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Every time I revisit questions about God's nature on Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange I can't help but come out with more doubts than convictions. For example, take a look at the following questions:

When questions about Christology, Pneumatology and the nature of God in general can cause so much debate and doctrinal division among Christians, with arguments both for and against each conceivable position, it is very hard for me to accept the idea that one has to embrace a particular doctrinal position about God's nature as an essential condition for salvation, as opposed to simply withholding judgement. Personally, I see no other way to hold a strong conviction about the nature of God than God Himself revealing these details about Himself in a crystal clear manner to the individual, through a special revelation.

Question: Are there any Christian groups or denominations that do not see having a definite doctrinal position on God's nature as essential for salvation, even if they, personally, have one? Or in more colloquial terms, are there any Christian groups or denominations that either lack a definite doctrinal position on God's nature OR believe in one but say "we believe that God's nature is best described by X, but if you are not sure or have doubts about X, that's okay, you can still be saved" ?


Related: Is there a name for a category of Christians who lack a doctrinal position in the debate about God's nature?

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The United Church of Canada is the second largest Christian denomination in Canada, behind only the Roman Catholic Church. It was founded in 1925 as a union of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational Union churches.

Over the years, its doctrines have become wimpier and wimpier:

We believe in the one only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being and perfections; the Lord Almighty, who is love, most just in all His ways, most glorious in holiness, unsearchable in wisdom, plenteous in mercy, full of compassion, and abundant in goodness and truth. We worship Him in the unity of the Godhead and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three persons of the same substance, equal in power and glory.
Twenty Articles of Doctrine (1925)

We believe in God, the eternal personal Spirit, Creator and Upholder of all things. We believe that God, as sovereign Lord exalted above the world, orders and overrules all things in it to the accomplishment of His holy, wise, and good purposes. We believe that God made man to love and serve Him; that He cares for him as a righteous and compassionate Father; and that nothing can either quench His love or finally defeat His gracious purpose for man. So we acknowledge God as Creator, Upholder, and Sovereign Lord of all things, and the righteous and loving Father of men.
A Statement of Faith (1940)

We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit.
A New Creed (1968) | The United Church of Canada

God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description.
A Song of Faith (2006) ("This statement of faith seeks to provide a verbal picture of what The United Church of Canada understands its faith to be in its current historical, political, social, and theological context at the beginning of the 21st century.")

Meanwhile the United Church of Canada reversed its position on many social issues:

1980 The church approves the Contraception and Abortion policy, supporting a woman’s right to choose.
1986 The church encourages the use of a variety of metaphors, images, and pronouns for God in documents, worship, and liturgy.
A Timeline of Gender and Transgender Justice in The United Church of Canada

And here and now in 2021, searching my local congregation's web site reveals a total of 2 pages that use the word "God":

ABOUT US
Emmanuel United is a member of the Western Ontario Waterways Region of the United Church of Canada. When people first come to Emmanuel, they always comment on how friendly and welcoming the people are – that is important to us. We are diverse, affirming and inviting. As a centre of community, Emmanuel shares its space with other faith groups, a preschool, an ESL program, a music school, exercise classes and various other groups. Our sanctuary is wheelchair accessible, and we have the equipment to help the hearing impaired and large print hymn books for those with poor visio [sic]
Affirming Community
We are committed to fostering a safe community where all are welcome. We acknowledge all as children of God regardless of age, gender identity, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability or economic circumstance. We celebrate the blessings that diversity creates.

OUR MISSION
Emmanuel United Church is an inclusive, multi-generational faith family. In response to God’s love and guided by Christ’s Spirit, we journey together. A growing, nurturing, forgiving, and affirming community, joyfully celebrating our faith and reaching out to all with compassion and hope. Living out its mission, Emmanuel also hosts the Waterloo Wayside Centre and Vera’s Place.

The church is ecumenical, has a women's shelter, feeds the homeless, actively welcomes gays, immigrants, and other non-mainstream groups, and participates in many social activities and community events.

