Some Christians seem “all certainty.”  Maybe it makes them feel heroic.  But they see too few gray areas.  Everything is a federal case.  They have a fundamentalist mindset.

Other Christians seem “all openness.”  Maybe it makes them feel humble.  But they see too few black-and-white areas.  They have a liberal mindset — though they may demonstrate a surprising certainty against certainty.

The Bible is our authority as we sort out what deserves certainty and what deserves openness.  1 Corinthians 15:1-4 defines the gospel of Christ crucified for our sins, Christ buried and Christ risen again on the third day, according to the Scriptures, as “of first importance.”  Here is the center of our certainty.

From that “of first importance” theological address, we move out toward the whole range of theological and practical questions asking for our attention.  The more clearly our logic connects with that center, the more certain and the less open we should be.  The further our thinking extrapolates from that center, the less certain and the more open we should be.  When a question cannot be addressed by a clear appeal to the Bible, our conclusions should be all the more modest.

The gospel requires us to have high expectations of one another on biblically central doctrines and strategies, and it cautions us to be more relaxed with one another the further we have to move out from the center.

Building our theology is not like pushing the first domino over, which pushes the next over, and so forth, down the line — each domino of equal weight and each fall equally inevitable.  Rather, building our theology is more like exploring a river.  We start out at the mouth of the river.  It is wide.  There is no decision to make.  All is unmistakably clear.  But then one starts paddling up-river.  As each tributary forks into the river, one must decide which way to go.  Indeed, it may eventually become difficult to distinguish between the river itself and a tributary.  But many decisions must be made along the way, not every one equally obvious.

This is why we need a map of the whole, noting the main features of the topography, such as 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 provides.  There are other scriptures that help us globalize our biblical thinking.  For example, Exodus 34:6-7 is quoted multiple times throughout the rest of the Old Testament.  Clearly, it is an atomically weighted passage that other biblical authors treated as a sort of theological North Star for guidance.  There are other passages meant to help us develop a wise sense of overall theological proportion.

A church or movement may desire, for its own reasons, to define secondary and tertiary doctrines and strategies as important expectations within their own ministry.  That’s okay.  But then it’s helpful to say, “We know this isn’t a dividing line for Christian oneness.  It’s just a decision we’ve made for ourselves, because we think it will help us in our situation.  We realize that other Christians will see it differently, and that’s no problem for us.”

May we become more certain where we’ve been too open and more open where we’ve been too certain, according to Scripture.  And where it seems helpful to provide further definition on our own authority, may we do so with candor and humility but without apology.

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6 thoughts on “Certainty and openness”

  1. Dane says:

    Outstanding Pop.

  2. Jared C. Wilson says:

    This is so good, Ray. Very helpful and articulates so well what we were aiming for at Middletown in adopting baptismal dual practice.

  3. Luma says:

    So grateful for this.

  4. Kandace says:

    I love the analogy of the river….very helpful.

  5. The Believer says:

    Very sound points, Ray, thanks for this one!

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Ray Ortlund


Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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