of our day, so as far as moral issues go it’s right at the top. By contrast, the precisely correct view of original sin is definitely not an essential on the scale of doctrine. Abortion is for morality what the bodily resurrection of Jesus is for doctrine.

    So if we’re going to compare apples with apples: Had Bill Craig denied the bodily resurrection of Christ and I had defended him against his attackers, then it would be fair enough to say “but what if he had advocated abortion rights? Would you be cool with that too?” But given that he didn’t even deny any doctrine, he merely said that the Augustinian doctrine of original sin is not essential to Christianity, it clearly makes sense that I would be more outraged had he advocated abortion rights.

    Regarding your points:

    i) Agreed. Liberals get it wrong by neglecting doctrine far too much and only emphasising deeds. What I have tried to point out is that some evangelicals have the balance all wrong in just the opposite way: Passionate about creeds (by which I mean passionate about getting everyone to subscribe to every jot and tittle of their lengthy statements of faith), but with an attitude and conduct clearly lacking in evangelical (biblical) spirit. We should not take the liberty to cast off either of these things. I think either tendency really deserves to be called liberal, for it sets aside biblical authority. I recognise that people do not call the latter “liberal,” but I say we should call it liberal.

    Nobody will say, surely, that I have actually denigrated doctrine. All I have said is that we need to be clear on what the essentials really are, and not multiply their number.

    ii) Numerically I’m fairly sure that’s not true: Paul condemns misdeeds frequently. You even say that it’s the other way around “the vast majority” of times. That seems way off to me. But even if I were to back off on that front and agree only for the sake of argument that the split is 50/50, as for the Gospels – Jesus very obviously condemns sinful living far more often than he condemns incorrect beliefs. Surely you grant this without hesitation.

    But even if it were 50/50, Hays response to me could never be justified. Hays called me a liar. He says that I was using a pretext. He dissects my motive. He calls me a liberal because even though I am passionately committed to biblical theology (since I regard Scripture as the word of God), I reach different conclusions to him. When I approached him because of his offensive and untrue claims, he would not even hear the complaint. He was malivious and prideful, not even considering thatthere might be an issue. Further investigation revealed him as a person who makes insinuiations in jest about blog visitors assisting in the rape of altar boys, confirming my concerns about his treatment of those he disagrees with. How can a 50/50 split of doctrinal/ethical concern in the Bible justify this? I don’t see it at all. He is simply deciding not to participate in biblical conduct. This is sin and nothing else.

    iii) No doubt.

  18. Hi Glenn,

    Thanks for the response.

    The reason I thought that is because you wrote, “On reflection I think the reason I would take a harder line over the issues you list. . .” Plural, not just abortion. But maybe Hays’ reaction to Craig was at the level of, say, someone allowing for premarital sex and not abortion. Wouldn’t you need, for your argument, to have him reacting at the level of one reacting to someone allowing for abortion?

    On (i): Yes, deeds should flow from right creeds. But I do find it interesting, and this is a general point, not to highlight you individually, that many Christians in this debate are claiming we need to join together to fight secularism and immorality, allowing for doctrinal differences. It does seem to me that desiderata of the old liberal controversy is still at play. That is, Machen’s still speaking to us. I use doctrine to define my unity, not behavior. I know atheists, Muslims, and Mormons who are very nice and moral and who are against abortion and gay marriage.

    On (ii): I didn’t think it was a numerical thing, you said the NT was “harsher.” On the moral thing, I note even Paul points out his moral failings (Rom. 7), but he and others battle over doctrinal matters quite often. re: Jesus, both are there. He speaks of deeds and creeds. While he may speak more about the former, I think we need to admit that he’s speaking primarily to pharisees who like to highlight their superior moral character. But Jesus does not that the one who is right before God isn’t the moral publican but the doctrinally correct sinner.

    I’m asking questions apart from your conflict with Hays. When I spoke of his response, I meant his response to Craig.

