by C Michael PattonMarch 4th, 2012 276 Comments
I am a Calvinist; others are Arminian. I believe in a premillenial eschatology; others are amillenial. I am a traducianist with regards to the creation of the soul; others are creationists. I believe in reasoned inerrancy; others believe this is an archaic naive doctrine. There are many points of doctrinal division I am going to have with people, some of which are much more important than others.
Why doesn’t everyone agree with me? Who is causing this disunity in the body of Christ, them or me? Do these divisions demonstrate the doctrinal bankruptcy of sola Scriptura? Should we elect a Pope of Protestantism? Or could it be that God has a purpose in his allowance of disagreements?
There are a few different ways that I could answer this.
- Others don’t agree with me because they have not studied deeply enough (lack of scholarship).
- Others don’t agree with me because they have not studied broadly enough (lack of perspective).
- Others don’t agree with me because they have not studied long enough (lack of wisdom).
- Others don’t agree with me because their traditional prejudices have created a learning “disability” that keeps them from the truth (lack of freedom of thought).
- Others don’t agree with me because they have sin in their life that is blinding them to the truth (lack of holiness).
- Others don’t agree with me because we don’t have an infallible authoritative interpreter of Scripture that would bring doctrinal unity (lack of a Pope).
- Others don’t agree with me because they are not Christian. If they were, well . . . they would agree with me! (lack of salvation)
Generally speaking, I do not default to these possibilities. Don’t get me wrong, these really are all possibilities. It could be that people deny the truth (assuming that my position is such) due to ignorance, lack of perspective or wisdom, traditional bindings, sin, lack of authority, or a presupposition of godlessness or naturalism. But I think we need to be careful about any negative prejudgments about people’s motives and the ultimate reasons for disagreements. We normally don’t know.
Here are the considerations I would aspire to make before I fall back upon the previously mentioned possibilities.
Others don’t agree with me because they are right and I am wrong.
Granted, I am convicted I am right. If this were not the case, I would simply change my position. But the possibility always exists that I am the one who is in error, misinformed, motivated by false pre-understandings, tradition-bound, or lacking perspective. I must consider this with great humility, as hard as it is to do.
There are some things of which I am more sure than others. For example, I am far less likely to be wrong about the existence of God than I am about my belief in a pre-tribulational rapture of the church. As well, I am humbled by the fact that there are many things I used to believe that I no longer do. I held to these former beliefs with (what seems to be) just as much conviction as many of the beliefs that I hold to now. What do I do with that? In most of those cases, the evidence, or lack thereof, militated against my previous doctrinal commitments and forced me to make hard adjustments. Very hard adjustments. For example, I used to believe that if someone did not accept the doctrine of inerrancy, they were not Christian. This was due to my fundamentalist presuppositions no doubt, but when faced with the evidence – that there are many people out there who do not hold to inerrancy, yet love and trust the same Christ as me – my position either had to change, or slumber in the bedroom of naiveté. I still have those decisions to make. It is called learning.
What I must realize is this: there is not one belief that I hold to which is protected by infallibility. Infallibility is the other side of the coin of absolute certainty. Absolute certainty can only be held by those who have all the information and are interpreting it correctly. To be infallible means that you cannot fail. Since I am not infallible, by definition, I can fail. All of my beliefs are subject to my attribute of fallibility. There is no one who possesses infallibility. Even Roman Catholics who try to alleviate themselves of this reality by trusting in the dictates of an infallible magisterial authority, such as the Pope, inevitably face the same problem, since their own trust in the infallible authority of the Pope is fallible. The same holds true for Evangelicals and our infallible Bible. Our belief in the Bible is fallible, even if the Bible itself is not. No one can escape their own fallibility. Therefore we all could be wrong. We are left to rely on a process of examining and weighting the evidence and following it wherever it leads. This will often cause us to change our beliefs.
Therefore, serious consideration must always be given to the proposition that people don’t agree with me because I am the one who is wrong.
Others don’t agree with me because God does not want us to agree, regardless of who is right.
This may sound odd, but we must consider it. I said earlier that I was a Calvinist. While this does not give me exclusive right to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, it does require me to consider what part it might play in the question: Why doesn’t everyone agree with me? What I am really asking is this: Why isn’t everyone unified around the truth?
I believe that it is a real possibility—even likelihood—that God does not want absolute doctrinal unity right now. In fact, practically speaking, it could do more harm than good. I believe doctrinal disagreements are often healthy for the church. When there is conflict between opposing viewpoints, the issue at hand is understood at a more profound level than is possible in the absence of conflict. Conflict, in the end, can bring about a deeper conviction of the truth. When there is no conflict, there is no iron sharpening iron in the same way.
I am not in any sense trying to relativize the truth, but to help us understand that wrong beliefs, even our own, could be serving the purpose of God and bringing Him more honor than we recognize. It is often said that heresy is God’s gift to the church. Why? Because when a false option is presented the truth becomes much clearer. In contrast there is clarity. In clarity there is conviction.
It is for this reason that we must be continually engaged with alternative options. As hard as it is to engage in beliefs that go against our present convictions, we need to recognize the value of the struggle. Herein lies what I believe to be one of the greatest strengths of the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura—it presents the opportunity to wrestle with the issues at a level that is not allowed for in magisterium-based traditions.
What I am saying is this: it may actually be God’s sovereignty that brings about division over the doctrine of God’s sovereignty! This does not mean that wrong belief is always justified. Wrong belief is often (though not always) the result of sin. Neither does it mean that we need to be content with agnosticism or lessen our conviction about any doctrinal issue. To the contrary. It means that we engage in it more vigorously than we did before, being confident that God has a dignified reason for conflict resulting from diversity. In the end, we will find that through the conflict our beliefs become stronger, not weaker. I believe we must open ourselves up to the possibility of being wrong in order to find truer faith and conviction.
We have learned to celebrate diversity in every area of life. We celebrate the diversity of the sexes. Men: can you imagine a world where women did not contribute to a balanced perspective? That is horrifying. Women, can you imagine the opposite (don’t answer that!)? Think of the diversity among personalities, nations, political parties, age groups, and cultures. While we may believe that our opinion is correct (and it may be), from a certain perspective we can appreciate dissent in values, beliefs, and practices. Understanding diversity can often cause us to see that the answer to many issues is going to be more of a both/and rather than an either/or. We could both be right and we could both be wrong.
In the end, if God is in control, then the answer to my question is relatively simple. Why doesn’t everyone agree with me? Because it is not God’s will for them to do so. This is to His glory. Why? His will is better accomplished through diversity. In this I think we can learn to celebrate diversity without yielding to the postmodern matrix of relativism, uncertainty, or apathy.
- All the Right Beliefs for all the Wrong Reasons
- What is Certainty?
- Why Do I (A Calvinist) Go to An Arminian Church?
- A Matter of Perspective
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Two – Martin Luther