Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In Defense of Right Belief

I'm in the midst of an interesting conversation with someone, who, among other things, wonders if an "orthodox belief in the Trinity" is needed in order to be saved, or if requiring that belief is akin to adding to the Scripture. Here is my (slightly edited) response.

I'm not trying to add doctrines to the Scripture, or require more of salvation than what's required. At the same time, I do think we need to know and understand certain things about God in order to be saved. I don't think we need to have complete or perfect understanding, but I question whether or not someone who knows little about God can truly have a relationship with Him. I also question whether someone who understands what the Bible teaches about God, if they willfully reject some facet of Him, can truly be in a relationship with God. I don't see this as "adding to Scripture." Rather, I see it as a necessary consequence of knowing God in the first place. Without knowledge of Him, how can we have a relationship with Him? (cf. Acts 17--the unknown god).

I should also add that this is not just a theoretical exercise; it's very practical to me. I have children, and I wrestle with how much they need to know & understand in order to be saved. I don't think they need perfect or complete understanding in order to be saved. But if they have knowledge of God and reject it, does it make sense to believe they are saved?

Again, I'm not trying to add lines where none exist. What I'm trying to say is, if there is a fundamental doctrine about the nature of God that someone rejects, can they still be rightly called a follower of God? My answer to that question (at this point, anyway) is no. I believe the Trinity is one of those doctrines, hence my questioning whether someone in that state is a believer. It's not about the Trinity, per se.

Finally, let me say that I think there is a difference between cautious questioning and open rejection. I don't think we should merely parrot others' beliefs about something. That said, if someone honestly rejects the God of the Scripture in any aspect, on what basis can they claim to have a relationship with Him?

The new Shepherd's Fellowship blog has a post by John MacArthur which has something to say about this issue of belief.


Charles Sebold said...

I am one of those people who used to have a subbiblical Christology. I was convinced that Jesus was not God, although I believed that there was a justification for calling Him that (which is how I explained away some of the clearer passages on His Deity).

When I defended my belief to those who should have been holding me accountable, I said that there wasn't any Scripture passage that stated that we had to believe in, or even understand, the nature of the Trinity, hypostatic union, or whatever, to be saved. And those who should have been holding me accountable reluctantly agreed, and I continued to pastor a heretic church.

I reject this idea now. I recognize that the instant of conversion doesn't bring with it Nicene and Chalcedonian theology automatically. But like Matt said, "if someone honestly rejects the God of the Scriptures in any aspect, on what basis can they claim to have a relationship with Him?" This is a critical point. For me to say that Jesus wasn't God was proof positive that I didn't know Him, that I was not "found in Him" (in terms of what has been revealed). Such a statement might fall from the lips of a babe in the faith, but nobody who claims to have searched the Scriptures can claim to be worshiping the God of Scripture while not seeing the unity of essence of Father and Son.

This reply is specific to my own problem, but I think it is the key to all the Trinitarian theology problems. And ultimately, when we dig into what I call "the mechanics of salvation" -- the inner workings of our salvation within the revealed will and work of the Godhead -- we find that orthodox theology is more and more necessary as we see what we faced in judgment, what mercy was bestowed upon us, the means of that grace and mercy, and the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and sanctification. If we lose the fine points as we grow in the faith, we are letting go of things that will have an effect on faith and practice in the future.

A great case in point is this: make a study sometime of the correlation between deficient views of the complementarity of men and women, and Trinitarian theology. You will be surprised at how directly those are correlated sometimes, and how hard it is to argue for right family relations with somebody who doesn't understand the relationship of the Persons of the Trinity, even the things that are clearly stated in Scripture and do not need to be deduced.

This is why Paul didn't hold back from preaching the "whole counsel of God," and why pastors and teachers also must not hold back, even from complicated theology.

Kelley said...

