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Podcast: Are Christians More Divided Now Than Ever? (Rhyne Putman)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Grace-Filled Disagreement

In this episode, Rhyne Putman, author of When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity, discusses how Christians should think about theological diversity and disagreement within the body of Christ. He highlights the importance of reading and assuming the best about those with whom we disagree, explains when it's appropriate to call something a gospel issue and when it's not, and suggests three questions to ask ourselves when evaluating whether or not a specific doctrinal position is worth fighting for.

When Doctrine Divides the People of God

Rhyne R. Putman

Doctrine is important, but when is it important enough for Christians to diverge? When Doctrine Divides the People of God affirms the need for grace in disagreement and unity in diversity.

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Are We More Doctrinally Divided Now?

01:49

Matt Tully
So I want to just jump right into kind of a key question. Do you think that today, as you look at the evangelical church and Christians around you and Christians in the pews and Christians online, are we more doctrinally divided today than in the past?

Rhyne Putman
In certain ways. I think what we're finding in the United States—in particular in evangelical churches—is we're just reflecting our country. As we look outside right now in our political climate and you see the nation just bitterly divided over political issues, we are reflecting the culture. Even though we are supposed to be reflecting Christ—we're supposed to look different from the culture—we're not all that different within the pews of our churches. We've always had theological disagreement. Theological disagreement has been around a long time; it was an issue in the early church, it was an issue in the New Testament itself, and it was an issue in the Protestant Reformation when the Bible was put in the hands of everybody. But one major difference we have now is we have this new form of communication, this new medium. It's basically giving everybody a voice to voice their disagreements with social media—blogs,Twitter, Facebook, whatever it is. Sometimes we forget that we're talking to other actual human beings. We engage in something like trench warfare where we sort of lob our ideas and then hide without necessarily thinking about how our ideas or our comments affect other people or can hurt other people. And that's true in the evangelical community as well. So theological disagreement is nothing new. But we certainly have a new platform for theological disagreement in the digital age.

The Role Social Media Plays

03:55

Matt Tully
It seems like social media has this weird dual role of both allowing us to lob those grenades and attack people without really considering them people, but then on the other hand we also have these echo chamber effects where you're just kind of listening to the people who already agree with you.

Rhyne Putman
Right. We often fall into confirmation bias. We like to follow on social media the people who we agree with. We don't necessarily engage with other ideas that are foreign to us. And it's interesting because the social media companies have engineered algorithms to kind of protect us—to keep us—in these little bubbles. And in some ways we intuitively and instinctively do that with our theological circles as well. I had a student some years ago who I gave them several options for a text book and he made the comment, I'm going to pick this text book because I'm going to agree with that one the most. That's not really the most helpful way to do theology, but oftentimes that's the way we do it.

Listening to Dissenting Opinions

05:05

Matt Tully
Do you intentionally push your students to read people they disagree with?

Rhyne Putman
Absolutely.

Matt Tully
Speaking to the average Christian, or the average pastor listening, how important is it that they are doing that and are there dangers involved?

Rhyne Putman
I think it just depends on context. In a local church, I would never encourage church members who are not trained in their critical eye to read traditions, or to read from scholars, that I would think would pose a significant threat. In an educational setting where I'm trying to train young theologians to think critically and to engage with other theological traditions, I will ask them to read from other sources and other traditions. But I always do so within a confessional framework. In fact, every syllabus that I write has what I call “a statement on Biblical authority”, and I say that this is what we believe about Scripture, about its sufficiency, about its supremacy, about its inerrancy. You're going to read in this course maybe some worldviews or some points of view that don't line up with this. But I want you to read this in order that you would develop a critical outlook and a critical eye. And I say that my perspective is always going to be taught and shaped within our confessional framework, which for me it's the Baptist faith and message.

Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli

06:31

Matt Tully
You open your book by recounting the story of a time that Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli met in 1529—so kind of in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, still on the earlier side—and they met with the hopes of finding common ground between their two fledgling movements. I wonder if you can walk us through what happened in that famous meeting and what we can learn from that today.

