In Which I Reject Primary Doctrine

As a school teacher at a private, non-denominational preperatory school, I understand (though am saddened by) the necessity of what are called “Secondary Doctrine” policies. I wonder, though: Doesn’t the terminology imply a number of Helenistic (good old whipping boy) assumptions about systematic theologies and salvation?

Perhaps “Mutual” and “Disputed” would better describe the situation?

And now I wonder, what does that change about our understanding of ‘heresy’ and ‘heretics’?

5 comments on “In Which I Reject Primary Doctrine

  1. But I think the idea of a heirarchy of importance is useful, too. I would die for my primary doctrines (At least I hope I would. As a devout coward, I’d rather not be put to the test.) but not for my secondary ones. And there are tertiary, quaternary, etc. doctrines that I hold with varying degrees of tenacity. On various tiers you might find stuff I’d leave a church over, stuff I’d argue about online, stuff I’d let slide if it came up in a sermon, weird fancies of my little pink brain that I wouldn’t even mention out loud, etc.

    If I were to revise the nomenclature, I’d go with “essential”/”nonessential.” “Mutual” makes me nervous, as it could redefine What’s Really Important on the basis of popular consensus rather than an authoritative standard. Which I suppose is my response to your last question: it could shift our understanding of “heresy” to a place I don’t think it should be.

  2. Thanks for the comments Valerie. Allow me to disagree strongly (with all kinds of brotherly love, of course). I actually think that “essential” and “non-essential” may be even worse than “primary” and “secondary”. Doctrines do not save. Stated doctrines are a description of our best understanding of the way things work. This being the case, no part of this whole that we are attempting to describe is really “non-essential”.

    Nor does Jehovah require us to understand or accurately articulate some all or any doctrinal truths in order to be saved. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ…”. We are to have the absolute, unquestioning love/faith of children. (And yes, we are to be able to give an answer for the hope that we have: snakes and doves, you know.)

    But I digress.

    Remember that I was talking about doctrinal policies in schools. Here, the issue is what we in a given community have articulated with unity (we’ve agreed on how to best describe the Trinty, let’s say), and the collective jury is still out on, for example, eschatology. Premillenialism does not have a ‘re-route to Hell’ tag attached to it (though it is a miss-interpretation of the Scriptures). But that isn’t what makes eschatology a ‘secondary’ doctrine. I also don’t believe that someone who thinks Modalist thoughts about the Trinity is on their way to the lake of fire. Modalism is taught as being categorically wrong (at my school, at least) because we as a community of believers are in mutual agreement on the subject. We are very carefull about issues of eschatology because we as a community of believers have not come to a consensus on that topic yet (and we love each other more than our doctrines, so we are carefull not to offend or stumble one another). That doesn’t have any bearing on what is the case, only what we understand.
    What is ‘primary’ and what is ‘secondary’ in this sense changes both with regard to space and time. In one situation a particular issue is agreed upon vigorously and absolutely. In another the same issue might be disputed just as vigorously. And I might have just walked a few houses down the street. Again with eschatology. It hasn’t been an issue of serious moment in the past. We just didn’t really spend that much time breaking it into its wee little parts and defining every last bit. We’re moving in that direction. At some point we as a church will agree on that topic. And then I suppose it will become ‘primary’. Except in those churches that didn’t get the memo. And that won’t make them ‘heretics’.
    Do you see why I was thinking of using the terms “mutual” and “disputed”?

    Ok, this response is getting absurdly long. Maybe I’ll post something about the heresy issue later. See you next Sunday.


  3. Woelke says:


    I’ve had similar thoughts. I teach Bible, and I’ve become increasingly convinced that there’s no such thing as secondary doctrine. My thought isn’t so much that it’s Hellenistic, though I think you’re dead on about that. And mutual and disputed is a better way to say it.

    I think that all our doctrines are so inseparably entwined that taking away one of them would cause the rest of them to fall. Sure, some of them are foundational, but a house of cards isn’t a house anymore if you remove a card, whether it’s the top card or the bottom.

    I’m also less convinced now that having such policies is helpful to teachers and students. The main way it helps me is to make my job easier, since I don’t have to explain some things and I can say “Ask your parents, or your pastor, or anyone but me.” Then I don’t have to answer the hard questions. It makes my job easier, but it doesn’t necessarily make me a better teacher.

    That said, in my high school days I was firmly behind the Logos way of things.

    I’ve probably said something heretical in there, but it wouldn’t be the first time.

  4. Sorry…been too sick to respond this week. But I promise I’ll get back to mulling sometime when I can string together two coherent hippopotamuses.

  5. Woelke:
    I think you are right that, all things being equal, the policy is detrimental to their education. However, all things usually aren’t equal. Parents (and teachers) do not always have the wisdom and maturity to hold their beliefs loosely and handle conflicting doctrines with love and a desire to become more Christlike (as opposed to winning an argument). And since our schools serve parents with a variety of backgrounds and maturity levels, these sorts of policies do serve a pragmatic function: Keeping the peace and whatnot. It is when we think they reflect “truth” or “reality” or an “actual” hierarchy of doctrine in the mind of Jehovah that there is a problem.

    Valerie: Get better soon. Praying for you.

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