[Original article published in 2012, updated in 2017)
Evangelical writer Norman Geisler’s teachings are fairly widespread, and much has been said about “the orthodox Christian faith” regarding them. The term “orthodox” has been thrown around so much, it seems it is simply being taken for granted that everyone agrees on what it means. Given the tenor of many of the discussions, however, this does not appear to be the case. What has been helpful about these ongoing discussions is that certain issues are becoming more clear. One of these is the problem of discerning Christian orthodoxy – and this is the most important and far-reaching one. For, as Geisler himself warns:
“The truth is that if orthodoxy is to be preserved, then (a) there must be a standard, and (b) it must be possible to determine someone has fallen short of it, and (c) there must be consequences for falling short of it, and (d) these consequences should be feared (respected) by those desiring to be considered orthodox.”
With this statement I completely agree (as I hope any Christian would!). The issue, however, is what that standard is and how it is grounded. This is where things become difficult – for if agreement cannot be found over the standard or its ground, then there is little hope of using such a standard to solve any real debates.
A Parsimonious Orthodoxy?
Good examples of this problem come from Geisler’s own career. In many discussions Robert Gundry’s removal from ETS is mentioned, referring to the time when Geisler successfully argued that Gundry’s position did not satisfy the standard of ETS’s doctrinal statement. What is not as often mentioned is the similar situation that arose about 20 years later with Clark Pinnock’s retention at ETS where Geisler – although he used much the same tactics – was not successful. Now, with the Licona debate, Geisler is pitting the standard of the ICBI (or, some say, his own interpretations of the ICBI) against Licona’s views. I am not interested in commenting on these particular debates here. Rather, I wish to point out that when Geisler argues that his opponents by alleging that they are breaking some standard, he often concludes that such departure is a threat to Christian orthodoxy (whether or not said standard is said to be the standard for Christian orthodoxy per se). The result of this equivocation is confusion on both sides of the debate, for (as all sides should agree), neither Geisler, nor the ETS, nor the ICBI, set the standard for Christian orthodoxy.
Before orthodoxy can be defended it must be defined. What, then, is the standard for Christian orthodoxy?
Determining Methodological Orthodoxy
In 2005, Geisler wrote a two-part article in The Christian Research Journal [CRJ] titled The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One: A Historical Approach and Part Two: The Logical Approach). Modified forms of these articles were later incorporated into a book Geisler wrote with Ron Rhodes in 2008 titled Conviction Without Compromise [CWC], and most recently Preserving Orthodoxy: Maintaining Continuity with the Historic Christian Faith on Scripture [PO]. At issue in these articles was the identification of the “essentials of the faith” (i.e., orthodoxy). Geisler lists these essentials using his “Logical Method,” and compares them to the results of the “Historical Method.”
Apart from a merely passing interest in Geisler’s theological method, there is much at stake here theologically. Geisler lists three reasons why it is important to identify the essentials:
(1) the essentials are the basis for Christian unity,
(2) the essentials distinguish cults of Christianity from true Christianity, and
(3) the essentials are the only truths over which we rightly can divide.
The importance, therefore, of discerning the correct list of essentials can be clearly seen.
The problem is that there are several flaws in Geisler’s “Logical Method” which I believe demonstrate that, in reality, the results are simply a restatement of Geisler’s previously-held beliefs. It is important to note that whether Geisler’s list is accurate or not is not at issue here. Rather, it is the dangers of his flawed method that are of concern. I will argue that while Geisler points to the Bible (interpreted according to the “Grammatical-Historical” hermeneutic method) as being the standard for Christian orthodoxy, what Geisler ends up doing (probably unintentionally) is setting up his own beliefs as the standard. It is this move that creates so much of the controversy and confusion among Geisler’s fans and critics alike.
I will address these flaws below after a brief explanation of Geisler’s method.
Geisler’s “Logical” Method
After looking at the “Historical Method” that the church actually used for determining orthodoxy, Geisler suggests another way to discover the essentials – a method he calls “The Logical Approach.” Geisler begins with the gospel message and then lists the doctrines that he deduces are crucially connected to it (i.e., necessary to be true for salvation to be possible, but not necessary to be believed in order to be saved). Based on this method, Geisler comes up with his list of such doctrines.
