The Basis of Christian Belief
by Paul Hazelden


Introduction

Why do Christians believe what they do? The simple answer is that it is all a matter of faith, and that closes the subject.

But faith does not appear from nowhere: faith is always based upon something - and that something can be the subject of rational discussion. So how can Christians from different parts of the church talk to each other about what they believe, unless they understand and have some agreement about the basis of their beliefs?

I would like to emphasise that this article has been written to help Christians from different parts of the church talk to each other more effectively. It was not intended to help people who are not yet part of the church to understand what we believe and why - for that, the Interactive Gospel is a much better option.

Our Fundamental Position

Evangelicals are often described as 'fundamentalists' - and therefore considered to be fanatics. However, I maintain that Evangelicalism is fundamentally opposed to the irrationality of fanaticism, and provides the only solid basis on which Christians from all the mainstream groups can talk with and learn from each other.

The easiest place to start is by being honest about where I am coming from. The best (brief!) summary I have produced is this:
 

I accept the position of the conservative Evangelical Christian, but not all of the beliefs commonly held by such people.

It seems to me that much of the Evangelical world is sadly inconsistent in its beliefs. My point here is not that we so often fail to live up to our beliefs - that is a different problem - but that we believe things which are not consistent with our fundamental position.

Let's unpack this a bit. What is our 'fundamental position'? Most Evangelicals would agree on a statement something like this:
 

The Bible is our supreme authority concerning both faith and practice.

The Liberal typically throws up their hands at this point, gasping at the assumptions being made and the problems being ignored. But, on the face of it, this is not such an unreasonable position. After all, something has to be treated as the 'supreme authority' - or every belief and source of belief has equal validity, and it becomes impossible to believe anything.

Of course, you can choose to evaluate one belief against another without adopting a supreme authority, but in practice this has to mean one of two things: either you keep changing your mind, or you consistently accept something as your supreme authority but choose to ignore the fact. Neither of these sounds like a great option to me.

And if we are to adopt a supreme authority, the Bible is not an obviously bad choice - especially not for a Christian. The main alternatives seem to be human reason (the traditional Liberal position) and church tradition (the traditional Catholic and Orthodox positions).

Reason and Tradition

If we start with human reason, most people would not reach the Christian faith (although, as I have argued elsewhere, there is a reasonable clear route to the Christian faith from this starting point) - so it does not seem terribly obvious to use reason as the basis of or starting point for belief in the Christian faith. You certainly would find it difficult to end up with using church tradition as a way to discover truth.

Similarly, if you start off with church tradition, it is hard to see how you would use either the Bible or human reason for anything much, unless you chose to select a portion of Christian tradition which values those two areas.

However, the Bible affirms both the importance of human reason and of church (or at least, spiritual) tradition, so to be consistent, if we accept the Bible as our supreme authority, then we are forced to take the other two traditional sources of authority very seriously indeed.

Of course, I am not saying that every good Evangelical should immediately believe in Darwinism and worship the Virgin Mary, but we have to accept that we live in the same world as people who believe both those things for very good reasons, and we have a responsibility to engage with them on their terms.
 

If we accept the Bible is our supreme authority we must also accept what it teaches about the importance of both reason and tradition.

Beyond Doctrine

We have to go further. The Bible also teaches us that God is deeply concerned with issues of social justice, with caring for the poor, the oppressed, the outcast. For some reason, many Liberals have a much better grasp of the Bible's teaching in this area than most Evangelicals.

We must also recognise that the Bible teaches us about the reality of supernatural forces, events and experiences. Most Evangelicals accept this in the level of doctrine, but many live in practice as if the supernatural were only of occasional and superficial relevance. But the Bible teaches us about a world in which the supernatural affects and permeates every aspect of the physical and natural existence we are familiar with. It seems that many Pentecostals are far more Biblical than most conservative Evangelicals in this area.

And finally, if we want to understand the Bible, we must recognise that it is not primarily a book of doctrine or principle. It contains laws and wise sayings, but it is a book of stories, songs, poems and letters. It is a book about God, true, but it is also a book about people and how they have discovered and related to this God. In the New Testament, we are clearly shown that Jesus is the central figure around which everything else revolves - in both the Old and the New Testaments.

So the Christian faith is not a set of doctrines. It is not a set of moral teachings, or examples to live up to. It is not a set of spiritual exercises or supernatural experiences. While all these things play their part, the Christian faith is fundamentally about Jesus. Christians are people who follow Jesus, who have discovered in Him a new life and a new way of living - a new way of being human.

A Brief Summary

If we consider the three basic positions that have been adopted by Christians over the centuries, it seems clear that each of them provides some characteristic benefits.

However, this is not to argue that all three positions are therefore equivalent, since, when we consider the three positions in principle, we see that the Evangelical position also provides you with the main benefits of the other two positions, while the other two positions each only provide their own benefits.

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Copyright © 1999 Paul Hazelden
 
http://hazelden.org.uk/pt03/art_pt108_christian_belief.htm was last updated 5 October 2007
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