When Doctrine Divides the People of God

Rhyne R. Putman
Friday, July 1st 2022
Jul/Aug 2022
Modern Reformation with Rhyne R. Putman

Dr. Rhyne Putman is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, director of Worldview Formation, and professor of Christian Ministries at Williams Baptist University. In this interview, MR’s executive editor discusses Dr. Putman’s recent book When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity (Crossway, 2020).

The title of your book is intriguing to me for its honesty. It is commonplace to hear, “Doctrine divides!” Your book takes this objection seriously. You note as a matter of historical fact that since the Reformation’s inception, doctrine has indeed divided (to say nothing of the church prior to the Reformation). By way of introduction, can you say something about why you take this objection seriously and why you decided to write this book?

Doctrinal disagreements have been with us since the very beginning. The apostles warned first-century churches about doctrines that were denials of the gospel, like requiring Gentiles to be circumcised in order to be saved, angel worship, and denials of the true humanity of Jesus. The apostles also made room for some liberty of conscience in “disputed matters” like diet (Rom. 14:1–2) or the consumption of food offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:1–13). What changed after the first century is that the apostles were no longer around to settle these debates, to sort them according to their importance. The church now had the written word of God that preserved the apostolic deposit, but it could be interpreted well or misinterpreted.

The fifth-century Gallic theologian Vincent of Lérins understood this complication. He argued that because of “the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters” (Commonitory 2.5). For Vincent, the interpretative tradition of the church (the “faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all”) provided an important safeguard against heretical sects like Arianism, Sabellianism, Donatism, and so on.

When the Reformers entered the scene, there was already significant disagreement in the tradition. The medieval church had grown this tradition into a number of doctrines completely unsupported by Scripture. The Reformers challenged us to return to the sources, to give Scripture supreme authority as the only sufficient and necessary standard for theological beliefs and practices, but they also opened Pandora’s box. As Alister McGrath puts it, the Reformers’ decision to put the Bible in the hands of ordinary believers was “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea.” So long as Christians were free to read the Bible for themselves, there would be disagreement about some things.

But if the “dangerous idea” of the Reformation was putting the Bible in every hand, the “dangerous idea” of our technological age is giving anyone and everyone a platform to espouse their opinions publicly. Social media has exacerbated the contentiousness of our in-house fights. Twitter is not exactly the kind of forum that opens itself up to productive theological dialogue. It’s usually more about scoring points with likeminded individuals than making genuine headway with people who take differing positions. It’s no surprise when the unbelieving world has been caught up in a civil war of ideologies, but those who live their lives under the authority of the Bible and the power of the gospel should know better and do better.

A better understanding of how we interpret the Bible and draw theological conclusions makes all of us better theologians. It is a humbling thing to recognize our own shortcomings as interpreters of God’s word. It also helps me understand people who reach different conclusions than me if I have some idea of how they got there. I remain convinced that theological method will not eliminate disagreements between us, but it can help us make more informed decisions about how we deal with disagreements and our interlocutors.

The first part of your book addresses the question: “How do Christ-followers with similar convictions about Scripture and the gospel come to such drastically different points of view in matters of faith and practice?” You spend a number of chapters detailing issues in reading methods. Is doctrinal agreement simply a matter of becoming aware of and consistently applying good reading methods to the Bible?

That’s an interesting question. Theologians who write in the area of theological prolegomena (the critical introduction to the study of theology) tend to talk about method in two broad ways: prescriptively and descriptively. I take up more of a prescriptive approach to method in my newest book The Method of Christian Theology. There, I am simply walking students of theology through one approach to studying theology. We do the same sort of thing in homiletics classes when we are teaching students how to exegete the text and formulate the sermon. Most seasoned preachers probably don’t use the same step-by-step process they learned in seminary, but learning those steps hopefully helped them become confident in their own process of sermon preparation. I hope prescriptive discussions of theological method can do the same thing for budding theologians.

Here in When Doctrine Divides, my approach to method is more descriptive. My goal was not to prescribe how Christians should read the text and come to doctrinal conclusions but to describe what normally happens. There is, of course, a degree of uniformity that interpreters of Scripture can have at some levels of historical-grammatical exegesis, particularly at the level of word studies and syntax. But things get far more complicated when we introduce competing understandings of the historical background of a biblical text or of its literary genre.

The other issues I introduce really make it impossible for us to approach theological issues in the same way every time: there are differences in the way people reason through problems and differences in the way people feel through issues. The only way we could achieve complete doctrinal unanimity would be for us to share a brain! The differences in the ways our individual brains work and the differences between our theological traditions will contribute to unique theological thinking—and consequently, theological disagreement—until the Lord returns.

Tradition is a bit of a buzzword in many evangelical circles today. You write positively of tradition, that it can help readers find their footing in Scripture (153). You also state that, as a matter of fact, tradition cannot be escaped: “We cannot theologize outside of some tradition of belief and practice” (154). Yet, you also warn that tradition can distort our ability to understand the authorial intent of Scripture. How should we think about the role of tradition in our own theological development?

