Does It Really Matter What A Christian Believes?


Is doubt a good thing?

Listen to some pastors and theologians and you'd think it was verging on sinful.

Listen to others and you'd think it was great; if you aren't doubting, you aren't thinking.

The question came into focus over Christmas via an interview with Tim Keller in the New York Times. Provocatively entitled, 'Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?' it saw Nicholas Kristof coming clean regarding his doubts about the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and miracles. Was there, he asked, room for scepticism about things like this? No, Keller says: "If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can't remove it without destabilising the whole thing. A religion can't be whatever we desire it to be. If I'm a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign."

Cue a response from another Bible teacher, Peter Enns. He accused Keller in a blog post of "a pastorally inadequate response to a sceptic's questions". Evangelicals, he said, tend to see doubt as something to ignore in the hope it will go away or as a "temporary bump in the road". Instead, he says, it's an opportunity for spiritual growth that should be welcomed. He thinks Keller made a mis-step by just arguing with Kristof rather than recognising the force of his doubts. Keller (in the NYT article, at least) represents "the inadequacy, even incapability, of mainstream Evangelicalism to address pressing questions of faith for our day; for giving answers that you have to be an Evangelical Christian to accept".

There are two very different approaches to the handling of theological truth here. But underlying them are two very specific questions. One is about the nature of doubt, and one is about the value of argument.

Doubt, in Christian circles – and particularly evangelical Christian circles – has become such a loaded term that it's scarcely useful. Here Enns puts his finger on it: doubt is seen as a moral weakness. You should believe what you're told by Bible teachers who know more than you do, and if you don't believe it there's something wrong with you.

The trouble is that sometimes these Bible teachers are wrong – or if not wrong, at least they aren't telling you the whole story, because they don't know it. Scholarship moves on. You have to read and think, because people find out stuff that means we can't believe what we used to believe any more. I used to believe in young-earth creationism because that's what the church I grew up in taught. I don't now, but I didn't doubt the Bible – I just interpreted it differently. Thinking things through and changing your mind, even if it means going against the consensus, isn't doubt – and making people feel bad about it is plain wrong.

Doubt, in the sense of exploring and questioning, is fine. It's what theologians do all the time. Real doubt is different. It's what happens when the foundations of faith are being shaken, when you wake up in the morning thinking, "None of this is true." Real doubt is when you can't see the point of God or church and think you've given your life to a serious mistake. Doubt, in the first sense, is exciting. In the second, it is dreadful. You may come through it back to faith, you may not; but it is not something to be welcomed as an opportunity for growth.

What about the value of argument? Surely someone like Keller, who's given his life to the study of the Scriptures and is a fine apologist for the faith, has a right to call out sloppy thinking for what it is? We live, we're told, in a post-truth age. Donald Trump was elected as US president despite massive mis-matches between what he said was true and what was actually true. Michael Gove, a prominent pro-Brexit campaigner, blithely informed us that "the public has had enough of experts". Shouldn't Christians be fighting back against the dumbing-down of debate – especially in theology?

Yes, is the short answer: theology matters, and the idea that you can believe whatever you like and still call yourself a Christian is nonsense. But there are limits to what argument can do. Belief involves some very complex mental processes. We might hold something to be true as part of a doctrinal package; call that cool belief. Or it might be something we feel on our pulses; call that hot. It might be something that genuinely affects how we live; it might be part of our mental furniture. It might shift from one category to another. But intellectual argument, of the kind Keller offered Kristof, is never going to move someone to that heart-conviction that something is true. The best it can do is remove an objection or explain a difficulty. As Cardinal Newman said in one of his sermons, you can't argue people into believing any more than you can torture them into doing so. And the danger is that intellectual superiority is used as a weapon to bludgeon people into submission, when all the time they are conscious of not really being convinced.

Is it possible to reconcile respect for doubt, in the sense of probing, questioning and sometimes coming to unorthodox conclusions, with a firm grip on orthodoxy and an absolute rejection of the post-truth idea that it just doesn't matter what you believe? Not entirely. Keller is right: some truths are non-negotiable. Whether he has picked on the right ones is a different question; it's clearly possible to believe in the Incarnation without believing in the Virgin Birth, and in a Resurrection – in the sense that Jesus is alive – without believing in a literal empty tomb. Whether that makes theological sense is a different question, but the possibility has to be allowed.

So what should a church do when people start asking hard questions and refusing to accept cookie-cutter answers? Here are four suggestions.

1. Don't call it doubt; that moralises a natural process and helps de-legitimise it.

2. Don't compromise on essential teaching – but be clear on what's essential. Think of the concentric circles of dogma, doctrine and opinion: only dogma is non-negotiable.

3. Don't expect people to think the same about everything. 'Sound Bible teaching' too easily becomes a way of inflicting conformity on a congregation. But belief is complicated; truth looks different depending on your life experiences; God says different things to us at different times.

4. Hold people within the community. We are designed to be social Christians, learning and growing together. Freezing someone out because they don't fit is a betrayal of fellowship.

Mark Woods is the author of Does the Bible really say that? Challenging our assumptions in the light of Scripture (Lion, £8.99). Follow him on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods