Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Putman on why doctrine divides Christians.
Topics of conversation include:
- Why doctrine is important
- Reasons why doctrinal disagreements arise
- When doctrinal issues should divide Christians
- Some of the issues dividing the church right now
- How Christians should approach disagreements over doctrine, while still seeking unity
Dr. Rhyne Putman serves as the associate vice president for Academic Affairs and director of Worldview Formation at Williams Baptist University in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. He is the author of several books, including In Defense of Doctrine: Evangelicalism, Theology, and Scripture (Fortress Press, 2015), The Method of Christian Theology: A Basic Introduction (B&H Academic, 2021), and When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity (Crossway, 2020).
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:16):
If God is the source of all truth—and he’s given us his words so that we might know truth—why are Christians so divided over doctrine? Mention that you’re a Calvinist, an Arminian in certain circles, and you’re likely to get shunned. Say that you’re a cessationist or a continualist in terms of miraculous spiritual gifts and you’re likely to have someone either accuse you of not believing in the sufficiency of Scripture, or on the other side, that you don’t believe in the power of God to act in the world. Churches and Christians divide over many other topics—some hold to a pre-tribulational rapture and others hold a post-millennial view. Some believe in young earth, others believe in old earth. Some hold to women as preachers, others believe that that office is reserved for men. And I’m guessing that even as I mentioned these doctrines, the temperature’s beginning to rise in some of your hearts as you’re thinking—how could a person possibly believe in another view and still claim to be a Christian? The question underlying all of these is—why does doctrine divide? Here to help us think through this topic is Dr. Rhyne Putman. Dr. Putman serves as associate vice president of Academic Affairs and director of Worldview Formation at Williams Baptist University in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. He’s the author of several books, including In Defense of Doctrine, The Method of Christian Theology, and When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity. Dr. Putman, welcome to the podcast.
Rhyne Putman (01:41):
Thank you, Dr. Arnold, it’s a pleasure to be with you guys today.
Brian Arnold (01:44):
So we always ask one big question, that question today is—why does doctrine divide? And as a church historian—and I know you’ve spent a lot of your time in church history as well—we see that this is not a new phenomenon. As we look back in the history of the church, right from the start, even if you think about the book of Galatians, you see doctrine beginning to divide people. We see that in things like the Arian controversy in the fourth century, the major schism that happens with the Eastern church and the Roman Catholic church. And then you see even in the Reformation, a splintering that begins that has not seemed to stop splintering since. So why all these factions throughout Christian history?
Rhyne Putman (02:26):
Well, that’s a great question. Well, one thing, when I’m thinking about the arguments that Christians were having in the first century…you know, you mentioned the book of Galatians, they were dealing with the Judaizers, or the Galatian opponents of Paul, that wanted to enforce circumcision on Gentiles. Or the people who were advocating for a mystery religion at Colossae. Or, you know, who John was dealing with when he wrote 1 John—those people who were denying that the Son of God came in the flesh. In each and every one of those instances, I mean, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation—there wasn’t a complete canon of Scripture yet. I mean, so there were still some questions, at least in the minds of some, about what the ultimate identity of the church was going to be. And that landed on apostolic testimony.
Rhyne Putman (03:19):
But after the first century, that’s when things, you know, became a little bit more complicated. The question then was—what books are going to be in the New Testament canon? And for some, who had a very similar canon, there were still significant disagreements. Like you mentioned, the Arian controversy, or we could talk about some of the fifth century controversies like Nestorianism, where they denied that Jesus was one person with two distinct natures. But for a large swath of church history, really, the church was seen as the interpreter of the biblical text. And it wasn’t as important for individual Christians, at least that was the perception. It wasn’t as important for individual Christians to read the Bible for themselves, to make sense of it for themselves. They just listened to what the church said, what the church taught.
Rhyne Putman (04:11):
And of course, those of us who’ve studied a little bit of church history know that there’s not that degree of uniformity, even in, you know, the long span of Roman Catholic history until the Reformation. But it’s really in the Reformation where things kind of become the wild, wild west in some ways, because the Bible, the conviction of the Reformers was, belongs in the hand of every single individual. Every person ought to be able to read the Bible for himself or herself. And where there came many interpreters, there were many interpretations of Scripture. And that’s really fundamentally where a lot of our theological disagreement begins.
