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Book Review

How to approach doctrinal differences

A look at “When Doctrine Divides the People of God”

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September 16, 2020

Several years ago Christian Smith made waves with his book The Bible Made Impossible, which argued that the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” of Scripture within evangelicalism gave evidence to an inconsistent doctrine of Scripture. Other scholars such as Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks have more recently made similar arguments against the evangelical approach to Scripture. It is not uncommon to see more crude forms of this argument on social media also, where the evangelical belief in inerrancy is dismissed on the basis that evangelicals themselves so often disagree on the interpretation of Scripture. 

Enter Rhyne Putman’s new book When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity. Putman has formerly written on an evangelical understanding of the historical development of doctrine, and now he focuses on what could be called an evangelical doctrine of disagreement. Its starting point is similar to James K. A. Smith’s argument in The Fall of Interpretation that disagreement is a natural part of the interpretive process, which itself is a natural part of the human condition. Putman then charts the path forward from this truth. It is not written primarily as an apologetic to those outside of evangelicalism, but to evangelicals on constructive ways to approach doctrinal differences.

Why we disagree about doctrine

When Doctrine Divides the People of God is divided up into two major sections, with the first focused on the why question (“Why we disagree about doctrine”) and the second on the what question (“What we should do about doctrinal disagreement”). 

The first section describes the steps along the reasoning process where disagreements often arise. The first two chapters of this section focus specifically on hermeneutics and exegesis, areas that will be familiar for readers with training in biblical interpretation or hermeneutics. However, Putman’s eye toward doctrinal diversity within the hermeneutics discussion sets these chapters apart from typical textbook treatments. 

The third chapter on reasoning is where things get really interesting. Putman highlights the roles of deduction, induction, and abduction in the reasoning process. Particularly important here is the role of abduction, described as inferential reasoning through an incomplete set of data. Whereas deduction proves a hypothesis and induction tests a hypothesis, abduction forms a new hypothesis. He likens this process to the detective forming a hypothesis and then using clues such as fruitfulness, coherence, simplicity, and credibility to test the hypothesis. This separates abduction from mere guesswork and creative speculation. Although Putman notes the creative aspect of this process, he pushes the reader continually back to Scripture itself, rather than individual creativity, as the foundation of theological interpretation and formulation.

In the next three chapters Putman highlights several factors within the reasoning process that often lay in the background unchallenged such as intuition, feelings, and biases. As he notes, “Christian theologians have long recognized the role experience plays in our theological formation, but seldom mentioned in our hermeneutical and theological discussions is the crucial role emotions and intuitions play in the formation of Christian doctrine” (122). 

Many theological disagreements arise in just these areas, and so Putman’s walk through them in discussion with neuroscience and social psychology is a valuable tool for theological dialogue. Putman doesn’t let social or biological sciences have the last word in the discussion—he continually pushes back against naturalistic implications in the works he summarizes—but demonstrates how certain findings within these fields can provide opportunities for self-examination and reasoning in the process of theological development.  

What should we do about it? 

The second section of the book moves from the descriptive to the prescriptive, focused on the response to doctrinal disagreements. Although this section is smaller than the first by page count, it’s where Putman’s work packs the greatest punch. It is one thing to acknowledge doctrinal disagreements, but another to move through them with both keen self-awareness and Christian charity toward other positions. This section provides the way forward in both manners. 

The first chapter of this section, chapter seven, magnifies the self-reflection process by asking the question, when should we change our minds? In this chapter Putman moves through a series of diagnostic questions related to theological disagreement. These questions include:

  1. Are we working with the same body of evidence?
  2. If I disagree with a tenet from a particular tradition, am I interacting with its best and most sophisticated representations or with a straw man?
  3. Who exhibits a more thorough understanding of the relevant background material?
  4. Who exhibits greater theological acumen and exegetical skill?
  5. Do both parties evidence adequate time spent assessing the disputed issue?
  6. Do both disagreeing parties display the intellectual virtues such as curiosity, studiousness, persistence, and intellectual honesty?
  7. Does the person with whom I disagree exhibit the fruit of the Spirit?

Each of these questions is important for thinking through theological disputes because they each force acknowledgment of the full weight of other positions.

The eighth chapter builds on Albert Mohler’s idea of theological triage by formulating a tiered system for thinking through doctrinal disagreements. He gives three tests for thinking through these tiers based on hermeneutics, gospel, and praxis, with an eye toward mediation between theological maximalism (everything is equally important) and theological minimalism (unity over doctrine). 

The final chapter provides a test case of this system based on the disagreement and eventual reconciliation of George Whitefield and John Wesley on the issue of Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Putman uses their personal friendship and professional fellowship as the basis for thinking charitably through disagreements with fellow believers.

Putman’s book is helpful on several levels of theological reflection. It combines hermeneutics, philosophy, and theological method to provide insight into personal doctrinal reasoning and doctrinal dialogue with fellow believers. This type of reasoning is particularly necessary and valuable in the age of social media, where disagreements often turn vitriolic and the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17 is dismissed in favor of winning arguments. Putman doesn’t dismiss doctrinal disagreements but gives place for thinking through them in community with other believers. This book will be a valuable asset for any student of theology as a tool for both personal theological formulation and doctrinal discussions with others.

Chet Harvey

Chet Harvey is the adult discipleship pastor at Hebron Church in Dacula, Georgia. He has an M.Div. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with a focus on the doctrine of creation. He is married to Anna and they have … Read More