In John 17 Jesus prays for the unity of His followers. In Ephesians 4 Paul commands the church to strive for unity. Yet, even a cursory evaluation of the church in the West will reveal that there is a lot of disunity. We have a number of significant points of disagreement. We disagree over doctrine, over practice, over interpretation, and over church organization. Why do we disagree? How should we explain and understand disagreement among brothers and sisters who share the same Scriptures and hold them in equal regard? Ultimately we disagree because we are fallible individuals with different influences and priorities.
Two important caveats should be made at the outset of this blog. One, I am seeking to explain disagreement among those who share the same convictions about the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. There are certainly major disagreements among conservative theologians and more progressive theologian, but what interests me is how two Evangelicals (for example) can have such different theological conclusions or Scriptural readings. Second, not all differences are of equal weight. Throughout church history christians have denounced one another and condemned one another for various theological divergences. Not every interpretive difference, however, means someone is heretical, nor is every interpretive decision part of some malicious plan to undermine sound doctrine. We should be careful to weight our differences appropriately (perhaps that is another post).
In his very insightful and well written book When Doctrine Divides the People of God Rhyne Putman identifies five reasons we have doctrinal disagreements: we read imperfectly, we read differently, we reason differently, we feel differently, and we have different biases. I want to summarize these five reasons briefly as a way of helping us think more carefully about our disagreements, and then to help us think about how to respond to those disagreements.
We Read Imperfectly – Scripture is clear and authoritative. But that is not the same as saying our interpretation of Scripture perfectly comprehends the text. Even Peter acknowledges that there are some things in Scripture that are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). This is true because we have limitations and shortcoming as readers. There is an objective meaning in the text, but we can never know everything (we are finite). Our brains can only discern so much, access so much, organize so much, etc. We are limited in what we can comprehend, and we must often be selective in what we process and discern.
Furthermore, our interpretations are colored by our experiences and contexts (we are enculturated). We live at certain points in history, in certain locations, with certain upbringings which shape and influence us. Certain words and ideas carry different connotations for each of us and therefore color the way we interpret texts. A modern American, for example, is going to upload all of our cultural American values to the word “freedom,” which a first century Jew would not. This colors, then, how we read certain texts and understand certain ideas.
Interpretation is also complicated by the fact that we are removed from the original context of the author and recipients of the text (we are historically distant). There is a great deal of temporal, geographical, linguistic, and cultural distance between the authors and recipients of Scripture and the modern reader. We will struggle at times to understand the expressions, ideas, and intentions of the various authors of Scripture. Things that may have been immediately obvious to the original readers may not come so easily to us. We will have to consider this distance as we wrestle with the hard work of interpetation.
We disagree in part because we begin with preconceived ideas about the text and various doctrines (we are biased). No one comes to Scripture completely objective. It is impossible. We all come to Scripture with a “big picture” idea of what the Bible is about, what a book of the Bible is about, or what a doctrine is about. Our reading should fine tune that “big picture.” There are times where the big picture will reshape our reading of the parts, and times where our reading of the parts will reshape our big picture. These preconceived ideas, however, influence our reading and explain why we sometimes come to different conclusions. It’s because we have started at different places.
Finally, we disagree because we are impacted by the fall (we are sinful). Sin has impacted our motivations such that we read Scripture with a bent to justify our desires. Sin has also impacted our mental capacities so that it is harder to process some things and for some of us the cognitive tools needed to do hard interpretive work are strained or impaired. So both sinful motivations and the suffering impact of sin affect our ability to read Scripture.
None of these challenges mean that the text cannot be understood. God has written and He intends that we read and know Him through His Word. These challenges, however, should lead to a recognition that we often disagree because we are imperfect readers of the text. Good interpreters will accept both that there is an objective meaning to the text, and that we sometimes struggle to comprehend that objective meaning. Naive interpreters, says Putman, “who dogmatically confuse their understanding of the biblical text with the texts themselves will often have difficulty coming to terms with those who challenge their opinions” (65). The temptation is to think that because Scripture is authoritative and sufficient then my interpretation is likewise authoritative and sufficient. This is not true. Learning to submit our interpretation to evaluation, to dialogue with other interpreters, and to reexamination by the text can help us humbly interpret Scripture accurately. But we will get to more of that in future posts.
In future posts I want to consider further the other challenges to our interpretive work and the reasons we disagree over doctrine. I also want to consider why this matters and what we can do about these doctrinal disagreements. I hope you will stick with me through this series.