Christians are typically understood to be, among other things, people who believe certain propositions about God. For example, Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. (Romans 10:9) However, as is so often the case, what initially seems simple becomes much more complicated upon closer inspection. In the past I’ve explored the complexities with discerning just what propositions one must believe to be a Christian. Part of the difficulty is that this list appears to grow through time. For example, assent to the doctrine of the Trinity was not considered a non-negotiable in first century Christianity but it had become so by sixth century Christianity. And so the Athanasian Creed begins:
1. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;
2. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
3. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Paul’s discussion in Romans 10:9 nowhere mentions the demand to worship (and presumably believe in) “one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” So by the sixth century the list of required doctrines had grown longer than it was in Paul’s time. This raises an unsettling question: how long is the list now? And where do we go to find that list?
Perhaps the Catholics can say “Ask the Pope!” Alas, even that answer won’t be adequate after Benedict has stepped down and before the next pope is chosen. Protestants, in turn, have many informal popes from John Piper to Joel Osteen. But which one to believe?
And that isn’t even to address the topic of this post: once we’ve got our list, how firmly must we believe those doctrines to be saved? James wrote:
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. (James 1:5-6)
Doubting is a problem. Belief should not waver. So is the Christian obliged to have doubtless, unwavering belief? Are they required to have certainty? And does this mean that the moment they have less than certainty that they no longer have saving belief?
Surely this can’t be right. For one thing, it would destroy assurance given that most Christians find their conviction about at least some of the beliefs they hold as core to be less than maximally firm at some point in their life. What is more, it would place us perilously close to turning belief into a doxastic work of salvation. And nobody wants to reduce salvation to a type of cognitive Pelagianism.
We may suspect that this can’t be right. But it doesn’t answer the question. Once we surrender the requirement of 100% certainty 100% of the time, how low can our conviction sink and how frequently can it sink to that level, before we are no longer a Christian?