Theology in 3D

Managing Our Differences, Part 7

Layton Talbert | November 15, 2021

I grew up in the South Carolina Lowcountry where we hunted deer with hounds and shotguns. I had two deer hunting dogs growing up that were among the best of the pack we hunted with: Loser (a “Tennessee Walker”) and Smokey (a bluetick). The notion of hunting deer with a rifle (from a tree-stand?) was utterly foreign to me until I moved up north . . . to Greenville, South Carolina.

I indulge in that bit of personal reminiscence only to say this: everything in this series up to this point has been more or less a shotgun approach—a patterned set of general guidelines grounded on scriptural principles. At this point, however, I’m putting my Browning 12-gauge up on the gun rack and pulling down a Weatherby Vanguard .30-06.

In short, the next three points are, in my estimation, the bullseye of this presentation.

8. The problem is not our differences but the mismanagement of our differences.

In his book Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson identifies a number of logical and hermeneutical flaws that are common even among practiced and informed scholars. He also explains in his preface that a driving concern in writing the book was what he describes as the church’s “hermeneutical disarray.” One of Carson’s express goals for the book is to contribute to greater hermeneutical uniformity.

The importance of this sort of study cannot be overestimated if we are to move toward unanimity on those matters of interpretation that still divide us. I speak to those with a high view of Scripture: it is very distressing to contemplate how many differences there are among us as to what Scripture actually says . . . . [T]here is a disturbing array of mutually incompatible theological opinions.

Exegetical Fallacies, 18

In part, that’s what gives rise to a blog series like this. And Carson’s work is invaluable for evaluating the hermeneutical strengths and weaknesses of ourselves and others. At the same time, is hermeneutical unanimity necessary (Part 2 and Part 3)? For that matter, given all the factors at work in our fallenness (Part 1) and the wide array of reasons for our differences (Part 4), is hermeneutical unanimity even possible?

Unity is a critical biblical concern. But the issue here is not unity—it is (to use Carson’s own word) unanimity. And the difference is more than merely syllabic. Unanimity would be nice, but it is not a biblical obligation. In fact, Romans 14 testifies that a lack of unanimity in the church is not only tolerable; it’s to be expected.

Unity is possible without unanimity. In fact, lack of unanimity is one of the best tests of unity.

Think again about Acts 15. Isn’t it ironic—and instructive—that the very chapter that records the remarkable unity of mind that emerged from the church’s first major debate (Acts 15:22, 25), should conclude with a falling out between the two men who are, at the beginning of the chapter, inseparable?

Rather than speculating where the text is silent or assuming that one (and only one) was Spirit-filled, scripturally-informed, and exclusively in the right, we should consider everything else we know about both of these men, leading us to assume that both of them were actively seeking God’s guidance, and that God was either directing or allowing different conclusions.

The whole chapter illustrates that God may use even sharp disagreement to further His purposes without eroding unity—depending on how we manage those differences.

It’s our differences that compel us to re-evaluate our own positions and those of others in the light of Scripture. Which means we all ought to be studying Scripture more closely as a result of our differences than we would if we all agreed on everything. And that’s a good thing.

We have the right, the privilege, and indeed the obligation to differ when a scripturally-informed conscience compels us to do so. As long as membership and matriculation is voluntary, every church and institution has not just the right but the obligation to be as precise in their doctrines and positions and policies and practices as they believe Scripture compels them to be.

At the same time, we are equally obligated to seek to have a mind as fully informed by Scripture, as open to the insights of other godly people, as sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s illumination, and as free from the motivations of either the fear or the pleasure of man, as possible.

Easier said than done. But so is sanctification. And that, in essence, is what this series is about.

Philip Henry, the lesser-known father of Matthew Henry, remarked:

It is not so much our differences of opinion that doth us the mischief (for we may as soon expect all the clocks in the town to strike together, as to see all good people of a mind in every thing on this side of heaven), but the mismanagement of that difference.

J. B. Williams, The Lives of Philip and Matthew Henry (1828 reprint; Banner of Truth, 1974), 54.

You can hear in Matthew Henry’s comments on Acts 15 (see Part 6) the echo of his father’s wisdom here.

Put another way, the problem is not disagreement (lack of unanimity), but ill will (lack of unity) that tarnishes God’s glory in the church.

One response to “Managing Our Differences, Part 7”

  1. Geon Kang says:

    I really like this article the unity is often thought of as co-equal in every linear dimension but in biblical unity is trinitarian and multi-dimensional. Churches unity must recognize not equal is the nature of unity. Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy remind of that

    “We offer this Statement in a spirit, not of contention, but of humility and love, which we purpose by God’s grace to maintain in any future dialogue arising out of what we have said. We gladly acknowledge that many who deny the inerrancy of Scripture do not display the consequences of this denial in the rest of their belief and behavior, and we are conscious that we who confess this doctrine often deny it in life by failing to bring our thoughts and deeds, our traditions and habits, into true subjection to the divine Word.”

    I claim that even those who deny inerrancy and unbelievers always have unity with Church in either a positive or negative or negative-positive way.
    In positive unity, “We gladly acknowledge that many who deny the inerrancy of Scripture do not display the consequences of this denial in the rest of their belief and behavior” and some of them will have unity because of “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Tim. 2:25-26)
    In negative unity, “we are conscious that we who confess this doctrine often deny it in life by failing to bring our thoughts and deeds, our traditions and habits, into true subjection to the divine Word.”
    In negative-positive unity, the unregenerated heart imitates “to be like God” in a rebellion against God. The regenerated heart imitates “to be like God” in a conformation to the image of Christ.

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