Rhyne Putman
Sure. Well, of course it was driven by political interests. There was a prince who wanted, basically, the Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire to make nice because they thought that that would help them stand and give a united front against the papal bullying of Rome. And so Luther and Zwingli had been for years engaged in what we could call an early form of social media—they were writing little books and booklets about each other, mainly along the lines of this issue of the Lord's Supper. And Luther's own view was what we now call consubstantiation—that Christ is present in, under, and with the elements; that through the ubiquity of Christ's human nature, Christ's human nature is actually present in the elements. And Zwingli took more of what we call a memorial approach—that the elements are merely symbolic. They help us remember what Jesus did. The breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine, or in my tradition, grape juice, those are signifying things; not things in which Christ is actually present. Both of them wanted to distance themselves from transubstantiation—the Catholic view—but they really had a heated disagreement about what Christ's relationship was to the Supper. A lot of that came down to the fact that they were looking at the same biblical texts and disagreeing about what the biblical text meant. And this is significant because both Luther and Zwingli were advocates for the perspicuity of Scripture. They both argued adamantly that Scripture is clear enough that we don't need a magisterium, we don't need a pope, we don't need a council to interpret the Bible for us.

Matt Tully
Because that was one of the main Roman Catholic arguments was that if you open Scripture up to the people, there's just going to be chaos.

Rhyne Putman
That's right. And in some ways, they were right to a degree. What would happen is we went from having a unified interpretation on some passages where the church just declares what the passage means, and now—with Protestant convictions that every man can read the Bible for himself, every woman can read the Bible for herself, the Holy Spirit is in us and so we can read Scripture with Scripture—it did open up a diversity of different theological opinions. The Lord's Supper, in this case being what drove that disagreement, because they basically had conflicting interpretations of what Jesus said when he said, Take and eat, this is my body which is broken for you. And so Luther took that quite literally and said, Well yeah, that's literal. And Zwingli said, No, that's metaphorical. And so if you read the transcript of the Marburg Colloquy where they had this debate, it reads like a hermeneutics sort of debate—

Matt Tully
They got into the details.

Rhyne Putman
—yeah, they got into the details. And they had a lot of colorful insults for each other along the way, which is quite fun because Luther was a master of insults. And so what happened at the end of that debate was they decided to write a collection of articles of their points of agreement and whether or not they could go forward doing ministry together. In fourteen points they found agreement, but on the fifteenth point—which was over the Lord's Supper—they walked away. And it was sort of a sad ending because Zwingli was sitting there begging Luther to give him the right hand of fellowship—to call him brother—and Luther just refused to do it. I think they made some peace a little bit later on, but it was never a close bond or a close relationship because that Lord's Supper issue was so significant. For Luther the heart of the gospel was wrapped up in it. He believed that it was sacramental, that it had a sacramental significance—this is a way by which we receive grace and disagreement on this was, in some ways, a gospel issue for Luther.

Slippery Slope Argument

11:45

Matt Tully
And that raises the interesting question I've also often wrestled with: you mentioned that Luther viewed this as a gospel issue, and in your book you highlight some of the other doctrinal implications that each of them held that flowed out of their understanding of the sacrament. Sometimes it seems like we make those slippery slope arguments. We say, If you believe this right here then that means logically that you also would need to believe this and this and this and this. And then it gets to the point where maybe both parties would say, I don't accept that. So how do you think about that dynamic when it comes to doctrinal disagreements? How valuable is the slippery slope argument, or that logical sequence of implications, when it comes to discussing things?

Rhyne Putman
I think we've made a mistake in our present nomenclature—the “gospel issue” nomenclature itself. I think we should probably limit the “gospel issue” to the gospel itself. And I know people mean well when they use that particular phrase. What they mean is, These are implications for the gospel, these are potentially direct applications of the gospel, and sometimes they're even the supporting doctrines that sort of uphold the gospel; and we disagree on all three of those levels. But the gospel itself, as defined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 among other places, is something that I think most evangelical Christians can sign on the dotted line even if we disagree, for instance, about the nature of election; which again, is a supporting doctrine.

Matt Tully
It's easy to make the case for a particular view of election, walking it back from the gospel, but maybe sometimes people aren't always as logical as we want them to be in they're thinking about something.

Rhyne Putman
And we think differently, we reason differently, through biblical texts. That's one of the points that I try to bring out in the book is that we don't all have the same reasoning process. What you might see as an airtight, rigid, logical conclusion from the gospel—or from any other biblical text—I might not draw the same sort of conclusions because there is a creative dimension that we use in the reasoning process that we don't all think the same way. Our minds don't always jump to the same sort of conclusions.

Formation of Doctrine

14:33

Matt Tully
So how would you respond to somebody who hears that and it makes them uncomfortable because it sounds like the formation of doctrine then is sort of subjective and it's based on our experiences or our own psychology. What would you say to someone who's concerned about that?