    On (iii): One down, two to go 🙂

  19. Paul:

    OK, so let’s compare one’s belief about how important original sin is with one’s sexually immoral conduct. Same result. Sexual immorality is higher up the scale of importance in regard to ethics than one’s stance on how important original sin is on the scale of doctrine.

    re: i) As a critique of anyone advocating my position of course none of this would work, After all, I do advocate doctrine and deeds. And of course we need to allow for doctrinal differences – as long as those differences are not on the things that our faith is meant to be centred on.

    ii) Oh OK, well on numerical figures and harshness, I see no sense in which Paul is harder on people with mistaken beliefs than he is on people who live wicked lives. And regarding the publican and the sinner – it’as a real stretch to call self righteousness a good deed, and penitence a doctrine. That’s a great example of deeds (and attitudes, which is bundled up in my concerns). And in general too, Jesus is clearly more often and more sternly condemning deeds and attitudes than doctrinal mistakes. This is clearly a true observation. Yes, doctrine is there too, but the weight of emphasis is definitely and repeatedly on serving God, of having the right attitude, of doing what is right etc.

    iii) Indeed. Thus far you see my point on one issue. Soon it will be all! 🙂

  20. One more thing:

    “I’m asking questions apart from your conflict with Hays. When I spoke of his response, I meant his response to Craig.”

    Well, it was not his attack on Bill that led to my concerns about a lack of moral committment to Christ vs a lack of intellectual committment to a person’s creed. That contrast arose because of a rather malicious response to me.

    When it came to Hays’ and others’ attack on Craig, it was a case of not really understanding what Craig was trying to do and also of overestimating the importance of what one thinks of original sin. it was also because of a large dose of insularity. People were reading Craig’s explanation that not all Christians hold the Augustinian doctrine of original sin as though he was saying “look if anything offends you, you don’t need to accept it.” They really didn’t appreciate that there are many very conservative and very committed Christians who don’t hold that view (e.g. much of Eastern Christianity). There the remedy was patience and care in understanding others, and being better informed.

  21. Glenn,

    What would an argument for the first paragraph look like. After all, my nice atheist, politically conservative neighbors are against their daughter having premarital sex, though rather doubt original sin, though.

    On (i): I’m not following. Of course, I can allow for doctrinal differences depending on what “allow for” means, btu I have more in common with the 80 yr. old grandma at my OPC than the thirty yr. old Arminian down the street who likes to work out, watch UFC, and study philosophy and apologetics. But (i) is dealing with a question: would you react as Steve did if Craig swapped out not avoiding premarital sex as not “essential” to being a Christian with original sin. It does seem to me that on your side of things (and I can go quote hunting if needs be), there’s more stress on deedal unity than creedal.

    On (ii): Paul consigns those who deny certain doctrine to hell, Christians who act immorally must repent, then if they do not they are excommunicated so that their soul may be saved. Accursed is harsher than excommunicated. Paul never says the kind of things to immoral professors as he does to doctrinally inept professors. Why doesn’t he say that he wishes adulterers would “go all the way and cut the whole thing off?” Frankly, I just don’t see the warrant for your claim. Indeed, there are gentile non-Christians who live moral and do the law, but Paul still would consign them to hell, and he nowhere notes that they get doctrine right.

    On (iii): Ah, so you’re still an optimistic postmillennialist, I see 🙂

  22. Sorry, I enlarged my last paragraph in comment #20 while you were typing it seems.

    An argument for the first paragraph would basically start from this premise: We should show concern about the things that are more central to following Christ in thought and deed. Doctrines have a sort of “rank” and so do deeds. We can stick them all onthe same “ladder” as it were. Your atheist neighbours might hold some of the ethical standards, sure, but they reject the most highly ranked things in doctrine as well. So while they accept some really important things, they reject some really important things too. I don’t see why any conservative Christian should have a problem with this way of seeing things.

    i) Hmmm, sorry you’re not following. But I’ve tried to make it really clear that there’s a stress on essentials on both sides: doctrinal and moral. Sexual immorality ranks highly on the moral scale. A belief about the importance of original sin doesn’t rank highly on the doctrinal scale. If there were a doctrinal error that ranked as highly on the “doctrine importance” scale as sexual immorality ranks on the “moral importance” scale, it would be something like the claim that we earn salvation with good works. Those two might be roughly on par.

