How to talk about theology with Understanding

A Very Brief Summary Outline of a fuller paper on Convictions, Persuasions, and Opinions
Levels of belief in the Pauline Epistles: A Paradigm for Evangelical Unity

  1. 2 issues puzzle me: 1) How should believers argue, discuss, dialogue, debate over points of belief that they have different commitment to? (Emotional commitment is not the same as Personal commitment here).  I want to allow people to have just as strong emotional commitment to say eschatology as they do the divinity of Christ, but allow themselves to understand that they do not view each of those with the same level of importance or value that one has a personal commitment to (One could call this theological triage if they want).  2) I was puzzled as well by those who called themselves Christians but denied basic doctrines like the Trinity or the deity of Christ.   C. S Lewis says that the common core of Christian belief: "…turns out to be something not only positive but pungent; divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the worst divisions inside Christendom are not really comparable at all."[1] In the remainder of the book Lewis, in essence, establishes two categories of views: those that are a part of "mere" Christianity and those that are not.
  2. Two of the major attempts within the twentieth century to find a basis for Christian unity have failed due tack of an adequate doctrinal base.
    ·         The first of these attempts was the ecumenical movement epitomized by the World council of churches. 
    ·         A Second recent attempt as transdenominational unity has been the Modern Charismatic movement.  Although this movement has tended to be more traditional the theologically conservative in its teachings, the resulting “unity” has not be predicated primarily on common doctrinal conviction:
    ·         The common element in both of these approaches, then, it a dilution or bypassing of doctrinal orthodoxy resulting in a retreat into experiential subjectivism as the prime ground for unity. 
  3. It seems to me that just about everyone who discusses biblical teaching on ecclesiastical cooperation and separation recognizes several unavoidable factors that affect how much we are able to cooperate in gospel ministry with other professing believers, how much we are compelled to withdraw from such fellowship, and when we are required to expose and rebuke error. I believe these factors include at least three specific dimensions:
    1. Proximity to the gospel (should be applied to both the thin and thick Gospel)
    2. Nature of the cooperation in view (Philosophy of Ministry would be included in this category)
    3. Exegetical certainty
    4. the spirit of the age."
    Proximity to the gospel means that some doctrines are so essential to the nature of the Christian gospel that to deny the doctrine is to deny the gospel itself. The nature of the cooperation in view recognizes that different levels of fellowship and joint gospel ministry impose different demands on agreement. To serve as an elder-pastor in a church, I would need to have a very high level of agreement on most (but not all) issues with the other elders. My level of agreement with non-elder members of the church would be less. We could permit a person to speak in our church who might not qualify for membership. We might even be able to support other churches or ministries in some specific venture whose leaders we would not permit to speak in our church. Finally, exegetical certainty means that we do not possess equal certainty on all biblical doctrines. "Baptism for the dead" is not as clear as "Jesus is Lord." A more relevant example might be some matter of Soteriology that could be very close to the center of the gospel, yet be less clear in the understanding of some than of others. A potential fourth dimension I am thinking about is what I am currently calling "the spirit of the age."  In this dimension a doctrine might rise in importance because of its prominence in a contemporary groundswell against sound doctrine. An current example might be egalitarianism, the belief that both genders should share equally leadership roles in the local church and the family.
  4. Evangelicals badly need a means of sorting out and agreeing upon what is crucial and central to Christian doctrine from what is valuable but secondary.  To this end a three-fold paradigm will be proposed consisting of “Convictions’, “persuasions,” and “Opinions.”  The precedent for this rubric will be examined in three of Paul’s epistles and two examples of potential application will be suggested. 

