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Sunday, August 10, 2008

When Christians Disagree: Introduction

In beginning a study series on "when Christians disagree", we ought to mention why some seem to find it so surprising that Christians do in fact disagree. For some, the reason this seems surprising is the impression they have been given that Christianity is (and/or ought to be) a single, monolithic entity that has a clearly defined and uniform set of beliefs and practices. For others, the reason might be the assumption that, at the very least, those Christians who agree on the Bible's authority ought to agree.

But in fact, the Bible is one of the reasons for Christians disagreeing, for a number of reasons. First, Christians do not all agree about what the Bible is. For some, it is "inerrant", and in popular speech that may be taken to mean that everything in the Bible is not only without error, but precise in detail. However, a look at a statement about Biblical inerrancy made by conservative scholars and theologians, such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, makes clear that for those who study the Bible in detail and in depth, the concept of inerrancy needs to be carefully nuanced if it is to reflect what we find in Scripture. And of course, if one defines inerrancy without regard for what we find in the Bible, then that definition is being imposed on the Bible and thus has authority over the Bible. And since those who argue for Biblical inerrancy usually do so because they regard it as the ultimate authority, the result is a contradiction.

Others prefer to speak of "infallibility", which usually means that the Bible is trustworthy in everything it affirms about God and salvation, without necessarily being accurate in all details of botany or mathematics or science.

Still other Christians view the Bible as errant and fallible, the work of human beings who wrote out of the depths of their experience of God, but who were nonetheless not made to write perfectly. Some would go further and emphasize that Christianity is about following Jesus, not the Bible, and that claiming inerrancy as an attribute for anything other than God is idolatry.

Even when Christians agree about what the Bible is, they do not automatically understand it and interpret it in the same way. It may turn out that this is because the Bible does not always give a single definitive answer about a particular subject, and we must resist the temptation to choose some teachings and use them to dismiss others because "they can't possibly mean that because the Bible says this", since one could always start with the other set of passages and argue the reverse.

Even Protestants agree that experience, reason, and tradition also have a place in Christians' thinking about matters of doctrine and practice. And while it might seem ideal to emphasize that the Bible has primacy of place, in practice none of us reads the Bible before having been influenced by parents and teachers and our own personal experience.

Christian who emphasize the Bible's authority also do not as a result always spend time making use of scholarly resources such as commentaries that would help them understand the text.

Christians of the modern era, whether Liberal or Conservative, tended to emphasize that there is a single absolute truth, whether it was to be found by reason, experience or revelation. In the postmodern era, some deny that there is in fact an absolute truth. In response, the idea of "critical realism" has been developed, which means being committed to the notion that there is a real world, that there is such a thing as truth, while also humbly acknowledging that what I believe may not correspond to that truth, and certainly there is a strong chance it will not correspond perfectly and precisely.

In addition to the differences that result from our interaction with the Bible, new issues that arise also lead to differences. We see this happening in the early church as it wrestled with the issue of the status of Gentiles in this Jewish Messianic movement. Today, we are in a similar situation, unable to simply look up a passage in "2 Newton" and read the verse that tells how Christians should view stem cell research. Most Christians agree that one should identify principles which can then be applied to the new issue. But even if we agree on the relevant principle, we may not agree on its application.

Disagreements among Christians thus seem inevitable, and in my opinion (you are free to disagree!) this is a normal and ideally should be a positive thing. If church is not simply a place for the spiritually mature, but also a place for those who are new to the faith to be nurtured, then we should expect there to be different viewpoint, and members who are at different stages in their Christian experience. As a community of fallible human beings, when we read in Galatians of Paul rebuking Peter, it should lead us to reflect that if one of the closest disciples to Jesus, who was an eyewitness to his public ministry, and was according to Acts 2 filled with the Holy Spirit, if he (who some identify as the first Pope!) could be wrong, then how much more so can we? And if he wasn't wrong, then Paul, one of the authors of Scripture, was presumably wrong to think that he was! Either way, the characters in and authors of Scripture left a lot of examples that should lead us to humility. It might be ironic were we to repeat their words, confident that we are never in error in doing so.

The Bible encourages us to have a childlike faith. Often it is claimed that this is a faith that accepts whatever it is told without questioning. Clearly those who understand it that way have forgotten what it was like to be children, and have no children of their own. Children question everything, and are often painfully honest about the emperor not having clothes on, while adults play along in a facade of mutual self-deception. Hopefully in discussing subjects that Christians disagree about, we can have this naive honesty. Hopefully as well we can separate people from the opinions they hold, and emphasize that our disagreements need not automatically lead to conflict on a personal level.

As this series progresses, there is no illusion that we will all come to agree. But hopefully we will better understand why we disagree, and if we continue to do so, will do so for better reasons, having critically examined the issues, the evidence and the arguments on various sides. Since the Bible will have a key place in all topics, we had best turn our attention next time to the different views Christians have of the Bible, of what it is and of how it is to be interpreted and applied. We hope you can join us!

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