What are the boundaries to Christian faith which if crossed, place a person outside of Christian faith? What is the content of Christian faith? Can a person claim to be a Christian and believe anything at all as long as he/she holds those beliefs sincerely? Does Christian faith have any specific content at all?
Retired Episcopal bishop John Spong rejects every fundamental doctrine of historic Christian faith, yet he claims to be a Christian. Spong rejects theism (and therefore “monotheism”) in which a supernatural God intervenes in the natural world. He rejects Jesus “as the earthly incarnation of this supernatural deity” and therefore he rejects the Trinity. He rejects the need for the atonement, since he rejects the inborn sinful nature of human beings. Then Spong asks, “Can a person claim with integrity to be a Christian and at the same time dismiss, as I have done, so much of what has traditionally defined the content of the Christian faith?”1 Spong answers, “Yes,” and calls himself a Christian.
The question of what it means to be a Christian is not new. Paul rebuked some in Galatia for demanding that Gentile Christians follow Jewish tradition. Paul writes to the Galatians: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is no gospel at all…. If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!”
Christian faith rests on the Good News that historical events, as interpreted by Scripture, have opened the way of salvation. Jesus was not merely a Jewish man who died on a cross and remains in the grave. Scripture tells us that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:2). Jesus’ resurrection proves that the “wages of sin which is death” (Rom. 6:23) have been paid in full.
The Role of Doctrine
The whole of Scripture, including the Old Testament, relays the historical events of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection and interprets their meaning. Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for not understanding that the Old Testament pointed to him: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me…” (John 5:39). On the road to Emmaus after the resurrection, Jesus taught the disciples “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, … what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Our confessions are the church’s attempt over the centuries to present a systematized witness to Scripture’s teachings about Christ’s finished work of redemption. These are the doctrines we hold.
Some of these doctrines are essential and go to the heart of the atonement. Other doctrines are non-essential but help us apply Scripture to our lives. These nonessential doctrines have no impact on the atonement. John Calvin makes this distinction between essential and non-essential doctrines. Essential doctrines according to Calvin include: “God is one; Christ is God and the son of God, our salvation rests on God’s mercy; and the like.”2 Clearly, these doctrines directly support and interpret the atonement.
Calvin also gives an example of a non-essential doctrine. He says that whether our souls “fly to heaven” immediately after death or whether it is sufficient to believe that souls after death, “live in the Lord” is a non-essential doctrine. It does not impact Christ’s finished work of redemption.
Essential doctrines that support and interpret the atonement form a boundary around the Gospel. If the boundaries are breached, like a protective wall, the center, which is the atonement, will soon fall. Therefore, these essential doctrines cannot be rejected, compromised, adapted to cultural values, or syncretized with modern politically correct beliefs and attitudes.
Protecting the Boundaries
In the following section I propose some essential doctrines and suggest places where they are being challenged in our day. If those challenges prevail, it will necessarily lead to a denial of the atonement.
1. The Trinity
In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. (Westminster Confession, Book of Confessions (BOC), 6.013)
The Triune God—three persons, one Godhead—is an essential doctrine of Christian faith because without the Triune God, there is no Savior. It is the Father, who sent the Son to die for our sins, and the Holy Spirit who makes Christ’s death real and effectual in our lives. The Father sending the Son to die is not cosmic child abuse as some claim. Since there is one Godhead, it is God himself who came to die.
We must reject the use of inclusive God-language exclusively to replace Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To accept such a substitution exclusively may lead to a loss of the doctrine of the Trinity and therefore the atonement. The exclusive use of impersonal terms like “rock,” “rainbow,” “ark,” “dove,” “beloved” or even “Holy One” may lose the three-ness of God and the personhood of God. Unlike Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which clearly denote three persons, “rock,” “dove,” and the like do not express God’s three-ness nor do they express the personhood of the members of the Trinity.
We must reject the use of female names for God like “Christa,” “Sophia,” “the womb,” or “Mother” because the terms lead to pantheism. In pantheism creation is identical with the divinity. A female god who “births” creation causes creation to be of the same divine substance as the goddess. There is no distinction between the goddess and the creation.
This heresy of pantheism was evident at the 1993 Re-Imagining Conference where the panels being painted in the front of the conference hall were of a goddess with the earth in her womb. Reflecting this pantheism, the conference attendees put red dots on each other’s foreheads and bowed to each other to affirm their divinity. Communion was not the body and blood of Christ but the milk and honey of women, the divine ones. The attendees rejected the atonement as “cosmic child abuse” saying “we don’t need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff.”
