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Is doctrine flexible?

I’m taking part in an online discussion at Barnes & Noble with Rob Bell about his new book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. It just began Monday, so it’s early in the conversation, but some interesting themes have popped up already.

In the book, Rob writes about doctrine and belief being more like flexible springs of a trampoline rather than rigid bricks in a wall. He discusses how our thoughts about God grow and change over time; the Truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of Truth does.

Doctrine is typically viewed as a set of immutable statements to be accepted as truth.

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian FaithThe Hebrew people, as they sought to know God, came to understand truth as unfolding; a developing, growing understanding of how things really are. This is different from our typical Western view of truth being a static, unchanging principle. Ray VanderLaan has some great reading about this at followtherabbi.com.

I don’t remember if Rob Bell referenced this in the book or not, but I’ve heard of how the Jewish rabbis used to think of the Torah like a cut gem with many faces. As the gem is turned and viewed from different angles, the light reflects differently from the many faces. As we seek to know God, we’ll grow in our understanding of who He is. We may stand on a previous understanding (from Paul, Luther, Wesley, Bonhoeffer…) and take those ideas further. Isaac Newton put it this way: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." We may even discover something ‘new’.

Let me try an example as I think this through.

In elementary school I learned multiplication. Practiced reciting my two’s tables and five’s tables and did the finger trick with the nine’s tables until I knew the answers. As I moved through middle school and high school, I came to see how multiplication actually worked and what it meant for compound interest and linear functions and graphing… In college, multiplication had become a natural mathematic tool for me to use and went on to using that understanding in my calculus classes and for differential equations… Multiplication never changed. I just understood a little more deeply how it works and what it does and how it impacts so many other areas of mathematics.

Like Rob Bell wrote in the book, doctrine isn’t the point. “They help us understand the point, but they are a means and not an end. We take them seriously, and at the same time we keep them in proper perspective. … The springs aren’t God. They have emerged over time as people have discussed and studied and experienced and reflected on their growing understanding of who God is.”

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