Levels of Belief in Paul’s Letters

I find it so intriguing that Paul did not hold all of his beliefs at the same level of importance. I think we find in Paul’s letters at least three distinct levels of belief. I will call these three levels, "convictions," "persuasions," and "opinions."
1.        Convictions: Even though Paul was often a man of peace and tolerance, there were some issues so crucial and central to the faith that Paul was willing to risk dividing the body of Christ. Paul tells us about one such issue in his letter to the Galatians.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, "If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" (Galatians 2:11-14)
·         Paul was willing to stand and fight, even risking a public controversy, because the issue of circumcision struck at the heart of the gospel. Any compromise at this point would be tantamount to a loss of the gospel itself!  In both instances recounted in Galatians 2, Paul is acting from convictions concerning matters crucial to salvation. These are not "mere" persuasions where the Apostle, although certain he is right, can allow other believers to disagree. 
·         Convictions, for Paul, are matters of belief where the gospel itself is at stake. In these matters Paul is not "tolerant." Rather he confronts those in error and is ready to break fellowship with them if they do not repent.
2.        Persuasions: In determining if this sort of schema has any validity the central question to consider is this: “Does any New Testament writer ever indicate that he had more than one level or strength of view?”  A prime example of this second level of belief can be found in Romans 14. In verse five Paul states, "One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully persuaded in his own mind." It is important to observe that while each person is to be fully persuaded, Paul is not insisting on uniformity of view between "fully persuaded" believers. Each person can have his or her own belief, yet remain in unity with believers who disagree.
3.        Opinions. A final level of belief is found in Paul's treatment of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. In dealing with the question of celibacy he says:
Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again least Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. (vs. 7-8)
·         The word for wish is thelo, which in this context expresses "desire" or "design."  Frequently it simply means "will" or "would" but sometimes the word takes on the more tentative nuance of a wish or desire. Therefore, while thelo can have a more general meaning, it frequently carries the sense of a strictly personal or even hypothetical wish. So when Paul says, "I wish all were like me," expressing his opinion that the celibate state is best.
·         Perhaps an even clearer example of Paul expressing an "opinion" is found in 1 Corinthians 7:40. In advising the widow, he says, "But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think I also have the Spirit of God." "
·         Elsewhere in this passage, Paul did speak authoritatively. In verse 12, the apostle undoubtedly expected his directives to be literally obeyed for he concludes his discussion in verse 17 with "and thus I direct (diatassomai) . . . ." In this verse, we find no hint of a disclaimer, no room left for individual conscience. But verses 25 and 40 are quite different. Clearly neither of these is in the nature of a universal directive; for each carries a disclaimer in a nearby verse.
4.        Clarification: I want to stop a minute to clarify something that may be confusing. Often when I have taught these ideas in the past, some have misunderstood me to be saying that what distinguishes one level of belief from another is how strongly a person feels about something. So let me say it as clearly as I can, what separates these levels of belief is not the psychological or subjective "strength" with which one holds a belief. An individual might feel very strongly about an issue and still choose, based on biblical or theological criteria, to class her view as a persuasion or an opinion rather than a conviction.  Example: Abortion.
5.   Judgment Calls: What I mean by a "judgment call" is a decision that has to be made when no specific rule of Scripture refers explicitly to your circumstances.  There is no passage in Scripture that says, "When a young missionary has forsaken the work on his first journey, you shall give him a second chance after 18 months of penitent and faithful service." And no Biblical text says not to.  Instead we have principles that say, "Encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all." And we have principles which say that leaders in the church should be above reproach, and well-tested. One principle stresses the glory of God's mercy. Another principle stresses the glory of God's calling. One principle accents the bounty of God. The other principle accents the holiness of God.
·         Some of our decisions are governed by explicit Biblical commands -- thou shalt not commit adultery! But most of our decisions in life are an effort to apply Biblical principles to situations that the Bible does not deal with explicitly. And the problem is that we often differ on how to do this. Matthew Henry calls these issues "points of prudence." Listen to his wise and sober words:
Even those that are united to one and the same Jesus, and sanctified by one and the same Spirit, have different apprehensions, different opinions, different views, and different sentiments in points of prudence. It will be so while we are in this state of darkness and imperfection; we shall never be all of a mind till we come to heaven, where light and love are perfect. (Commentary, vol. 6, p. 200)
·         In Acts 15:38 the word Luke uses to describe Paul's conviction that Mark should not go fits this idea. It says, literally, "But Paul did not count it fitting, or proper, to take along one who had withdrawn. . ." It was an issue of spiritual prudence, an issue of propriety and fitness and strategic wisdom.
·         But what does wisdom dictate in a choice like this? Barnabas seemed to focus on the need and potential of Mark. Paul seemed to focus on the demands and potential of the larger cause of the Gospel and the honor of the mission.
·         I don't think we should see this as all bad. It's the rancor and bitterness and resentment that are bad. But is it bad that one mission agency perceives wisdom in one strategy and another agency perceives wisdom in another strategy, so that two mission agencies are formed? In fact there are agencies today with extremely high standards for their candidates more like Paul's and their are agencies who will send almost anyone who wants to go. Is that all bad?
·         The point here is simply this: most of our life and ministry is made up of those kinds of decisions -- the application of Biblical principles to situations not explicitly dealt with in the Bible. And therefore complete agreement in these areas will not happen in the body of Christ until we no longer see through a glass darkly. And I suggest that we not too quickly assume that our different strategies for Christ are a bad thing.
6.        Distinguishing between these 3 levels of belief: Convictions are central beliefs, crucial to salvation, over which we should be willing to denounce someone in serious disagreement and (if there is no repentance) eventually divide fellowship.  Persuasions are beliefs about which we are personally certain but which are not crucial to salvation. We must accept those with differing persuasions as members in good standing of God’s family even when we are certain they are wrong.  Opinions are beliefs about subjects which either: we have a preference, but acknowledge that others may also be right in holding a different view, or we do not have any confidence that we yet know the truth of the matter.