In addition to these soteriolological essentials, Geisler adds that the Bible as inerrant, infallible, and inspired Scripture is also an epistemological (or revelational) essential, because we could not know the essentials otherwise. Finally, the hermeneutical (or interpretive) essential is listed as the means by which we can properly derive the other essentials from Scripture. While the practical results of this method are not necessarily problematic as such, this method is considerably so.
I will detail the issues I see with Geisler’s method below, moving through each section as mapped above from left to right.
Hermeneutical Essential (for Interpretation): The Grammatical-Historical Method
The grammatical-historical method (GHM) is considered by Geisler to be “the fundamental method that makes possible our knowledge of all the doctrinal essentials” without which “there is no orthodoxy” [CRJ]. According to Geisler, Sola Scriptura itself is dependent on the GHM to function. It is, therefore, a sort of essential-of-essentials.
The first problem here is that the GHM is not stated in the gospel, nor any other passage in Scripture. The best one could do is show that in cases where the Scripture “interprets itself” (a rarity), that its results are the same as those which an interpreter using the GHM would have arrived. This would certainly not work in all cases, though. Consider the example of the prophetic fulfillments of Jesus Christ as listed by Matthew. Most of the fulfillments are more of the “fully-filling” variety than confirmations of miraculous predictive accuracy. For example, the virgin birth prophecy of Isa. 7 does not (if taken literally) seem to extend past the lifetime of the prophet, and thus would have been false had it only terminated in the birth of Jesus. And Matthew’s citing of Hosea’s “out of Egypt I called my son” passage is even stranger considering that it was originally a reference to a past event. Now, there are no real interpretive or theological problems here, for prophecies can have multiple referents – but these are not something the GHM would have picked up on. So if Geisler wishes to include the GHM in his list of essential Christian doctrines, he needs to explain how he deduced it using his “Logical Method.”
A more important issue for this discussion is that, as an essential, Geisler thinks the GHM can promote unity, detect cults, and be useful for making divisive decisions. But there is plenty of disagreement to be found in the Church today among those who espouse the theological principle of Sola Scriptura and the hermeneutical principle of the GHM (and, in fact, the these often correlate). But this is the very problem an essential is supposed to solve.
Further, if the essentials are those which we must divide over, are we to divide over any interpretation that seems to threaten the GHM even if it does not directly threaten orthodox doctrine? The fact is that issues acknowledged to be secondary are often fought over more fiercely when linked to an alleged denial of Sola Scriptura or the GHM. Geisler himself has gained a reputation for categorizing theological or interpretive differences as equivalent to such denials; and because the disagreement is linked to “an essential,” Geisler can justify charging his opponent(s) with unorthodoxy or heresy.
Epistemological Essential (for Revelation): The Inspired, Inerrant, Infallible, Bible
Geisler lists the inspiration (and the resulting inerrancy and infallibility) of Scripture as the next-most-important essential. Again, it is not the theological truth espoused here that is at issue. This time the problem concerns how this essential really pans out in the practical reality of determining the rest of the essentials.
As Geisler admits, “An inerrant Scripture is not necessary for salvation. People were saved before there was a Bible, and people are saved through reading errant copies of the Bible” (CRJ). So the Bible is apparently not itself an essential because its truths can and have been communicated prior to its existence (and this is technically true – see Does Christianity Need the Bible?). Geisler also notes that this doctrine is only applicable to the original writings. So, since we no longer have these writings, and because we did not need them to discover the essentials in the first place, the theological truths of inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility, do not seem to provide much in the way of practically discovering essentials.
