What do you do when two “scholars” or “theologians” or “pastors” or “people” disagree on something? What do you do with controversy? There are three main views. 1) Balance. Some think the truth is always somewhere in the middle. 2) Unity. Some think truth pertains only to the things there is no disagreement. 3) Conviction. Others think truth must be worked for by considering both positions and settling on one with a full conscience.
It is difficult to separate this discussion from the issues of the heart and its motivations. For no doctrinal or theological or intellectual issue is really just a head matter but our past experiences, biases, and sometimes sinful inclinations effect the way we think about or handle an issue. Our personal presuppositions matter.
Often times the vie for balance is motivated by either laziness or disillusionment. That may sound harsh but usually a person who always thinks the truth is in the middle really has not took the time to thoroughly study both viewpoints (laziness) and feels overwhelmed by the amount of information or disagreement on the subject so they preemptively conclude neither position can be wholly true.
Often times the vie for unity is motivated by a fear of conflict or confrontation. Most of us don’t like the feeling of strife or contention. It is uneasy and unsettling and when people are not getting along whether you are on the inside or outside of it, it is uncomfortable. Thus, many try to approach life by avoiding difficulty and disagreement at all costs and consider the only things to be true, to be the things which are for the most part universally accepted.
It is my contention that we must be a people of conviction. 1 Thessalonians 1:5 states, “…our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” We are to each be “fully convinced in (our) own mind (Rom 14:5).”
Such a thing takes a lot of work. To be honest and consider something from both viewpoints and only have a motivation for what is actually true, even if it means we have been wrong up is to approach controversy with true humility. It is a false humility which says one position cannot be correct.
Consider the words of John Piper on controversy:
“Can controversial teachings nurture Christlikeness? Before you answer this question, ask another one: Are there any significant biblical teachings that have not been controversial? I cannot even think of one…As much as we would like it, we do not have the luxury of living in a world where the most nourishing truths are unopposed. If we think we can suspend judgment on all that is controversial and feed our souls with only what is left, we are living in a dreamworld. There is nothing left…Besides that, would we really want to give to the devil the right to determine our spiritual menu by refusing to eat any teaching over which he can cause controversy?”
Those are good words from Pastor Piper. Throughout the Bible it seems one of the enemy’s chief tools is to mix a little bit of truth with untruth in order to create controversy so people end up wandering away from the faith. Instead we must hold the Bible firm in our hand and work hard to work it out.
“Adiophora” means matters of indifference, tertiary, or secondary issues. Perhaps you have heard it said that there are essentials and non-essentials or closed-handed and open-handed issues in the Christian faith. This idea, as far as I can tell, originally comes from the debate of Calixtus and Calovius in the early 17th century. You can read about it here: (www.theresolved.com/downloads/essentials.pdf).
Calixtus sought to unite the Lutherans, Reformed, and Rome based on unity in fundamentals (”consensus quinquesaecularis”), he was the first ecumenicist. Calixtus thought systematic theology was too specific and devisive. Calovius said we need clarify or elaborate on what the first fundamentals are, which leads to secondary fundamentals needed to protect us from doctrinal error because uniting when there is disagreement in some areas can lead to compromise in bigger ones. Calovious thought such openness would eat away at the Christian faith and that all doctrines are related in some way.
I think there are two dangers and Calixtus and Calovius both make good points. The first danger is making your doctrinal acceptance so narrrow there is no room for an individual’s growth and you end up spending most your time fighting with other Christians about minut points. Which is what happened in the scholasticism era when theologians started arguing about things such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
The other danger is not making your doctrine clear and providing acceptable boundaries. Which is what happened in the theologies of 19th century liberalism, when it was thought that inerrancy could be dismissed. I agree, like Calovius that if push it far enough we can see that everything connected to our salvation in Jesus Christ. Then must we require everyone accept every point of our doctrine for church membership? I don’t think so. I think what we are really after in membership is people who put their faith in the blood of Christ for their sin and not their own works and that they are people who are humble and willing to learn, grow, follow leadership and be on mission.
So, say you’ve been convinced and now you want to dig in and get dirty. How do you go about doing that? One misnomer is the view of the “scholar” or the expert. Sometimes certain positions are advocated by saying that “this is the only reasonable thing to think” because this is what the scholars say. Essentially this is a viewpoint advocating trust in a person rather than a position. If there is anything worth believing, I’m sure there are not simply people who are “too stupid to get it.” Besides, for nearly every controversial belief there are “scholars” on both sides if you take the time to look. We must remember that whether the person is a “scholar,” a “pastor” or some other expert, they are still a fallible human being who could be wrong.
Here is my advice…
– Multiple Viewpoint Books: At least in the arena of theology, for nearly every controversial belief there are books which contain multiple viewpoints from the advocates of certain positions. Some are better than others but usually the way it goes is…each author presents his case, the other viewpoint authors respond, and then the author has a final response to them all. This way you can avoid being intellectually dishonest and get a fair view of the lay of the land and the issues involved so that you can become fully convinced in your own mind.
– Do your own study: Even without having extensive training a person can do a pretty good job at studying an issue or a passage of Scripture in the Bible. This is easier than ever before with the amount of free tools available on the internet today. You can often do just as good of study or better than most Bible commentators and in then you might have reason to actually agree or disagree with them. For an example of my personal study methodology and some good resource guides you can read this post: www.theresolved.com/?p=326
– The Bible is the Final Arbitar: Whatever the Bible says is our ultimate and final authority. When it comes down to it all of our consciences ought to be held captive by the Word of God. If the Bible says it we believe it and if it doesn’t we do not. All controversy ends with what the Bible says. We must adhere to the clear and present declaration of 2 Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
– Practice Humility and Grace: A humble and gracious spirit is imperative for the Christian when in the midst of a debate or disagreement. Too often have Christians, perhaps from being cast out and dismissed so much of the time, have spoke in harsh tones and words.
Jonathan Edwards writes, “The proud enjoy to speak in the most harsh, severe, and terrible language…they say we must be plain hearted and bold for Christ, we must declare war on sin wherever we see it, we must not mince the matter in the cause of God and when speaking for Christ…(this) is to overthrow all Christian meekness and gentleness…and defile(s) the mouths of the children of God…under a cloak of sanctity and zeal and boldness for Christ.”
R.C. Sproul too speaks so wisely about the spirit of humility versus an argumentative spirit. He writes, “It is so easy to disagree and debate. There is no way we are always going to agree with everybody on everything. But if we do disagree we should have a certain attitude in the context of disagreement an attitude of charity. Disagreements can be over important issues. There is nothing wrong with a godly agrument..when it is to get at truth. But it is one things to have a good, healthy, positive argument. It is another to have an argumentative spirit that seems to thrive on disunity, discord, and conflict. Pride is seen where we are not interested in anybody else’s opinion and where we just assume that anybody that disagrees with us must be wrong. We need to be teachable…(and have) convictions based on a humble heart and humble attitude. Humility is being able to listen to people and give an honest hearing and consideration to what they are saying.”
Let us be a people of conviction. Let us be striving and holding to the truth with a humble spirit of grace and submission to Jesus’ book. Let us not be awash in the pools of friction and disbelief but plant our feet with surety that God’s Word is true. Let us give others the room to grow and grant them grace to learn not just from our words but from the character with which we carry the truths breathed out by God’s Holy Spirit.