Wednesday 15 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.


Kyle said...

Ben, I am new here.

This is a great post!
I agreed with what you wrote and I found your language to be helpful.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

Good stuff. I appreciate - and support - your attempt to go "minimalist" in your "identifying beliefs", and the christological and trinitarian foci are surely the Big Two. Some folk might complain of the lack of a soteriolgical identity, but atonement theories have a way of comandeering the theological agenda, and when they cut loose from a firm trinitarian foundation they become a theological menace. The early church was quite right not to give soteriology its Nicea and Chalcedon.

I would only want to go on, first, to spell out the "identifying beliefs" in narrative ways; and, second, I would insist that there will surely be a case of mistaken identity if the "identifying beliefs" are not embodied and expressed in the liturgical and ethical practices of the church.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Kyle -- thanks for visiting!

I agree with your comment, Kim. As for soteriology: I don't see soteriology as being distinct from the church's christological and trinitarian confession, since this confession is itself soteriological through and through. In affirming the unity between Jesus Christ and God, the church's central intention was always to affirm the saving reality of Jesus Christ. (Similarly, the Arian theology which the Nicene Fathers opposed was above all an alternative view of salvation -- and this is exactly why Arianism was so bitterly opposed.)

So for this reason, I'd agree with you that any soteriology which is divorced from its christological and trinitarian context is really just a pointless abstraction. Karl Barth saw this very clearly when he decided to make his entire "doctrine of reconciliation" nothing but one elaborate christology.

::aaron g:: said...

If faith is embedded in narrative, how can it be accessible to those with other narratives? Is it possible to proclaim salvation in publicly accessible ways (eg. David Tracy and Paul Tillich)?

Guy Davies said...

Ben, I don't think making certain doctrines fundamental or essential to the Christian message is to turn faith into law. There are a number of basic creedal formula in the New Testament, for example: Romans 1:2-4, 10:8-10, 1 Corinthians 15:1-5. I'm not sure that we could say that these creeds indicate a lapse into doctrinal legalism.

The apostle warned the Corinthians that they could consider themselves saved only as they held fast to the gospel that he preached to them. To deny that Christ died for our sins and that he rose the third day according to the Scriptures is to repudiate Christian salvation.

Was John turning doctine into a law when he said, "every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist?" (1 John 4:3). Was Paul making faith into law when he wrote to the Galatians, "But if we or an angel of heaven preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed."? (Galatians 1:8).

The apostles made a distinction between secondary issues that were a matter of personal conscience for Christians like food laws etc (Romans 14:14ff) and essenial or fundamental gospel truth.

Fundamentalists tended to make almost everything including dispensationalism a primary issue. As an Evangelical, I believe that there are areas of legitimate disagreement between Christians over secondary matters. But there can be no legitimate disagreement over essential gospel truths.

Guy Davies

Anonymous said...

Hi Aaron,

Sure it's "possible to proclaim salvation in publicly accessible ways" - and what is more accessible than narratives, stories - like the stories of Krishna, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad, et. al. Indeed telling stories has been called the "new apologetics", which is not only theologically apposite but also fits with Michel de Certeau's account of society as "recited" - we define ourselves are by the telling and re-telling of stories. On this account, Radical Orthodoxy speaks of strategies of "out-narrating" other religions and world views.

In any case, hasn't Alasdair MacIntyre taught us that there are no such beasts as "universal reason" or "timeless truths", that reasoning - including moral reasoning - is inherently contextual, mediated through community traditions?

Dustin said...

Just recently I was having a discussion with a group of individuals on this very thing. Is there really a list of fundamental beliefs we MUST agree with in order to obtain salvation? My answer has always been "no," yet it seems many of my conversational guests disagreed with me. My only assertion was that one must understand the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and believe (or have faith) that it was the way in which we attain to salvation.

I could be wrong, or I could be right. I appreciate your post, and how articulately you put forth what I was trying to say.

revdrron said...

In order to remain objective in this discussion of fundamentals and/or identifying beliefs and/or narratives, I am called to steer a course between arbitrary individualism, on the one hand, and authoritarian dogmatism on the other. But that is not all for I am at once compelled to say something about the Truth by which I have been apprehended.

But in order to say something, I am first moved to see all definitions or formulations of the faith as only fallible human statements or stories. At best, they are intended to point to the truth and must never be confused with the truth itself. Hence, they are always subject to correction in the light of the truth itself.

