Having grown up without any real exposure to theological disagreement, I was in for a surprise in my first year of Bible college. Not only was I introduced to a depth of engagement with God and His Word I had never before encountered, but I was also confronted by a multitude of different positions on serious (occasionally, not so serious) theological issues. It would be years before I began to grasp the complexities of contemporary theology and exegesis, which lead to this variety. To address and explain this issue, Rhyne Putman has written his new book When Doctrine Divides the People of God, which I was delighted to receive as part of the Crossway blog review program. In a significant way, Putman’s book and my following reflections on it form a natural follow up to my review of Finding the Right Hills to Die on. Putman’s work is multidisciplinary, drawing on the resources of epistemology, psychology, theological method, and Biblical studies to answer the question, why do Evangelicals with a shared a commitment to Scripture disagree on doctrine?
Putman describes the book as “a work in theological method,” a “philosophy of theology” (29). He seeks to answer two questions in the book, “how do Christ-followers with similar convictions about Scripture and the gospel come to such drastically different points of view in matters of faith and practice?” “Second, what should otherwise like-minded Christians do about the doctrines that divide them?” (30). He is focusing on Protestant Evangelicals (defined according to Bebbington’s quadrilateral), so he assumes agreement on sola Scriptura, understood as the claim that it is the “supreme source and only normative standard for Christian doctrine” (“inspired, inerrant, and infallible”) (30).
Putman takes up the first question in Part 1. This part is divided between descriptive and constructive chapters, with the first two describing why we disagree. Chapter 1 uses the resources of general hermeneutics, or the act of human interpretation, to answer the question; Chapter 2 discusses special hermeneutics, the act of reading the Bible. In these chapters, he identifies part of the source of disagreement in the space present between the text to be interpreted and the interpreter; bridging this gap provides many opportunities for human fallibility to act. In Chapter 3, he begins the constructive element of his argument by arguing that theology involves abductive reasoning, the same sort of reasoning involved in the scientific method. Because abductive reasoning involves a creative jump from the data before the theologian to theological formula, there is significant room for human creativity and for disparity in the theological doctrines or hypotheses presented to explain the data. He summarizes abductive reasoning, in contrast with deductive and inductive reasoning, as the process of forming a hypothesis about the case or minor premise. Deductive reasoning proves a hypothesis and inductive reasoning tests it. He argues that abductive reasoning moves from a rule (the major premise of a syllogism) and result (the conclusion) to a hypothesis concerning the specific case (the minor premise). He illustrates it with this syllogism:
Rule. – All the beans from this bag are white.
Result. – These beans on the table are all white.
⸫ Case.—These beans are from this bag.
Abduction, like induction, makes inferences based on observation. Unlike induction, however, abduction works with a less complete set of data. It offers an explanation of the data—in this case, the beans that are white possibly come from the bag of all white beans—but it cannot prove that explanation or even show its probability. In contrast to strong inductive arguments, abductive arguments are weak arguments. (104)
Putman summarizes his methodological application of abduction in this way,
The theological task is more like abductive reasoning—like guesswork—than deductive or inductive logic. The abstraction of theological content from historically contingent writings and placement of such content in systems necessarily requires creative arrangement. Theology also involves reasoning backwards from Scripture and going back and forth between biblical texts and our conjectures about what they mean. (105)
Chapter 4 & 5 employ the tools of social psychology, particularly the model of Jonathan Haidt, and discusses the influence of bias on doctrine.
Part two, consisting of Chapter 6 – 8, concludes the book on a prescriptive note, addressing the question, what should we do? In chapter 6, he uses the tools of recent philosophical discussion concerning “epistemology of disagreement” to present practical advice for wrestling with disagreement and encouraging epistemological virtue, namely humility, over vice. Chapter 7 discusses issues around what Albert Mohler has called “theological triage,” the prioritization of different doctrines for “theological boundary-making.” Chapter 8 is arguably the best chapter of the book, concluding the book by looking at the disagreement between Whitefield and Wesley and suggesting the posture we ought to take towards one another in theological disagreement.
