Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human; to forgive is divine,” in his celebrated poem “Essay on Criticism.” Err is part and parcel of the human condition, and since we are prone to err, we are certain to divide.
That one liner is not all Pope said in his blistering critique on criticism. Burrowing down to the essence of criticism, Pope wrote:
Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.
Ultimately, our pride is what swells our heads, biases our minds, blinds our eyes, and deafens our ears, and it is pride that can turn the wise into a fool and a friend into a foe.
In like manner, Rhyne Putman has taken up the challenge of discerning why we make errs of judgment, particularly of the doctrinal variety, in his recent book, When Doctrine Divides the People of God, a work that comes with the soaring endorsement from Bruce Ashford that this is “one of the most important books written since the turn of the twenty-first century.” Blurbs can tend towards exaggeration, and this is quite a plug, but I do think such lofty praise is not entirely unwarranted given the current state of affairs.
No one half awake can deny how pervasive division is. Division is so common it has become fashionable. Those who can offer the most withering critiques of anything or anyone accumulate large audiences, and they even tend to attract those who dislike their modus operandi, who themselves have built a reputation of tearing down those who tear down. And so the cycle continues.
Thus, a book like Putman’s is needed. The book is divided into two parts: (1) Why we disagree about doctrine, and (2) What we should do about doctrinal disagreement. That we disagree is obvious; why we disagree is less so. Division is not as big of a problem as determining why we divide and how we can disagree amicably.
Allow me to summarize these chapters briefly.
- We Read Imperfectly
How to interpret the Bible is a field of study called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics provides us with the rules of the game for reading the Bible. It accounts for things like genre, context, and structure. However, not everyone agrees with what those rules should be, and many different models have been proposed. I’m with Putman that we should approach the text with the so-called “grammatical-historical” hermeneutic, which prioritizes studying the very words of Scripture in their original context, recognizing that God (the divine author) used a person (the human author) to deliver a message that can be understood, and it is our job to discern what these authors meant.
- We Read Differently
Here Putman dives below the surface, discussing issues of exegesis (pulling out the meaning of the text) versus eisegesis (reading meaning into a text). The point is this—no two people read all texts alike. So while we try to agree upon how texts should be read, the reality is that “every step in the exegetical process presents possibilities for theological disagreement” (93). And from grammar, we move into the equally complex field of theology, which opens up further room for disagreement.
- We Reason Differently
From my vantage point, this chapter is the best contribution in the book. Putman argues that putting together theology should be like a detective putting together a crime scene. Instead of thinking about doctrinal formulation as deduction (assessing the validity of arguments) or induction (assessing the probability of arguments), we should see theology as abduction (how we form new hypotheses), recognizing and admitting there is an element of art to interpretation. This requires humility, which is sometimes missing in our theological disagreements.
- We Feel Differently
Utilizing the work of Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind), Putman suggests that we base a lot of our lives on our experiences, and this is not a bad thing! We do well to remember that our intuitions, based on a confluence of factors, precedes our strategic reasoning. This is why so many people can respond viscerally when you espouse a doctrinal view different than their own. A classic example, and one that Putman uses, is Calvinism and Arminianism. Those who see God’s election as unconditional (Calvinists) often elicit a powerful emotional response from those who see this doctrine as repulsive, believing that every person has the ability to choose salvation (Arminians), and vice versa. Many Calvinists are aghast at what they see as a shortening of God’s arm in salvation. Few things boil the theological waters like this doctrine.
- We Have Different Biases
One of the worst vices from which we all suffer, whether talking about doctrine or other controversial topics like politics, is confirmation bias. We tend to read people we already agree with, and when we read those with whom we think we will disagree, we can be overly critical and unopen to new ideas. This can have devastating effects on a person’s theology. It is not uncommon for me to teach something that is deeply held in Christian tradition only to be told that their pastor has never said it and they were simply unwilling to hear more. We do not like our preconceptions challenged, which can keep us barred from beautiful truths in God’s Word.
Thankfully, Putman does not stop here. He moves to how we should disagree. Again, I’ll summarize.
- When Should We Change Our Minds?
To begin with, we should keep in mind that some disagreements are illusory. We often talk past each other and so miscommunicate. Much of the issue deals with the realm of epistemology, which is how we know things. Are we dealing with the same question, the same data, is our background knowledge the same, do we possess similar cognitive abilities? These types of questions should give us pause when determining if a disagreement even exists, and if a disagreement exists, where the problem may lie in our own reasoning process. As in all things, this will require humility. Not everyone is equally expert. Too often, people with a Bible and Strong’s Concordance believe their understanding of a text to be equal to an expert’s understanding (and sometimes they are right!). (Let me recommend another book to you—The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols [Oxford]). Most times, though, there is not enough humble deference to those who might know more.
