On Doctrinal Uncertainty and Disagreement

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It is the glory of God to conceal things,
but the glory of kings is to search things out. 
-Prov. 25:2, ESV

Often when studying theology, especially some of the more controversial doctrines of Christianity, I can get pretty discouraged. Occasionally, it will get bad enough that I even begin to doubt the Christian faith as a whole. If Christians have not been able to come to an agreement on a doctrine after two millennia of study and discourse, how can I be sure that there is a correct stance to begin with? Things certainly don’t seem so ambiguous and confusing in other knowledge seeking enterprises, so why wouldn’t they also be straightforward with theology? Depending on the doctrine itself, the intensity of this period of doubting has varied from thought-provoking to panic-inducing. Recently, while studying the doctrine of divine providence, I had a spell of this, though it was on the minor end of the spectrum. While thinking through this specific issue, and the larger meta-issue, I had some thoughts that might be helpful for Christians in similar situations.

Doctrinal Discernment and Humility

The first thought I have to offer those who are experiencing doubt due to doctrinal uncertainty is that Christians need to be careful and discerning in understanding the importance of specific doctrines. That is, it is not enough to have the correct stance of different doctrines; Christians should understand a priority of how important specific doctrines are to the core of their faith. This is something I’ve thought long and hard about in the past, but I think the first time I heard it verbalized well was in an article by Daniel Wallace on the doctrine of inerrancy. Dr. Wallace says the following:
I learned a rather valuable lesson while in the master’s program. I came home to California for a Christmas vacation early on in the program. And I had lunch with my uncle, David Wallace. He was the first graduate from Fuller Seminary to earn a Ph.D. He earned it at Edinburgh University, under Matthew Black. But he also logged some time in various places in Europe—studying with Baumgartner, Barth, and others. He was not pleased with my choice to attend Dallas Seminary; I was clueless about what he really believed. During the lunch, I asked him what he thought about inerrancy. His response startled me, and changed my perspective for all time. He essentially said that he didn’t hold to the doctrine (though he said so much more colorfully than that!). I thought to myself, “Oh no! My uncle is going to hell!” I felt compelled to ask him what he thought about the bodily resurrection of Christ, fearing what I would hear next. After all, without inerrancy, we really can’t know anything about Christ, right? To my surprise, David said, “If Christ is not raised from the dead, then we’re all dead in our sins.” He was certain about the resurrection of Christ. But how could he be without a bibliological presupposition to back it up? I cannot tell you how great the existential crisis was for me at that moment. Up until this time, I had believed that inerrancy was an essential belief of the Christian faith, one that was indispensable to salvation. When David affirmed the central credo of salvation, I could not deny his spiritual status.3 I came to the sudden realization that one could be saved without embracing inerrancy.

Some today might think me rather naïve. I admit: I was. This lunch meeting was thirty years ago, however, and I hope that I have grown in wisdom just a bit over the last three decades. One thing I have learned is that we must develop a doctrinal taxonomy: certain doctrines are core beliefs, while others are more peripheral. By core or central beliefs, I mean beliefs that are essential for salvation. By more peripheral doctrines, I mean those that are not essential for salvation. I have been developing a more nuanced taxonomy than that of course. Here I want to raise three or four questions that should help the reader as I proceed through this labyrinthian bibliological trail: 

1. What doctrines are essential for the life of the church?
2. What doctrines are important for the health of the church?
3. What doctrines are distinctives that are necessary for the practice of the local church?
4. What doctrines belong to the speculative realm or should never divide the church? 

Many Christians have never thought about these issues in such terms. As a case in point, look at any doctrinal statement—whether it is your church’s, a Bible college’s, a seminary’s, or a Christian organization’s. How many of them prioritize their doctrines? Some churches do to some degree: leaders have to hold to a certain list, while regular parishioners can hold to a modified list. But even here, what doctrines belong to category one, two, or three, are not explicitly articulated.1
What Wallace is getting at here is incredibly important for all Christians, especially those who are dealing with any sort of doctrinal uncertainty. For if a Christian holds the arrogant assumption that not only all doctrines are equally important, but that they themselves hold the correct position on all doctrines, their entire faith can be easily shaken. If they suddenly begin to doubt a single doctrine that they hold, the rest of their Christian faith is in jeopardy along with it. Wallace elsewhere remarks2 on Bart Ehrman, an agnostic biblical scholar with whom he has debated several times over the years. Erhman was a conservative, evangelical Christian who attended both Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, before receiving his Ph.D. and M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. While studying textual criticism at Princeton, Dr. Erhman began to pay attention to the many transcription errors found in early biblical manuscripts, and started to doubt that we can accurately reconstruct what the original documents contained. This shook his faith in inerrancy and, because he did not have a mature understanding of how different doctrines fit together, his whole faith fell apart.  Had he thought of these issues more like Dr. Wallace or Dr. Wallace’s uncle, he perhaps could have maintained his belief in the Christian faith while working through the doctrine of biblical inspiration. His faith needn’t have stood or fallen on a single doctrine.3

