Lines in the Sand

By Ben Swift

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever in not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. (39 Articles of Religion, 1562)

The trouble with great theologians can be that they are more often than not, very convincing expositionalists, capable of taking their well-ingrained, well-educated perspectives on doctrines and persuading their audience with the backing of Scriptural exegesis and logical arguments. But what occurs when one tries to draw a line in the sand, when it comes to age-old doctrinal debates such as ‘Election’ and ‘Predestination’, is that you can on one particular day, under the tutorage of one school of thought, take out your big stick and draw your line in the sand, only to have a wave of alternative thought swiftly wash it away, preparing a fresh sandy slate for a new line.

C.S. Lewis in his book, ‘Mere Christianity’, cleverly provides his readers with a metaphor for the Christian Church. He likens the Church to a mansion containing numerous rooms, each representing alternative traditions within the one true church body. He suggests that although Christians should be encouraged to meet in the hallways for discussion and debate, they need at some point to make their home in one of the rooms in order that they grow deeper roots and establish relationships that encourage each other in their Christian lives.

Lewis’ suggestion – although wise and worth considering – becomes difficult when the desire to choose a room is hindered by conflicting internal understandings surrounding important doctrinal perspectives. This becomes a particularly strenuous wrestling match when the doctrinal truths that one would seek to align with are scattered throughout different rooms and fail to all exist in a single room.

Having grown up the son of an Anglican Minister, and having frequently moved home as an adult where I have been associated with churches from several denominations, I am reluctant at the thought of settling in just one room within Lewis’ metaphorical house, particularly when I know the room must surely exist, just not in the part of the city within which I now live.

So why is this such a struggle? Can one overthink these things? Recently whilst attending a Presbyterian Church, the Pastor in his sermon on Romans 14 emphasised Paul’s desire for Christians within a church to avoid disputes with fellow members of the church body over issues that are secondary and that don’t define the primary, central truths of the Christian Faith. While this is certainly healthy advice for the strengthening and encouragement of the Church, the problem arises as to where we draw the line in considering what to include as central, doctrinal truths. Concerns may arise that perhaps carry some importance but shouldn’t become the cause of division within the church, but which concerns fall into this category? And who decides? Of course some may be obvious to most but some may be cause for further reflection.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” (Romans 14:19)

Let us take for example the sacrament of Holy Communion. In terms of how often The Lord’s Supper is celebrated throughout the year, churches aligning with a Reformed tradition may show less concern for frequency than churches aligning with Lutheranism. Because the line in the sand separating these two views is not the same, it becomes difficult for a Lutheran to settle in the metaphorical room of the Presbyterians in this case. Why? Brian Thomas suggests, ‘The Reformed tradition is reluctant to accept that God can, and indeed does, work through external signs to bring sinners into saving union with Christ through the Holy Spirit.’ In other words, if you align with the Lutheran perspective on Holy Communion, by being denied regular, frequent opportunities to receive The Lord’s Supper, you are in essence, being denied the promise and presence of God in the meal. This is by no means a secondary concern in this way of thinking.

When it comes to debating about the different beliefs that surround a Calvinist view of double predestination in comparison to single predestination as held by Lutherans and many other protestant Christians, it is often said that we shouldn’t become too caught up in the differences as these are secondary to the centrality of the Gospel message. This becomes a struggle however, if we consider the flow on effects of each position. While much could be and has been written about these endless debates, an important point of difference that is central comes down to the question, “Who did Christ die for?” In other words, how do we read verses of Scripture such as, “And he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

What does it mean, ‘the whole world’? Is it every human being or restricted to the ‘elect’? Are we to settle comfortably in a room that builds its understanding of who Christ died for when it sits on the wrong side of the line we’ve drawn in our understanding of the doctrine of election? Can these questions really become secondary concerns in our faith or do they in fact shape the way we interpret the Gospel message itself, the heart of the Christian Faith?

Perhaps we should be encouraged to take hold of the advice given by many biblical, evangelical scholars who suggest the following when reading and interpreting Scripture:

  1. What is the plain meaning of the text? To put it another way, without trying to read the text into a particular system of thought, what does the text actually say?
  2. Interpret Scripture with Scripture, not with any additional teaching.

As we continue in our Christian journey, seeking to draw lines in the sand that clearly define what we hold as truth, our lines may shift from time to time. It’s true we need to walk the hallways of discussion and debate as C.S. Lewis describes and hopefully, in prayerful consideration, find a room in God’s house in which we can let our roots penetrate. One thing is for certain, we who seek to live in the truth of Christ can all agree, if not always in our theology, on our humble dependence on the Trinity. Our dependence is on God and his Word. (John Stott)

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