Brian Arnold (04:53):
And then the devil created Twitter, and all those people had an outlet to voice their views of Scripture. Right? Yeah.
Rhyne Putman (05:01):
Well, I mean, that’s one of the comments that I make in the book, is that we’ve always had multiple interpreters of Scripture, but now everybody’s got a platform. I mean, if the Reformation was about putting the Bible in everybody’s hand, in our day and age, with social media, everybody has a platform. You don’t have to have an informed opinion to put an opinion out there. And obviously hostility can grow between Christians. I mean, it grows on just any other topic. It can certainly happen on theological issues as well.
Brian Arnold (05:36):
And I’m sure there’s some people listening right now who just get this queasy feeling in their stomach as soon as this topic gets brought up, and they say, “Stop talking about doctrine so much, then—if doctrine just divides, stop talking about it.” I remember when I was in Campus Crusade for Christ in college, and a couple of my friends and I really got turned onto theology, and that created, you know, debate—which we found exhilarating, as we were trying to figure out our positions on different things—there was always the people who kind of rolled their eyes and just said, “Stop talking about doctrine so much, all it does is divide.” So maybe we can even address that idea up front, which will help set the stage for why it is important that we talk about these things, and it’s okay that we divide over some things.
Rhyne Putman (06:17):
Sure, absolutely. Well, I mean, in my mind, there is a tendency of some to make theology a purely intellectual exercise. That the whole point of studying theology is so you can one up people in arguments, and have a little bit more knowledge about what the Bible says, or whatnot. But for me, as a convictional Christian theologian, my goal is ultimately to study theology so that I can understand the doctrine of the church effectively. That I can help disciples grow in their faith and understanding. I mean, I’ve defined Christian doctrine elsewhere as “faithful and true teaching derived from Scripture and used to grow God’s people in knowledge, spiritual maturity and obedience.” So for me, it’s not just an intellectual exercise. This is ultimately about how we know who God is, what God wants for us, and how we live lives that are obedient as followers of Jesus. And so you can’t talk about who God is, you can’t talk about his world, you can’t talk about his Word, without some reference to doctrine.
Brian Arnold (07:27):
That’s right. To love God is to know him, and doctrine are the ways that we know who God is. I really appreciated your definition there. Well, if we think back to Jesus praying right before his death that we would be unified and that we’d be “sanctified in truth, your word is truth.” And so here we have Scripture. And so, if God has spoken authoritatively, he’s spoken clearly and sufficiently in Scripture, why all of these divisions amongst us? You know, I even think one of my favorite doctrines is the perspicuity of Scripture. I think it’s hilarious, because that word we don’t use very often just means the clarity of Scripture.
Rhyne Putman (08:07):
Unclear word for clarity.
Brian Arnold (08:09):
Right? Only theologians could do something like that. So kind of walk us through that then. If we have this Bible, God wants our unification in truth—why so much division?
Rhyne Putman (08:22):
Well, what I’m basically going to argue is that some of the divisions that we talk about are a little overstated sometimes. I mean, I think that when we talk about the core elements of what it means to be a Christian, the proclamation that God has sent his Son into the world, that Jesus is the true God-man, that Jesus lived a sinless, perfect life, that he declared the coming of the kingdom, that he made a way through his death that sinners could be forgiven, and through his resurrection we have victory over sin, Satan and death. I mean, I think that’s something that’s universal to all Christians who are orthodox, unless you’re part of an outside cult that denies those sort of things. So I tend to think that we agree on the basic plot line of Scripture.