- When Should Doctrine Divide Us?
Of greatest consequence in this chapter is the idea of theological triage, a tool that I teach often and that my students find very helpful. The concept is simple. Just like a paramedic on a mass casualty scene will have to determine which injuries are most severe, Christians need to determine which doctrines are more important than others. The biggest problem with theological debate is either the elevation of a minor doctrine to a major status, or the demotion of a major doctrine to a minor status. I like a fourfold approach (in keeping with the triage tags that I used when I was a paramedic):
- Black Tag: Doctrines that divide into orthodoxy and heresy. If you believe these rightly, you go to heaven; if you disbelieve them or alter them, you will go to hell. This would be things like the Trinity or the person of Jesus Christ.
- Red Tag: Doctrines that are critical, but do not determine salvation. This would be things like how a church practices the ordinances/sacraments. Red tag doctrines typically separate the various denominations. I would not go to a church that I disagree with on these issues, even though I think it is full of Christians. Also, I put things in the red category that could easily lead to black tag issues. For instance, the doctrine of inerrancy. Though I am a staunch defender of inerrancy, I do not believe that someone who denies this doctrine will de facto go to hell. However, this could quickly lead a person into egregious error if they distrust the Bible and slide doctrinally on black tag issues.
- Yellow Tag: Doctrines that are important but should not divide people even within a particular congregation. Though I am a Calvinist, I believe that there is enough evidence for the Arminian position in Scripture and that a Christian could hold an Arminian position faithfully. I understand why this particular doctrine excites so much energy, and I am passionate about God’s sovereignty, but it is heartbreaking to see how much division this doctrine has caused in the body of Christ.
- Green Tag: Doctrine unclear enough in Scripture that we should not divide on at all. To me, the biggest example is eschatology (doctrine of last things). Is Jesus returning before, during, or after a period of tribulation? Is the millennial period 1,000 years exactly? Are we in the millennial period now? Is the kingdom growing so much that we will drift into the eschaton? These doctrines are important (and fun) to discuss, but it is alarming to me how often this is put forward as a litmus test for orthodoxy. Scripture, quite frankly, is not clear this side of heaven on the issue. I would also place sign gifts in this category.
It is important to note that often it is not the doctrine itself that puts a person’s view within one of these “tags.” It is the way he or she expresses the doctrine. If someone tells me that I must believe that speaking in tongues is the sign of regeneration, I have a very strong disagreement and now this moves into the red tag area.
Learning to triage our doctrine helps us realize which doctrines are worth fighting and dying for, and which doctrines are intramural debates amongst Christians. Beginning with categories is a helpful place to start.
- How Then Shall We Disagree?
We seem to have difficulty disagreeing without dividing. Whether it is Whitefield versus Wesley or Luther versus Zwingli, the church has too often known the consequences of theological disagreement. One wonders where the universal church would be today if some of the unnecessary divides did not happen. We will never know. However, how will we settle our approach to theological difference in our hearts? Will we move forward with a spirit of peace and patience, or will we tear asunder the church in our own day because we have to be right? Will we learn to triage our doctrinal differences so as not to make a penny’s worth of difference a million-dollar divide?
Having read Putman’s book, I am hopeful that we could learn a better way forward. But it will take many people in the body of Christ to recognize where these potential areas of disagreement lie and a collective willingness to pursue unity.
With all this said, we must not sacrifice truth on the altar of unity. Nor can we confuse a lack of conviction for humility. Learning when and how to divide doctrinally is not easy—it takes wisdom, discernment, maturity, and knowledge. The church needs trained pastors who know good doctrine, how doctrines fit together, and know when it is best to unite or divide over doctrine.
This is why I think theological education is so important and why I’m investing my life in it. It’s a lifelong pursuit of realizing Augustine’s maxim: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Our day is no different than Pope’s in this regard. We will continue to divide over everything, including doctrine, until we are in heaven with Christ. To err might be human, but to (amicably) disagree with Pope, so too is forgiveness. And not only forgiveness for the times that we have wronged or been wronged, but a better understanding of why people see doctrine differently. One day we will see. One day we will know. But on this day, Putman has given us a thoughtful roadmap for how to disagree better.