In a few places Scripture uses the linguistic form of simile to compare an attribute of God to, for example, a mother hen. Scripture never, however, uses female names for God.
2. Authority of Scripture
All Scripture is God-breathed… (2 Tim 3:16).
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. (Westminster Confession, BOC 6.004)
Scripture was written by various men and reflects different writing styles. John Calvin explains that Scripture is authoritative because it came from the “very mouth of God by the ministry of men.”3 The God who is distinct from his creation, revealed himself to his creation through the words of Scripture. Scripture therefore stands over us and is normative for our lives. Scripture is how we know God and know ourselves.
We must reject ideologies that claim Scripture is the flawed record of its sinful human authors’ experience of God and therefore is filled with their sinful ideas and cultural biases. The people who claim Scripture is filled with sin and cultural biases then stand over Scripture and judge whether its content fits their personal experience of reality using a “hermeneutic of suspicion.”4 Spong argues that Scripture is fatally flawed because the biblical authors were “warped… by their lack of knowledge and by the tribal and sexist prejudices of that ancient time. ”5
But consider what it means if human beings stand over Scripture and judge which parts are true and authoritative and which are not. In order to judge Scripture, human beings cannot be sinners whose judgment, reason, and emotions are clouded by sin. If they are not sinners, they have no need of a Savior who died for their sins.
3. God is the Creator
That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth with all that is in them, who also upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father. (Heidelberg Catechism, BOC 4.026)
God created all that exists out of nothing.
We must reject the belief that God is not the Creator and therefore he did not create all that exists out of nothing. Consider that if God is not the Creator, then he is not almighty. If he is not the Creator, creation does not glorify him; he does not know how it is meant to function; he cannot judge his creation and call parts of it good or evil; he does not rule over it; he does not sustain it; he cannot tell us how to live; he cannot redeem human beings and creation.
It follows that if God is not the Creator, then Christ, as the eternal Son of God, did not enter his creation to redeem it, since there is no need for redemption. Creation is merely the product of natural forces and has no value of good or evil assigned by the Creator.
If God is not the Creator, then it follows that human beings are not created in God’s image and have no special place in creation but are descended randomly from the primordial soup and are of no more value than the animals. There is no Gospel in which God restores us to the image of God, the likeness of Christ, through the atonement and sanctifying work of the Spirit (Romans 8:29).
4. Jesus Christ
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John 1:1, 14
It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, the prophet, priest, and king; the head and Savior of his Church, the heir of all things, and judge of the world; unto whom he did from all eternity, give a people to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified. (Westminster Confession, BOC 6.043)
The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness for time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof: yet without sin: being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. (Westminster Confession, BOC 6.044)
Jesus Christ is the pre-existent second Person of the Godhead. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb and not through natural human generation. Therefore he is fully divine and fully human but is without sin. Jesus is of the same substance as the Father: “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made…” (Nicene Creed). Human beings can be adopted into the relationship of the Godhead through the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
We must reject the belief that Jesus was not conceived in a miraculous way through the virgin birth, but instead was conceived through natural human generation. Consider that if Jesus was born through natural human generation, then he was born with a sinful human nature rebelling against the Father. Since a sinner cannot atone for the sins of others, Jesus cannot atone for our sins.
Consider that if Jesus is not the pre-existent Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the virgin’s womb, but was instead only human and was made divine by some special intervention of the Father after his birth, perhaps at his baptism, then all human beings can be made equal to Jesus and perhaps already are.
There is no need for the atonement. The Father can simply declare we are divine by filling us with the Holy Spirit as Jesus was filled at his baptism. It follows that we are not marred by sin but every thought and action is empowered by our divine nature from the Holy Spirit living in us. Anything we feel passionate and good about, we can say is from the Holy Spirit and of divine origin. This denies our need for redemption.
If Jesus is not the unique second Person of the Triune Godhead breaking into human history in human flesh, and was only a mortal man who felt close to God and spoke truth to power in both Rome and the Church, it follows that his death was merely the response of those in power to those who speak the truth. Thus there is no Gospel. Jesus is simply a model of one who spoke boldly to corrupt social systems.
