One challenge to the life of Christian faith is trying to determine the best approach to understanding key Christian doctrines and scripture. The book of Genesis is one of the most debated, experts arguing over whether it is metaphorical, literal, or both.
I’ve met skeptics who claim that if Christian experts can’t agree, why should anyone believe the Bible? Isn’t it poor communication on God’s part if certain topics are unclear, even central ones?
There are decent, if not esoteric answers to difficult questions, but if we are not seeking to understand and obey the easier truths and questions, perhaps we should not be so worried about difficult things – we ought to learn to walk before we run. Or as the Apostle Paul wrote:
I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. (1 Corinthians 4:2)
Here’s how to approach such difficulties, rather than using them as a reason to disbelieve or give up.
1. Admit we may be reaching beyond our ability
If we take the example of, for instance, any controversial or hard to understand science, like climate change or quantum physics, most of us do not have the education or the smarts to draw our own conclusions based on the science. So we must admit our inability.
We are all limited and finite, so it makes sense that some ideas will be beyond our ability. We must admit this. Certain spiritual dilemmas may be beyond our ability as humans, not just individuals, as well, chiefly the problem of evil and predestination and free will. 1
2. Be willing to learn the basics before attempting advanced concepts
If we want to understand more complex ideas, we MUST wait and learn the basics first. If we are unwilling to learn the basics and demand understanding at a higher level, then complain that the higher level is incomprehensible, we are being foolish.
3. Use logic to evaluate the experts/teachers
While we may not be able to directly explain the matters at hand, you can look for the red flags of bad teachers and bad ideas.
With regard to bad teachers, you can “judge them by their fruits” (pragmatics). Do they show signs of exaggeration, lies, anger at being challenged, illegitimate logic, or disconnecting their claims from other established or understood disciplines of knowledge (integration)? Probably not trustworthy.
With regard to ideas, how well do they incorporate existing data? How well do they predict? What are their logical, practical, and historical impacts (pragmatics again)?
For more detailed information on these methods, see my post Does God exist? Why empiricism must take a back seat to reason and intuition. 2 We must use logic hand in hand with faith. 3
4. Avoid teachers who deny the essential Christian doctrines
This principle, specific to Christian spiritual matters, is important. As per the Apostle John, there are four red flags with which to identify false teachers:
4.1 They leave the church to start their own thing
Dear children, the last hour is here. You have heard that the Antichrist is coming, and already many such antichrists have appeared. From this we know that the last hour has come. These people left our churches, but they never really belonged with us; otherwise they would have stayed with us. When they left, it proved that they did not belong with us. (1 John 2:18–19 NLT)
While this accusation could be leveled against the entire Protestant Reformation, it has both an original historical meaning as well as a principle that must be judiciously applied. Historically, this is meant to identify those who left the Apostle’s themselves, and by proxy their teachings.
In principle, this is applied today by those who leave the Apostolic teaching, not those who leave the Catholic, Orthodox, or mainline Protestant denominations. However, anyone who starts their own thing while railing against others ought to be looked at with more scrutiny, esp. if it’s as a cult of personality, warned against by Paul in 1 Corinthians:
Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter” or “I follow only Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:12 NLT)
4.2 They don’t love others, esp. Christians
If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead.(1 John 3:14 NLT)
4.3 They deny the deity, sonship, historicity, or centrality of Christ
And who is a liar? Anyone who says that Jesus is not the Christ. Anyone who denies the Father and the Son is an antichrist. Anyone who denies the Son doesn’t have the Father, either. But anyone who acknowledges the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:22–23 NLT)
Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world. This is how we know if they have the Spirit of God: If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God. But if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard is coming into the world and indeed is already here. (1 John 4:1–3 NLT)
4.4 They deny the teachings of the Apostles
Anyone who wanders away from this teaching has no relationship with God. But anyone who remains in the teaching of Christ has a relationship with both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to your meeting and does not teach the truth about Christ, don’t invite that person into your home or give any kind of encouragement. 11 Anyone who encourages such people becomes a partner in their evil work. (2 John 9–11 NLT)
In some circles, it is popular to teach that the Apostle Paul taught a different doctrine than Jesus, so we should trust the words of Jesus but not Paul. This is a denial of apostolic teaching, and is a sign of false teachers.
5. Learn from God directly
But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true—it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ. (1 John 2:27 NLT)
The problem of false teachers is uniquely addressed by the Apostle John, who says that we can turn to the reality of being born again, having the Spirit of God in us to teach us. While this is a highly subjective method, if it is a reality, we can use these intuitions and instruction to avoid false teachings. Admittedly, hearing the voice of God is something we do better as our minds are renewed, and there are biblical principles for learning to identify the voice of God in our inward experience. 4
Nevertheless, John teaches that even if we are immature newborn Christians, we can hear and understand the instruction of God.