Rhyne Putman
First and foremost I want to say that as Protestants, as evangelical Protestants in particular, we want to acknowledge that the primary way that we know God is through his written revelation. Scripture is sufficient. Scripture is clear. It is the norming norm—it is the only source by which all other sources of theology are measured. And I don't think that the Protestant Reformers meant by sola scriptura that Scripture is the only source used in theology, but it is the only source by which the other sources can be judged and valued. So yes, tradition plays some part in our theological formation, more often than we like to admit. Yes, reason plays a role in our theological formation. Yes, experience does to a degree as well. Though I would want to say that it's Scripture that helps interpret experience, not the other way around. All of those things are a factor, but Scripture is the only measure by which we can sort of correct and unpack these other sources. Now where it gets a little bit circular, and I'm well aware of that, is that these other sources sometimes help us make sense of Scripture.

Personal Experience and Interpretation

16:25

Matt Tully
Right. Scripture has to be interpreted, and we can't interpret Scripture without in some way being influenced by our experiences and our apprehension of reason. How do you deal with that circularity there?

Rhyne Putman
What I encourage is, if I'm going into reading Scripture, I want to practice with something that I call a “hermeneutics of submission”. This is in contrast to a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that you sometimes see from more postmodern interpretation. A “hermeneutics of submission” is if there's a point of view in my tradition, if there's a point of view in my experience, or if there's something in my reasoning process that needs to be corrected, what I ultimately want to do is submit to the Lordship of Christ that's expressed in the text. If there's a theological opinion that I had, no matter how firmly I may hold that theological opinion, or no matter how much sway tradition has over me, I want to come to the biblical text with an open mind and let God's word correct me and change my opinions if needed and ultimately submit to what Jesus is expressing through the text—what the Holy Spirit is expressing through the text.

Matt Tully
So that's like an attitude that you're having to cultivate.

Rhyne Putman
It's a disposition.

Matt Tully
But also, I could sense, even thinking about that right now, it would take some courage to consistently have that when we come to the Bible because that means we're, at least theoretically, open to changing a really cherished belief or conviction which might entail all kinds of implications for the community that we're in.

Rhyne Putman
Relationships or identity, any number of things.

Reconciling with Sola Scriptura

18:19

Matt Tully
But when it's oriented like that towards Scripture, it's appropriate. So going back a little bit to the issue of Scripture being the norming norm. You mentioned sola scriptura, this fundamental conviction that came out of the Protestant Reformation that all evangelicals would affirm, generally speaking; and yet, as you pointed out, disagreements abound among evangelical Christians who maybe have a certain foundation. But I think sometimes that can lead many Christians to be a little bit unsettled or even wonder at sola scriptura as a foundational principle. It almost seems like it doesn't work the way it's supposed to work. There's books that have sort of explored that—Christian Smith's famous book from a number of years ago The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. So how do you reconcile that fundamental evangelical conviction—sola scriptura—with the reality of what we see in terms of different views about what the Bible is actually teaching on a whole host of things?