5. The Holy Spirit
The Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son and together with the Father and Son is worshiped and glorified. (Nicene)
The Holy Spirit, the third Person in the Trinity, proceeding from the Father and the Son, of the same substance and equal in power and glory, is, together with the Father and the Son, to be believed in, loved, obeyed, and worshipped throughout the ages. (Westminster Confession, BOC 6.051)
He is the Lord and Giver of life, everywhere present, and is the source of all good thoughts, pure desires, and holy counsels in men. By him the prophets were moved to speak the Word of God, and all writers of the Holy Scriptures inspired to record infallibly the mind and will of God. The dispensation of the gospel is especially committed to him. He prepares the way for it, accompanies it with his persuasive power, and urges its message upon the reason and conscience of men, so that they who reject its merciful offer are not only without excuse, but are also guilty of resisting the Holy Spirit. (Westminster Confession, BOC 6.052)
The Holy Spirit whom the Father is ever willing to give to all who ask him, is the only efficient agent in the application of redemption. He regenerates men by his grace, convicts them of sin, moves them to repentance, and persuades and enables them to embrace Jesus Christ by faith. He unites all believers to Christ, dwells in them as their Comforter and Sanctifier, gives to them the spirit of Adoption and Prayer, and performs all those gracious offices by which they are sanctified and sealed unto the day of redemption. (Westminster Confession, BOC 6.053)
The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Triune Godhead. The Holy Spirit inspired Scripture and because there is one God, the Spirit does not contradict himself. The Spirit makes the Gospel real and effectual in our lives. The Spirit assures us that we are children of God and can call God “Abba.”
We must reject the belief that the Spirit did not inspire Scripture revealing the nature and acts of God, including the atonement, and the nature of fallen human beings who are in need of redemption.
We must reject the belief that the Spirit speaks to us today revealing a different, more tolerant God than the God of Scripture: a God who affirms our deepest desires and wants nothing more than for us to be happy.
We must reject the belief that the content of Scripture is outdated and therefore, the Spirit is telling us a new thing today. We reject the belief that we can use our modern knowledge and advanced reasoning to observe the world around us through the lens of science and discover truth about God and ourselves. We reject the belief that the Holy Spirit enables us to see this new truth which can be in contradiction to the truth revealed in Scripture.
This view fails to acknowledge that our sinful nature is unable to discern truth about God and ourselves through reason alone by observing the natural world. If our reason alone were sufficient to discover truth, there would be no need for the atonement.
6. Human beings were created good but as a result of the Fall are born with a sinful nature.
“By nature I am prone to hate God and my neighbor.” (Heidelberg Catechism, BOC 4.005).
Human beings commit specific sinful acts because they are born with a sinful nature that rebels against God and their neighbor. John Calvin calls this “total depravity,” meaning that human beings are born with every faculty distorted by sin: reason, emotion, passions, body, heart. Even after human beings are born again, sin remains at work in us until Christ returns or we enter glory. The power of sin is broken by the cross, and the Holy Spirit living within us convicts us of our sin and empowers us to live an amended life. But the presence of sin is not removed until we die and enter glory.
We must reject the belief that human beings are born without a sinful human nature but are corrupted after birth by human social institutions.
Consider that if human beings are born without a sinful human nature, but acquire sinful propensities after birth through tainted social structures, like patriarchy, poverty, bad parenting, capitalism, etc. then the solution is not a Savior, but changes to the social structures. There is no need for a Savior to redeem sinful social structures. Human beings can redeem social structures through their own ingenuity and reason.
Consider that if human beings are born without a sinful human nature, then individuals can rely on their experience, passion, and reason to determine the truth and live the truth and they do not need a Savior.
Boundaries are important. It is as the boundaries are slowly eroded away that the center is lost. Christians need to understand and accept both the center and the boundaries of faith. Our faith must first rest on a knowledge of Scripture to understand the historical facts and Scripture’s interpretation of those facts through the working of the Holy Spirit. A strong faith must be catechized so it rests on the witness of the confessions that are the voices of Christians across the ages. And finally that faith must understand the modern assaults on the boundaries of faith and be able to biblically, faithfully, and logically stand strong against those challenges. Scripture tells us, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). Let us begin with commitment and joy the renewal of our minds through the power of the Holy Spirit so that our faith in Christ may grow!
Susan Cyre is a Presbyterian pastor and Executive Director Emeritus of Theology Matters.
1. John Spong, A New Christianity for a New World (Harper: San Francisco, 2001), p. 7.
2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, translator Battles), 4.1.12.
3. Ibid, 1.7.5.
4. Elisabeth Schϋssler Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Beacon Press: Boston, 1984), p. 15.
5. John Spong, The Sins of Scripture (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), p. 18.