So what can be said? Well, it seems that the principle of objectivity by which I steer my course when making assertions about the Christian faith is best expressed in two doctrines: election or predestination and justification by grace.

Another voice crying in the wilderness, ron

Anonymous said...

To add to the mix . . .

The fact of the matter is that throughout church history "unity of faith" and "unity of doctrine" have been inextricably linked; indeed the former has normally been defined as the latter. The Reformers are at one with Catholic teaching on this principle.

However, as Jaroslav Pelikan points out: "In varying degrees, the Protestant Reformers tended to mean by 'doctrine' a body of received 'articles of faith', as contained in the so-called three ecumenical creeds: the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian" - i.e. they meant historical "dogma" (what Robert Jenson calls "irreversible" doctrine and Gerhard Sauter calls "thick" statements of faith). Moreover, as Pelican continues, the Reformers "could, with Melanchton, make it a point 'to stick as closely as possible to traditional doctrinal formulas.'"

Nevertheless, in due course the churches of the Reformation promulgated their own doctrinal statements - their "confessions". And the lamentable fissiparousness of Protestant churches and the continuing force of the anathemas of Rome do press the issue of "doctrinal pluralism" (which is itself, of course, as old as Corinth). The question is: "What are the limits of acceptable doctrinal diversity?"

On this subject the Truth and Community (1988) by Michael Kinnamon remains an invaluable resource and contribution. Kinnamon himself concludes with two principles:

1. "The first unacceptable diversity is, quite simply, the absence of love" (here Kinnamon approvingly cites Hans Küng: "Love must be the rule even in matters of faith").

2. "The second unacceptable diversity is idolatrous allegiance to things that are less than ultimate" (and here Kinnamon refers to the conclusion of both James Dunn and Raymond Brown that the New Testament itself canonizes doctrinal diversity). And (to come full circle!) for Kinnamon the "ultimate" basically means what I have referred to as Ben's trinitarian and Christological "foci".

By the way, Kinnamon ends his book with a roar for what has become culturally (and theologically?) quite unfashionable, viz. tolerance. "Ecumenical Christians," he declares, "should not be embarrassed by their openness, as if it were a sign of weakness . . . It simply does not follow that a certain amount of openness at the boundaries betrays a vacuum at the center; in fact, the opposite would seem more likely. We build walls when the center is fragile. We should dare to live in vulnerable openness when the center is solid."

Rev. Alfred Batarse, PhD. said...

Interesting post! I just didn't understand what you meant at the end when you said "that in Jesus Christ we have to do with God himself."

Anonymous said...

I echo exiled preachers comments. Way to go Exiled preacher. You encouraged me with those words. dh

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for all these comments.

Alfred, sorry for my lack of clarity: in the phrase "in Jesus Christ we have to do with God", I just meant that our encounter with Jesus Christ is at the same time an encounter with God.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious why neither the "five fundamentals" nor your "identifying beliefs" contains anything like "do unto others" or "turn the other cheek".

Surely something of Jesus' actual teachings about how one should live one's life should have a place in the fundamentals (or beliefs) of modern Christianity? Or has it all been pared down to simply "salvation through faith", and none of the rest of it matters?

(Obviously, I'm not a theologian or a member of the clergy, so I guess I have a much less cerebral understanding of Christianity than the people posting here.)

Anonymous said...

Great post. Just one thought though... Surely you would still contend that the ban on dancing be upheld, of course, as the third member of this fundamental family? :-)

Mike L said...


From my Cathoic standpoint, the difficulty with your approach is the same as that with all versions of ecumenical Protestantism. It proposes to identify some sort of "mere-Christian" consensus about what belongs to "the faith once delivered," but it does so while bracketing the question what, if any, concrete and visible authority is necessary to identify and transmit said faith. That turns latter-day orthodoxy into the product of a scholarly exercise, not that of obedience to divinely constituted authority. As such, it can elicit true opinion but not the act of faith.


Anonymous said...

I agree with ExiledPreacher! If you didnt read his post all the way through please read it. Im not an evangelical, but rater a fundamentalist. I must admit we, in general, do seem to make a big deal out of the small issues. But legalists we are not. But if we all could just see Eye to Eye on one thing. We Need To Be Better Wittnesses FOr Jesus Christ! Wht is it none wantst to tell others anymore? Laziness I Fear!

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