Core Doctrines Between the Lines and on the Margins?
May 28, 2013
by: James F. McGrath
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