A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Is Doctrinal Indifference Anti-Intellectual Idolatry?

Nicene Creed - The essential beliefs of Catholics
Special Note: If you are going to use this post to lump me in with those who want to use doctrine to bludgeon others don't even go there. Using doctrine in that manner makes doctrine itself an idolatry. The misuse of doctrine does not negate the necessity of doctrine.

In a book New Testament scholar Scot McKnight co-writes with Dennis Venema, entitled Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, Scot addresses the issue of deconversion from the Christian faith. His primary concern is "the number one reason Christians leave the faith and the number one reason non-Christians find the Christian faith untrustworthy is the issue of the Bible and science" (p. 171). When Christians pit the Bible against science the result is a type of anti-intellectualism at work that sadly has pushed too many people out of and/or away from the faith because they cannot reconcile what really is settled science overall with a particular and deeply flawed interpretation of the Bible, particularly the opening chapters of Genesis. Since some feel they have to choose between one or the other, they all too often choose science over an unteneble understanding of the biblical text.

There should be no mistaking that this deconversion has a serious intellectual component. Scot writes,
Each [deconvert], for a variety of reasons, encountered issues and ideas and experiences that simply shook the faith beyond stability. In essence, those who leave the faith discover a profound, deep-seated, and existentially unnerving intellectual incoherence to the Christian faith.
While Scot's concern is with how one reads the Bible in reference to genetic science, I want to take Scot's concern over the anti-intellectual approach some Christians take in reference to scientific inquiry and apply it to a different, albeit a similar kind of anti-intellectualism among another group of Christians-- the doctrinally indifferent.

United Methodist Bishop, Kenneth Carder writes in his book, Living Our Beliefs: The United Methodist Way,
A perception persists that "one can believe anything and be United Methodist." ...[S]uch a characterization has deep roots in our history, though it misrepresents a misreading of our tradition. As faithful Anglicans, Wesley and his colleagues presumed and affirmed the basic doctrines, beliefs, practices, and liturgies of the established church. The Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Homilies of the Anglican Church formed the foundation of Methodist beliefs. Wesley held tenaciously to the historic doctrines of the Christian faith and diligently proclaimed and taught them to the Methodists and the masses who heard him preach (pp. 24-25).
It amazes me that too many Christians who are so adamantly opposed to the anti-intellectualism of Christian "science deniers" are all too often the very same people who say, "It doesn't matter what we Christians believe as long as we love everyone." I'm all for love, of course. It's impossible to read the Bible and not see the singular importance of love; but when we dismiss the significance of the great doctrines of our faith in favor of a particular and usually sentimentally shallow understanding of love, we take an anti-intellectual stance in reference to the faith delivered to the saints. We are in effect saying, "Christianity can be intellectually incoherent, but you should believe it anyway and just join us in one great, big divine love-fest!" We treat doctrine as a fundamentally different kind of category of knowledge than we do science. I dare say that such a position is not very loving to the truth-seekers who need intellectual coherence when it comes to the Christian faith. Doctrinal indifference will lead to warm-fuzzy expressions of love devoid of moral rigor. Doctrinal indifference leads to fideism. Just as fundamentalists treat faith and reason as polar opposites, so do the doctrinally indifferent in reference to dogmatics.

Doctrinal indifference is a mischaracterization of what Wesley called the "catholic spirit." For Wesley, the catholic spirit meant that the church, in spite of its disagreements, was one Body of Christ, whether one was Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, et al. While Methodists have rightly encouraged diversity and intellectual exploration, such openness and freedom has "led some to assume that no doctrinal parameters exist" (Carder, p. 25). Wesley is often quoted that we Methodists "think and let think," but yet forget to refer to the entire sentence: "As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think."

Bishop Carder discusses several idolatries that can only be possible through doctrinal indifference. Carder rightly notes that belief in God is no virtue. It makes all the difference in the world what kind of God we believe in. "The great conflicts are between competing gods, not between atheism and religion" (p. 28). The Wesleyan revival was not doctrinal. Wesley affirmed the doctrine of the Church of England. What Wesley challenged was to failure to live in keeping with the church's foundational Christian doctrines.

