In the mid 1950s a 40-something man stumbled into a Parisian church. He came to hear the organist, a performer known throughout the city for her remarkable skill. He had no desire to be seen at a church, so he always sat in the back and avoided eye contact with the parishioners and pastor. But after the music he always stayed to hear the sermon and after a few weeks he began to stay after the service to ask the pastor various questions. One of his first questions concerned how to read Genesis 1-3. He found a strict, young-earth creationism completely fallacious for a variety of reasons. The pastor didn’t press him on the point and instead encouraged a more metaphorical or mythological reading of the text emphasizing the core principles that evil is not native to creation, that God is not the author of evil, and that human beings are, to borrow a phrase from Scot McKnight, “cracked eikons.” They are beautiful and fallen, simultaneously saint and sinner. The visitor found that reading more plausible and their conversations continued. Eventually, the man asked if he could be baptized. For personal reasons, he asked that the baptism be private. The minister said he couldn’t accommodate him on that matter, for baptism is meant as a public identification with Christ and his people. The visitor and the minister agreed to take some time to pray about it and revisit the issue after the minister returned from a few months abroad. But before he returned, the man was killed in a car accident.
The visitor was French-Algerian novelist Albert Camus. He came after his break with fellow writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, a dispute that had led to Camus being abandoned by the entire French intelligentsia. He was a man alone, rejected by friends and on the other side of several failed marriages. At his lowest point, he visited a church to hear the organ music, and so began his conversations with a minister.* (See note at bottom.) Eventually, through that minister’s wisdom, intelligence, and care, Camus asked to be baptized. Unfortunately, he died before that could happen. But I want to draw special attention to the minister’s handling of Camus’ questions about Genesis, for it’s in that story that I find the best argument for allowing space in evangelicalism for less traditional beliefs about non-essential matters.
Suppose Camus had stumbled into the church in which I grew up rather than that church in Paris. Or suppose he stumbled into a church pastored by a graduate of Al Mohler’s Southern Seminary. Had he asked the same questions there, the training of those pastors would have them say “No, Christianity teaches a strict young earth creationism, you can’t accept evolution in any way and be Christian.” In other words, they would slam the church’s door in Camus’ face over the issue of young earth creationism. These being the same people who would insist dogmatically that there is no salvation for anyone outside the Christian faith. In other words, unless you’re a Christian, you burn. And to be a Christian, you have to reject almost all modern geology and biology and adopt a young earth creationist view. That is a dreadfully serious thing. To many outside the church, such a teaching amounts to a doctrine of justification by ignorance.
My point, of course, is not that we should take the rough edges off the faith to appease the caprices of a culture. Indeed, the minister did insist that Camus’ baptism be public, despite the fact that it would almost certainly destroy what little credibility Camus had left with the French post-war intelligentsia. Baptism would have come to Camus at great cost. He had already broken with Sartre, an unpardonable sin in the eyes of post-war French intellectuals. To go the next step and become a Christian would have been unthinkable. In fact, he was working on what he hoped would be his masterpiece, a novel he never finished that would be called The First Man. To be baptized publicly would have sunk that book before it was even published, a heartbreaking fate for a writer like Camus. And yet the minister was willing to demand Camus pay that price if he would become a Christian. So my point is most certainly not that we allow each generation and each culture to define Christianity in the terms most comfortable for them. Rather, my point is that we must be exceedingly cautious in demanding adherence to our particular tradition’s interpretation of non-essential matters.
This does, of course, assume we can define what is essential and what is non-essential. On this point I know no better handling of the question than that of John Newton in a letter to a friend:
If it should be asked, Which are the necessary things? I answer, Those in which the spiritual worshipers of all ages and countries have been agreed. Those, on the contrary, are mere subordinate matters, in which the best of men, those who have been the most eminent for faith, prayer, humility, and nearness to God, always have been, and still are, divided in judgments.
A simple way to sum up those matters in which Christians of all ages have been agreed would be the founding creeds of our faith, principally the Apostles and Nicene Creeds.
If someone rejects Christianity because they take issue with the creeds, then so be it. There is nothing that can be done. We cannot shave off the edges of the faith to appease those intrigued by the Christian faith but not yet willing to embrace it. Without repentance, there is no Christianity. And without a standard of authority to which we must align ourselves, there is no repentance. There are doctrines which you are obligated to accept if you wish to call yourself a Christian. But young earth creationism or exclusivism is not such a doctrine. The only thing that should keep someone from rejecting Christianity is the Gospel itself. If someone rejects Christianity because they cannot accept exclusivism, young earth creationism, complementarianism, or Calvinism, then they are rejecting a mansion because they don’t care for the color of the walls in the bedroom of one of the other residents; they reject it because they dislike a room they need never enter.
It is not that exclusivism, young earth creationism, complementarianism, or Calvinism are immoral or unbiblical. Quite the opposite, actually. There’s a strong biblical and moral case to be made for each (though for some the case is stronger than others). I have a great deal of respect for many of their most popular adherents and a great love for many of the less popular, some of whom are my closest friends. However, these are not essential matters of the faith. And we must not speak of them as though they are. If we do, we’ll soon find ourselves in the ironic position of citing an inclusivist in our relentless attack against inclusivism. Moreover, we will put ourselves in the position of needlessly slamming the door to the faith in the face of sincerely broken people seeking help, love and affirmation – and it is difficult to find anything that looks less like Jesus than that.
*(This story of Camus is based on an admittedly questionable memoir by that minister. Due to the nature of the story, which is unsubstantiated by any other biographer of Camus, it’s very difficult to prove if this happened or not. So don’t read this as a statement that Camus became a Christian. From my reading of Camus – and I’ve read all of his novels and a good many of his essays – I don’t find the suggestion absurd. When you read Camus you find someone whose thought has overlap with Christianity, whether he knows it or not. This is especially true in his final book, The Fall, in which the protagonist arrives at a sort of reconciliation with himself and the world through confession of his wrongs to another. The purpose of the confession is to gain power over the other, but it’s still, to use Christian jargon, redemption being achieved through confession of sin to another being. The purpose of confession for Camus is different from Christianity, but that’s still a fascinating similarity and comes much closer to Christianity than anything you’ll find in Sartre or Beauvoir, for example. So there’s an undeniable overlap in his later thought with classic Christianity. He certainly never comes across as Christian in any of his published work, especially in his earliest work. However, it’s much easier to imagine him converting than it is to imagine the same of his former friend Sartre, a man whose scorn for the faith was never in doubt. In any event, the historicity of the minister’s tale is not essential to my argument; my point is that we shouldn’t allow non-essential matters to keep individuals from becoming members of the church.)