Core Doctrines Between the Lines and on the Margins?

Core Doctrines Between the Lines and on the Margins? May 28, 2013

Has anyone else ever noticed that conservative Christians of various sorts tend to emphasize things which are either not actually spelled out in the Bible, or which are mentioned in passing or by lone authors and so arguably less than central to the faith and practice of early Christians?

As a New Testament scholar, I am aware that sometimes what is articulated in writings may not represent core beliefs. This is particularly true in letters, which tend to assume a foundation of common assumptions and build thereon. And as a progressive Christian, I do not actually have a problem with Christians adopting a different viewpoint than Biblical authors did – indeed, I think it is necessary!

But if you are going to say that it is important to be “Biblical,” and claim that what you emphasize is what the Bible emphasizes, then you can expect that claim to be scrutinized. And I find it wanting.

One obvious example is the idea that the Earth is young, less than 10,000 years old. Where does that come from? From a non-literal reading of the creation stories by the early church (taking the six days of creation, and a day being like a thousand years in the eyes of the Lord, and putting the two together) and perhaps even more so from adding up the Bible’s genealogies. Why does anyone find it plausible that the church is supposed to come to a core emphasis by adding up genealogies?

We could also consider the doctrine of the Trinity, about which some have claimed in the same conversation that it is an essential doctrine, and that it could not be stated explicitly by the first Christians and so had to be left implicit.

There are many other examples one could mention. For instance, the contemporary focus on homosexuality, which is mentioned in the Bible at most a handful of times, depending on how one understands the passages in question, but certainly not more frequently – despite same-sex relations being more common in ancient Greek society than today. Or the penal substitution view of atonement. Or the Rapture. And I could go on – feel free to continue the list and provide more examples in the comments.

I think it is about time that even those who claim to be conservative, Bible-believing Christians addressed this, never mind the rest of us. Shouldn’t a claim to be “Biblical” or “Bible-believing” be dismissed if what is believed and emphasized are things that are at best read between the lines on the Bible’s pages, or mentioned in passing or in a lone passage, while the things that are mentioned time and time again are neglected?


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  • Has anyone else ever noticed that conservative Christians of various sorts tend to emphasize things which are either not actually spelled out in the Bible, or which are mentioned in passing or by lone authors and so arguably less than central to the faith and practice of early Christians?

    Yes, I notice this. An obvious example is that the Ten Commandments don’t mention homosexuality, but they are very clear about adultery.

    I sometimes wonder whether there is anything Christian to be found in conservative Christianity. I see Jesus as opposing a conservative establishment, and conservative Christianity has become that establishment.

    • Jakeithus

      I think like most things truth is found in the middle, and the closer you get to the margins the less there is. In Christianity, this goes for both the conservative and liberal extremes. The extreme right replaces the love of God with legalism and judgement, while the extreme left denies ongoing interaction with the divine and God’s call to holiness.

      Jesus would have much to oppose in both modern progressive and conservative Christianity, although to speak primarily of Jesus opposing something seems wrong to me.

      • Toni

        He opposed the Pharisees for their legalism and judgement. Why would you not assume he would take the same stance against conservatives who follow the same formula as the Pharisees?

        • Jakeithus

          I’m sorry if I was unclear in my post, but I totally agree that Jesus would oppose modern religious figures for their legalism and judgmental attitudes.

          My last sentence was just my own issue with viewing the gospel through the lens of “What Would Jesus Oppose?” instead of what he supports.

  • any doctrinal statement that requires more than a single “proof text”, especially if those “proof texts” must be cobbled together from multiple writings and multiple authors, should be suspect. an example of this is the doctrine that the Bible is the complete, inerrant, infallible Word of God.

    Edited for clarity

    • Jeff

      I’m sorry…what is the basis for your logic in saying that multiple texts are less valid evidence of a doctrine’s strength than a single text?

      • I believe he is talking about those instances in which one has to “add up” two or more separate scriptures in order to come up with a doctrinal statement. Neither scripture would, alone, support the statement.