Rhyne Putman (09:13):
And I think that’s really what the Reformers understood the clarity of Scripture to be about. It’s not to say that each and every passage of Scripture is easy to understand, because that’s clearly not true when you read, you know, a Revelation 20, or a Romans 9, or 1 Corinthians 14. There are passages in Scripture that can be challenging, that can be difficult, because we don’t always know and understand all the background clues that go into a text. But for the broad, whole of Scripture, it is clear and easy enough for us to understand and to grow and believe and obey. A pastor, Adrian Rogers, used to close invitations to the gospel in his sermons, and he would say, “If you’ve given your life to Christ, what I want you to do, is I want you to go home and start reading the gospel of John.” And he said, “Don’t worry about those parts of the Gospel of John you don’t understand, because you’re going to be so busy doing the things you do understand, that’ll keep you busy.” That’s a testimony to the clarity of Scripture.
Brian Arnold (10:21):
And he would do it in such a melodious voice. If you’ve not ever listened to a sermon by Adrian Rogers, you’re missing out. You need to do that. Well, in your book How Doctrine Divides, you helpfully lay out some reasons why disagreement over doctrine happens. I was very helped by that when I read it. If I’m teaching theology again in the near future, I plan on using it. And you kind of highlight things like imperfect reading, different reading, different reasoning, different emotions, different biases. So kind of walk us through some of those very specific areas where you see how we get into challenges in these areas.
Rhyne Putman (11:01):
So one thing I would say out of the gate as an evangelical, I want to affirm the inerrancy, the complete truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture. But just because Scripture is inerrant doesn’t mean that I have always an inerrant interpretation of it. We are imperfect interpreters. We have certain disadvantages as interpreters, you know, for instance, I know a lot of people that are far better at reading the Bible in Greek and Hebrew than I am. And so the way that I’m sort of bound to English language translations, or the way that I’m bound to language tools when I do study Scripture at a deeper level, I mean, there are certain disadvantages that I have. But I also don’t have familiarity or at least intimate familiarity, firsthand experience familiarity, with the cultural backgrounds of the Bible.
Rhyne Putman (11:52):
So there’s certain cultural things that I miss out on and I don’t understand. I might not get the historical context of everything that Paul’s writing about, because Paul’s writing to already established churches. They know what he’s talking about. So he doesn’t fill in every single background detail. And so that’s where some of the challenge comes in as a reader. But there are other things that happen in the reading process. Like, we might approach the different genres of the Bible differently. We might read, for instance, when you were talking about the millennial views, we might read the genre of apocalyptic literature that’s in the book of Revelation differently. Some of us might take a more literal perspective on some of these texts, some of us may take more of a symbolic perspective on these texts. And the way that you approach biblical texts, the sort of tools that you use to make sense of them, will oftentimes determine the outcome of your interpretation.
Rhyne Putman (12:56):
And a couple of other things that I talk about in the book—your reasoning skills, the different ways that we reason through texts and try to make sense of a text, those things can affect your outcome. Your emotions can play a role in a particular theological position you have. I know people who are on the side of the Calvinist-Arminian debate, people who, on the Arminian side of things take a very strongly, you know, emotional response, that it would seem like God isn’t completely loving if he elected individuals, as opposed to electing everybody unto salvation. And then people on the reformed side of the equation say, “Well, you’re making God too small. You’re making God too weak if you don’t give God sovereignty over areas like salvation.” But I mean, when people go into those kind of debates, emotions can play a key role in what they’re doing.
Rhyne Putman (13:54):
And then finally, I think that we sometimes come to the Bible trying to prove what our church teaches. If you grow up in a particular denominational tradition, maybe a Baptist tradition, maybe a Methodist tradition, a Pentecostal tradition, whatever that might be, it’s sometimes easy to go into the Bible and to say—well, this is the way that I’ve always been taught about this passage. And just presume, well, that’s what the Bible passage must say, instead of doing the critical work to try to understand it on your own. To understand what the author of the text is actually doing and saying through the text.
Brian Arnold (14:30):
I think that’s a big one, when I was pastoring, is how often people would say, “Well, I’ve never heard a pastor say that before.” And I’m like—well, what does the text say? And you know—what can we see see from history as well? Those are really helpful. I think if people recognize how complex we are as people, and even as sinners approaching the text, to give ourselves a little bit of leeway there, and recognizing—I love what you said before—the things that unite us are much bigger than the things that we disagree over. I can imagine if you and I talked for long enough, we’d find plenty of areas of disagreement, but we’d both still walk away saying, “What a great brother in Christ.” And we can be okay with that. But what happens when a church is teaching something that somebody really doesn’t feel right about, and they think—I need to probably leave this church? Like, when should doctrine divide us to a point that maybe we would not be in the same church as people? Or maybe we would even say—we think that’s outside the pale of the Christian faith?
