Sunday, October 09, 2005

Doctrinal Politics

Of the many perceived problems in evangelicalism’s ongoing identity crisis is the shifting importance of doctrine as a boundary marker. Historically evangelicals have been identified around the loosely fitted pegs of 1) conversionism or new birth, 2) Biblical authority 3) missionary enterprise 4) the centrality of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross. Doctrinally these factors usually coalesce into Trinitarianism, the bodily resurrection of Christ, a high premium on biblical inerrancy and the primacy of faith over against moralistic efforts for salvation. Yet even within these more narrow parameters there has been much debate over how these sorts of criteria should be applied, or whether more stringent requirements are necessary in order to bestow the more coveted label of “conservative evangelical” (which, in such circles, is the same label as “Christian”).

But the fractured face of evangelicalism isn’t only owed to the battle over defining primary vs. secondary doctrines; it is just as often due to what one might call “doctrinal politics”. Doctrinal politics employs a kind of argumentation that tries to debunk a position by seeking to establish a chain of inference that eventually rests at a contradiction with some primary doctrine. The goal of this maneuver is emphatically not the pursuit of truth, though that is often the banner it waves. It is, rather, to eliminate competitive claims to truth without bothering with careful, self-critical, or dialectical reasoning. Philosophically, it’s to make the self objective over against Scripture. Ultimately, though it parades as faithfulness to the Scriptures, it is a political posturing designed to defend one’s position irregardless of the merits of competing views. This explains why it is so commonly employed against those who profess agreement with the generally accepted minimalist position above. It is in this way that those with competing positions, new proposals, or threatening syntheses can be disqualified from consideration without the risk of actually considering them with any seriousness. The cash value of such a scheme is that one gets to claim objectivity while practicing the worst kind of solipsism in the name of Biblical faithfulness.

Take, for example, a self-avowed evangelical who professes to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture while at the same time affirming a kind of genre criticism that characterizes Jonah or the first two chapters of Genesis as something other than historical reporting. For those who would seek to disqualify such a position from evangelical (and therefore “Christian”) fellowship, a case must be made that literal creationism is a logical entailment of inerrancy; a denial of the one must be construed as a denial of the other. Thus a platform for exclusion is formed regardless of the profession. Similarly, in the early years of fundamentalism, dispensationalists often charged covenantalists with a deficient view of biblical authority over their divergent ecclesiologies and eschatologies. In the same vein, Arminians of every stripe (including those who would affirm all but limited atonement) can easily be excluded from “evangelical” fellowship by drawing a chain of inference in their soteriology that violates salvation by faith alone, though this is a matter of strenuous profession for most Arminians. In each case the inferential mallet is often used for the purposes of exclusion in the name of primary doctrines. What’s more, in each case the evangelical professor can be successfully declared as “denying the Gospel” and eliminated from fellowship.

This same line of reasoning is used by those who advocate the literal blood of Christ as being necessary for atonement in order to exclude those who see this phrase as a metaphor for His death. On one hand, literally any doctrine or methodological practice in Biblical Studies, no matter how peripheral, can be shown to be contingent upon some universally recognized essential. On the other hand, any doctrine, no matter how bizarre or even unorthodox, can be shown to be necessary as long as it can be anchored in a doctrine that is generally considered to be essential. What is important to note in all of this is that all sides claim biblical authority or Scriptural precedent for their views; likewise all sides see themselves as “holding fast to the truth” in maintaining these essentials and their supposed “logical entailments”. This is often recognized without difficulty when one happens to be the object of this sort of political maneuver (as with John MacArthur’s controversies with various fundamentalist camps over Lordship salvation, blood atonement, eternal Sonship, and nouthetic counseling); unfortunately it doesn’t necessarily make one more discriminating in the use of such tactics.

Some have suggested a way forward in the realm of narrative theology and paleo-orthodoxy. The former sees doctrine less as an abstract system of propositions and more akin to the linguistic practices of the believing community. This isn’t to deny the propositional content that Christians affirm, especially in the minimalist assertions mentioned above – but it sees the boundary markers for Christian fellowship primarily in discipleship (the practices which grow out of inhabiting the world projected by the Bible’s overarching story). The latter seeks to ground boundary markers in classical Christian affirmations contained in the venerable creeds and collective wisdom of Church history. Remarkably, both of these trajectories are represented by scholars that affirm essential doctrines without apology. Unsurprisingly, they can also be easily excluded from thoughtful evangelical consideration by the doctrinal politics mentioned above.

Shamefully, those who employ these political tactics comfortably maintain a dichotomy between ecclesiology and soteriology that allows different standards for Christian fellowship than for salvation. In this way, one can supposedly “leave judgment to God” in regard to an individual’s eternal destiny, while having already pronounced judgment in the denial of believing communion. Perhaps even more appalling, the virtues of truth and love are either similarly compartmentalized (with the latter being reserved for those that agree sufficiently with the former) or “love” is construed entirely as defending bold, truthful propositions (if truth IS love, speaking the truth in love is poetic redundancy). What seemed like loosely fitted pegs in the beginning, therefore, may actually be a reflection of wise restraint. Whatever way forward evangelicals choose, it should be in a manner that eschews doctrinal politics in favor of a pursuit of truth that doesn’t simply “tow the party line”. In other words it should be a pursuit characterized by humble, rigorous, morally honest doctrinal discourse carried out under the rule of Spirit-filled love.


