Make or Break Issues for the Church

I like “make or break” discussions because they reveal what is considered to be deep and enduring. So I liked to see that C. Michael Patton set out eight issues that are not make or break issues. I have clipped the discussion so you can go to the site to read the whole discussion.

Here is a list of what I believe to be eight issues that do not make or break our faith:

1. Young Earth Creationism
… The problem comes when those who hold to this view teach that to deny a literal six-day creation is to deny the Gospel (or close to it). There is simply no sustainable reason to believe that one’s interpretation about the early chapters of Genesis determines his or her status before God.

2. The authorship of the Pastoral Epistles

3. The inerrancy of Scripture
Christianity is based on the historicity of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, not whether or not its chroniclers messed up on a detail or two. All biographers and writers of history err, but this does not mean that we discount their value or discredit their entire testimony. The classic illustration of this is the sinking of the Titanic. When we look to the historical records, we find that the eyewitnesses who survived that night were divided as to how the Titanic went down. Half said it broke in two and went down, while the other half said it went down intact. Someone is wrong. However, no historian would say that the Titanic must not have gone down at all simply because there is a discrepancy in the details.

4. Whether the flood covered entire earth

5. The character witness of Christians
I have spoken about this before, but it is important to realize that Christianity is not dependent on the character witness of its followers….

6. The inspiration of Scripture
This is connected to inerrancy, but takes it a step further just for the sake of getting me in hotter water! My statement is this: the Bible does not have to be inspired for Christianity to be true. Before you jump all over me, think of it this way: Did God have to give us the Bible in order to be God? Of course not. If he never gave us any written testimony of himself, he would still be God. There was nothing that obligated God to this form of revelation (or any form at all!). Christ could have come and lived a perfect life, gained representation, died on the cross, rose from the grave, and never had it recorded in the Scriptures. How would we know about the Gospel? I don’t know. Maybe angels, maybe word of mouth, maybe direct revelation, or maybe not at all. The point is that God did not have to inspire any books in order for him to be who he is and do what he did. The Bible does not make Christianity true; the Bible simply records true Christianity through inspired words and thoughts.

7. The unity of Christianity

8. The theory of evolution
Unfortunately, many Christians believe that the theory of evolution is somehow an anti-Christian theory invented by Satan to destroy Christianity. Many believe that if evolution is true, Christianity is not. This is not true….

I hope you understand the spirit of this post. In the end, my argument is that our focus should be on the person and work of Christ. In essence, if the resurrection of Christ happened, Christianity is true. If it did not, Christianity is not true. This is why I call myself a “resurrection apologist.” When I am defending my faith to myself and others, ninety-nine percent of the time, this is where I camp. It is not that these other issues are not important or worthy of debate and discussion. It is not as if these other issues don’t have implications. However, none of them make or break our faith. Therefore, we should adjust our thinking and our witness accordingly.

I am comforted to know that I am not really saying something too original here. Paul seems to whistle the same tune.

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  • Robin

    I am curious Scot regarding how much error you think could exist in the New Testament without it becoming very problematic, and I promise this is not a gotcha question.

    On the one hand I guess as long as the Resurrection was true, every other word of scripture could be false and something of Christianity would still be preserved, but I start to get very confused as to how much “error” liberals and moderates are willing to concede.

    I guess it would be more helpful to understand what positive statements concerning accuracy you would be willing to embrace…something like “Scripture might not be inerrant, but we hold that every book in the canon is still inspired by God and authoritative in the life of the church” or can we just say “Jesus was resurrected, but it doesn’t matter if Galatians, Hebrews, and most of the OT was inspired by God, truthful, or accurate”

    Conserrvatives want to affirm inerrancy, but I am not sure what their counterparts are willing to lay down as a positive marker.

  • Larry Barber

    The claim of Biblical inerrancy does not make much sense to me. I don’t see how you can attach the quality of inerrancy to a text. A text just sits there until somebody picks it up and reads it. At that point the interpretation that that someone has of the text may or may not be inerrant, but probably isn’t. Unfortunately people constant confuse the text with their interpretation of the text, this is why disputes over inerrancy are just about always over who has the power to interpret, not about any quality that the Bible might have.