Theology is Not Unique in Terms of Disagreements

The second consideration, with which I hope to encourage Christians experiencing doubt, is that ambiguity and contrasting interpretations of facts are not exclusive to theology and the Christian faith. In the introductory paragraph of this post, the reader will recall my comment that “[t]hings certainly don’t seem so ambiguous and confusing in other knowledge seeking enterprises, so why wouldn’t they also be straightforward with theology?” I used to think there was truth in this, but after some reflection, I have concluded that this is patently false. Though the so-called New Atheist types and other non-believers would love for Christians to believe that theology is the only subject with any sort of disagreement or controversy, this is simply not the case. Science, for example, is bursting with examples of theories which have been empirically corroborated and boast near universal acceptance, yet at the same time have multiple competing interpretations. For example, multiple independent experiments have confirmed predictions of Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, including those testing time dilation and loss of simultaneity.4 These confirmed predictions have increased confidence in the physical theory within its own domain.5 At the same time, there are at least two different contradictory interpretations of these findings, including both objectivist and subjectivist accounts. Some scientists have taken these results as showing that we actually live in a four dimensional space-time block where change does not occur and the passage of time is an illusion.6 Others have rejected such a conclusion and instead believe that the theory points to a true observer-dependent physical subjectivity. These interpretations cannot both be true, but no scientist would ever throw up his hands and abandon belief in the adequacy and truth of the theory at large.

Another obvious example is Quantum Mechanics. Experiment after experiment has confirmed the theory of Quantum Mechanics, but over a dozen empirically equivalent interpretations currently remain in contention for how to understand the data.7 But physics isn’t the only field with competing interpretations. There are multiple competing schools of economics; should we abandon all attempts to study the effects of interest rates on the national economy? There is a dizzying number of moral and political philosophies; should we just give up trying to find the most ideal (I’m sure the anarchists would love it if we did)? I think the reader gets the point. Uncertainty and contradictory interpretations of an idea should never motivate us to give up on the idea altogether.

Conclusion: All Life is Problem Solving

If the reader is anything like me, he or she prefers to have all their ducks in a row, and have a really coherent stance on every issue: whether it’s theology, science, philosophy, history, politics, or the best way to approach underwater basket weaving. It can be incredibly frustrating to realize how complex and nuanced some issues are. My advice is to embrace this phenomenon and allow it to be humbling. We will never know everything. In fact, we will never even come close. We need to enjoy the challenge of attempting to figure out a particularly complex doctrine, but take a step back if it gets too frustrating. In the words of Karl Popper, “all of life is problem solving.” This is a gift from God. Let’s enjoy it.


1. Wallace, My Take on Inerrancy, 2006. I highly recommend reading the entire article, which can be found here.
2.  I was unable to find the reference, though I am sure Wallace said it.  If any reader recognizes the story and can find the reference, please let me know.
3.  For the record, I, like Wallace, do believe that the doctrine of biblical inspiration is both true and invaluable to the Christian faith, but not necessary for salvation.
4.  Special Relativity predicted that observers in uniform relative motion experience the timing of space-time events differently, even to the extent of perceiving them in a different order.
5.  I note "within its own domain" here because certain predictions of Relativity do not hold in all conditions.  This is also true with Newtonian physics and Quantum Mechanics.  That is to say that no theory has achieved the desired universality of a physical "Theory of Everything."
6.  This goes back to the ideas of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides of Elea who argued that change was an illusion.  A brief introduction to this debate can be read here.
7.  These include the Copenhagen Interpretation advanced by Niels Bohr, the Many Worlds Interpretation and several Instrumentalist interpretations.  An introduction to each can be found here.
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