You chose an interesting example in Acts 17. While it’s true that God was “unknown” by the people of Athens, it is apparent that some of their hearts were open. Notice that Paul didn’t bog them down with all of the intricacies of the entire Christian belief system all at once. He just gave them a quick overview of what they needed to know about God. Their little crash course didn’t cover anything about the Trinity, or predestination, or whatever else we may deem critical issues. Paul simply told them what God had done – from creation through Christ’s resurrection. Some laughed, some were intrigued (but still needed more answers), and a few believed right away, even though we may think he left out some important points. That’s the way it goes when I share the gospel too – some are ready to hear it, and some aren’t…that part is the work of the Holy Spirit, though. Thankfully, it’s not my job to make them see it my way. I’m troubled when I see wording like “requiring that belief.” It sounds as if we’re setting ourselves up to judge whether other people have salvation based on our perception of their level of understanding. As if every believer’s experience must match up with my own. I didn’t go to seminary or anything, but I think the only belief Jesus expressly “required” of anyone for salvation was belief in Him as the Son of God, who paid for our sins with His life, death and resurrection.

You said, ”I question whether or not someone who knows little about God can truly have a relationship with Him.” My point is, maybe it is possible to have a relationship with God without the prerequisite credit for Doctrinal Issues 101 on our spiritual transcript. Relationships all start somewhere, and with the Holy Spirit, the foundation for that relationship can begin well before the person actually engages in the relationship with God. Just because other people may be at different stages of their journey with God, doesn’t give me the right to negate or discount the fact that the relationship exists. Isn’t the concept of “relationship” itself a constant discovery of the complexities and mysteries within the depths of another person, rather than following a precise, logical formula to achieve a specific end? That’s what keeps things interesting – keeps us coming back for more. And with God, there is an eternity of things to explore! Can anyone ever know enough about God? Can you deny someone falling in love with the wonderful Son of God at their first introduction? Acts 17:27 (ESV) "His purpose in all of this was that the nations should seek after God and perhaps FEEL their way toward him and find him--though he is not far from any one of us.” (emphasis mine) My goal isn’t to figure God out perfectly – my desire is to seek Him, love Him, obey Him, worship Him, serve Him, glorify Him, and advance His Kingdom by sharing His love with others.

As for knowing and rejecting such knowledge about God, I think what Paul tells the Athenians in The Message version of Acts 17:30 says it well: "God overlooks it as long as you don't know any better--but that time is past. The unknown is now known, and he's calling for a radical life-change.”

Gummby said...

Thank you both for your thoughts.

I hope I haven't been unclear with what I've said. I'm not trying to say that the Trinity has to be a part of evangelism (although it could be); I'm not trying to say that someone has to have a seminary understanding of theology in order to be saved; I'm merely saying that there is some minimum amount of knowledge in order to be saved (hence Acts 17), and that as we come to know and understand more of Scripture, it is a dangerous thing to reject that revelation.

By the way, Kelley, your line of reasoning is very similar to the one this individual is using with me.

He has said that he has no problem with Jesus being God. Where he sees a problem is the Spirit as one of the co-existent members of the Godhead.

But, because he believes that Jesus is Lord, and died for his sins, that is enough.

This is not someone who is new to the faith. They have been raised in the church, and even gone to seminary.

Hence my concern.

Hemsch said...

What about those people who have a 'death bed' conversion? Are you saying they really will not be saved? What about the robber next to Jesus while being crucified?

Just playing devil advocate. Unless I'm totally missing the point.

William Dicks said...

Hi Matt,

Without repeating myself, I have written on this subject a little. Check out my two blog entries:
What is the Gospel? What is the foundation to the Gospel?
Those who call themselves Christians...

I am with you on this one. Rejecting one of the essentials of the gospel, or in this case of the nature of God, simple means to me that that person has no saving knowledge of God.

Gummby said...

William: Thanks for stopping by. I love to see relevant links; yours always are, and you're always welcome to post them here. I hope to get to what you had to say soon.

Hemschie: I don't think you're missing the point. At least not if you're playing Devil's advocate.

I'm not trying to establish a standard by which people are saved. God establishes that standard. What I'm saying is that, if we claim to have a relationship with God, yet we reject what He has disclosed to us (through His word), there is something amiss, and, in extreme cases, it is not unreasonable to say that someone is unsaved.

I would argue that "death bed" conversions and the thief on the cross are not normative. And since they are not the norm, we can discuss how or why they are saved, but it is a mistake to relate those instances to common, everyday occurrences. What is common is someone who becomes a believer, and over time, as they read and absorb Scripture, come to know more and more about God (much in the manner Kelley described in her comment).

On the other hand, if someone claims to be a Christian, but as he reads and absorbs Scripture, he comes to reject essential doctrines, my argument is that he should ask himself if he is truly in the faith.

