The diversity of theology
My theological convictions are, needless to say, not identical to what is seen as orthodox—whatever that is—by many Christians. I don’t hold to the doctrine of inerrancy, to a historical Adam and Eve, or to the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement—these are many of the theological underpinnings that fundamentalists cling to. Yet, with thousands of Christian denominations it becomes almost impossible to identify exactly which group of theological doctrines constitutes orthodoxy; more than that, it becomes difficult to associate the “saved” with “whichever denomination holds to doctrines X,Y,Z.” Subsequently, the question immediately is posed regarding whether or not it is even really reasonable to infer that salvation is contingent upon right believing—again, whatever that means.
I maintain that such a position—that salvation depends on correct belief—goes against our deepest moral and rational intuitions. Perhaps an illustration can help illuminate. Take two individuals, call them Christian A and Christian B. Christian A holds to theological doctrines a through h, while Christian B holds to doctrines a through g. Let it be the case that both Christians are equally devoted and sincere regarding their faith in, and love of, God. Now let it also be the case that doctrines a through h happen to constitute the only group of beliefs that make up an orthodox theology. Therefore, it is obvious that Christian B lacks only one valid theological belief, namely, belief in doctrine h.
Now, is it reasonable to conclude that since Christian B lacks belief in one doctrine, he is any less “saved” than Christian A? Is it this singular doctrine that opens a chasm between the saved and the condemned? Surely such an inference seems to border absurdity. Is someone less of a Christian simply because he happens to lack belief in, for instance, the validity of prayer to the saints? I would think not.
Yet, one might ask, what if the doctrine that one rejects is a “pivotal” doctrine such as the divinity of Jesus, or the Trinity? Surely these doctrines have much greater significance regarding whether or not one is a real Christian. However, I fail to see that this is the case. Again, remember that there are thousands of Christian denominations, and some regard the aforementioned doctrines as crucial and some do not. So, how are we to determine that these doctrines are in fact the ones needed for salvation?
I maintain that right belief—if we are even capable of such a thing—is of much less importance than our actions and disposition towards God Himself. The minister Leslie D. Weatherhead makes my point for me:
If Christ can—and he does—hold in utter loyalty the hearts of St. Francis and John Knox, of Calvin and St. Theresa, of General Booth and Pope John, of Billy Graham and Albert Schweitzer, who hold irreconcilably different beliefs about him, how can belief and uniformity of belief be vitally important?
Another illustration that drives this point home for me is my own father. Growing up I held a specific set of beliefs regarding the nature of my father. I now know that much of what I knew about my father only constituted a small portion of his essence. There were many aspects of my father’s life and character—both good and bad—that I simply had no idea existed. Moreover, there were even beliefs that I harbored regarding my dad that were completely off the mark. But, did I love my dad? Yes, with all my heart. Did he love me? Yes, with all of his. Did we exhibit the epitome of a loving relationship? Yes, I believe we did. Then exactly how important were my beliefs about my dad compared to my love for my dad? Surely, there is no comparison.
Now don’t get me wrong. Of course some degree of correct belief was required for me to have the relationship with my dad that I had. I had to, at the very least, believe that he existed; I had to believe he was my father; I had to believe that he loved me etc. But, most of the beliefs about my dad that did not fit in these aforementioned beliefs were merely peripheral.
For the Bible tells me so
However, the thought strikes me that perhaps the above speculations and appeal to rational intuitions will not satisfy the fundamentalist evangelical. So, it is always helpful to bring out their holy grail of certainty, i.e. the Bible, to drive a point home.
Let us begin with a well-known Old Testament character: Abraham. Abraham is a classic biblical example of someone who believed in and obeyed God no matter the seeming impossibility or illogical nature of His commands. In Genesis, during a conversation between God and Abraham, it states, “And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). That is, Abraham was considered righteous and upright by God due to his deep belief. Moreover, we read from Paul continually in Romans 4 how Abraham was made righteous and justified by his unwavering faith in God.
But, if we think deeply about this story we realize something profound: Abraham, no doubt, did not have right belief—if by right belief we mean belief in orthodox doctrines. Abraham had no knowledge of Jesus, the Trinity, the atonement, the Eucharist etc. His whole foundation of belief was simply grounded in the hope and love of the Father. Being a man devoted to serving and following God, he was justified by his faith. Yet, to reiterate, his faith was not grounded in orthodox belief.
Let us jump ahead to the New Testament, and take a look at different aspects of the gospels.
First, let it be articulated that Jesus did not require correct theological belief to be a prerequisite for discipleship. Notice that Jesus didn’t quiz Peter or John or Andrew on theology before he called them to follow him. Neither did he, when preaching the Kingdom of God or healing the sick, ever make many allusions (if any) to orthodox theology. Moreover, how could he have even done such a thing when his followers and disciples were Galilean Jews?
Second, let us take of glimpse of the so-called parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). This is a parable regarding the judging of the nations. In the parable the son of man separates the sheep, to his right, from the goats, to his left. The sheep symbolize the righteous and the goats symbolize the unrighteous. Yet, the reason for the division—that is, what determines one’s status as a sheep or a goat—is based on one’s actions towards bringing about the Kingdom of God—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked etc. Now notice that what condemns and saves an individual has nothing whatsoever to do with right belief! In fact, those that are saved claim that when they committed their actions, that furthered the Kingdom of God, they had no idea that they were doing such things on Jesus’ behalf.
Third, it must be remembered that most of the doctrines that many Christians consider to be orthodox were not even promulgated as official doctrine until centuries after Christ lived. The doctrine of the incarnation wasn’t even properly expounded until 451 A.D. at the Council of Chalcedon. Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t settled until the end of the 4th century under the head of numerous church fathers. Therefore, it must go without saying that the early church lacked any belief in the aforementioned doctrines—as affirmed by the councils—and, thus, could not have based their evangelization on orthodox theology, since orthodox theology would not even obtain completion until hundreds of years later. Are we to claim that the early church, which was populated by probably the most holy and most devoted Christians, was not saved because they had not the right beliefs yet in place? Surely to affirm such a line of reasoning is ridiculous.
Mind the Beatles reference and let us conclude here. It seems obvious that one’s salvation is not crucially dependent on believing the right things. The converse of this is that surely maintaining heretical theological beliefs—though I doubt these can be determined—is not reason enough to condemn one. Unfortunately many churches fail to understand this; they are constantly stuck in the “us vs. them” mentality. Hundreds of churches feel that if one is not a part of their denomination, then one is not saved.
However, in light of the above argumentation it seems that such bickering is useless, invalid, and only hinders the umbrella of Christianity from carrying out what it needs to: bringing the Kingdom of God down to earth by demonstrating the love of God and Christ, and helping individuals to make their way back to the God they have forsaken. I maintain that such an endeavor is so much more crucial than making sure our beliefs fit neatly into the preconceived box we’ve made for them.