Beyond "God is Holy Mystery", I doubt they have "a definite doctrinal position on God's nature", much less regard anything "as essential for salvation".

Caring and helping; welcoming and accepting; love, peace, and happiness; etc. are more than enough.

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  • Where I live (Greater Vancouver, BC) I see that UCC churches everywhere, but they look like a dying church. See 2025 projection. 2018 statistics shows it follows projection. I think a church that waters down its doctrines continually eventually closes because it doesn't fulfill the function for providing a sure path anymore. What do you think? Do you think UCC will stay longer? Oct 25 at 22:15
  • @GratefulDisciple, more and more they seem to be just another social organization and a good place for do-gooders to hang out. I'm sure they get most of their funding from donations for their specific causes rather than from tithing their spiritual community (if they have any left). I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly isn't my idea of what a church should be. ¶ People want to hear the hard truth (even if it's a lie). Most don't want to simply be told to love everyone and everything will be fine. It's difficult to imagine new religious members joining. Oct 25 at 23:05
  • That's my impression as well. And I agree with you that it's not necessarily a bad place as long as there is a match of expectation from both sides. It's just they seem to move farther and farther from the Bible's idea of a church. Maybe someday, if they still exist, they might want to drop the name "church", and everyone will be happy :-). Oct 25 at 23:37
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Summary Answer

No. Not, when it comes to the doctrine of God, because from the group's vantage point, that knowledge is essential for salvation and the group's job is to lead you to salvation.

  • Notice that it is a different question than whether other groups who hold different doctrines of God can be saved. It depends on the group; some groups are more exclusive than others.

  • Notice also that the group usually will differentiate between believing God and knowing the intricacies of the doctrine of God. What the group typically asks you, especially if you are still a child, is to believe God and start praying to Him. And by joining the group you at least show a willingness to entertain and to learn the group's definition of the nature of God, instead of rejecting it out of hand.

@Ray Butterworth presented an interesting counterexample, the mainline Protestant United Church of Canada which used to be thriving but has been declining in membership and attendance: see 2013 statistics with projection for 2025 and how in 2018 the numbers seem to follow the projection so far. If this is caused by the watering down of its doctrines, then this proves my answer is correct, since by watering down too much, a church becomes more like a social group.

A Christian group's raison d'etre is to offer a theory of God

Every group will ask her members to subscribe to a certain theory of the nature of God since the very logic of the Christian salvation demands the member to take an Action based on that Theory. This is different than Buddhism / Hinduism.

Sure, it's not the theory that saves, but God through Jesus who is present now in his Holy Spirit. But salvation is a LIFETIME PROCESS, not a one time event of simply saying "I believe, X, Y, Z" and then you're saved. It's a marriage, and this requires a certain dependence on your spouse, God; the theory simply helps one to make sure this relationship leads you to the right outcome (heaven). It is like during the dating period where you are ascertaining some provisional beliefs about the NATURE and PERSONALITY of your fiancée before you are daring enough to later propose and to go through with the wedding. If you are rational, would you go into the marriage without at least believing something about your fiancée?

Sure, these provisional beliefs will be tested and modified by your experience as the marriage turns from 5 year, 10 year, 25 year to 50 year golden anniversary. But an initial set of beliefs IS needed to take action. In fact, behind every subsequent act relating to this God, like prayer, worship, going to mass, etc., there is a theory which gives your mind the REASON why you perform that act. It's unavoidable for us humans because we are RATIONAL animal, not a being that performs only by instinct.

Thus, the group's VERY reason of being, its raison d'etre to be fancy, is to provide a member with this THEORY, backed by the kind of God that the group will in turn depend on for its authorization, a LICENSE, to be upfront with the members that the group represents God correctly. Secondly, the group will also depend that this God will perform his promises to save the members according to the theory. This theory is called the denomination's theology.