  • David Cooke

    I’m a little confused on #6 – The Inspiration of Scripture. “My statement is this: the Bible does not have to be inspired for Christianity to be true.” and then “The Bible does not make Christianity true; the Bible simply records true Christianity through inspired words and thoughts.”

    Well, is it inspired or not? He argues it doesn’t have to be and then he says it is and it is that inspired record that tells us what Christianity is all about. It doesn’t seem like you can have it both ways. Or maybe he has a definition of inspiration that I don’t know about (or get).

  • Jamie

    I’m interested in what you mean by character witness of Christians. Could you elaborate? On one hand I agree, on the other it’s going to be true disciples that god will you to bring about the kingdom.

    Also, is there a list of make or break issues?

  • Rick

    David #3-

    As Patton said in one of his comments at his Parchment and Pen site: Why does it have to be inspired to be true.

    Jamie #4-

    Here is Patton’s take on essentials:

  • TJJ

    A nice “stir the pot” post but otherwise not sure how its helpful. The “reasoning” of point numer Six (and I use the term reasoning here very loosely) is so circular and non-sensible that it causes me to no only dismiss the whole post but the author as a serious person as well. Sorry I could.not write anything more positive.

  • Scot McKnight

    Robin I posted Patton’s ideas for discussion. Tell him or respond to his reasoning. Patton is a cons evangelical and this post surprised me. The question he forces is thus: What is most central? He’s obviously pushing against it being Scripture. My order is:

    Theology-Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, Scripture.

  • Steven

    The only way we know the theology-christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology and every other issue is through the text. If the text is incorrect, then all those areas must be questioned as well. For this reason, inspiration and inerrancy becomes crucial!

  • Rick

    Steven #8-

    As Patton asked at Parchment and Pen: What did Christians do before they had the New Testament?

  • John W. Frye

    Steven #8, Having received the Scriptures from God through the church, we having an authenticating Reality–God–to guide us onto the Truth. This reality does not necessarily require a theory of inspiration or inerrancy. You have appeared to replace the Triune God with a book, howbeit, a sacred one.

  • Andrew

    Christianity survived its first few decades without any NT ‘Scriptures’ -40 years before the first canonical Gospel (although there were likely earlier Jesus sayings and stories writings composed earlier in the 50s and 60s) and 60 to 70 years before Paul’s letters became widely circulated outside their original audiences, and its first 300+ years without a clearly defined NT canon. Clearly writings of Jesus’s words and deeds, along with early Christian texts, are integral to the religion’s expansion in ensuing centuries, but Christianity is not dependent on Scripture.

  • A trenchantly reasoned post that raises basic issues in a constructive way–especially #3, #6 and the conclusion.

    As Patton says, the Christian faith is faith in a real, historical person–Jesus of Nazareth. But for Jesus, what reason would we have for according special authority to “scriptural” writings? After all, Jesus and his Church came before any canon of “scripture,” and it was the Church’s judgment that was decided what books to include and what books to exclude (including the exclusion of several books that certain NT authors seem to have regarded as authoritative).

    Still, it would be nice to see Patton work out the implications of his reasoning a bit further. In particular, I’d like to see him enunciate a more thorough going theory of revelation. For example, he writes that “our focus should be on the person and work of Christ.” I agree. But what is the point of Jesus? My view of the Christian faith is that the point of Jesus is that he is God’s self-revelation to all men–Jesus, in history, is God’s revelation of who He is and, by the same token who we are (i.e., we gain a truer knowledge of our own identity by learning who God is and what our relation is to our creator).

    But, if Jesus is God’s self-revelation to all men, and if the “Jesus event” occurred at a specific point in history, in a specific person who was born into a specific nation, this suggests that this self-revelation of God in Jesus is the culmination of a process in history–because to be truly man Jesus was born not only into a nation but into history. Therefore, it follows that to come to a fuller understanding of God’s self-revelation in Jesus we should consider the specifics of that self-revelation: how it fits into the story of the human race, how it fits into what we can now of the human nature that God assumed in Jesus. I.e., a universalist perspective that is the background to “the person and work of Christ.”

    In my view, such a perspective would show that the historical development of the human spirit moved toward the understanding of man’s dependence in this universe and continued to the concept of God as creator, preparing for the self-revelation of God in Jesus as Trinity.