    I’ve even made a cute picture to help: http://www.rightreason.org/pics/seriousness-scale.jpg Things (immorality and doctrinal error) get more serious as they move up towards the top of the picture.

    So yes, I would have called Bill out if he had said that sexual morality wasn’t essential. But that’s just because that’s a high ranking claim, whereas his view that original sin isn’t essential isn’t a high ranking claim. That said, if he had said that you don’t need to believe inthe ascension, and you can believe that Jesus just died again, thenI would call him out on that, because again, that ranks really highly in importance and it does undermine an essential.

    Hopefully you’re following now. I do stress creedal unity. What I oppose is making people to subscribe to lengthy tomes in the name of creedal unity.

    ii) You will immediately accept that those who turn from fundational doctrinal error can be saved, right? So this puts them in the same position as those living in sin, who can repent.

    Even on many occasions where a New Testament writer is condemning people who are false teachers, that condemnation is sometimes directed at them speciically as people whose lives are full of evil deeds. Just check out the extended tirade in 2 Peter 2 (the whole chapter). Sure it starts out referring to people as false teachers and prophets. But as the chapter unfolds and the list of really strong condemnations roll out, it’s clear that the issue is sin: Adultery and greed, full of corruption.

    In 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul condemns those in the church who do evil, saying that they will not inherit the kingdom, which is no different from saying that they will end up in hell. So I remain unmoved on this one.

    And let’s not forget what I think is am implicit agreement here: Jesus in the Gospels very obviously condemns unrighteous living far more often and in much stronger terms than he does incorrect beliefs. Can I assume that we agree here?

  23. Paul, one more thing: Let me say again that my concern over an intellectual faith that neglects a holy life didn’t arise because of anyone’s criticisms of Craig. It arose because of someone’s uncharitable accusations against me. the concerns I raised over people’s attacks on Craig had to do with carefully reading what people say and not being insular in our thinking.

  24. Hi Glenn,

    I have atheists neighbors who are pro-life (one of your highest-ranked ethical matters) but rather deny the resurrection (one of your highest-ranked doctrinal matters), doesn’t that tell you anything? At any event, I’m wondering what the argument is for claiming that a hard reaction to Craig saying original sin isn’t essential is untoward while a hard reaction to Craig saying (ex hypothesis) that not having premarital sex isn’t essential isn’t untoward? Moreover, there’s a large gulf between deeds and creeds that your ranking system doesn’t represent. Suppose someone is intellectually convinced that Jesus never resurrected, and that he isn’t God. Can he get into heaven with that belief? No. Suppose that the same person deeply believes that Jesus died for his sins and was resurrected for his justification, and is the God-man. But he is intellectually convinced (wrongly, we’d say) that abortion isn’t a sin. Can he get into heaven? Yes. So not only do I find the argument unconvincing, the ranking system seems off. Lastly, it appears that there’s a lot more moral advice you would allow one to get heated about if the advice were bad than there is room for a heated response to denying certain doctrines, a la original sin. So this does seem to have liberal leanings.

    Ad (i): Who says? Certain groups may think pre-marital sex isn’t all that bad, they also show that Scripture doesn’t mean what has been traditionally thought. Or take homosexualism. Surely you know that there are many who offer exegetical arguments for the conclusion that the Bible isn’t condemning modern homosexual practices. They would respond to you the way you respond to those who took umbrage with Craig’s claim about original sin. Moreover, Craig’s bad sex-advice wouldn’t necessarily land the person who accepted it in hell, and neither would his bad doctrinal advice. It’s not as if either are “essential” for salvation.

    That you would have called Bill out for telling the person that not having pre-marital sex wasn’t an “essential” says a lot. If a guy is “hung up” on that, seems Craig would let that slide too (especially given his comments that we just need to get people to see Jesus, focus on Christ, not inerrancy or original sin). Craig would probably hope that the guy would change his mind as his progressed in his sanctification. But the same hope can be had for original sin. We are sanctified in our mind too, accepting all that God teaches in the Bible.

