Published by Crossway Books on May 19, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Academic, Theology
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An Excellent Study on Christian Unity and Doctrinal Diversity
"This helpful book will encourage Christians to hold their convictions with greater irenicism, humility, awareness, and wisdom." --Gavin Ortlund, Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church of Ojai; author, Finding the Right Hills to Die On
As evangelicals, we desire to be biblical--we want our doctrine to be rooted in the Bible, our lives to be guided by the Bible, and our disagreements to be resolved by the Bible. And yet, conflicts within our church communities continue to appear and seemingly multiply with time. Interpretations of the Bible and deeply held convictions often put Christians at odds. Encouraging us toward grace in disagreement and firmness in truth, Rhyne Putman reflects on how Christians can maintain the biblical call for unity despite having genuine disagreements.
Emo Philips was kind of a weird, surreal type of comedian in the 1970s and 80s. He was famous for his use of paraprosdokians—a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase, or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. This is all relevant because one of his most famous jokes goes something like this:
I saw a man on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What denomination?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”
Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
Why We Disagree
When Doctrine Divides the People of God is an in-depth look into what causes that division, what can be done about it, how we can avoid it, when we should embrace, and how to move on despite our differences. In comprehensive fashion, Dr. Rhyne Putman leads readers on a journey of understanding our differences; determining how, if, or when they matter; and planning how to move forward.
The first part of Putman’s book covers the reason we have theological disagreements. How can we all read the same book and come away with vastly different interpretations on issues big and small? Putman offers five reasons:
- We read imperfectly.
- We read differently.
- We reason differently
- We feel differently.
- We have different biases.
Each one of these chapters is a goldmine in understanding the root cause of major and minor differences in church doctrine. Sometimes, the value of tradition leads to a different interpretation. Other times, cultural biases come into play. Occasionally, particularly on minor doctrines, a certain translation or version of Scripture can create differences in interpretation. Through all of this, Putman takes on the role of subjective observer. His role is not to correct readers on their theology, so that the areas of difference are turning into areas of agreement, but rather show where these differences are rooted so that they can then be substantially debated and discussed.
For the lay level reader, whose theological foundations may be somewhat lacking or who may never have considered the rationale behind competing interpretations, this section of the book is sure to be eye-opening.
Dealing with Disagreements
The second part of the book covers what we should do about these disagreements. Putman offers three questions to ask, along with three answers:
- When should we change our minds?
- When should doctrine divide us?
- How then shall we disagree?
I very much appreciate that Putman begins this section by calling readers to inward reflection on when should change. So much time and effort is spent on getting “the other” to change that we ever rarely reflect on when or if we should change—instead doubling down on outdated ideas and ill-formed theology.
The section on when we should divide is also informative. Putman uses a system of triage, dividing doctrines into three different tiers: matters relating to orthodoxy, doctrines in which there is a clear right/wrong interpretation, and matters of opinion. The first tier is what unites the Church as a whole. The second tier is what unites (or divides) denominations. The third tier is usually exclusive to local church practices.
Conclusion | When Doctrine Divides the People of God
My only criticism of the work is that, despite being a book on finding unity in diversity, the book’s language can be one of division and exclusion. For instance, the book’s subtitle is An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity. This seems to imply that diversity within evangelicalism is to be moderated and considered, but that the diversity of faith traditions outside of evangelicalism are not supposed to be included in the fold. The back cover copy continues this emphasis by stating “As evangelicals, we desire to be biblical…”
This may be because Putman knows his primary audience will be evangelicals, but the book’s lack of clear discussion about developing relationships with those from mainline Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox traditions is probably the only thing the book is lacking.
Overall, When Doctrine Divides the People of God is a stellar breakdown of why laypeople and theologians alike come to different ecclesial opinions and theological interpretations. It is a necessary book that teaches us how to engage with those who think differently and challenges us to have well-backed reasons for our own beliefs. It also reminds us that theological diversity on non-essential issues is a strength not a weakness.