    After that piece of cake bit of analysis, we could move on to: what is church?

  • @ Jamie #4

    As Patton said in one of his comments at his Parchment and Pen site: Why does it have to be inspired to be true.

    Well said. After all, it’s not as if saying, The “Bible” is inspired/inerrant! ever ended any argument. The question always arises: But what does it actually mean? Responding that it’s inspired/inerrant settles nothing–we end up arguing based on evidence from linguistics, history, sociology, philosophy, etc.

  • To answer the question, Why does it have to be inspired to be true? I get the impression that some of the early Christian apologists who were engaged in debate with Jews simply decided–in response to Jewish claims to possess inspired/inerrant books–well, if Christ rose from the dead, then are books must be at LEAST as special as theirs. A bit of oneupmanship that doesn’t totally make sense. In fact, of course, Jewish claims for inspiration of “scripture” (as well as there own canon) came relatively late in BC Jewish history.

  • Tim

    I would take issue with (5). The character of Christian disciples is discussed in depth in the NT as a form of spiritual validation/fruit/evidence for the truth of the Gospel claims. If conversion to the Christian faith yields no meaningful difference in character, then this would be a big hit against the validity of the Christian faith. One would expect to see Christians, while imperfect, by and large growing in love, compassion, mercy, meekness, humility, charity, etc. And there ought be a real difference there in comparison to the rest of the “world” with all their various faiths and non-faith. One would certainly not expect to see Christians by and large growing in hostility, pride, uncharitable, uncompassionate, or unloving acts, etc.

  • I’ll leave it to others to decide whether these (Bible related) questions and answers, Honest Answers to 5 Pressing Questions, are or are not “make or break” issues. Certainly (4) appears to relate closely to some of Patton’s concerns re inspiration/inerrancy.

  • Ian Thomason

    I’m comfortable there are several valid reasons why we Christians shouldn’t get too bent around the axles over the issue of inerrancy, not the least being that it’s a little peculiar for a collective of positive people to be defining what we believe via a negative statement! Anyway, I much prefer to base my perspective on the matter on 2 Timothy 2.16, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed (i.e. ‘inspired’)’, and so forth. And, of course, the ‘so forth’ describes the actual purpose of Scripture in very practical terms!
    As for me, I believe the word ‘inspiration’ to be perfectly suited for the descriptive task, especially given that it doesn’t carry the modernist baggage of 19th century polemics. Scripture points us to God in Christ; it shouldn’t replace him in our estimation of what’s most important.

  • I took this to be an apologetic and, to a lesser extent, test of orthodoxy, rather than a doctrinal statement.

  • Grateful he did not put pretrib. rapture!

  • Tim Sexton

    Wow. This is an unbelievable post. It seems to me that Christianity is on the run. In the face of all the data from science and the reality of the disunified church, the Bible’s obvious errors, and the rise of of the “nones,” the tent is having to be made so large that almost anyone fits in. The only thing left is the resurrection (the historical reality of which is still debated), which points to…what? Jesus, of course…but we’re not sure what we have in the Bible about him (or any other topic) is historically accurate…so how does this help? If the Bible has major problems, what does that say about the competency of the God that Christians have historically attributed to His inspiration? It seems to boil down to whatever your subjective feeling is about Jesus…that’s all that matters. Not sure how Christianity survives or matters in a context like this post recommends.

  • Not sure how Christianity survives or matters in a context like this post recommends.

    Christ is risen! Not, a book says he’s risen! Christ comes first.

  • Nathan

    The loving unity of Christianity actually is a key to the missional credibility and power of the Church’s presence in the world.

    Jesus didn’t pray for us in John 15 (that chapter, right?) so that individuals and particular groups would reveal that Jesus was sent from the Father. He prayed that we (the ones who come after the apostles) would be one, like unto the unity of the Father and Son, so that people would know that the Father had sent the Son.

    This loving unity is, in some sense, a proclamation of the good news that God is for us, and has acted decisively in our sphere/time…

    I’m not saying we all need to go back to Rome…but I think #7, if able to be dismissed, is indicative of the typically thin ecclesiology of low-church/”free church” evangelicals.