The reading level and issues raised are suitable for a student at the end of a robust bachelor’s program or a higher level of theological education. Master and Graduate students would particularly benefit from the issues raised within. Putman writing style is clear and offers a concise and helpful overview of his argument in the introduction, managing to summarize and lead the reader through the book’s argument without sounding repetitious. The prescriptive element of the book is aptly summarized on the final page,
The frailty of human interpretation should give us pause from interpretive pride and theological arrogance. It should also remind us of our great need for God’s much greater grace in helping us understand the message of Scripture. Because we are recipients of God’s grace, we should extend the same courtesy to those with whom we disagree. Love and patience should characterize our interpretive disagreements as imperfect readers of the Bible. (266)
Despite the clarity with which Putman writes and the proficiency which he demonstrates in handling a wide range of sources, his approach to theological method and so theological disagreement should concern the reader.
I was saddened (and morbidly pleased) by the end of Part 1 to see the thesis presented in the introduction of my book The Gift of Reading – Part 2 argued so persuasively. In that book, I argued that contemporary hermeneutics and theological method inevitably leads to scepticism. By arguing that Biblical clarity concerns the text alone, that the space between the text is riddled with difficulties, and that theology is fundamentally abductive—concerning itself with possible explanations for a truth laying behind the text—Putman shows that Evangelical hermeneutics and so theological method are utterly untenable, at least he does so if their goal is the realization of the purpose which God gave Scripture, the equipping of His people for life before Him. If this is not the goal of theology, then a lot of us are wasting our time. The sort of methodology Putman proposes is practically functioning in most Evangelical theologies and is explicitly argued on the scientific analogy by writers such as T.F. Torrance1 and Allister McGrath (the latter’s work in this regard is cited by Putman several times).2 A significant reason this method is adopted is exemplified by Putman’s approach. That is, by seeking a thoroughly multidisciplinary approach to theological method, he makes the most important theological issue a non-theological issue. The current spirit of academic methodologies and epistemologies pervade the approaches adopted for theology.
In other words, the most important question in theology is, how do we do theology? If we get the answer wrong here, we could end up with Feuerbach, Harnack, Barth, or any number of novel approaches. Theological method, whether it is implicit or explicit, is determinative in significant ways of the outcome of our theology. If we begin with a theory of knowledge that rules out the knowledge of God, apophaticism will dominate; if our ontology is essentialist, an impersonal doctrine of God and Chalcedonian Christology (for good or ill) will be the result. If our method identifies the goal or norm for theology to be a reality behind the text, in mind of God or the human author, significant space is made for human error. If the analogy adopted for theological construction is that of science and abduction, theological disagreement is not only a descriptive reality but an inevitable byproduct of Scripture and the theological endeavour. If theological method is so significant for the product of theology, how can we treat it as non-theological or a sub-theological discipline (in which theology is one of many approaches correlated)? The truth is that we cannot; we must not. Our churches and schools cannot afford this to be our approach.
Disagreement exists; part of the reason for this is surely human sinfulness and limitation. Another reason not often discussed is genuine plurality, where several practically exclusive but theoretically coherent applications or ideas exist.3 What may be the biggest source of disagreement is the lack of cohesion and agreement on the presuppositions and method of theology. What ought to shock us is that these disagreements are rarely brought directly before the Word. In my series “God’s Gifts for the Christian Life” I have attempted to move towards this goal, presenting my own attempt to formulate a framework and method of exegesis and theological method rooted in the Bible. There I claim that clarity and sufficiency are not Biblical doctrines about the text of Scripture alone; instead, they concern the whole economy of revelation, the provision of a clear, sufficient, and inerrant text in the context of a Spirit-filled Church. God has given a covenant document that is sufficient to achieve its goal of changed lives. This is the space we need to explore in theological method, how God has made provision for His Word to fulfil its purpose. As long as methods are grounded in the shifting sands of academia, theological disagreement will remain not only a descriptive reality but a necessary result of our practice.
- cf. Space, Time, and the Incarnation; “The Trinitarian Mind”
- cf. A Scientific Theology, three volumes
- E.g. one could argue that the Bible is intentionally ambiguous on the ecclesiastical structures in order to facilitate the use of the best model for a particular situation; Presbyterian and Episcopalian church governments might be biblically defensible and yet neither could function at the same time and in the same sphere.