  • Rick

    I don’t know how many conservative Christians consider the age of the earth or homosexuality as “core”? However, I think they are in fact emphasized right now, mainly because their are challenges to those who interpret those in a certain way (age of the earth/evolution; homosexuality/taking a sin and making it ok). Keep in mind though, many conservative Christians hold to an old earth.

    In regards to the Trinity, Scripture is rich with the concept, and many do see it as explicit, without using the actual word “Trinity”.

    • Pseudonym

      The Trinity is an interesting one. The doctrine is never spelled out, and parts of it are far from explicit (exercise for the reader: show that the Holy Spirit is God). However, the historical record is clear that the nature of God was a core concern of the early church. Actually, it was arguably the core concern at one point!

      James’ argument in The Only True God notwithstanding, I think that something very much like the Trinity was necessary and inevitable. There was no other way to believe that Jesus was God, and still remain a monotheistic religion.

      Many of the details in the Trinity doctrine of course developed as a response to specific heresies about the nature of God. It does make me wonder if we need new creeds to respond to new heresies like the new-style subordinationism which is popular in some evangelical circles.

  • Fran Board

    Excellent article. Not enough attention has been paid to the meaning of “Biblically based”

  • I would very much like to hear more regarding your views on the Trinity.

    • That’s pretty easy, since I don’t have too many views! 🙂

      But seriously, I’ve said a bit in my book The Only True God, and essentially I do not think that later Trinitarian formulations are either a necessary or a straightforward development from the New Testament data – they are an attempt to answer later questions in conversation with that data and other considerations. For the most part, Trinitarian doctrinal statements tend to make assertions about the divine that I do not think human beings have any way of knowing. But treated (as I think any language about God ought to be) as symbolic, I find there are things that I can truly appreciate in some Trinitarian theology.

      • Thank you! I will buy your book. What other writers would you recommend who have views of the Trinity similar to yours?

        • Have you read any of James Dunn’s books on Christology?

          If anyone wants to see Trinitarian theology at its most interesting and creative, I would recommend Dumitru Staniloae, who was a big influence on Juergen Moltmann.

  • Jeff

    As a conservative Christian I can somewhat agree with this on issues such as the age of the Earth or the Rapture, but find the inclusion of substitutionary atonement on this list problematic. The substitionary view is well supported both in the New and Old Testaments. It might not be an exclusive way of viewing atonement but it certainly is a common motif from the sacrifice of Isaac, through the Levitical statements regarding the shedding of blood being necessary for forgiveness of sin because the life is in the blood which is echoed in Hebrews, to the statement that Jesus, who knew no sin became sin, to the ideas of justification as used by Paul in his letters. I think it is somewhat strange to see this substitionary idea being attacked as something particularly fringe.

    As for the homosexuality issue: that is merely a matter of whether homosexual behavior is deemed “sin” or not. I find the evidence to be stronger for it’s inclusion as one of many sexual sins the Bible warns against. The Romans 1 passage is the strongest of course, and despite the attempts to see the word “natural” as something other than implying the normativeness of heterosexuality or of trying to differentiate homosexual partnerships of today from the homosexuality of pagan religious practice I am confident that Occam’s Razor cuts the way of Paul opposing all homosexual practice. Therefore, my duty of loving people requires me to oppose the promotion of homosexual behavior. Furthermore, the conservative crowd isn’t so much of “focusing on homosexuality” as it is merely responding to a focus on it from a liberal crowd which is demanding acceptance of it.

    • Let me start with your last point first. Same-sex relations were normative in ancient Greek society, and yet Paul didn’t focus on them in the way that modern conservatives do. And so I find your point unpersuasive.

      On the first point, the Day of Atonement ritual, and the application of it to Jesus in Hebrews, focus on expiation, the use of blood to purify a location so that God can dwell in the midst of impure and sinful human beings. See Gordon Wenham’s commentary for a great treatment of this by an Evangelical commentator. The idea that Jesus died instead of others is the opposite of what Paul says in 2 Corinthians explicitly, and is implicit in his other references to dying with Christ: “one died for all, and therefore all died…”

      And so your comment does not persuade me that these are not good examples of the phenomenon my post was about.