You compared it with science (see your comment below)

You don't need a theory to be perfect or exhaustive in its account of reality to be of practical use. Classical mechanics is practically useful, even though General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are more exhaustive and accurate in their account of reality. Likewise, I don't see why you couldn't have an incomplete, imperfect understanding of God's nature and still have enough revelation to be saved.

It's true that in the beginning of your salvation journey your understanding of the theory of God you obtain from the group doesn't need to be exhaustive. A child does not need to recite the Nicene Creed and understand all the words in it. In other words, you don't have to be a theologian. But since everything practical in salvation is defined in terms of that God, it's an assumption that you must be willing to accept (by trusting the group's authority to teach) even if you don't understand it. It's your pastor/priest who went to the seminary so he/she knows how to teach the right theory of God according to the group. You just need to be open to LEARN this theory from this pastor as you mature in your faith so you can relate to your God better. But if over time you insist on rejecting this theory then the group is not for you. BUT whether you are saved or not depends on God, not the group. The group can teach, but it's God who judges. In Catholicism a criteria commonly taught is whether your ignorance is invincible.

You and the group

So in Christianity you need to get "married" to God. Notice that you don't get married to a denomination, and consequently, not to the denomination's theology. Theology is a theory about God. You are married to God, not to a theory of God. More precisely, marriage here is being "born again" by opening your heart's door to Jesus so that his Holy Spirit can enter and dwell in your heart. From that moment of conversion, you pledge allegiance to this Holy Spirit.

What's the mechanics of this "born again" action? How are you supposed to cooperate with the Holy Spirit dwelling in your heart? This is where the group comes in. The group is the broker, providing you with the theory (theology). Theology of salvation. Theology of Christ. Theology of the Holy Spirit gifts and virtues. Theology of sin. Theology of the church (as eventually you need to have fellowship with other born-again believers). All kinds of theologies you need for your journey.

Depending on the group, they will provide sacraments. All of them will provide support group and connection with other believers, because in Christianity, you need to join a VISIBLE part of the universal body of Christ. No man is an island. Even non-Christians say that; Aristotle says that a man is a rational and political animal. In any Christian group worth its name, they will teach you John 15:1-17 as the basis for having fellowship with the group's members.

What if you're not happy with your group? Then find another one. Does it mean you sever your relationship with God? No. God is not the group. You simply switch broker. You need a broker to get started. You need a broker grow in your faith together with other believers. You need a broker to conduct your funeral rite! You just need one at a given time, since you need assurance about the right kind of God / Jesus / Holy Spirit to whom you are "married" for life.

Conclusion

Humans are rational animal. We need a good reason to act. Salvation is a matter of life and death, so we need VERY good reason. God is ambiguous, but not THAT ambiguous. A group will help make this God less ambiguous and will help us to take actions to nurture our relationship with Him. Without serving us with a theology of God and salvation, why would a group exists?

As for requiring the members to subscribe to the group's theory, it's partly a matter of social cohesiveness, but also because the group claims to teach truths coming from God who authorizes ("licenses") the group's mission in the first place !

APPENDIX: A tip to find an authentic church

How to choose a group? Any group can call themselves Christian, but how do you know which one is authentic? Those who are authentic will center their doctrinal position on God according to a certain understanding of the nature of Jesus. See Christian theology professor Roger Olson's take on this where he uses the concept of "centered set" originated by famous missiologist Paul Hiebert. The closer the group is to the center, the closer they are to the orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopaty of the early church who subscribed to the Nicene and Chalcedon creeds.

Authentic church as centered set:

Why Chalcedon? Because in authentic Christianity, salvation requires an action which in turn is based on Jesus being God incarnate. SO MUCH depends on this doctrine. That is why it makes no sense for a Christian group NOT to require a definite doctrinal position on God.

If we open ourselves to God, He will guide us to choose a group that is most suitable for us for our current circumstances according to His plan for us. The group will be different depending on our upbringing, our preferences, our culture, the sheer local availability, etc. But the Christian God is not tied to a locale, praise Him ! We can pray to God to lead us to the right group and possibly change to another group as we journey with God.

