Those pesky "shelf doctrines"

Those pesky "shelf doctrines" October 20, 2010

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). 

So what’s my point?  Well, I’m not surprised if some, perhaps many, Seventh-day Adventists have qualms and mental reservations about some of the doctrines people posting here (and elsewhere) have dug up to “prove” the SDA church is a “cult.”  I wouldn’t be surprised if, in fact, many of the leaders have mental reservations about some of them–at least as they have been interpreted and practiced in the past.

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.

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  • Myron

    Amen! The Seventh Day Adventists I’ve known have all been theologically/biblically astute, fervent Christians. In fact, I had one as a student while I was an InterVarsity campus minister, and she was one of the most orthodox, evangelistic Christians I have ever had the pleasure to meet. In fact, the big distinctive I’ve seen in all the Adventists I’ve met is that they are very fervent for bringing the gospel to bear on the lives of unbelievers.
    Also, great post on “shelf doctrines”! Acknowledging our attitude towards these doctrines can be a great vehicle for deeper reflection on God, the Scriptures, theology and oneself. Eternal security was a shelf doctrine for me for a while, and I eventually moved over to conditional perseverance. This move would not have happened without the freedom to admit that I had a shelf doctrine to begin with (I’m sure others have had shifts the other way around with reference to this particular theological issue). I think the Holy Spirit periodically creates tremors in our nice, neat systems to force us to better distinguish between God’s non-negotiables and our kinda-sortas. I think the Spirit also works through these tremors to make sure that our theological and denominational systems don’t squelch His voice and work.

  • Hans Deventer

    Well, as a Wesleyan, I believe in the validity of infant baptism. Perhaps the doctrine that immersion is necessary for salvation is also on a shelf? 😉

    • I’m not sure who believes immersion is necessary for salvation. Certainly not I! I consider paedobaptists evangelicals (if they fit the five hallmarks I outlined earlier) so long as they do not believe infant baptism is saving such that the person baptized needs no further conversion experience involving a personal decision for Christ.

      • Hans Deventer

        Thank you for your reply. It my be a Dutch thing, Dr. Olsen. I hear it here way too often.
        But for the record, I definitely don’t believe baptism is saving, at whatever age.

  • JPC

    Dr Olson, do you believe that Paul should have “buried the hatchet” with the Judaizers that he called “accursed” in Galatians 1 and strongly opposed in Acts 15? Do you believe that the Apostle John should have “given all the encouragement he could” to the Gnostics in his time who he called “anti-Christs” for denying that Jesus came in the flesh? Do you believe that Jesus was wrong when he called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers”, “hypocrites” and “whitewashed tombs” and should have instead tried to get along with them? It seems that you are trying to give Seventh Day Adventism “evangelical” status when they have been rightly considered a cult from the times of Ellen White in the 1800’s. If everyone was wrong about Seventh Day Adventism, why did it take Walter Martin and Donald Grey Barnhouse “much research” in order to determine that the SDA church is not a cult? The fact is that what makes Seventh Day Adventism a “cult” is the fact that they have an “official” website and teachings on there that they have not recanted, specifically regarding the Sabbath and Ellen White. You cant claim to be a Seventh Day Adventists and disagree with “official” Seventh Day Adventist teaching. You agree with Walter Martin that Seventh Day Adventism is not a cult but he still considered Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and about 10 other groups as cults. Do you agree with that as well? If you do, then could I not use the same tactic and find Mormons who might not agree with all their “official” teachings and clamor for them to be considered “evangelical”. Would you oppose that?

    • Go ahead. You have my permission. After all, I am the pontiff of evangelicalism. 🙂

    • John I.

      Those are not the same type of issues at all. Except, perhaps, for fundamentalists (in the sense that fundamentalists believe in primary, and sometimes secondary, separation).

  • Dr. Olson – I was surprised at the amount of grief that people lumped upon you for emphasizing good things going on in the SDA church. I noticed that Dr. Barry Callen spoke at that conference as well. He, too, is a great example of a Christian man who is willing to listen to and participate in theological discussions with an open heart tempered thru the lens of Scripture.

    • Barry is a good friend and brother. May his tribe increase!

  • Absolutely. Inherent to the Gospel is the desire to welcome people in, not send them away. We all have ideas and beliefs that may seem odd to some (even to ourselves). With that in mind, we all have to provide one another with some ‘wiggle’ room, so to speak, for growth and development. None of us have arrived yet (some people may think they have), and we all see through a dark glass, so let’s help each other along the journey, and by God’s grace, find a way through.

  • I don’t think I’ve heard the term “shelf doctrine’ before, but it has occurred to me that social support is an important aspect of church life. It is vital for us to have those social connections and places to turn to when we hit those hard patches in life. Most church members, I think, have an unspoken contract – “I will agree on a certain range of ‘beliefs and practices’ in return for the social support that I need to live a healthy life.” For some, the beliefs and practices may become too high a price if they are incongruent with their own knowledge and world view – they may seek another avenue of social support. Many others can shelve certain doctrines, live with the mystery, and continue in the faith community that has nourished them in so many ways.

  • Vance

    The SDAs are evolving, as you suggest. In their midst are the old hardliners (they hold to the old “investigative judgment” doctrine, the traditional “spirit of prophecy” teaching, and EGW’s special role as prophetess, and they think modern SDAs, for the most part, are apostates), the middle-of-the-roaders (who think EGW was ahead of her time and had some great ideas, but also believe more reforms in the Evangelical direction are needed), and the liberals (who remain in the SDA Church because they believe they will succeed in transforming it into a full-fledged, Sunday-keeping Evangelical denomination). All these subgroups believe there are true Christians within the Evangelical churches, though the hardliners see themselves as the true “remnant” church and believe God is calling other Christians to “come out of Babylon” and be a part of the remnant.

    • Vance

      Note: By “liberal” I mean liberal by comparison to the old-school Adventists, not necessarily liberal by Evangelical standards.

  • Glen

    Dr. Olson, I resonate with what you said here. Specifically with this quote…
    – – – – –
    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.”
    – – – – –
    I’m a minister of a Wesleyan church, but I struggle with the whole “second work of grace” doctrine my denomination holds. Can one be an Arminian and not believe in “second-blessing holiness”? Do you have an recommendations as to where I could look deeper into this issue? I would love to hear your thoughts about the differences, and why you believe what you do.

    • I have met many Wesleyans who are in the same dilemma. Also, I know many Assemblies of God ministers and members who question the doctrine of speaking in tongues as the “initial, physical evidence” of the Baptist of the Holy Spirit. Yes, you can be an Arminian without embracing entire sanctification. General Baptists (as contrasted with Particular Baptists) were and are those Baptists who are Arminian but not Wesleyan. I happent to believe that Romans 7 is Paul’s description of the normal Christian life–his own throughout his post-conversion life as a Christian and an apostle. And I find Wesley’s own doctrine of entire sanctification ambiguous (as set forth in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection). HOWEVER, so long as that doctrine held so dearly by historical “Holiness” churches is not made a test of fellowship (e.g., cooperation with other evangelicals) I don’t object and even think it good that they retain that distinctive. It’s a reminder to the rest of us that holiness is an important part of Christian experience.