In this excerpt from my new book, No Time for Itching Ears, I want to explain the rationale between defining doctrines as primary, secondary and tertiary. I then make the case that the plain, historical reading of Genesis constitutes a primary doctrine.
Three Point Scale of Doctrines Defined
I have not come across any other comment on the relative rankings of doctrines, like the one that I am about to use. But I like to classify doctrines as Primary, Secondary and Tertiary.
Primary Doctrines are essential indicators of orthodoxy. Without an acceptance of these doctrines, the subject is outside of the church and therefore outside of fellowship. To clarify this point, a new Christian may not have got all their doctrine straight, and might, for example, not fully understand the concept of the Trinity (and none of us fully understand it!). But when such a primary doctrine is explained, if the subject consistently rejects it, and says they cannot accept it, one must doubt whether they have really been saved at all. If such a doctrine is a primary doctrine, then the Holy Spirit will witness to people that the doctrine is true. Examples of primary doctrines are the ones on which I focus in this book.
Secondary Doctrines are not unimportant. A church ought to take an official position on such a doctrine. But in joint church initiatives it ought to be possible to work with people who do not share these doctrines. For example, I hinted above that I hold to the doctrine of Believers’ Baptism by immersion. Not everyone who works for a ministry, like the one for which I work, will necessarily agree with me on this. Christian ministries may not be able to take a position on such a secondary doctrine. But my church does take a position on this, and it should. Other examples of secondary doctrines would be Calvinism vs. Arminianism, or differing eschatological positions, or what position one takes on the Baptism into the Holy Spirit.
Tertiary Doctrines are those, on which people even within a church will differ. Such doctrines would include how the Sunday School should be taught, or different modes of worship music.
This book can only concentrate on Primary Doctrines, and does not even cover all of these! However, one of the Primary Doctrines is not listed as a chapter heading. It is the doctrine of biblical creationism – that the Genesis account is one of literal history. Many, many Christians assume that the issue of creationism is a secondary doctrine. Can I justify placing it as a primary? I believe I can. Of course, it is possible to be saved without believing in 6-day creationism. The point is that such a belief impinges on a belief in the authority and inerrancy of scripture. It is part of the purpose of this book to show that failure to believe in Genesis leads to a weak view of inerrancy and therefore a lack of authority for any of the other doctrines. It is the contention of this book that all Christian doctrines are founded on a foundation of Genesis.
Let me explain how this principle outworks in practice. I will make no comment on where I stand on the Calvinism/Arminianism divide. One usually hears from godly people on both sides that they accept one another as Bible-believing Christians, even though they differ on this point. In practice, however, Christians on both sides often find difficulty in fellowshipping together in parachurch ministries. Yet Christians on both sides will often find it easy to fellowship with someone from the same side, even if that other person disagrees that Genesis should be taken as literal.
For example, I once used this analogy to a conference almost entirely made up of Calvinists. Person A is a Calvinist who believes Genesis in a 6-day creation, as Genesis teaches.. Person B is a Calvinist, who believes in long day-ages. Person C is an Arminian who believes in a 6-day creation. My challenge to Person A is “who do you find it easier to have fellowship with”? In practice, it will usually be Person B – and I have no doubt that a similar scenario put to an Arminian would provoke an analogous response. My argument is that Person A should have more in common with Person C. That is because the issue of the truth of Genesis is a primary doctrine, but Calvinism vs. Arminianism is secondary.
There are many who will struggle with that last concept – and might struggle even more if I had used cessationism/pentecostalism as the secondary divide. What I want to convince you of, gentle reader, is that the secondary issues are held by sincere people, who equally believe the Bible to be true, but differ on the interpretation of certain passages. But the disagreement on Genesis is not between different interpretations. It is between those who interpret Genesis, and those who simply read what it plainly says. The secondary doctrines have arisen because some passages of scripture are hard to get a handle on. Differing views of Genesis have built up, because there are those who understand perfectly well what Genesis actually says, but use extra-biblical filters, such as evolution, millions of years or the Big Bang, as an authority over and above the plain reading.
No Time for Itching Ears
This book, therefore, is a plea for a return to the love of sound doctrine. It is a plea it recognize that Genesis is the foundation of all Christian doctrine, and that such doctrine is important and essential. If the time will come – and, indeed, I am of the opinion that it has already come – when they will not endure sound doctrine, then this book is a plea to reverse that trend. The need for sound doctrine is great. This is no time for itching ears!