Further, since the Bible is really a collection of writings, Geisler, if he wishes to remain consistent, would also have to deduce the correct collection (“canon”) of inspired books without reliance on the “Historical Method.” But this would be difficult, if not impossible – for no logical criteria accounts for every canonical book without either excluding some canonical books, or including non-canonical books (see The Relation of Scripture and Tradition). The essential of “inspiration” is of no help here, for it would be both a circular and practically unhelpful condition for discovering which books were inspired! Further, not only do we not have an inspired table of contents for the Bible, the inspired Bible does not have an inspired list of the essentials either (hence the need for Geisler’s article).
So, while biblical inspiration is certainly a theological position that all Christians should uphold, it is difficult to see how it is practically useful for determining the essentials. But this is the very reason Geisler includes it as an essential.
Soteriological Essentials (for Salvation): The Requirements for Salvation
While Geisler’s actual list of soteriological essentials is decent, it raises some notable problems. Again, it is not so much Geisler’s conclusions, but his method that is problematic. As will be shown, the results of the method are inconsistent, and this is where Geisler’s equation of essential Christian doctrine with his own thinking becomes most clear.
Simply put, his own method has produced different lists. The following is from his CRJ article:
(1) human depravity, (2) Christ’s virgin birth, (3) Christ’s sinlessness, (4) Christ’s deity, (5) Christ’s humanity, (6) God’s unity, (7) God’s triunity, (8) the necessity of God’s grace, (9) the necessity of faith, (10) Christ’s atoning death, (11) Christ’s bodily resurrection, (12) Christ’s bodily ascension, (13) Christ’s present high priestly service, and (14) Christ’s second coming, final judgment (heaven and hell), and reign. [CRJ]
Note that there were 14 “essentials” listed in the CRJ but there are 15 in CWC. Geisler split #14 into two items, and “Christ’s reign” was dropped from the list altogether.
Geisler’s method produced yet another list in 2017 with his self-publication of Preserving Orthodoxy (which is basically his polemic against the scholars I listed in the introduction). Although it was once an “essential”, in PO Geisler dropped Final Judgment!
If Geisler’s process is a logical deduction from necessary doctrines related to salvation, it is incredible that his results change from one list to another.
Further, Geisler includes doctrines that do not seem to fulfill his own “logical” criteria. Is it truly necessary, for example, for Jesus to have been virgin-born in order to save mankind? Well, there are theological arguments for that position – and Geisler provides some – but could it not have occurred any other way logically? Much of the atonement’s meaning and process has been debated by theologians over the centuries, so this “logical” deduction appears to be fairly theory-laden at the least.
The biggest problem lies in the fact that Geisler fails to include doctrines that are included in the gospel itself! Christ’s burial and appearances are specifically stated to be part of the gospel “by which you are being saved” (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). If Geisler’s essentials are truly deduced from the gospel, how could elements of the gospel itself not be included? Given the alleged correlation between Geisler’s list and the historical Church’s (see below), one would expect that Christ’s burial, at least, would have been included, for it is included in the Nicene Creed. In any case, if these constituent elements of the gospel are not considered by Geisler to be “crucial,” then he will have to explain why.
For each of the above reasons, Geisler’s “Logical Method” leaves much to be desired.
The Church’s “Historical” Method
Geisler lists and comments upon the great creeds of Christianity in part one of his two-part CRJ article. Geisler notes that when the findings of his “Logical Method” is “applied to the list discovered by the historical approach, the same basic doctrines emerge.” In fact, Geisler introduces his list by saying, “The list of essential Christian doctrines that emerge from the early creeds and councils includes . . . .” However, while it is true that many of the essentials on his list appear in the creeds, the reverse is not true – and some of Geisler’s connections are questionable at best. Further, there are other affirmations in the creeds (some that meet Geisler’s “soteriological criteria”) that he does not accept.
First, when comparing Geisler’s list to the creeds, one must be careful not to confuse words with word meanings. Geisler occasionally takes a phrase (or even a single word) as equivalent to an entire doctrine. For example, Geisler equates the introductory affirmation “I believe” (credo) with the doctrine of the necessity of faith for salvation. Yet that is hardly what the mere statement “I believe” implies (for then anyone’s – even an atheist’s – report of some belief could be equivalent to affirmation of the doctrine!). In another example, Geisler takes the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures” (in reference to the resurrection) as counting toward making “biblical revelation” an essential. But that is not how creed is using the phrase (and of course something can be “in accordance with” biblical revelation without biblical revelation being “necessary for” our knowledge of it).