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  • Based on your last section about "Authentic church", would you say then that the answer to this question is "No"? Oct 24 at 21:33
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator I purposely put the section on "Authentic church" as an appendix. I don't depend on that section for my argumentation. Oct 24 at 21:39
  • God is ambiguous, but NOT that ambiguous. If we open ourselves to God, He will guide our reason to choose a group that is most suitable for us. - Does it follow then that God might lead someone to a group with an imperfect theology (or with imperfect doctrines in general) for the greater good of having them take actions (inspired by this group) that will lead them closer to Himself? Oct 24 at 21:59
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator I discovered this EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT description of what being open to God feels: Eleonore Stump on "How Salvation Works", part of an interview series with big name philosophers of religion / theologians / Bible scholars. I like Eleonore Stump's answer the best. I recommend her other interview videos too which include the topic of foreknowledge & free will which you raised before ! Oct 24 at 22:29
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator Maybe in 10 years if UCC closes down, this becomes the accepted answer again :-). Oct 25 at 22:17
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Might I suggest that your question could be misguided in its approach.

As useful as systematic theology is, the Bible was not written with the primary goal of being systematised. It was written to be read and listened to, often and in large chunks, and for those chunks to be allowed to filter down into our hearts, minds and souls and thus grow our relationship with God.

The scriptures teach quite plainly that Jesus was God’s son and that the relationship between them was as a father is to a son. But it also teaches, equally plainly, that (the glorified) Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. Jesus said things like “only the Father knows” - but he also made such statements about himself that the religious leaders wanted to stone him for blasphemy, i.e., he was quite plainly and clearly claiming to be God. Does one need a systematic breakdown of the Bible to see this? No. Does one need to believe in or adhere to a certain doctrine to know this? No. It’s in plain sight, right there in the scriptures. If one were simply to read, read and read the Scriptures yet again, the ideas would emerge of their own accord. It’s listening to the Word of God that produces faith - not adherence to a doctrine. I’m not saying systematic theology, creeds and doctrines are not useful. I’m simply saying that the Word of God is living and active and can bore down to the truth, and generate faith, if given the opportunity to do so.

Another point is this: faith, as presented in the gospels, is far more like a journey than a destination. Jesus requires simple, trusting faith, not complex, got-it-all-right dogmas. Again, I’m not trying to undermine the role of doctrine, but attempting to offer a couple of different perspectives that might shift the emphasis from ‘getting it correct’ to ‘allowing it to soak in’.

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  • i.e., he was quite plainly and clearly claiming to be God - say this to Biblical Unitarians and Jehovah's Witnesses :-) Oct 24 at 20:56
  • I hear you :) Doctrinal adherents will be able to argue a particular text says this or that, but this requires a ‘top down’ approach: my doctrine says this, therefore let me mold and bend and analyse this passage until it fits. But if you read and listen, opting for a bottom up approach, the mysteries of Jesus’ nature emerge from the text. If you approach the feeding of the crowds ‘knowing’ that Jesus is not God, you will completely miss the impact of the fact that Jesus is supplying supernatural bread in the desert! If you ‘know’ that Jesus is God, you’ll miss the degree of separation… Oct 25 at 4:21
  • …between the Son and the Father. If you approach the heavenly throne room in Revelation 4 with a strict JW mindset, you’ll miss the fact that the Lamb is co-worshipped with God (which you might be able to squeeze around, but later on when John is told not to worship the angel “but God alone”..? Your doctrine will prevent you from seeing this.) Similarly, a Trinitarian will downplay Jesus’ earthly separation from the Father, and up-play the separate personhood of the Spirit, when it seems plain to me, from Jesus’ words, that he’s ‘just’ a spiritual form of Jesus! Maybe my thinking is incomplete Oct 25 at 4:31
  • ..here, but don’t forget I’m on a journey - and sure as nuts my understanding will grow and improve as I read and listen to the scriptures more. 😎 Oct 25 at 4:32
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    Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God. +1 Oct 25 at 11:57

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