So What?

In this section, I will try to show some of the everyday aspects of holding these belief levels.
1.        Convictions. I believe we should have very few convictions. We should be willing to die (or suffer ridicule) for our convictions.
2.        Persuasions. Most Christians have a fair number of persuasions. The number of our persuasions generally increases as we study. Persuasions should be subjects we have studied enough to be entitled to a clear view on the subject.  Examples might be: Millennial views, the role of "tongues," and capital punishment.
3.        Opinions. We will have many opinions and they will change fairly frequently. Opinions may be on subjects which either we have not personally studied or on which the Bible is silent or ambiguous.  Examples might be: How long until Christ returns? Which is the best Bible translation? What is the proper size of the US military budget?
4.        Judgment Calls:
5.        Boundary Statements. I would like to draw out one final implication of this “convictions, persuasions, opinions classification scheme.”  From the very early centuries of Christianity down to the present day, many churches, denominations, and other Christian groups have drafted lists of their beliefs. These lists are usually called creeds, doctrinal statements, or statements of faith. I have long pondered the question, "what sorts of beliefs properly belong in these kinds of boundary statements?" Now you may be thinking that my answer is obvious. You may think I will say only conviction level beliefs belong in these faith statements, but that is not my conclusion. If boundary statements were only written to clarify who is, and who is not, a true Christian, then it might make sense to include only conviction level beliefs.[2]  However, many doctrinal statements, especially in recent centuries, are designed to capture the distinctives of a ministry or a particular group of Christians and include a mixture of conviction, persuasion, and sometimes even opinion level beliefs.[3]   Also boundary statements must decide on the issues that effect a church’s ecclesiology and philosophy of ministry because these issues will effect the message, theology and ministry action of the church.  The leaders must be committed to teaching the truths that are contained in the confession.  Leadership within a church must have both theological and philosophical unity in order for the church to be healthy. 

Application and Conclusion

Inerrancy: After considerable study and thought this writer has concluded that inerrancy must be held at a conviction level of belief.  Without a confidence in the Scriptures and a general hermeneutic closely akin to that of the Chicago Statement, conclusions of the sort reached in this article could not be held consistently and would likely not long endure.  As that document states, in part: … we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.
Creationism: Must evangelicals reject at the conviction level all forms of theistic evolution?  More specifically, is belief that the “days” in Genesis 1 were literal 24 hour days essential to the Christian faith?  The levels of belief paradigm might be applied to this issue in the following fashion.  At the conviction level all evangelicals can agree that God is the Creator, the ultimate source of all that exists.  This is definitely a doctrine that is central to salvation for if he did not create man then he is not accountable to Him and may not need Salvation.  But the exact timing of the creation can be held at the persuasion level or opinion level.  While scholars may want to discuss or even debate this issue, they need not imply that all those who disagree are somehow similar to those who have deserted the faith for other gods.
Conclusion: Extensive further development of a paradigm of this sort couldbe a great boon to the Christian world.  Increased clarity concerning what is truly central and crucial and what is not could assist in promoting cooperative efforts in evangelism, follow-up, and discipleship of new believers and in setting agenda for churches that desire to grow.
The evangelical community needs a careful, thorough, lucid, systematic theology that makes a concerned attempt to delineate what is central and nonnegotiable in the Christian faith from what is valuable but secondary.  It is this writer’s persuasion that such a work would be of inestimable value to younger believers, pastors, theological students, and scholars alike.

[1] Lewis, p. 8.

[2] Some of the early Christian creeds did function as boundary statements between true and false believers but in modern times many function to distinguish one group of Christians from another.

[3] For example, the one page statement of faith of Campus Crusade for Christ, which I use to sign annually, contains a number of conviction level beliefs (the Trinity, the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, etc.). The statement also includes some persuasion level beliefs such as statements about the filling of the Spirit and the inerrancy of scripture. Since I can fully affirm all of the articles without mental reservation, I can sign the statement even though I see some of the articles as more central to historic Christianity than others. Through the years, CCC has not treated its statement of faith as the dividing line between true and false faith. CCC leaders and staff have frequently cooperated in evangelistic thrusts with believers from other groups and denominations who could not necessarily sign all the articles of our particular boundary statement.