When it comes to any debate about any issue that is controversial in the church today the strongly positioned conservative response is to say, “This is what God says!” When the Southern Baptist Convention put a new section into its faith statement against women as pastors/ministers this was the way the president of the SBC put it when asked about why they had chosen this path and changed a statement of faith that had never included these kinds of statements in the past.
At the opposite end of the spectrum the more liberal response to questions about the reality and historicity of Jesus is to debunk the witness of the four Gospels as the naive beliefs of first century writers who knew nothing about a credible scientific world view. The Jesus Seminar, an extreme representative of this kind of liberalism, ends up telling us that very little of the record we have about Jesus can be believed by serious and thoughtful readers in the 21st century.
The church seems poised for continuous battle. On the one side are the maximalists who believe every issue and judgment is clearly framed by a word or a text from the Bible. On the other every word and text in the Bible is subject to social science and revision. These minimalists see very little in the history of Israel, for example, that holds up under the weight of their interpretive genius.
How does the ordinary believer make sense of all of this?
1. He rejects the notion that faith and history are enemies or incompatible sources of truth.
2. He recognizes that true faith is always rooted in the Christian gospel first and foremost. The person of Jesus really is what the faith is primarily about. This has always been true and the various religious expressions of the Christian faith desperately need to recover this Jesus-centric perspective.
3. He accepts the framework that there is a body of core beliefs that give the Christian and the church an essential identity, a place to stand, to speak and to witness faithfully to the world. These beliefs are not entirely found in the creeds of the early church but they are primarily there. We must adopt this perspective or there is no hope of us standing before the world of our time and confessing what Christians have always confessed.
4. He does profess with courage and fidelity to know the Truth but never all the truth. There are matters of faith and practice that we can discuss and work on without further fracturing the whole visible church in the process.
5. He realizes that would-be Christians are to be clearly kept in view while we discuss the meaning of the faith and seek to keep the church faithful to its core identity. This is especially true with regard to contentious issues of morality like abortion and same-sex marriage, etc. (For the record, I am pro-life and oppose same-sex practice in the church.)