All of my argument presupposes that the doctrine of the Trinity is one of those core doctrines. This person thinks that is up for debate, but we're not quite there yet. So, in some sense, I'm laying the groundwork to say, "Look, there are some things that are so essential, so basic, that if you reject them, you are not a true believer." And later, my argument will be that the Trinity is one of those doctrines.

Soon, I'll also try to get to what I think is a key illustration from Scripture of what a "sub-Biblical understanding" of God, as Charlie called it, leads to.

Kelley said...

Well, I’m probably way out of my league here, but first let me say that I have no problem believing that the Spirit is an essential part of the Godhead, (being the all-or-nothing kind of girl that I am). I understand your concern -- sounds like this person may be drawing the line too soon. I don’t understand the rationale for separating the Spirit out of the Trinity, but I guess that’s not important for this discussion. I don’t believe in “a-la-carte” theology; there are definitely core doctrines spelled out in Scripture. Beyond those, the debate becomes, “What’s up for debate?!” Everyone has differing opinions in those areas, which is the reason there are so many denominations within the Christian faith.

The Trinity is a very difficult concept to grasp for most people, so I don’t think I would go so far as those who would judge that this person has no saving knowledge or no relationship with the Lord. Maybe if the person is thinking through issues at this level, he still has a significant connection with the Lord. I’m sure God isn’t finished teaching this person yet, and apparently He’s using you to plant some more seeds of truth in his heart. As Donald Miller says in Blue Like Jazz, “At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay.”

God is our loving Father and He will always act accordingly – no matter whether WE choose to live in that reality or not. If we choose otherwise, of course we forfeit His blessings and may incur His discipline or suffer consequences, but it doesn’t make the fact that He is our loving Father any less true. Consider the prodigal son (who was raised in his father’s house right alongside his faithful older brother). We know the end of that parable – but we don’t know the end of your friend’s story yet. As a firstborn myself, it sure is tempting to say he should know better because of his upbringing and education. Maybe only his mind has been educated – God is trying to penetrate his heart. Brennan Manning says, “You will trust God only as much as you love him. And you will love him not because you have studied him – you will love him because you have touched him.” (in Lion & Lamb)

Charles Sebold said...

In response to this:

As Donald Miller says in Blue Like Jazz, “At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay.”

...I would say that we are not justified by our theology, but we are justified by grace through faith. However, the person of Jesus Christ, or the nature of God in general, is revealed to us in Scripture, and if we reject that, then we are trusting a god who is not the God of Scripture for our salvation. We must put our faith in the God of the Bible; it's OK for somebody to not know everything about the Lord, but it's not OK for somebody to reject a revealed truth about Him that, if not believed, will change Him into somebody else. The Christ of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, for example, is not God, and if He is not God then He is not the Christ of the Bible, and putting our faith in Him for salvation will leave us without hope. The Christ of Oneness Pentecostalism is the same as God the Father and Spirit in their theology, but that is not the Christ of the Bible, and while a simple faith in a simplistic view of God may be enough to begin with, somebody who does not approach Christ closely enough to recognize that He and the Father are not indistinguishable is not approaching the Christ of the Bible at all.

In short, your math might be wrong, but you'd better be doing math and not just writing numbers down without engaging them at all. The Gospel is both a series of propositional truths and a Person, and we cannot believe the truths for salvation without knowing the Person, and we cannot know the Person without engaging the propositional truths. Otherwise He is some sort of Platonic ideal, and less than human rather than More.

Steve Sensenig said...

I don't know if anyone is still following this thread, but I was very surprised to see this posted, Matt. While you used anonymity to try to protect me (I guess), I had no idea that you posted it, and I could have (and would have) participated in the discussion as it was taking place.

As it is, you have somewhat misrepresented my comments and my questions. You wrote: Where he sees a problem is the Spirit as one of the co-existent members of the Godhead.

I have repeatedly tried to make it clear to you that it is not the "co-existent" aspect I have a question about. I'm sorry you chose to represent it that way.

My question was with the precise definition of three Persons, given the mention in Revelation of seven spirits, as well as the "co-eternal" (very different from co-existent) word, given the lack of description of the Holy Spirit as distinct from the Father and Son in Revelation.

I also expressed some curiosity at the fact that, if this doctrine is so extremely essential (and apparently obvious to those who have agreed with you here), why it is not clearly spelled out in Scripture. Paul frequently greets his readers by invoking the Father and the Son, but not the Spirit. Why is this?

