In Weekly Meanderings last Saturday Scot linked to a couple of posts by Roger Olson on his blog. This led me to read those two posts, but also several others on his site. One of them is worth some serious thought and conversation. In a post entitled Those pesky “shelf doctrines” Dr. Olson contemplates the doctrines and beliefs we know we should hold, but don’t really understand, often don’t really believe, and find ways to nuance and interpret. He gives examples from Calvinism, Pentecostalism, Wesleyanism, and more. These doctrines can be limited atonement, double predestination, instantaneous entire sanctification, unconditional eternal security, speaking in tongues as the “initial, physical evidence” of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, premillennialism. I am sure we could come up with examples in Lutheranism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy as well. No denomination, no group, is immune. Yet we stick with our family and place those doctrines or concepts on the shelf.
In other words, many religious people grew up in a denomination or tradition and want to stay in it for whatever reason even though they don’t really believe all its doctrines enthusiastically. They may even be embarrassed by some of them even as they continue to affirm them.
Anyone who thinks this isn’t a common reality just hasn’t been around in denominations long enough or hasn’t been very observant.
Now some in the denominations or traditions no doubt do hold to each of the doctrines others may consider shelf doctrines, but Olson suggests that most of us have mental reservations about something, somewhere. And a little later:
In fact, I doubt that anyone agrees absolutely, completely and without any mental reservations everything their denomination has written down somewhere (that they are “supposed” to believe).
What are the shelf doctrines you dust off, know you are supposed to hold, but can’t?
The title to this post caught my eye because it applies to a number of different aspects of Christian faith. It certainly applies to the relationship between science and Christian faith. The doctrines relating to the Fall, Original Sin, and the nature of inspiration are seriously impacted by science, including the age of the earth, evolution, and common descent. For many Christians these become shelf doctrines, to be brushed off, examined, and placed back on the shelf.
It applies as well to the subject of the other post this morning – Jesus the Only Way. Exclusivism and hell as eternal conscious torment are both doctrines very difficult to comprehend. These doctrines, in turn, connect back to the doctrines of the Fall and Original sin.
This is an important topic for a few reasons. Most importantly, shelf doctrines can become doctrines that nag at the back of the mind. Issues that are difficult to discuss and reason through, but challenge faith. Christian scholars and thinkers cannot broach the subjects and explore the consequences without administrators or self-appointed watchdogs breathing down their neck, with a heresy detector, a controversy detector, or a lie detector. Even positions not deemed “heresy” may be viewed to violate denominational confessions or institutional statements of faith. Questioning the doctrine or position can break relationships and destroy family. There are very real intellectual and relational costs.
There is another factor at play here as well – one I think we would do well to consider. These issues on the shelf can impact ability and effectiveness in evangelism and life witness. If Christian scholars and thinkers are not discussing these issues publicly people in the church have nowhere to turn for guidance and insight. Now many may not care – or not care much – but some will and the impact can be devastating. How can we expect people to stand up for the gospel when they know that there are significant stands they are supposed to take, but can’t convince themselves much less the skeptic or critic that they are true?
This leads me to the final questions I would like to pose today and ask for pastoral insight and response.
Given the reality of shelf doctrines and nagging issues, what should the church do?
What can and should be addressed – and how?
Are there topics and doctrines that are better left on the shelf and unaddressed?
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