Tradition is another one of those words that can be used in many different senses. In the broadest sense of the term, “tradition” describes any belief, custom, or practice handed over from one individual to another or one group to another. Anything learned, taught, or passed along fits in this category: rituals, histories, folktales, recipes, songs, and so on. Though its divine inspiration clearly sets it apart as a truly unique assortment of writings, the Bible itself is part of tradition in this broader sense as it is a collection of teachings, histories, laws, songs, etc., handed down by Israel and later by the church. Paul, for example, encourages the church at Corinth to hold fast to the traditions instituted by Christ (1 Cor. 11:2) and notes that he passed along the same gospel tradition he received (1 Cor. 15:3).

Christian theologians also use “Tradition” (with a capital T ) to describe the interpretation of Scripture throughout history. This is the faith once delivered over to the saints, believed everywhere, always, by all. Historical theology is a history of biblical interpretation in this sense. Another use of “tradition” (with a lowercase t) describes the particular faith traditions from which we think about and practice the Christian faith (Baptist, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, etc.). This is just a reminder that we always do theology in a church context. Tradition, while not infallible, can give us wise insights into the historic interpretation and application of biblical texts.

What I warn about in the book is tradition unchecked, which often comes in the form of confirmation bias. Our theological tradition informs us that we should believe a certain way, and sometimes our approach to Scripture is simply a search for verses or texts that confirm that deeply held belief. We also ignore, rationalize, or deemphasize texts that are problematic for our theological tradition. I have seen a student’s Bible where all the verses that contradicted the beliefs of his church were marked through with a pen. This kind of bias is not limited to conservative traditions. I have read liberal scholars who say we must dismiss Pauline passages about women or homosexuality as something from a bygone patriarchal society. Anything that does not confirm our theological biases must be reinterpreted or rejected.

We all come to faith within a tradition. We are all discipled in a tradition. But my plea is to give Scripture primacy, to place ourselves under the Lordship of Christ expressed through the text. We shouldn’t feel obligated to make square pegs fit into round holes, nor should we feel that we have to pit our beliefs against what the text says or means. There are ways of alleviating this kind of bias, like reading broadly across several lowercase t traditions, asking what kind of evidence we would look for in Scripture if our preferred doctrinal tenet was wrong, and considering other hypotheses.

You write that, hermeneutical difficulties aside, “the Bible is clear enough to bring any individual who reads it with an openness to the activity of the Spirit into an understanding sufficient unto obedience and service to God” (66). I can imagine someone thinking, “Well, isn’t the Christian life pretty much about obedience and service to God? Why not stop there? Why use the Scriptures for all this doctrine stuff, adding the further risk of division and discord?” How would you respond?

The problem with the way the question is asked is that there is an assumption that doctrine is merely an intellectual pursuit, driven by speculative curiosities. But doctrine should not be reduced to a mere set of facts or propositions; it is guidance for how we think about who God truly is and how we apply his word in our world today. Elsewhere, I define doctrines as “faithful and true teachings derived from Scripture and used to grow God’s people in knowledge, spiritual maturity and obedience” (The Method of Christian Theology, 44). Doctrine is the primary instrument of disciple-making, how we teach them how to obey everything Jesus commanded us (Matt. 28:20).

How can we worship and serve God if we do not know who he is and what he has done? How do we know we are making wise and godly judgments if we know nothing about his character? How do we know how a church should be run? How should we practice the sacraments or ordinances? As I conceive of doctrine, it involves a rehearsal of the grand story of the Bible, reflection on theological truths, practices and behaviors shaped by those truths, and direction for the hearts and affections. Doctrine and Christian practice are so integrally related that it is impossible to separate the two.

The second half of your book is dedicated to the question of what like-minded Christians should do about the doctrine that divides them. In a culture where public disagreements are increasingly carried out sardonically, what would you say the initial posture of the Christian toward doctrinal disagreement should be? What character traits should mark the Christian who engages in doctrinal disputes?

Unfortunately, many of our disputes are characterized by the works of the flesh: “hatred, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions” (Gal. 5:20 CSB). We are sometimes more concerned about people disagreeing with us than we are about the truth. It is easier (and more tempting) to build a platform and rouse the anger of the mob than it is to have patient and loving conversations with our interlocutors.

So, what better place can we start in our disagreements with brothers and sisters than with the fruit of the Spirit? Believers characterized by the fruit of the Spirit exhibit (1) love for those people with whom they disagree; (2) joy, not anger, in disagreements; (3) peaceable spirits who yearn for peace rooted in truth; (4) kindness in speech and deed; (5) faithfulness to the word of God; and (6) self-control in how they handle themselves in these debates.