It seems that even legitimate questions such as this are incapable of being asked without it filtering through the whole "Why would you question an essential doctrine that is so clearly revealed in Scripture that to question it is to shed doubt on your ability to even know God and have a relationship with Him" grid. Saying that I might not even be able to have a relationship with God over these questions is not only a straw man, but borderline ad hominem.

Again, I just wish you would have given me the courtesy of a heads up that you were putting this on your blog so I could have participated in the discussion and cleared up some of the misrepresentations given here.

steve :)

Gummby said...

Steve, I hope you'll accept my apologies. There was no discourtesy intended, I assure you. The point of this post was to lay the groundwork for some other assertions about why right belief was important. It wasn't to put you out as a big theological piƱata (or straw man).

In fact, I debated whether to post this to the blog for open discussion by you as well, but I felt that once it was out, there might not be the opportunity any longer of talking on a personal level. I thought that it would be best to wait until we had made some progress in our private discussion. The few readers I have are solid Trinitarians, so I also didn't want you to feel dogpiled. However, if you desire, I will post any or all of our exchanges on the blog. Please let me know how you'd like to proceed on that.

In general, as far as misconceptions & misrepresenting your position, I'm certainly aware that I may not have a clear handle on your position. That is why I asked you via e-mail to clarify what your position is; so far, I have a pretty good idea what you're against, but I'm still not sure I know what you really assert about the godhead.

Regarding the co-existent/co-eternal aspect, I'm sorry you thought I misrepresented you. It's hard for me to square the idea that "the Holy Spirit was with God in the beginning, but isn't there in the end" (which was the option you said held some possibility, with a little tweaking) with either co-eternality or co-existentence. We haven't quite gone down that road yet, but I think one necessitates the other.

At the end of the day, I've gotten mixed feedback on this initial foray, and some who are close to me would asset that anyone who fits in the class of "willfully rejecting clear Biblical teaching" might be merely in error, not unsaved. I'm taking it under advisement.

With regard to how you've been treated, let me say unequivocally that I have been operating under the assumption that you are a brother, and I plan to continue to treat you as such, though I think you have confusion and some error in your thinking on this issue.

As I mentioned before, although I made a conscious decision at the outset not to have us going back-and-forth on my blog, I'm perfectly willing to post what we've said already, or just start fresh from here. If you have a preference, let me know.

Steve Sensenig said...

Matt, thank you for your explanation. I would actually prefer to continue the private dialogue, because I feel that can be more productive at this point. I just want to be aware of when you do post publicly about it so that I can help clarify anything that comes up in that forum as well.

I appreciate your apology, and I didn't mean to indicate that I thought you intentionally were disrespectful in posting this. It just made me sad to see people discussing things "about" me, without really having a clear understanding of what the question is.

I assure you, Matt, based on all the assurances that the Scripture gives me (i.e., the writings of John -- "so that you may know") that I am your brother! I'm not really confused about anything Scriptural. I'm more confused about the way in which things have been defined as "orthodox", etc. My questions are not at all about "what does the Bible clearly teach", because the reality is, things are often labelled as "clearly taught" when they are not "clearly taught" at all.

There is a lot that Scripture reveals about God. There is a lot we can know about the Father. There is a lot we can know about the Son (Who, according to His own testimony recorded in Scripture, reveals the Father..."If you have seen me, you have seen the Father"), and there is....well, you see, that's where the problem comes in. Scripture is not nearly as "clear" on details about the Spirit. We have some teaching here and there, but it's not as clear. There is much more focus on the Father and the Son.

Even the Council of Nicea spent much time discussing the Father and the Son (or, to be more accurate, they were discussing God and Jesus, ultimately concluding that Jesus is God) and relegated the Holy Spirit to almost an afterthought. "Oh, by the way, we believe in the Holy Spirit, too"! ;)

So, it is precisely this attempt to further define the Holy Spirit that stretches beyond what the Bible "clearly teaches". Not to say that it is wrong, but I wonder if we're going too far with it.

At any rate, I said I wanted to keep it private, and here I am discussing it on your blog!! :) I'll email you in a bit, and we can continue.

Be blessed today, my brother. I really do appreciate you taking the time to talk through this with me!

steve :)