Thursday, 16 March 2006

Are there "fundamentals" of faith?

Chris Tilling has a thoughtful post on the fundamentalist controversy of the early 1900s. The fundamentalists claimed that there were five “fundamentals” of Christian faith: the verbal inerrancy of Scripture; the divinity of Christ; the virgin birth; the substitutionary theory of atonement; and the bodily return of Christ. Needless to say, these polemical points can hardly qualify as the “fundamentals” of faith.

The most serious error of the early fundamentalists was that they tried to turn faith into a law, into a set of doctrines that must be believed—but faith is only ever a matter of freedom and permission, not of law or obligation. That's why I myself could never be comfortable using the term “fundamentals.”

So when Chris asks whether there are any true “fundamentals,” I would have to answer No. But perhaps instead of speaking of “fundamentals” (i.e. things that you have to believe in order to be a Christian), it would be better to speak of “identifying beliefs” of Christian faith (i.e. beliefs which are essential to the identification of faith as Christian faith). In this case, there’s no question of trying to impose certain beliefs on others or of turning certain doctrines into laws that must be obeyed, but only of describing those beliefs that distinctively mark out Christian communities and traditions from other communities and traditions.

So what are the “identifying beliefs” of Christian faith? It seems to me that there are two related ones: Christian faith is identified both by its christological character and by its trinitarian character. And at the core of both of these identifying characteristics is a single, central belief: a belief in the unity between Jesus Christ and God.

This, then, is what I would highlight as the central “identifying belief” of Christian faith: that in Jesus Christ we have to do with God himself. This belief itself can be (and has been) expressed with many different doctrinal formulations. And the formulations themselves are less important than the underlying intuition that our encounter with Jesus Christ is an encounter with the reality of God.

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