    (BTW, getting fired up over original sin isn’t to ask people to subscribe to “lengthy tombs.”)

    Ad ii.) Unless they’ve apostatized (but that may take us into more presuppositional doctrinal differences). I will accept that one can repent from holding false doctrine as an implication of other Christian claims, but the point is that Paul doesn’t speak that way. Paul seems to know there’s sexual immorality going on and he tells people to start living better. If one of the church members denied that Jesus was the messiah and was raised from the dead, Paul wouldn’t tell him to get that sin under control and start thinking better. he’d tell them that they are accursed. Problem is, all Christians commit very bad sins on a regular basis, they commit murder, whether actual or heart, adultery, they covet, don’t place God above other idols, etc., but they don’t deny the trinity or the resurrection etc. The more I think about this, I simply see nothing to your “ranking” argument.

    I am not denying that the Bible speaks of peoples deeds, and often, as with the false teachers, they are used to expose the *doctrinal* errors that lie at the root. Our deeds are the *fruit* of our confessions. But confessions are the *root*. We can make root-to-fruit *inferences*, but they are inductive and not *necessarily* accurate.

    Yes, Paul tells people who he has heard are living in sin to gain victory over the sin. He points out the doctrinal truths they profess which should lead them to putting their sin to death. So they stay in the church and battle their sin. If they had denied the resurrection, they’d be out. Moreover, Christianity (at least how I take it) tells us that if those people continued in their sin and ended in hell, those sins were simply *evidence* of the false creedal affirmations they made. But it is possible that one truly trust in Christ and yet battle, say, porn his entire life. he may hate his sin, seek to turn from it, seek help, but continue to lose battles to it. If he trusts in Christ, Christ paid for the sin. If he doesn’t trust in Christ and believe on him, Christ doesn’t still get him into heaven, paying for that sin too.

    I also deny that Jesus condemns unrighteous living in stronger terms. And the reason why there are more numbers was explained. He was speaking to hypocrites, those in the visible covenant community. To those outside it is: trust on me, and then go on and sin no more. If one doesn’t trust in Christ, it makes no difference if they are the most moral person in the world. All have sinned. Moreover, Jesus was exposing false teachers via ad hominem, he was making an argument against certain false doctrinal teaching by the pharisees. He was also exposing the futility of thinking you can please God by law-keeping—another doctrinal point. That he used moral examples to make these doctrinal points doesn’t mean he weighted the moral points more. Indeed, if this argument is close, then I’ve just closed the numbers gap too.

    So I likewise remain unconvinced by your argument. What are we to do! 🙂

    Re: the other stuff: I really have no interest in the Peoples/Hays fracas, my questions were seeking information and discussing something much broader than your beef with Hays. I think the discussion here is larger than anything that happened between you and Hays. I understand your feelings are hurt, but that’s something between you and Hays. If you’re trying to get me to join with you and condemn Hays, that’s not going to happen, so let’s just focus on the arguments here. And I don’t say that to offend you.

  25. not glenn (and probably have a different opinion), but I’d share a thought on your first few comments.

    I have atheists neighbors who are pro-life (one of your highest-ranked ethical matters) but rather deny the resurrection (one of your highest-ranked doctrinal matters), doesn’t that tell you anything?

    Atheists can have saintly ethics. The problem isn’t that they can’t have them. The problem is that their atheism is also perfectly consistent with a denial of the reality of ethics.

    Moreover, there’s a large gulf between deeds and creeds that your ranking system doesn’t represent. Suppose someone is intellectually convinced that Jesus never resurrected, and that he isn’t God. Can he get into heaven with that belief? No.

    Acts 17 explicitly says that God made it possible for people everywhere (without regard to where the gospel was preached) may reach God. The language of inclusivism helps to make this consistent with what we believe about the gospel. God has made his grace available everywhere and we will be judged according to how we respond to that grace. Form many westerners, that grace, the best form of grace is the gospel and if they know it without distortion (unlike the Jews for example in Nazi Germany some of whom saw Jesus presented as the angry God who wanted vengence against them for putting him on the cross), then they are responsible to respond to it. If they don’t know it, than they are responsible for the best form that is available to them which may be just the law that is written on their hearts as Paul spoke of in Romans 2 though there are external evidences of this in other religions and cultures(like the compassion promoted in Buddhism or the love for God promoted in Bhakti Yoga).