You write that “the desire for true, gospel-centered Christian unity honors God and builds up the body of Christ” (202). Yet, you also state that some doctrines related to Christian practice and worship “do and should divide us” because “we have arrived at different conclusions from Scripture” (240). Can you help us think through that a little more? How do we honor God by pursuing unity while also honoring God by not compromising truth or our own consciences?

We have to get this idea out of our mind that unity means uniformity of thought or unanimity of cultural or ecclesial preferences. We can, with Jesus, pray that his followers will be one without expecting us all to come to the same conclusions about church government, the millennial reign of Christ, election, or whatever bothers us. It is one thing to have a conviction that we are correct in our understanding of the text, and another thing entirely to presume that everyone else will (or should) reach the same conclusions. That’s more about controlling people than being concerned for the truth.

So, what unites Christians of different theological stripes? A shared conviction that we can or can’t eat meat offered to idols? A shared belief in autonomous church government? Do we have communion around our beliefs about the charismatic gifts? No, no, and no. It is the gospel that brings us together: the declaration that Jesus died for sinners, was buried, was raised from dead, and that he is Lord and king. We share a common metanarrative, a common hope, even if we parse some of the mechanics of the gospel in divergent ways (e.g., how the atonement works).

I’m not saying that Baptist Calvinists and charismatic Arminians have to be members of the same church, or that they should give up their respective convictions about what Scripture means and how it is applied. This is almost impossible in matters of ecclesiology anyway. What I am saying is that we can cooperate together in kingdom efforts. This looks different in every setting. Maybe we come together for a citywide day of prayer. Perhaps we both invite people to the same evangelistic crusade. Maybe it’s just as simple as committing to pray for one another—that God would bless them and use them for his kingdom purposes. We do not have to abandon our convictions or violate our consciences to do that—unless we have somehow added extra intellectual requirements tothe gospel.

Perhaps one of the more practical questions that some may have after reading your book has to do with doctrinal disagreements within particular Christian communities, rather than between Christian communities. For example, how would you counsel the congregants who disagree with their pastor on a matter that is for them of some importance?

Let me address this first as a pastor. Some years ago, I accepted the call to pastor an urban church that saw explosive growth in the 1970s and ’80s but dwindled down to a much smaller congregation in the decades that followed. There was a couple there I dearly loved (who have since gone home to be with the Lord) who called me out to their house to have a theological conversation with me. Decades before, they had come to faith under a previous pastor who grew a successful radio and TV ministry by preaching dispensational premillennialist eschatology (something that was very popular during that time). Knowing something about this background, I anticipated the kind of conversation we would be having when I got there.

While they had some real frustrations with the way I preached through a book like Revelation, I never felt any genuine animosity from them. These were kindhearted senior adults who were nostalgic for a certain style of preaching attached to a particular subset of evangelical theology. I tried to listen carefully to their concerns, and sometimes I would attempt to explain rather delicately why I didn’t always understand biblical passages the same way that pastor from many years ago did. I had serious doubts about my ability to change their minds on the topic, and I didn’t exert much energy trying.

Were I dealing with an issue that I believed presented real danger to the soul of a congregant, something that denied the very essence of the gospel, my response would have been very different. So long as this disagreement never became a source of open contention or division, it never really bothered me that they had a different millennial viewpoint than me. Over the years, I visited this couple many more times in their home, but the topic didn’t come up much. I left every single conversation verbally saying, “You know your pastor loves you.”

For that church member who has genuine concerns or questions about theological disagreement with a pastor or teacher, I would recommend a few things. First, it’s important to assess the seriousness of the issue. I would recommend asking questions like, is this pastor teaching something that outright contradicts the gospel? Is he teaching something that explicitly contradicts our church or denomination’s statement of faith? Or is the pastor teaching something that I simply don’t agree with? Believers can fellowship together and do mission together even when they disagree about minor points of doctrine (like the timetable for the Lord’s coming or the order of God’s decrees), but cooperation is built around a strong gospel and confessional core.

Second, if you suspect that your pastor is teaching something that contradicts the gospel or the local confession of faith, I think it is important to have a direct conversation with him before you start spreading those concerns to other people. This follows a Matthew 18 pattern, but it is also an opportunity to ask clarifying questions of your pastor before coming to rushed judgments. It is quite possible that you misunderstand what he is saying, or that there is some nuance you are missing.

Third, if after conversing with the pastor you still are convinced that he is teaching/preaching something contrary to the gospel (first-tier issues) or contrary to the confession of faith (second-tier issues), then it may be wise to escalate the Matthew 18 process and revisit the conversation with several witnesses. Whether you take it to the church or leave the church altogether will be based entirely on the guidance of the Spirit.

Thank you, Dr. Putman, for the wealth of resources you’ve provided in this book. The questions are honest, relevant, and clear, the discussions are insightful, and the overall organization of the material is very helpful. I also want to thank you for taking the time to discuss the book with MR.

Friday, July 1st 2022

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