Rhyne Putman
I think sola scriptura only works if it goes hand in hand with the similar Protestant conviction of the clarity of Scripture—that Scripture is clear enough that anyone can approach it and receive a basic understanding of what it means. There's a lot of misconceptions on both sola scriptura, which I think Christian Smith expresses well, and there's a lot of misunderstandings, likewise, that people have with the clarity of Scripture. They assume that when they hear talk about the clarity of Scripture that Scripture must be easy to understand, so easy that you don't even have to put much thought into interpreting it. Every year we go to academic conferences like the Evangelical Theological Society or the Society for Biblical Literature and you're gonna find a lot of different people who are reading the same text and yielding different conclusions, but that doesn't mean that there is widespread disagreement on what is most clear in Scripture. You read things like the Westminster Confession—the Westminster Confession very clearly points out that not all things in Scripture are plain in the same sense. What they mean is, Yeah, there are some things in Scripture that are a little bit more challenging that we have to work at a little bit more to understand. The clarity of Scripture doesn't promise that Scripture is going to be easy to understand. What it promises is that Scripture is intelligible, that God is communicating through his word in such a way that creatures can understand Scripture, that we're capable of understanding it. Where Luther got into a significant disagreement with Erasmus about the clarity of Scripture was Erasmus was basically saying—on the free will issue—he said, We don't really need to explore that issue because God has left it a mystery. God has purposely proven himself mysterious in the biblical text. He has hidden himself, he's not been clear in his communication. And Luther said, No, that's not exactly the case. God is clear. God has chosen to reveal himself clearly. If there's a lack of clarity it has nothing to do with the revelation itself, it has to do with the interpreter. And that's something that I emphasize is we're all, of course, interpreters who, for various reasons, are imperfect in the way that we interpret Scripture. We have imperfection in our reasoning processes, our mental capabilities. We don't always think like we should. We don't always have clear thought. We make irrational decisions. We have places in our logic that are fuzzy. But also, on top of all of that, we are shaped by our time and place in history, our cultural background, our family background. All those things come to bear whenever we read a text. And then beyond that, of course there's the reality that we are fallen creatures. We have sin natures. We're bent and inclined towards sin. So sometimes all of those things can distort the meaning of Scripture in certain ways. And I'm convinced that on this side of eternity we're never going to be perfect interpreters of Scripture. We're not gonna have perfect interpretations of Scripture until we're in the presence of God as we're fully known and all those hindrances to interpretation will be removed. So do we need the work of the Holy Spirit? Yes, we do need the illuminating activity of the Holy Spirit who helps make clear what he has inspired in the Biblical text. But that's not a guarantee that we're automatically going to have this instant understanding of the biblical text. I think the illuminating activity of the Holy Spirit really, more than anything else, is that the Holy Spirit helps us see how we need to believe the text. It helps us recognize what it says about sin is true, what the Holy Spirit says about the gospel is true, and he makes that very clear where we can receive and believe and understand those things. But it doesn't mean that we're going to suddenly have every question answered that we have about Scripture. Like Paul's comment about baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15—I don't know that I will ever know the answer to that, at least on the side of eternity because there are some things missing from my reading that maybe the audience at Corinth would have gotten, but we who are 21st century Western Christians don't get.

Differences within the Church

25:08

Matt Tully
I've heard some people make the case that God intentionally left some things in Scripture, or maybe didn't give us the—especially when it comes to the ecclesiological types of issues—left some wiggle room for people to kind of do it in different ways and that is intended by God as a way to just allow Christians to emphasize different things and do things differently and that actually contributes to the overall flourishing of the church. When you think about that kind of an argument?

Rhyne Putman
Sort of yes and no. No, in the sense that I don't think God intended for things to be hidden from us in any sort of way or that he doesn't have clear ideas for what he wants the church to be like. But yes in the sense that when we read the New Testament, when we read the Epistles in particular, we're reading other people's mail. One of the things that I like to stress with students is that when you read these Epistles, you're not reading church planning manuals. You're reading letters to previously established churches. So we don't have explicit instructions like, This is the way that you should set up your governmental structure. This is the way that you should run your business meetings. This is what the hierarchy of a church structure looks like. We don't have that written out in the New Testament. So when you read passages like 1 Timothy 3 for instance, we're reading qualifications of elders, we're reading qualifications of deacons; but again, with the idea firmly in mind that Timothy knows what an elder and a deacon is. And when you read about particular conflicts in churches like Corinth or churches like Philippi or churches like Galatia, you are reading letters to established churches that don't necessarily have to have everything spelled out for them. And again, an interesting issue, like 1 Corinthians 14, Paul's talking about the disorder that's brought about by the way that this church at Corinth had been abusing the gift of tongues. And what's somewhat frustrating sometimes as an interpreter is that Paul never clearly defines what it is that he views the gift of tongues as because he's writing to a church that they know—they know his opinion on that. It's been given to them. So what he's doing is he's trying to correct the abuse of tongues. And so what we're left trying to do is trying to figure out, from this context and from some other texts in the New Testament, what did the early church view this gift to be? It's sometimes like trying to put a puzzle together without having the picture on top of the box and not really being sure if you have all the pieces or not. And so that's where we run into some significant disagreements. Sometimes it's an easy thing to put together and sometimes it's not. And even when we read passages that are significant for the formation of Christian doctrine, say for instance Philippians 2—which of course Philippians 2:5-11 is an early Christological hymn (this is debatable, but I lean this way). And obviously there's a lot that can be gleaned from that passage about the incarnation, about what Jesus has done, about him being truly equal to God—there are things that passage says that are very rich Christologically. But remember Paul's point in Philippians 2 is not to give a Christology lesson. The point that Paul's making is for us to have the same mindset, to have the same attitude in ourselves, that Christ Jesus had. He's giving a diatribe about being a servant. And so one of the things that we as systematic theologians do is we go to biblical text oftentimes and use them in ways that were not necessarily their original intention. And that's not a bad thing, it's just being aware of the fact that when we read these letters, particularly on issues like the church like you brought up, we are sometimes trying to draw things out of these texts that they weren't directly addressing.