First, success is an idolatry that is countered by sound doctrine. Right and wrong are determined by one's success. The Bible affirms a different God-- one who in the trinitarian life demonstrates mutual service and christologically rejects rooting "life in prestige, popularity, and political power" (30).

Second, consumerism leads to and is a result of doctrinal indifference. Carder notes, "Consumerism reduces God to a commodity to be used as a solution to personal problems or a means to selfish ends. Commodification reduces doctrines, language, rituals, symbols, and practices of religion to utilitarian functions.... Profound symbols become trinkets or adornments."

Third, hedonism, "the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life" (p. 33). Whereas success defines right and wrong by whether or not success is achieved, hedonism depends upon feeling to determine right and wrong. "If it feels good, do it." "God is reduced to a facilitator of good feelings, a celestial 'Dr. Phil,' a means of avoiding suffering and struggle, and a champion of personal happiness. The church becomes a religious spa, the effectiveness of which is judged by its ability to solve personal problems and create positive feelings" (p. 33).

Whereas hedonism connects happiness to good feelings, John Wesley connected happiness to holiness-- one whose heart was right toward God and humans. Happiness is "the by-product of our relationship with God, the participation in God's reign of justice, compassion, righteousness, and joy" (p. 34). Happiness requires holiness, and holiness requires sacrifice and self-denial.

There are other popular gods that rival the God of the Bible, and they can only have a foothold in the church because of doctrinal indifference. Carder doesn't go into detail, but lists them: nationalism, individualism, rationalism, racism, sexism, violence, institutional religion" (p. 34).

For Wesley, true religion included correct doctrine and faithful living and one could not really be had without the other. To emphasize one to the exclusion of the other was to distort both.

I quote Bishop Carder one more time: "Authentic religion for the Methodists means sharing the life of God whose love is poured out in Jesus Christ and whose Holy Spirit shapes us into the likeness of Christ and empowers us to be holy as God is holy. Religion, then, is a relationship with a particular God, the One we call Trinity" (pp. 35-36).

Yes, God is mystery. St. Augustine said that while we cannot comprehend God we can understand God... meaning that while God is first and foremost a mystery beyond ourselves, we can still understand the nature and character of God as God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ through the biblical witness. If God has so revealed himself, then there is no place for anti-intellectualism and doctrinal indifference in Christian faith and practice.

Deuteronomy 6:5 states, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." For the Hebrews the heart was not the seat of human emotion, but of the intellect. To insist that doctrine is important and makes a difference and that one cannot have the Christian faith without it, is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts... or as we would say... with all our minds.

It is not anti-intellectual to raise critical questions about the great doctrines of the Christian faith; it is anti-intellectual to say that ultimately it does not matter...

...and such indifference can be idolatrous.


Oloryn said...

Bludgeoning people with doctrine seems to me to violate the things that God's servant *must* do (2 Tim 2:24-25). You can't 'correct with gentleness' and bludgeon with doctrine at the same time. Doesn't mean you can't correct, but the attitude with which you do it matters.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Correction is necessary because accountability is essential to a healthy church. The problem is most churches don't have a healthy process of accountability. The reason for that is that we are mostly individual modernists who believe everyone should be able to do what is right in their own eyes.

Dan said...

I'd like to clarify your comment on Wesley upholding the doctrine of the Church of England. Get a copy of a Book of Common Prayer from before the 1970s and compare its Articles of Religion to those in the Book of Discipline. You will see that Wesley assiduously took out every article that referenced predestination, which was very much a part of the reformed theology of the Church of England.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for the clarification. Yes, Wesley did make those deletions, but he did not consider one's view of predestination an issue at the heart of Christianity, although he clearly did not like Calvin's understanding of the doctrine.

Doris said...

Allan, I agree with you concerning churches not having a healthy process of accountability. The modern church considers attendees as saints and not sinners. Inside the doors of the church, we also find sinners who "are" much more accountable to God than those who do not know or understand God, the three in one.Only through honest self evaluation can we move forward as a church of accountable attendees/members.

Chris Eyre said...

I would unhesitatingly add money to the list of idolatries...

Allan R. Bevere said...


Indeed. I assume that would be covered under consumerism. Perhaps greed is a better overall term.