  26. Rob, yes, that’s an argument—though some atheists would demur. But now doctrinal is back at the root of the problem, as I’ve argued. I’ll refrain from commenting on many of the things you said in your last paragraph as I disagree with the theological assumptions and don’t have the desire to debate that too—indeed, I’ve already stayed long enough on what I originally wanted to say, probably over stayed my welcome!

  27. Paul, sure there might be pro-life atheists. The Bible tells us that the law of God is written on people’s hearts, and people’s conscience leads them to all sorts of praiseworthy attitudes towards certain actions and lifestyles. But this doesn’t show us that someone who is a Christian shouldn’t emphasise upright living as much as right doctrine. I just don’t see how that inference could work.

    Your second paragraph seems to confirm my point about Jesus, actually. Since my comments all along have been about those who are ostensibly Christians (or to use Reformed language: “covenant members”), we seem to agree: Jesus’ message to those on the inside is much stronger when it comes to ethics than when it comes to refining one’s beliefs to make them more correct.

    You say that the wicked deeds of false teachers are condemned because those deeds are the fruit of false belief. I beg to differ in many or most cases. I can’t think of any way that a mistaken belief about the exact nature of the transmission of sin is going to make me more likely to, say, steal, commit sexual immorality or lie. Can you?

    Deeds are primarily the fruit of a person’s heart – by which I mean the seat of their commitment. By contrast, correct beliefs about, say, original sin, are not. This all by itself is a great reason to be concerned about living righteous lives at least as much as we care about fine theological disputes.

    Notice that I say “fine” theological matters. I have always been maintaining that there really are theological essentials that are not fine matters. And of course getting fired up over one issue like original sin isn’t asking people to commit to lengthy tomes. Nobody ever said it was. I was talking about requiring people to commit to a very lengthy statement of faith on pain of being a liberal, but then showing little or no concern over living a holy life. Neither you nor I would approve of such a person, and hence I really think you totally agree with me since this is precisely what I have been saying, and I can’t imagine that you would really doubt this.

    Take for example the particular sin that has irked me lately – and forget which people were involved, it doesn’t matter. That sin is the inability to control one’s tongue (or keyboard!). You know as well as I what James had to say:

    If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

    James sees fit to reject a person’s religious profession if they lack self control in the way that they speak to others. No matter how theologically sharp they are: A pattern of bad deeds = dubious faith.

    Lastly, I wasn’t trying to bring my concerns about Mr Hays into this. I was pointing out that the distinction between beliefs and conduct, and the suggestion that to emphasis conduct is to be “liberal” that only arose after I complained about other people’s actions toward me. They did not arise on account of attacks on Bill Craig. I only said this because it sounded like you were trying to get the discussion “back on track” by referring back to Bill Craig’s comments. But the issue didn’t arise because of that. I’m happy to talk about the subject in the abstract without reference to any past discussions, of course. My hurt feelings aren’t an issue here, nor, with all due respect, is it very charitable for you to try to suggest that I am making them an issue.

  28. Glenn,

    If the past had unfolded differently, that is if God had never brought about the Incarnation, but God had revealed Himself to exist as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then would the people who believed in that God count as Christians?

  29. Casey, I doubt that they would be called Christians because that term is historically tied up with the incarnation. I don’t know what we would call them.

  30. Glenn, your seriousness scale gets the point across well. However, shouldn’t the ‘atonement’ be at the top of the ‘deal-breaker’ list? That is when Jesus said “It is finished” (or “Tetelesti” meaning ‘Paid in Full’).

    Yes, God the Father raised Him from the dead, just as He will raise all for judgement, but the act of cleansing us from our sins is what changes our destination after our resurrection, God’s Kingdom or death in the Lake of Fire.

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