Brian Arnold (15:23):
So what you’re not saying, I don’t think, is we should all just sing Kumbaya and recognize that there’s no time for division.
Rhyne Putman (15:31):
Right. Well, what I think has to be the baseline of all of our conversations is the gospel itself. And it’s important for us to differentiate between the gospel and the implications of the gospel. Or to differentiate between the gospel and what we think other doctrines that undergird the gospel in certain ways in how the gospel might be carried out. So for instance, a person, you know, person A might hold to some form of, you know, again, universal atonement, whereas person B might hold to a kind of limited atonement, that Jesus only died for the elect. And yes, those are different understandings of the mechanism of what Jesus’ death does and accomplishes, but neither one of those issues are necessarily denials of the gospel—that Jesus died for sinners, or in the place of sinners. Jesus’ death somehow is efficacious in forgiving sins.
Rhyne Putman (16:37):
And so it’s good for us to draw a line and to understand the difference between the gospel and its implications, or the gospel and its mechanisms. So if I were part of a church that outright denied that Jesus died for sins, or if I were part of a church that outright denied that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, that he’s the God-man, or that he was raised from the dead—immediately, I’m walking out the door, there’s significant red flags. And it’s likely that if that’s a church setting where that’s a common thing, or that pastor has strong leadership, you’re not going to be able to make significant or effective change in that context. And then there are other things that, you know, we just kind of…as particular ecclesial traditions, we might take one view over and against another.
Rhyne Putman (17:28):
It’s not to say that, you know, a Presbyterian who does baptism differently than my Baptist tradition is not a Christian. It just means that we probably couldn’t, in the same local church, do mission together, if we had fundamentally different convictions about what baptism was meant to be. The same thing for church government. And then, of course, there are those sort of, you know, tertiary, third string, third tier issues that, you know, I think that we can disagree about and still fellowship together in a local church without being disagreeable. But when it becomes a disagreeable issue, there might be other measures that we need to take.
Brian Arnold (18:10):
And I think that’s a helpful kind of triaging grid to use, to say—there are these top tier, non-negotiable, this is the faith, once for all, delivered to the saints, established in Scripture, confirmed by the creeds, you know, that you—
Rhyne Putman (18:25):
You have to believe these to be saved.
Brian Arnold (18:26):
You’ve got to believe these to be saved, yeah. And not every issue you…one of the problems is people take these third tier issues, make them top tier issues. And then they don’t know how to distinguish between them, and everything becomes a salvation issue. And I think that fatigues people, even, when they can’t think through that kind of triaging method. And like you said, I mean, there are…you and I are both Baptist, which means we’re more right on that issue than a lot of other people.
Rhyne Putman (18:48):
That’s right. That’s right.
Brian Arnold (18:51):
Just kidding, all you paedobaptists out there. This is a great example—many of my heroes in church history were paedobaptists. And we can understand that we see those texts differently, but that they’re not salvation-level kinds of issues. So I…you know, one of the things I’ve said to people recently is, I remember the good old days—I think you and I are probably right about the same age, and I started seminary in ’05—and it feels like the good old days to me, because we were debating issues like—are you a Calvinist or are you an Arminian? Are you a covenant theologian or dispensationalist? And those felt like end-all, be-all issues. That’s not where I see a lot of these divisions happening in the church today. From your vantage point—you’ve been in theological education for a while, you’ve been in pastoral ministry—what are the issues that are threatening to divide the church right now?
