Christianity 201

February 16, 2011

Diverse in Doctrines, But Joined in Seeking

This week we’re catching up with devotional bloggers we visited last summer, which brings us back to Scott Shirley’s blog.  This is a piece worthy of much consideration and although it’s a bit longer, I hope you’ll take the time.  It appeared this week at his blog under the title The Divisiveness of Truth.


“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” – Psalms 133:1

Should everybody be allowed to read the Bible? (Spoiler alert: I think the answer is yes, but don’t stop reading yet.)

In the later part of the 14th century, John Wycliffe became the first person to translate the Bible into English. His aim was to get the Bible into the everyday language of the people. His story is complicated and full of twists but suffice it to say, his actions did not engender him to the hierarchy of the Church.

The translating of the Latin Bible into the “vulgar” English language worried Church authorities enough that by 1407 the English translation was denounced as unauthorized and translating or using translated Bibles was defined as heresy — a crime for which the punishment was death by burning. In 1415 Wycliffe himself was denounced, posthumously, as a heretic. His remains were exhumed in 1428 and burned. His ashes were spread over the Swift River.

The lens of history does not reflect well on the way the Catholic Church handled this issue. However, the Catholic Church may have been correct about one thing. They desperately feared a scriptural translation that could be read by king and commoner alike because they believed the commoner was not capable of “rightly dividing” the word of God. Putting the Bible into the hands of people not professionally trained to interpret it would result, they predicted, in rampant divisions within the Church and loss of the unity so often implored by the New Testament.

And that is exactly what happened!

By the end of the following century a German priest named Martin Luther, influenced by the work of Wycliffe, nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, thus setting the stage for the Protestant Reformation and the results that followed. Up through the time of Luther, the Church was mainly comprised of two sects or branches, the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic (the result of the first Church split right after the beginning of the second millennium). Since Luther, the church has splintered so many times it is difficult for scholars to accurately assess how many differing branches exist. But we have gone from two branches at the time of Luther to, according to many estimates, over 40,000 branches today.

Why? Because we started reading the Bible.

What Wycliffe, Luther, and all the reformers started was a needed and necessary work. The desire of the Reformation Movement was to rid the Church of the power to dictate the truths of the Bible and put this power squarely into the hands of the people. And despite the results of countless divisions, none of us really wants to go back to a situation where clergy dispenses truth to us. However, swirling beneath the surface of our everybody-should-study-the-Bible-for-themselves attitude is the same fear that fostered the Catholic Church’s resistance to an English Bible translation.  We are scared people will reach different conclusions.

And reach different conclusions we do. No theological position or doctrinal belief has been immune to human interpretive difference. Well intentioned Bible-believing Christians disagree about everything from issues as small as the order of a worship service to much bigger issues such as the nature of God, the incarnation, soteriology, or the theory of atonement.

The fallout of a disagreement over any Biblical issue considered foundational has usually resulted in Church division. One may wonder how it rightly could be otherwise. Whenever we disagree on a Biblical doctrine or teaching, we seem to think the only justifiable solution is to separate. After all, if two people hold opposing views, somebody must be wrong and they are, therefore, guilty of teaching false doctrine.  We dare not stay in fellowship with them for fear of appearing supportive of their views.

Our natural response when differences arise is to assume our position (or our Church’s position) is the correct one, or, at the very least, the most likely to be correct. There are very few individuals capable of viewing the religious opinions of others as having the potential of being as valid as their own opinions. Fewer still are the Churches who can pull off this bit of intellectual honesty. We all believe ourselves to be right. 40,000+ differing divisions all chirping the same song… come to us, we’ve got the Truth.

How can that be? How can we all be so confident yet differ so much? The main problem, as I see it, is that Churches and individuals alike rarely distinguish between Truth and truth. We are all after a perfect and certain understanding of God’s absolute Truth. We go to Church, listen to sermons, attend Sunday school classes and Bible studies, all in the pursuit of the Big T. Yet we vastly overestimate the results of our chase. We fail to realize that just having God’s Truth in a book doesn’t mean we are capable of understanding it perfectly. What we get, despite our sincerest efforts, isn’t Truth. We get our best approximation of “T”ruth — we get “t”ruth.

To gain meaning from the words of the Bible we are forced to interpret them through the filter of our own mind. Meaning requires interpretation and, unfortunately, our interpretive machinery is all too fallible. There’s a fundamental difference between Truth and our interpretations of Truth, and while we search for the former, our imperfections bring us only the latter. If we only recognized this imperfection within ourselves we could more easily understand why our Christian brother down the street suffers from the same condition.

As long as we are going to read the Bible ourselves and not allow Truth to be dictated to us from any earthly authority, we are going to have to deal with differences of opinion. This is unavoidable. It is possible, however, to maintain a unity of brotherhood without unanimity of opinion. But our unity cannot rest on our interpretive abilities and opinions of scripture because it is a fight our finite humanity cannot win. We will never all agree. Our unity must come from “faith in” Truth, not “beliefs about” Truth. We can, I believe, humbly unite through our constant desire to “diligently seek” after Him. It is our search that binds us, not our answers along the way.

Alexander Campbell said it very well…

“Dear Brother, for such I recognize you, notwithstanding the varieties of opinion which you express on some topics, on which we might NEVER agree. But if we should not, as not unity of opinion, but unity of faith, is the only true bond of Christian union, I will esteem and love you as I do every man, of whatever name, who believes sincerely that Jesus is the Messiah, and hope in his salvation.”- Alexander Campbell, A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things

Along this theme, check out this original parable by Scott Shirley, which appeared at his blog the next day.