If Jesus prayed for the unity of his people, and if we all read the same Bible, why does it seem like the church is so divided? Many have asked this question but few have attempted to answer it in a manner as thorough as Rhyne Putman. In When Doctrine Divides the People of God Putman provides readers with an overview of theological methodology that leads to greater understanding about the causes of theological diversity. This is a great book, however, not simply because it provides a depth of great insight. This book is valuable because it gives Christians tools to help them live with doctrinal conviction and humility.
The book is broken down into two, straightforward, parts. Part one analyzes why we disagree. Here we get a bit of an introduction to theological methodology. Putman explores the ways in which we do theology and how this process comes with a host of variables that inevitably alter our outcomes. He explores general hermeneutics, exegesis, and interpretation. He also explores the influence of emotions, reason, and traditions on our interpretive work. He explains that we read the text of Scripture imperfectly, differently, and are convinced by different arguments. The reality of diversity does not mean that there is no objective truth; Putman is a true Evangelical and believes in the authority of God’s Word. Yet, we are fallible students of God’s Word and the more we understand the process of theologizing the more humility it will generate. That humility, then, will impact the way we disagree with our brothers and sisters. As Putman writes:
I remain convinced that a better awareness of our own interpretive processes and the way we come to our theological beliefs can change the tenor of our debates. (32)
The book is truly an interdisciplinary work. In part one in particular Putman weaves together insights from Scripture, philosophy, social psychology, hermeneutics, and more. Together these insights give a clarifying picture of theological work and help to explain why two people, reading the same Bible, and holding the same view on its authority and sufficiency, can come to such different conclusions about it.
Part two turns attention to our response. What should we do about the fact that theological diversity exists within Evangelicalism? Here Putman addresses two key questions and then provides us with a case study. The first question asks us to consider when we should change our mind. “When we recognize disagreement,” writes Putman, “should we maintain our belief, change it, or suspend judgment until more facts are available” (178)? He gives readers a procedural guide for determining which choice to make. The second question notes that there are times where disagreement should lead to division. So, Putman asks: when should doctrine divide us? In this chapter he distinguishes between error and false teaching (an important distinction), and he also encourages the development of a taxonomy for evaluating differences. Finally, he provides readers with a case study in unity amidst diversity. George Whitfield and John Wesley were dear friends who had real theological disagreements. Through their story Putman provides us with an “improvised Christian ethic of doctrinal disagreement that is consistent with the explicit instruction of Scripture” (242). Wesley and Whitfield provide the examples of this ethic in practice. “Their practice of biblical principles demonstrates that interpretive disagreements between brothers and sisters in Christ need not hinder love for one another, nor should their love for one another diminish their commitment to their individual convictions” (243).
I found this book incredibly insightful and refreshing. It is academic in nature. It addresses important issues in theological method and intertwines insights from a wide variety of other academic fields. Putman interacts with the epistemology of disagreements, moral psychology, adductive and inductive reasoning, grammatical-historical exegesis, and concepts like belief persistence. He has read widely and is able to synthesize ideas seamlessly. While the concept is very important it will be a dense read for some. The importance of the content, however, is worth the effort to read. Rhyne Putman believes we need to evaluate the ways in which we disagree with one another in the church, and this book will help us to do that! This does not mean we should minimize theological disagreements, but understanding how we come to such disagreements enables us to hold them with conviction and humility. Conviction and humility will, then, impact the way we disagree.