As I was finalising the manuscript to my book Forgotten Covenant, I was inspired by a podcast about creeds and confessions to put together a preface for my book. Written in the form of a letter to the reader, it offers my explanation of why making a case for a secondary theological issue matters, and why we shouldn’t be afraid to express and engage with these kinds of disagreements. But like what I did with Why then the Law?, I thought I would leave it out and publish it elsewhere.
Below is the preface that I have modified somewhat to make it more suitable for this format and purpose as we seek to understand: how are we to respond when we encounter theological disagreement?
To the Reader,
I would like to thank you for opening this book. Not so much because it supports me, although that is very appreciated, but rather because it means you take theology seriously. You want to have a good understanding of God’s Word and what it has to teach us about God, the Gospel, and righteous living. And for that, I sincerely encourage you.
What I discuss in the book I’ve been working on, Forgotten Covenant, is a topic that not only fascinates me, but addresses a question that I believe is important if we are to be equipped to be effective students, and for some, teachers of the Word. Many throughout Church History have presented views and perspectives on the question of the unity and continuity of Scripture and have arrived at different conclusions. And although there is disagreement, what matters to me is that there is still solidarity in the recognition of the truth of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, for this is where we find the unity that counts. I am happy to agree to disagree over minor differences in interpretations. As I hope many of you discover about me, even if we disagree on any of my interpretations of scripture and the conclusions regarding secondary matters, I hope we can find agreement in the fact that having a robust, biblical theology matters.
So perhaps you may be wondering, ‘if it is only a secondary matter, why bother writing this book? Why spend three to four years researching, writing, and editing such a long work about a topic when if we disagree, that’s okay?’ I think this is a very valid question to ask because it can help us as we engage with other believers on a multitude of issues. And so, here is my response.
I have found that some Christians are afraid of ‘theology’ because of how disagreements can result in division. As a result, ‘No creed but Christ’ becomes their confession. I’m quite convinced that this position starts with a tainted view of the idea of ‘debate’ and ‘argument’. Many hear the word and immediately think of the negative connotations of conflict, criticism, exclusion and aggression. But a debate is merely the formal discussion of opposing positions, and an argument is a reason for holding to a particular view. And while it must be acknowledged that the negative expressions of these words do exist, and the imbalances of the proud who see minor matters as Gospel issues are worthy of critique, indifference is not the right response either.
The Epistle of Jude sits within this tension of addressing disagreement and ignoring differences. The letter begins by encouraging the Church to ‘contend for the faith’ (v.3) against those who have snuck in and ‘perverted the grace of God’ and denied the Lordship of Christ (v.4). This is why in Galatians 2 it doesn’t say, “…before certain men came from James, Peter was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said nothing to Cephas because everyone is on a journey and I’d rather maintain peace and unity.”
Yet, towards the end of Jude, it condemns those who create divisions (v.19). Note that the dividers who are condemned are the ones who do so by promoting falsehood and ‘ungodly passions’, not those who separate themselves from the false teachers. What this means for us is that we should care about true doctrine, and as a result, be intolerant of those who promote lies and sin (Rev 2:20). If someone promotes cheap grace, or rejects the Trinity, the exclusivity of Christ, or salvation by faith alone, it’s important to assume first that they may be misinformed, confused, or perhaps not expressing their position clearly. So love them enough to ask questions, give scripture, gently lead them towards the truth, and if they are genuine they will be open to wanting to understand more. But if even after this they still reject it whole-heartedly, continue to pray for and love them, but also recognise that they hold to a different religion.
But what about responding to disagreements over non-essential matters when both of us are appealing to Scripture? Indifference, still, is not the response.
Gresham Machen in his book Christianity and Liberalism (2009) explains that although differences in theology can create divisions, indifference is worse. Drawing on the disagreements between the Reformers regarding the Lord’s Supper, he concludes:
“Luther was wrong about the Supper, but not nearly so wrong as he would have been if, being wrong, he said to his opponents: ‘Brethren, this matter is a trifle; and it makes really very little difference what a man thinks about the table of the Lord.’ Such indifferentism would have been far more deadly than all the divisions between the branches of the Church. A Luther who would have compromised… would never have said at the Diet of Worms, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me, Amen.’ Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith” (p.42).
If we are to continue in the Protestant tradition, we must have strong theological convictions that are shaped by Scripture. Being indifferent and maintaining the doctrinal status quo in the name of peace and unity is not the solution to theological disagreements. Not that we become arrogant nor Pharisaical about it, calling all who differ with us on these non-essential matters, heretics. Instead, what this looks like is the confidence to express: ‘Here is what I believe and why.’ Moreover, it should allow us to be open to review and examine our own theology as we consider other views, provided that their position is shaped and formed by Scripture too. In so doing, this is iron sharpening iron (Prov 27:17), refining our understanding of God and His Word. This principle is how the inspiration for my book came about.
While discussing theology with those who disagree with me on some secondary matters, I found for some, their positions on a number of topics (in particular those covered in the book) were based more on tradition and selective (sometimes misrepresented) passages, rather than a deep and informed hermeneutic. And instead of wanting to discuss our views and interpretations meaningfully, they prefer to avoid healthy debate. And so, although the ideas covered in Forgotten Covenant are nowhere near as important as Jude’s issues, I wanted to write something that both allows me to present my position on the unity of Scripture. Moreover, I wanted to invite people to consider what I have to say and to think critically and reflect biblically about their position too. And although that is where the book started, this work for me is much more than wanting to change anyone’s mind. It is, more importantly, about helping people to not only better understand how to put the parts of the Bible together, but also to see the beauty in its unity and the devotion and sovereignty with which the Lord fulfils His promises. In short, my goal is ultimately to glorify the majesty of God. One cannot glorify God with theological pacifism.
So when you encounter someone with a different theology,
- Ask yourself if it is a definitional, gospel issue.
- Respectfully ask them how they defend their position.
- Don’t be afraid to politely press on perceived inconsistencies and offer your reasons for your own view.
- When you can find agreement on the essentials, serve together in the mission of the Kingdom, remembering that this is what really matters.
Blessings in Christ,