This article is adapted from one originally posted on 24 July 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz called “Unity and Diversity.”
How are essential truths discovered, discerned or distilled? Here I shall describe three different strategies for maintaining unity in the face of diversity.
First, remember that all beliefs matter, but not all beliefs matter equally. Think of Christian belief as a dirty mirror that every generation has made an effort to clean. As they have done so, the area in the middle has become clearer and clearer. The third and fourth century’s ecumenical councils, church leaders, theologians and apologists went to work and gave preceding generations clarity on the doctrine of the trinity and Christ’s incarnation. Over the millennia, succeeding generations have revisit this area of glass, cleaning again that which had become tarnished. Areas near the edge of the mirror, beside the frame, may not have–and perhaps never will–receive similar clarity. For issues such as the pre-tribulational rapture view or the correct view of the constitutional nature of the human person, it is best to keep an open mind and periodically review the issue, being prepared to change one’s mind should fresh reflection or new evidence lead to a different conclusion.
To help, imagine a scale where things are weighed in terms of their importance to the whole ecosystem of beliefs. Essential truths such as the existence of God, the resurrection of Christ, and he doctrine of salvation we should rank high, and therefore hold more closely, as these issues if dropped will effect everything else. Issues such as the pre-tribulational rapture view will probably rank less on the scale, as they effect fewer things if shown to be false. This scale serves to keep things in perspective. Though excellent arguments may be marshalled for controversial doctrines we should try not to become so fixed in our positions that we are not prepared to listen and re-evaluate. The scale of importance will help us to follow the principle given by the reformers, “Reformed and always reforming” – that is that every person should have an active mind being transformed constantly by the study of the word of God.
The second strategy is distinguishing between a doctrine and a particular interpretation of a doctrine. For instance, many hold the penal substitution theory of atonement as the best interpretation, but Martin Luther held to Chistos Victor as the best interpretation of the atonement. There are other theories and interpretations available, but all would agree that something cosmic happened at the cross when Christ died, and that this somehow enables sinful people to come into relationship with him. The doctrine of Original Sin also has many different interpretations and nuances, but all agree that people (and the world at large) are, without God’s intervention, currently somehow flawed. It would be careless to discard the whole idea of Original Sin, because one does not believe in the literal fall of Adam or fiduciary headship.
Third, finding the commonality in all traditions. The history of the church, says Roger E Olson, provides a sort of third testament, not inspired like the Old and New Testament, but inspired in the sense that it was formed by the responsiveness of the church to the Holy Spirit. If that is the case all Christians are responsible to know what this Great Tradition has to say. Much of Christian doctrine has been formalised and clarified in response to heresies that arose in history, particularly in the creedal statements of the third to fifth centuries as well as the sixteenth century Reformation when those truths were rediscovered. The creeds were created as rallying standards and remain so today. Even if a church does not officially recognise the creeds, it is almost certain their confession will include their content. An appreciation of the history of Christian thought would harmonise inter-church dialogue, as people become familiar with the reasons why certain specifics are important to others and understand the price that was paid long ago to preserve them.
In looking at different traditions and history, it is helpful to distinguish between dogma, doctrine and opinion as levels of importance within Christian truth. Dogma should be limited to those essential truths in the central core, and that which most Christians of all times have in common, denial of which would constitute rank heresy and apostasy. We hold dogma tenaciously and never let it go. Doctrines (in this narrow use of the term) will be those beliefs held to be important in particular tradition-communities. On this scheme Lutheran dogma is the same as Baptist and Methodist which includes the existence of God and Christ as saviour, etc, and Lutheran doctrine includes consubstantiation, whereas Baptists hold the memorial view of the Lord’s Supper. Opinions are those religious beliefs where no consensus exists, that are not clearly taught in scripture, and do not touch the gospel itself. We should hold opinions tentatively, being prepared to tolerate diversity amongst Christian brothers and sisters who believe differently.
It should be remembered that for all the disagreements there are, we share more in common than that on which we disagree. Even Catholic churches that look and act so very differently to protestant churches can find far greater amount of things in common than the differences between them. Calvinists and Arminians, who appear so often found at one another’s throats, should be able to stand side-by-side in the spirit of brotherhood, and worship the same God who is both three and one; diverse but united. Augustine, the great third century North African bishop once said, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity (love).”