In his very readable book Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport (2004) Fuller Seminary president Richard M0uw describes limited atonement as his “shelf doctrine.” In other words, it’s a doctrine he believes in but doesn’t quite know what to do with. Occasionally he takes it down, dusts it off and thinks about it. He believes in it, but not enthusiastically. Well, that’s how I interpret what he says.
I won’t put words in Mouw’s mouth, but I think in most cases (whether in his or not) believers have at least one doctrine they are supposed to believe in because of their denominational affiliation or tradition but about which they have serious mental reservations or are simply embarrassed by them.
I know many Baptists who have serious doubts about unconditional eternal security but would never deny it because to do so would endanger their comfortable position in Baptist life. I don’t mean they are being cynical about it. They really do just sort of cross their fingers behind their backs and whistle to themselves and convince themselves it’s not important enough to make an issue of denying it. They may even “sort of” believe it, but only to avoid being the center of a controversy.
I know many Pentecostals who “sort of” believe in speaking in tongues as the “initial, physical evidence” of the Baptist of the Holy Spirit, but only reluctantly. They are conflicted about it and maybe even have very serious mental reservations about it, but they keep on affirming it just to stay comfortably in their denomination or tradition.
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.
I know people who belong to Reformed denominations that have strong doctrinal statements about predestination who don’t really believe “all that stuff” but continue to work within their denomination because in some vague sense they still “feel Reformed” and don’t want to go elsewhere. Where else would they go? Leaving would be a major crisis–even within their families.
I know what that can be like. I left my Pentecostal denomination and Pentecostalism itself even though many of my relatives are there. It was like divorcing my family–at least for a while. (Eventually they forgave me, but things were never quite the same.) I certainly understand people who can’t bring themselves to quit just because they don’t agree with what their denomination has on paper. They have a ministry there; their families are there; their livelihoods are there; their hearts are there. Only their minds aren’t completely there and they can live with that by repressing cognitive dissonance and any feelings of dishonesty that may arise from time to time.
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).
I don’t judge a whole denomination and everyone in it by every tenet the group ever wrote down as official belief. My question is how much weight a doctrinal tenet really carries among the faithful and especially among the leaders? And how is that being interpreted today?
For example, I have gone out of my way to find a pastor or theologian of a Wesleyan denomination who will come to my class and strongly affirm and defend the doctrine of instantaneous entire sanctification–the “second blessing” in traditional Holiness doctrine. I haven’t found many. Most seem embarrassed by it and “interpret” it so that it is really little different, if at all, from what Baptists believe about “consecration” and “living a devout life.” Should they leave their denominations? Especially not in view of the fact that probably MOST of the leaders and pastors have come to interpet it their way. But what’s down on paper looks quite different from that.
So the Seventh-day Adventist church has believed (and still has on paper) some to me rather strange tenets about Ellen G. White and about the end times and about law-keeping. What I heard in Michigan was a very relaxed, flexible interpretation of those things and a very strong affirmation of belief in Protestant orthodoxy. What am I going to take seriously? I prefer to think that perhaps, like virtually every other denomination of any age, the SDA denomination is evolving which includes some gentle re-interpreting of some doctrines that may be on paper but cause them some discomfort. What’s on paper usually changes more slowly than what’s in people’s minds and hearts.
I prefer to practice a hermeneutic of charity rather than of suspicion especially with those who are considered outsiders. That doesn’t mean being gullible. I definitely do NOT agree with some traditional tenets of the SDA church. Nevertheless, I choose to be encouraged and optimistic about the future of evangelical faith within the SDA church. I will celebrate movement in the right direction rather than rely on tired, old arguments from anti-cult sources.
Besides, way back in the 1950s the venerable Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, radio preacher, Bible commentary author and publisher of Eternity magazine announced publicly, after much research, that the SDA church is not a cult (in the sense the word meant back then). In other words, he declared it a Christian denomination while continuing to disagree with some of its teachings. Walter Martin agreed. So let’s bury the hatchet and give all the encouragement we can to those evangelicals within the SDA church who are nudging it in the right direction even while holding onto certain “shelf doctrines” that evangelicals find strange or even aberrant.