Anonymous said...

Just thought you might like to know, your profile page was referenced on a blog yesterday. You should see it:

TheBlueRaja said...

How flattering!

Chris Tilling said...

Very thought provoking. Thanks for that.
I also feel that the politics of theological discourse do tend to overwhelm many of us who are trying to engage with important questions. And my experience is that such politics are often based on one thing ... fear, fear of truth rather than love for it (1 Cor 13). However, for others it is perhaps less a matter of power-politics, and more about pastoral concern - the politics of loving protection, or something like that. Some things will simply not be discussed so that those weak in faith are not damaged, nor to detract from pure and unhindered devotion to the Lord, much like Paul argued in 1 Cor 7 with regards to the question of marriage and virgins. It is not that I condone this 'pastoral-politics', just an observation.
All the best,

marc said...

Sounds like your looking for a group of Bereans heavily saturated in John's Epistles...

Also, Does this mean you're in favor of the proposed ammendment at BBC to allow some paeodo-baptists into membership?

TheBlueRaja said...


I think your insights are spot-on -I may just follow up this post with some reflections on how these sorts of things affect pastors. Thanks so much for stopping by to comment!


I had no idea that the British Broadcasting Corporation was seriously considering that! In any case, I certainly believe that padeo-baptists (and padeo-communion advocates as well) can be saved, and thus deserving of Christian fellowship! Thanks for the honor of seeing my post in light of Johannine literature - it was certainly influenced by it!

Sled Dog said...

Thought provoking indeed. You saved the best for last:

"What seemed like loosely fitted pegs in the beginning, therefore, may actually be a reflection of wise restraint. Whatever way forward evangelicals choose, it should be in a manner that eschews doctrinal politics in favor of a pursuit of truth that doesn’t simply “tow the party line”. In other words it should be a pursuit characterized by humble, rigorous, morally honest doctrinal discourse carried out under the rule of Spirit-filled love."

Great words...truly quotable!

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks so much for your kind comments, Sled Dog! The strategy is to say things no one can possibly disagree with: who wants arrogant, lazy, intellectually dishonest doctrinal discourse carried out in a spirit of carnal nastiness?

Wait - don't answer that!


Chad said...

Very good post. It's interesting as I read it because you're making some very similar points as I did in a post I wrote earlier today. Good stuff.

Daniel said...

A good observation - timely and concise. Thanks for the read.


Rose~ said...

Hi Sharad,
I think this is a great quote:
"The cash value of such a scheme is that one gets to claim objectivity while practicing the worst kind of solipsism in the name of Biblical faithfulness."
... only I don't know what the word "solipsism" means, and it's not in my Websters pocket! :~)

Anyways, your thoughts are very interesting and refreshing. I have seen of this kind of politics often in the Christians I know and it is very easy to get drawn in. I guess it is a fine line between "earnestly contending for the faith which was once delivered to the saints" ... "come out from among them and be ye separate" VS. "biting and devouring one another". (or maybe not such a fine line.)

I currently am quite irritated at the way some points of TULIP are pre-eminent in discussions of soteriology ... when to my simple mind, the eternal aspect of God's mind is ungraspable as it relates to the call to salvation. Parts of TULIP seem absolutley non-essential and debatable as doctrine. I find it amazing that one can be labeled Arminian just by of denying the 3rd point of Tulip. Thanks for mentioning that. I am not assuming anything about your position on it, but I appreciate you pointing out that it can get nasty.

I often have been disturbed over so much fussing about non-essentials. [I must ponder what you have said about the view of Genesis being non-essential (I think that may be what you were inferring) because I have really believed it was QUITE important.]

Good stuff to chew on!

TheBlueRaja said...

Madame Rose,

Solipsism is the metaphysical (metaphysics addresses questions of whatness, being and existence) spectre which drove Descartes' to quest for foundations upon which to build certain knowledge about the external world. It is the belief that nothing truly exists outside oneself, everything else being illusion. The way I used it was to say that people who practice the sort of manipulation I highlighted huff and puff about out "objectivity" being at stake when their favorite doctrinal expressions are challenged (as if to challenge THEM is to challenge objectivty and Truth itslef) and in all their ranting about objectivity, they're really advocating themselves as the only true possessors of knowledge and understanding. It's a way of using "postmodernism" to actually practice a "postmodern" freedom from accountability for knowledge all while getting pats on the back for fighting the evils of "postmodernism".


Rose~ said...

OK, I'm not THAT simple minded ... I know what metaphysics is, but thanks for uncovering solipsisism (did I spell that right?! duh)

TheBlueRaja said...

No problem, Rose! And I don't think you're anywhere near simple minded!