Considering Context

30:09

Matt Tully
As you mentioned, that reality, the ad hoc nature of many of the New Testament documents, is often sort of connected to the things that we disagree about. People will make the case that an instruction that Paul gave related to “X” thing in the church was delivered to this church at this time because he was addressing these specific things; and therefore, it's not actually applicable to us today. And I think pretty much everybody would acknowledge there are situations like that where this is a pretty specific instruction. But then there are other cases where we would want to say, No, that does apply to us still. Obviously that's the source of a lot of disagreement about all kinds of things. How do you personally discern when something is a command given to a certain context and when something is really directly applicable to all of us today?

Rhyne Putman
And that's one of the complaints that Christian Smith makes about biblicism is that it offers no clear way to sort of address some of these issues. And I think he's talking about a rather naive form of Biblicism—

Matt Tully
A straw man, essentially?

Rhyne Putman
—yeah, a straw man. I would want to say that I'm a critical biblicist, that I feel like we have better tools at our disposal for making those distinctions. But I don't think any evangelical that I know is going to say, Hey, you have a tummy ache. Why don't you take some wine for your tummy ache like this instruction that Paul gives to Timothy. That instruction is very clearly a direct sort of statement made to Timothy that's sort of shaped and conditioned by a culture and a world before Pepto-Bismol, before modern medicine. And so we don't look at that and say that's normative for our age, that doctors shouldn't prescribe other medicine and they should just prescribe wine for stomachs.

Matt Tully
Ancient wine.

Rhyne Putman
Yeah, ancient wine. If you have a certain naive literalist hermeneutic then you're going to come to those texts and you're going to abuse them in that way. I don't know many Christians that would do that, even among some of the most fundamentalist sects you're not going to find people doing that kind of thing. Again, same sort of thing: “greet each other with the holy kiss” (1 Cor. 16:20) During flu season, which we're kind of in the thick of right now, I certainly wouldn't encourage that. I'm kind of weirded out with greeting times as it is, but greeting each other with a holy kiss is not something that I think is normative for the church. But then we get to an issue like, “I do not allow a woman to have authority over men.” That's where that sort of tension sort of builds for Christians is, Do we take this direct statement as something that's normative and applicable for every age? As a complementarian and I would say, yes. But I recognize I have brothers and sisters who think that that's very specific to a particular context and that's why they take a different approach. So I don't necessarily assume the worst about people who disagree with me on this passage and say, Well, they just don't believe the Bible because of these other examples that I've just given where I don't necessarily take that as directly normative for all ages. So I can see where people yield such conclusions.

Changing Your Mind

33:50

Matt Tully
Can you think of an example from your own life or theological development where you have changed your mind on an issue, on a doctrinal issue, that maybe was of some importance—I'm not saying a gospel issue—but because of another Christian coming to you and talking to you about something or discussing something in a charitable, humble way like you're describing?

Rhyne Putman
I'll say this: the Southern Baptist churches that I grew up in during the 80s and 90s were afflicted—maybe that's too strong of a word—they were certainly deeply influenced by a very strong form of dispensationalism. What I would call dispensationalism with a capital “D.” When I was a teenager and I was young in my faith, I was really reading and I was starting to focus in on these eschatological issues. I became sort of an apologist for a dispensationalist framework. I was reading these so-called prophecy teachers, these specialists, and I developed some pretty black and white views pretty early on in my Christian journey about what I believed about how to read the book of Revelation, how to read New Testament eschatology. What really ruined all that for me was taking hermeneutics classes and starting to see if you take things in their original historical context, if you look at the way an ancient author would have would have seen these issues, if you look at the historical factors that were going on in Rome and the persecution of the church, it really sort of recolored the way that I read eschatology. I could probably think of other minor instances, but it was people who were patient with me and they showed me that maybe you're just not wearing the right pair of glasses when you're reading the Bible. And sometimes it's about just trying on different glasses and kind of seeing if you can see the text more clearly. Do you see pieces come together better if you look at it from a different angle or from a different perspective?


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