  • Robin


    Maybe we can discuss it on another post, or maybe you could just shoot me an email because I am actually curious. i know that inerrancy is normally brought up here as being a divisive issue, but I am curious about what type of positive statement a biblical scholar like yourself would be willing to make regarding accuracy, or truthfulness, or any similar concept related to scripture. If you were setting up the statement of beliefs for the First Anglican Church of Scot McKnight how would that line in the statement read. I won’t take any more room discussing it on this post.

  • David Cooke

    #21 – mark
    But how do we know he is risen? How do we know there is a Jesus? Which Christ are you talking about? Marcus Borg’s? Tim Keller’s? Scot McKnight’s? Shirley MacLaine’s? Sources are always critical in a discussion about the veracity of witness and truth – ask any prosecutor or defense attorney. So, discussions and understandings on inspiration and inerrancy seem to be pretty critical.

    I can say Christ is risen because there is a testimony that is greater than the sentimentality of the old hymn – “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart!” I KNOW it from the witness of the scriptures. I EXPERIENCE through personal salvation. I am ATTESTED to it through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

    “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4, ESV)

  • Andrew

    Tim Sexton, I would argue Christianity has survived this long because of the inherent strengths of the core messages: renewal of self, strength through sacrifice/humility, Golden Rule, the power of grace/God’s acceptance of each individual etc. People have always had various ideas about Jesus but it’s hard to get away from those main themes above.
    Disunity? The ‘Church’ hasn’t been unified since the 16th century, and even from its earliest days you had wide variations of beliefs/practices; the Catholic faith from the middle ages until the Reformation certainly had a “big tent” if you know the history.
    The modern idea of “biblical inerrancy” is a relatively modern creation. Many of the Church Fathers read through much more metaphorical and allegorical lenses than your average southern baptist/conservative evangelical pastor.

  • Allen Browne

    #7 — The unity of Christianity — really seems out of place in this list. We could argue about many of the others, but this one seems to undercut the real thing.
    It seems crucially important to Jesus (John 17). It seems central to Paul: that we are IN the one person, that we ARE the body of the ONE.
    A gospel of the disparate Jesus seems to fall apart in what it fails to embody.

  • “But how do we know he is risen? How do we know there is a Jesus?”

    The same way the earliest Christians came to believe: from the testimony of the disciples. They certainly didn’t get the faith from books. That is why these issues inevitably lead to questions of ecclesiology.

    Now, of course for us, 2000 years later, to come to faith we must develop reasons for believing the “Apostolic Traditions.” Those reasons include the evaluation that the earliest Christian writings–gospels and letters, written several decades after the event–are by and large reasonable and believable. But that evaluation doesn’t rest only on their internal coherence; it also involves comparisons to other known historical factors, etc. Individual paths differ, but I doubt that any sane person ever picked up a Bible and, after reading it, exclaimed: Wow! I can tell this is inspired–I believe! No, we test the reliability of the scriptures or we rely on those who have performed those tests. That, in the first place, is the Church, which decided on the canon of scripture in the first place.

  • Marshall

    @ Robin #1:

    Here’s a stab: even if the gospel stories come to us from the same imaginative realm where Major Motion Pictures are conceived *, I am still called to take up my cross and follow. Let God be true, though all men are liars.

    * NB “even if” … this is NOT my personal assertion.

  • Rachel

    Okay – I’m not a theologian, but can I just ask a question about this term ‘inerrancy’? I don’t get it – it sounds Cartesian enlightenment to me. Half the Bible is poetry. Saying it’s ‘inerrant’ sounds like calling a donut ‘correct’ instead of ‘delicious’. “God-breathed” is perfect, because it means that the scriptures are good and useful to us.

  • Josh T.

    Rachel, that’s the issue I bring up, as well. “Inerrant” (or “errant” for that matter) is not a word that can be readily applied to a poem or a song. It is a clear misuse of the English language and ignores differences in genre, etc. within the Bible. I really like your donut analogy, by the way. And to take it even further, using the adjective properly, we can posit hypothetical examples of “inerrant” works (perhaps a Math textbook) that are obviously not “inspired” and have nothing to do with following Jesus.