      • Jeff


      • Jeff

        Sorry…the non-sequitur response is to Beau_quilter

      • Jeff

        I don’t know what it means to say “Paul didn’t focus on them the way that modern conservatives do”. Of course he didn’t…that would be impossible. In Paul’s day the Greco-Roman society was not attempting to codify homosexual relations as “marriage” for one. Secondly Paul did assert a notion of “natural” which I still find is most plausibly understood as “heterosexual” despite the various attempts at understanding it as something else. Thus my Occum’s Razor comment. If you’re asking me to believe that Paul was not referencing homosexuality in Romans 1 so as to label it an example of people twisting sexuality away from it’s original intent thereby incurring in themselves a natural penalty…then I have yet to hear a better argument. I have read the alternative viewpoints…I just find those alternate viewpoints unconvincing quite because they suffer from eisegetic tendencies.

        • Your comment was “non sequitur” and did not mention Occam’s Razor spelled correctly or otherwise.

          I fail to follow your argument. Paul made statements about types of sexual relations that he viewed in a particular way. You seem not to be familiar with the range of sexual relations that were considered appropriate either in ancient Judaism or in ancient Greco-Roman society. Without that context, anything that involves trying to situate the text in its ancient context is liable to be perceived as involving eisegesis. But that may be due to your lack of familiarity with the relevant ancient context that provides the framework of socio-cultural assumptions that are the appropriate ones for understanding the text as its author and earliest readers would have understood it. And so it is not surprising that many today think their reading of their own context into the text is mere exegesis while scholarly contextual readings are eisegesis. But the reality is otherwise.

          • Jeff

            The non-sequitur comment was not directed at you. It was directed at Beau_quilter…see below.

          • Jeff

            That’s a find sounding paragraph…it is however, not an actual argument. You are simply calling me ignorant of historical context. You are making an assumption that if we agreed on historical context that I would draw a different conclusion….your conclusion Supply the argument and we can discuss it. As I said before, I have read the arguments from scholars and I don’t find them convincing.

          • joe

            kudos, jeff! when someone snarks that you misspelled something and that your argument is invalid because you just don’t understand ancient culture (rather than giving some facts)…well, it shows the weakness of the argument. homosexual relations were ‘normative’ in greek culture–and paul indicated very clearly that they were not endorsed by God. but james stopped giving your arguments any credence when you used the word conservative to describe yourself. shame, james.

          • Umm, no, I responded by providing links to some of the places where I previously discussed this topic, to provide more information about what I think and what I had already said on the blog before. Did you miss that? I realize that Disqus doesn’t always show comments in an order that clearly indicates the interaction, but still…

          • Jeff

            My mention of Occam’s Razor is in my original post: 2nd paragraph.

          • Jeff

            Having said all that…my bigger disagreement is still with atonement more so than homosexuality.

          • Jeff

            I read the last three blogs on atonement but again I don’t think they put forth what I would consider a solid argument. The first suggests two problems. 1) viewing sin as mandatory debt is logically flawed. 2) viewing atonement as substitutionary is morally flawed because it is unjust and unloving. The second blog merely reiterates the moral injustice notion of the first. Your third blog interprets Christ’s crucifixion and accompanying atonement language in Galatians and Romans as experiential identification with an exiled Jewish community through mutual participation (Christ experiences the exile, believer’s experience death). While the third blog is the best in terms of actually putting forth an exegetical argument for interpreting given texts, it does not follow that a participation in atonement is contradictory to penal substitution. This really only leaves the argument of mandatory debt being flawed logic and substitution as immoral as your objections to the penal theory unless you want to do the due diligence of tackling every other text used to support the penal theory such as Isaiah 53 or Genesis 22.