Rhyne Putman (19:38):
Well, I mean, I think we’ve kind of left behind just pure theological debates, to more of a theological-sociopolitical kind of debate. And it’s not enough that you necessarily have to agree with me in theology, you have to think the same way I do on every political issue, or you have to…not only have to agree with me, you have to, in practice, treat people who disagree with me the same way that I treat people who disagree with me. And so, again, social media is not entirely to blame, but I mean, what’s sad is what’s happening in the church, what’s happening even in evangelical circles, is closely reflecting what’s happening in the secular political spheres. And we shouldn’t be like that, I don’t think. It should primarily be about the gospel and the mission. Not having dogmatic fights about method. Not having dogmatic fights about policy. But here we are.
Brian Arnold (20:41):
So yeah, maybe we don’t have to get into specifics, necessarily, but how would you encourage someone to approach those issues? Issue X in our culture that’s happening, you know, and these could be over race related issues, like you said, politics and Christian nationalism. We know a lot of these that are happening right now. How do you approach those issues?
Rhyne Putman (21:06):
Well, personally, for me, it’s not all that different from the way I’m approaching theological disagreements. I mean, the question that I keep on putting before people is—what is the gospel? What is the main thing? What is the mission? What is our priority? And it’s not to say that Christians can’t and shouldn’t be engaged in the public sphere, but our primary calling, our primary mission, is to be citizens of the kingdom, and to help direct and disciple people into thinking about ways that kingdom discipleship comes first. And some of those other things, while they’re important, and I wouldn’t for a second deny the way that some of these policy issues are important, they are of secondary importance. And they’re things that Scripture hasn’t explicitly spoken to. That’s the big deal here. If Scripture is truly a sufficient source for knowledge and wisdom in everything that a Christian does and practices, where Scripture is silent, there’s probably some room for disagreement. And there’s some freedom for us to follow what we believe to be the leadership of the Holy Spirit, as we’re applying Scriptural principles to these issues.
Brian Arnold (22:17):
And hopefully keeping our sanity about us, so that people can look to the church as a place that is not facing the same divisions that we’re seeing in culture. Would that the church would be a place that people in our world could look at and say—man, it’s fracturing out here, but somehow those people of disparate backgrounds, of different socioeconomic classes are still united. So maybe you could give us a word of encouragement and exhortation for our churches today, to seek unity?
Rhyne Putman (22:47):
I’d just say this—unity in the gospel doesn’t mean uniformity of thought. And we can be united around a common core set of beliefs. We can be united around a mission, the great commission that we’ve been given, and we still have the freedom to disagree. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean we’re all the same. And it doesn’t mean we all come to the same conclusions. But our unity is there in the center. And that’s Jesus.
Brian Arnold (23:18):
And maybe I can even do this oft-quoted line that is—”In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Rhyne Putman (23:27):
That’s exactly right.
Brian Arnold (23:28):
If we came back to that, almost its own little three-step triage step, we might find more unity in the church. And recognize that, again, what we share in common is greater than that which divides us. And this world needs Christ, and they need Christians who are united, who can take the good news into this fractured environment with hope.
Rhyne Putman (23:48):
Absolutely, absolutely. That’s right, Dr. Arnold.
Brian Arnold (23:51):
Well, so what are maybe one or two other resources that you could recommend to our listeners?
Rhyne Putman (23:56):
Well, I would say Gavin Ortlund’s book Finding the Right Hills to Die On is a perfect complement to my book in certain ways. Mine is dealing with some of the hermeneutical and interpretive issues about disagreement, but he’s kind of just jumping straight into the pastoral “so what?” And I would highly recommend Gavin Ortlund’s little book. I think it’s extremely helpful. And not to be too self-serving, I deal with a lot of these things also in my Method of Christian Theology text and talk about the way spiritual disciplines relate to these issues as well.
Brian Arnold (24:32):
And I don’t think it’s self-serving, I want to really commend your work. I found it extremely helpful when I read it when it first came out, and then I still have not read your newest volume, but I intend to. And for our listeners—for Faith Seeking Understanding, Gavin was actually our first guest, talking about that book about a year and a half ago. So I commend you to listen to that as well. And I appreciate your time today, Dr. Putman. It’s critical that we think about these things, and that we can lead in this world at this moment to show people the truth and grace of Christ. Thanks for joining us.
Rhyne Putman (25:07):
Thank you, sir.
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