Managing Our Differences, Part 4
Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve seen so far in this study of managing our differences:
- God uses only flawed vessels; that’s all he has. (Part 1)
- God can use our differences, and even our divisions, to advance his kingdom. (Part 2)
- God uses our differences to glorify himself. (Part 3)
But why are there so many differences and divisions among us? In order to rightly handle our disagreements,
4. We need to understand why we disagree.*
Christians are indwelt by the same Spirit, read the same Bible, and use more or less the same tools to interpret it. (If ever there was a modifier pregnant with significance, however, it’s that phrase “more or less”!) So, why are there so many differences among Bible believers? In part, it’s because we don’t use all the same tools with the same care, in the same proportions, in the same order, with the same presuppositions, or priorities, or proficiency — or any combination of those.
Give a dozen random people of varying carpentry skills and experience the same materials and set of tools, and ask them to build a birdhouse. Most of them may look roughly the same (“roughly” being the operative word). Some will be notably better than others. A few may be barely functional or recognizable. Now, to make the analogy only slightly more apropos, ask the same dozen people to construct a one-tenth scale model of Biltmore House. Theology is a complex endeavor, both because of us and because of God.
It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not…. Some people…complain…that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made religion simple….as if ‘religion’ were something God invented, and not His statements to us of certain quite unalterable facts about His own nature.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
You can say, “The text says what it says,” but people can “hear” it differently. The Bible is not designed to mean different things to different people, but it often does — not because of the Bible but because of us. Sometimes we can form conclusions different from each other simply on the basis of the translation we’re using. And if you think the solution is for all of us to use the same translation, your grasp of church history and human nature is disturbingly deficient. The same goes for all of us simply joining the same denomination. See how long that lasts. We could never get past the argument over which one we should all join.
Why Do We Disagree?
Some of the reasons for our divisions are subjective — our spiritual, intellectual, emotional, volitional, cultural, and experiential differences from each other. And none of those differences necessarily involve any inherent acts of sin. But at least one reason is objective — the fact that God himself has built ambiguities into the Bible.
Several factors contribute to hermeneutical differences among us. And differences of interpretation naturally translate into differences of opinion, doctrine, and practice.
1. Theological predisposition.
All of us have a basic theological system that furnishes the lens through which we tend to read the biblical text. We are inclined to see texts in ways that make them fit with the preconceptions of our system, or even with our own personal paratextual preferences and opinions.
2. Differing degrees of giftedness (Eph. 4:7).
Some interpreters are simply more (or less) gifted than others. That is not necessarily a matter of education or raw intelligence. It involves investigative skill, diligence and thoroughness, level of training, and functional familiarity with the whole range of scriptural revelation. Nor does greater giftedness necessarily guarantee rightness of interpretation; the other issues in this list still factor into everyone’s conclusions. But it does help explain some of the differences among us.
3. Differing personal backgrounds and individual consciences (Rom. 14:14).
This particularly explains differences and disagreements in areas of praxis, but it impacts our doctrinal differences as well.
4. The presence of genuine ambiguity in the Bible (2 Pet. 3:15-16).
The first three factors focus on the human element in interpretation. But there is also a divine element that contributes to our differences: not all Scripture is equally clear. In many passages the meaning of the text is susceptible (at least from our perspective) of two or more equally legitimate interpretations. Not everything in the Bible is as clear as it could possibly be. Which raises a related question:
Why Are There Ambiguities?
Why didn’t God banish ambiguity from the Bible? Certainly, he could have made the Bible utterly unambiguous at every point. Clearly, he chose not to. So, why did God build ambiguities into the Bible? Here are some … not explanations, but practical observations.
- Ambiguities compel us to search God’s words more thoroughly and diligently (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10).
- Ambiguities prompt our meditation on Scripture, which is (or ought to be) a form of fellowship (cf. Ps. 19:13-14; 119:148).
- Ambiguities help us personalize truth that we search out, transmuting it from abstract to impact (cf. Prov. 2:1-7; cf. Dan. 9:1ff.).
- Ambiguities measure our interest in discerning God’s mind and will (cf. Job 23:12; Ps. 119:162).
- Most to the present point, ambiguities test and exercise and cultivate our maturity, our charity, and our unity when we disagree with one another (cf. Rom. 14:1-15:6).
These reflections are not novel. At the Council of Trent, one of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine’s arguments against the perspicuity of Scripture was the reformers’ admissions that the Bible contains difficulties. William Whitaker, an Anglican Calvinist (whose portrait reputedly hung in Bellarmine’s study, so much did he admire the Protestant’s genius), rebutted that “by such difficulties God calls us to prayer, excites our diligence, keeps our interest, causes us to value the Scriptures, subdues our pride, and much else besides” (Mark Thompson, A Clear and Present Word, 154).
It appears that God has deliberately left us in a quandary about many things. Why did He not summarize all the rules in one book, and all the basic doctrines in another? He could have eliminated the loopholes, prevented all the schisms over morality and false teaching that have plagued the church for two thousand years. Think of the squabbling and perplexity we would have been spared. And think of the crop of dwarfs He would have reared!Elisabeth Elliot, The Liberty of Obedience, 56-57
Ambiguities and disagreements can help us grow up, if we let them.
Part of managing our differences involves recognizing, and accepting as a reality of the human condition, why we come to different conclusions in the first place.
* Disclosure: I cannot now tell to what degree I have further developed the content in this section over years of teaching it, but the basic points originated, for me, with my longtime pastor Mark Minnick.