            As to the moral argument itself…that substitution is “unfair”. The flaw I see in your assessment is of confusing first person substitution for third person substitution. That is…if God is the one doing the substituting He is not asking a third person to do it. Christ is not a third person figure…Christ is divinity. If God had asked a created being to be the substitute for another created being then God would be imposing an unfairness on someone else. But if God assumes the unfairness upon Himself how is it in any way immoral?

            To me that would be like saying that the soldier who dove on the grenade to save his fellows was being “unfair”. I see it just the opposite. Rather than seeing it as unfair I see it as God being extra responsible. God is not obligated to in any way alleviate the damned condition of the human experience but He is compelled by His love and his glorious nature to do so and the means by which God does it is self-sacrifice…not the sacrifice of a third party.

            As for the notion sin as mandating punishment. There is still an issue of integrity God has to deal with. How God deals with injustice is question of His consistency. I would suggest that God himself is on trial to a degree going back to the Garden of Eden story where God says “when you eat of it you will surely die” and the Serpent says “you will not surely die”. The Bible all the time is presenting God as never lying and of having an infallible word…that is, whatever he declares is inevitable to be. God’s character is at stake. The issue of “ransom” in the Bible occurs because God is accountable to his own word and in the case of the Mosaic Law to his own Law. So upon what basis can God be justified in forgiving the sins of one person but not forgiving the sins of another person? Of course the Bible defines this justification as faith in God’s word. For Abraham righteousness was credited to him for trusting in the promise of a son. For Israel the nation it was trust in God to keep his covenant through Moses. For the Christian it is faith in God’s promise that Christ’s blood atones for them.

            In the Genesis account of the fall in chapter 3 Adam and Eve’s covering of vegetation was inadequate. God himself covered them with some type of animal skin. In the flood story in Genesis 9 blood is set apart as sacred. In Genesis 22 God himself provides the Lamb. In Exodus blood covers the Israelites from the Death Angel. The primary idea is covering verses exposure. The same idea is repeated in the new testament. Judgment comes to all but some are covered and some are not and the covered are treated as sharing the same guilt or innocence as that with which they are covered. So I will wholeheartedly agree in the concept of “participatory atonement” but I don’t think that in any way diminishes the sense in which God is accountable to himself to exercise true justice, and I think that is why Paul says in Romans 5 that God sent Christ so as to be “just” and the one who “justifies”. What is the purpose of using the words “just” or “justify” if an obligation is not implicit?

          • At the core of penal substitution is the problem of treating divine statements as unconditional, and then arguing that God cannot lie, and creating a problem where none need exist. The statement that Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days was a lie if one approaches things in this way,

            And then your metaphor with the grenade seems ill-fitted, since penal substitution has God throw a grenade at us that we deserve and then throw himself upon it. But the whole thrust of the New Testament is that God is not the cause of our problem but the one who seeks to rescue us – not from himself, but from ourselves.

    • Does your duty if loving people also require you to support the institution of slavery or prevent women from speaking in the church?

  • Tim Bulkeley

    Thanks for this 🙂 I’ve been getting steamed up in a similar way recently, not least in my recent podcast: Atheists, Fundamentalists and the Bible We need to keep on about lousy use of Scripture, the abusers have had it their way too long!

  • arcseconds

    It strikes me that this may not bother a Roman Catholic (or an Anglican, for that matter), as they have always acknowledged tradition as a source of truth.

    Although of course they’d probably never claim it was ‘Biblical’ in the first place.

  • newenglandsun

    RE: The Trinity
    Absolutely correct on this one. I grew up as a Trinitarian but then I decided to investigate it a bit. The more I investigated it, the more I realized that it was never explicit. Sometimes it was just implicit and mostly it was vague. Of course, other views such as Arainism, Binitarianism, and Socinianism had the same exact level of vagueness and implicitness. When I realized this, I became an agnostic since I couldn’t really make a statement that one view was superior to another. Most of my family is conservative Christian and obviously believe things like Trinitarianism and anti-homosexuality trump pretty much everything. Fortunately, none of them is enforcing the dreadful YEC-ism on me.