The second issue is that Geisler also leaves out many items that would be included if the creeds were taken at face value. Not surprisingly, this list seems to track with Geisler’s theology. For example, the creeds seem to affirm (especially when their historical setting is taken into consideration) the following views that Geisler disagrees with: a single resurrection, a single visible church, apostolic succession, and baptismal regeneration. This discrepancy is especially noticeable when those things are said by the creeds to be salvific – such as “Baptized for the forgiveness of sins” in the Nicene Creed. Further, Geisler denies that belief in the content of the creeds is necessary for salvation – even when a creed itself says so (cf. the Athanasian Creed).
Now, none of this argues for the truth or necessity of these creedal affirmations, but it does show that Geisler does not really treat the creeds as having any authority or evidential power outside of his own thinking. When a creed happens to agree with him, Geisler feels free to use it as a test for orthodoxy (example) or as evidence that his method works. But when a creed affirms something Geisler does not agree with, its authority and evidential usefulness ends.
Not only is this an inconsistent theological method, it also raises some difficult questions regarding the trustworthiness of the Church’s creeds (and, consequently, the councils that produced them). Scholars from the Reformed, Evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, and even Baptist traditions have voiced the same kinds of concerns over the results of failing to acknowledge historically authoritative tradition in the early Church (see the resources used in this study below).
Geisler, however does not take this route. He denies that the “Historical Method” yields an authoritative answer when he writes,
“Early tradition can be a helpful and supplemental source in interpreting Scripture without it being an authoritative source.” [“A Critical Review of The Shape of Sola Scriptura” Christian Apologetic Journal Vol 4, no. 1 (2005): 120].
Geisler offers something of an acknowledgment of the authority of the “Historical Method” when he borrows [part of] Anglican Bishop Lancelot Andrews’s famous statement in affirming that:
“Unity among all major sections of Christendom is found in the statement: One Bible, two testaments, three confessions, four councils, and five centuries.”
This is all well and good, but the question is why only trust the Church up to the fourth council, or for only certain parts of the creeds? Without a principled reason to accept only some of the results of the “Historical Method” it comes across as theological question begging. Geisler needs to account for his “Logical Method’s” limitations on the results of the “Historical Method” (affirmation of which should not be taken to imply acceptance of any particular authoritative tradition such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy – for the authority that may be recognized in the dogmatic pronouncements of the united church of the first millennium does not necessarily transfer to those of the various branches of the divided church that exists today; and even if it did, discerning which branch[es] maintain that authority is at least a very different kind of investigation than the one being conducted here.)
In the end there are simply too many holes in Geisler’s method to judge it trustworthy – and for these holes to be plugged, Geisler would need to justify all of the above inconsistencies. (Which he continued to fail to do in his self-published book Preserving Orthodoxy which came out years after this article was made public.)
Identifying the essential doctrines that determine orthodoxy is an issue all Christians must deal with – as well as the consequences of the method they choose to do so. Geisler has offered two methods for discerning Christian orthodoxy: one that he tacitly rejects when it does not agree with his views, and another that basically reduces to them. It seems, therefore, that Geisler’s “Logical Method” leaves us with a rather “subjective orthodoxy” (an oxymoron if ever there was one!).
Although it works fine for explaining what Geisler already thinks, other theologians employing the “Logical Method” would simply come up with a different list of “essentials” that corresponded to their own set of theological positions. But that is the very thing a list of orthodox essentials should combat.
Further, whether his theological conclusions are right or wrong, Geisler’s seemingly autocratic treatment of the issues in question threaten both objective orthodoxy and the evangelical tradition he espouses. If Geisler is to succeed as a “Defender of Christian Orthodoxy,” then he will need to come up with a more legitimate means of discovering it. Otherwise it will continue to seem that he is only defending his own views and trying to impose them on others.