Why Do We Disagree? (Part 5)

Tradition often gets a bad wrap among Protestants, but in truth we can’t escape it. We are all part of a larger tradition of theology and interpretation, and we sit in the stream of those who have gone before us. This can be bad at times, as it leads some to blindly follow tradition irrespective of Scriptural support. At other times, however, tradition serves firm footing for our faith and a guardrail for orthodoxy. It can help us articulate our beliefs in time-tested ways. Yet, there are many theological traditions and we each have inclination towards one tradition over another. Our biases towards different theological traditions leads to further theological disagreement.

This seems obvious, doesn’t it. There already exists theological differences and as we commit to these differences we further disagree. Yet, it is worth talking about because the issue is not merely various theological traditions but our biases to them. We are all reading the same Scriptures and yet we come to such different conclusion. In part, this is because we read those same passages through the lens of our previously determined tradition. As Grant Osborne has keenly observed:

We rarely read the Bible to discover truth; more often, we wish to harmonize it with our belief system and see its meaning in light of our preconceived theological system.

The Hermeneutical Spiral, 29.

This process of reading to harmonize is what researchers refer to as “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is defined as “the tendency to bolster a hypothesis by seeking consistent evidence while minimizing inconsistent evidence” (quoted in Putman, When Doctrine Divides the People of God, 155). Our commitments to a theological tradition can “color, shape, or distort…our interpretations of Scripture” (ibid).

This is not to suggest that when we filter our interpretations through our tradition that we are doing so in an overt effort to find what we want in Scripture. It is often unintentional and under the surface. We do not intend to minimize counter evidence in our theological studies, nor are we deliberately selective in our use of evidence for confirmation of our theology. Often we have developed such careful systems of theology that when we encounter an interpretation that does not fit with the system, we simply conclude it must be wrong. It’s not an act of rebellion, but rather a judgment grounded on the detail of our previous convictions.

Psychologist will speak about “belief persistence” which is the notion that once a belief is formed it is highly resistant to change. Even in the face of contrary evidence our beliefs can be so sticky that they won’t budge. At other times, our bias will tend to find some positive in spite of the negative evidence. If forced we may except the counter evidence is real, but we will cling to our prior belief by finding some small positive detail that justifies holding onto our traditional conviction.

Traditions and theological systems are good things, generally speaking. None of us can do theology apart from some tradition. Yet, our devotion to a theological system will often lead us to misinterpretation, dismissal of counter evidence, and justification of flawed beliefs. In coming posts we will seek to clarify how we can avoid submitting more to systems than Scripture. For now, however, we must acknowledge that our disagreements sometimes stem from our biases.

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