This post is a sequel (sequel? Is that a proper word for a blog post?) to “Must a Christian believe God exists?”
Tory Ninja writes: “But what sort of beliefs should we draw the line at? You have clearly said belief in God is one, what are some others? I’m not asking what beliefs we need to believe to be true to be saved (you have addressed that already), but what set of beliefs have to be true for Christianity to be ‘orthodox’.”
First, a retooling of the question. We need to separate truth from orthodoxy. For example, I believe that Mormonism is whoppingly false. But it is also unorthodox relative to Mormon doctrine to believe that Jon Stewart is the reincarnation of Joseph Smith. So the orthodoxy of a belief is a separate issue from whether that belief is true. An unorthodox belief could be true and an orthodox belief could be false. So I take this to be Tory Ninja’s real question: “Which beliefs constitute the set of beliefs that constitute Christian orthodoxy?” And in the nearby bushes I think we have this question: “How do we discern what those beliefs are?”
But is Tory Ninja really concerned about the full set of beliefs that constitute orthodoxy? Consider the following:
Baptism is the rite of initiation into membership within the Christian church
Communion is the rite of ongoing participation within the Christian church
Most Christians accept these beliefs, but not all do. Quakers and the Salvation Army for instance do not officially practice these sacraments/ordinances. I think it is fair to say, from my perspective as a Baptist (and the perspective of most Christians) that the views of the Society of Friends and the Salvation Army are unorthodox. But are they still Christians? I certainly think so. I think the church would benefit tremendously from a few more George Foxes and William Booths running around.
All this is to say I suspect Tory Ninja is not primarily concerned here about orthodoxy per se. Rather, I suspect he is concerned about another issue: dogma. That is, which beliefs or doctrines are essential to be a Christian (that is, to be a member of a Christian communion)? On which doctrines are we to be, so to speak, dogmatic?
Imagine you’re on a river bank in winter. The river is frozen solid on the edge but the further you inch out on the ice the thinner the ice and the more likely you are to break through until you get to the middle which isn’t frozen at all, but instead is a churning, roiling torrent. Now let’s say that you’ve dropped your wedding ring on the ice. How far out will you go to retrieve it? Let’s say it fell a foot out from shore. No problem, the ice is solid. Two feet? Still okay. Three feet? Better be careful. Four feet? Walk very carefully. No sudden movements. Five feet? Better get on your hands and knees. Six feet? You can see the water movement beneath you. Seven feet? Did you hear that groan and crack? …
The distance you can go out on the river represents how far you can reject orthodox doctrines and still be a Christian. Reject baptism? Quirky perhaps, but you’re still okay. Go further out and reject the existence of demons and angels? I know a few New Testament scholars like that. Beholden, I think, to the chains of naturalism. But still in the camp. Reject the virgin birth? You join the likes of Emil Brunner and Wolfhart Pannenberg further out on the ice still. But do you think the ice will break? Was Pannenberg swept away? Depends who you ask. Further out still you have Marcus Borg rejecting the bodily resurrection. Is he going through? Still further out you have theologians who reject the incarnation altogether. As for the open water, there’s no hope for those guys. That’s where the death of God theologians went. And they never had a chance. There was no ice to hold them to begin with.
How far out on the ice we believe it is possible to go will be shaped by our reading of scripture (and our understanding of scripture’s authority), by the shaping of our ecclesial traditions and our own experiences, and by much else besides. It isn’t a simple judgment. But for those of us in the business of retrieving rings on the ice, it is a question we ask on a daily basis.