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When Doctrine Divides: A Credo Review

Rhyne Putman’s When Doctrine Divides the People of God (Crossway, 2020) begins with a retelling of the theological disagreement between the Reformation figures Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Though the two Reformation leaders practiced communion in virtually the same way, their understandings of the meaning of the Supper were on opposite poles. So vast was the theological chasm between them that Luther refused to extend the hand of fellowship to Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy.

How could two individuals so united around other Reformation principles be so far apart on this particular doctrinal issue? Was Luther right to refuse fellowship with Zwingli over their disagreement, or should Luther have put their disagreement aside?

These questions continue today because doctrinal diversity continues today. Somehow Christians, indwelt by the same Holy Spirit, reading the same Bible, can arrive at opposing doctrinal opinions. The fact of doctrinal diversity raises two important questions: How is it possible for Christians to arrive at differing conclusions, and how ought Christians to live and interact with those who have differing opinions?

In When Doctrine Divides the People of God, Rhyne Putman, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Christian Ministries at Williams Baptist University, sets forth to explain why doctrinal diversity exists, and how Christians ought to live in light of doctrinal diversity.

Content

The volume is divided into two parts. In Part One, Putman examines five reasons why like-minded Christians reach differing theological conclusions. According to Putman, theological diversity is caused by a host of imperfections, differences, and presuppositions. He dedicates a chapter for each of these causes, arguing that doctrinal diversity is caused by reading Scripture imperfectly, reading Scripture differently, reasoning from Scripture differently, bringing varying emotional biases to the interpretive process, and housing a variety of biases brought on by one’s theological tradition. Throughout the course of each chapter, Putman explains how these imperfections, differences, and biases are possible, and that understanding these imperfections, differences, and biases creates an effective framework for explaining the phenomenon of doctrinal diversity.

Recovering the reality that Scripture is interpreted by fallible humans will be critical for Evangelicals moving forward, and Putman’s explanation of the issue is a great asset in this movement. Click To Tweet In Part Two, Putman examines what Christians ought to do in light of theological diversity and answers three important questions. First, in chapter 6, he identifies when Christians should change their mind on a theological position. Putman argues that disagreements present opportunities for “epistemic self-improvement” (199), and he provides seven questions to answer in considering a position change.

In chapter 7, Putman addresses when it is appropriate to allow doctrine to set boundary makers. In this chapter, Putman explores the idea of theological triage, and posits three tests for determining where a doctrine is placed in a theological taxonomy. The third and final topic Putman addresses is how Christians ought to conduct themselves when faced with theological disagreement. He utilizes the real life disagreement between George Whitefield and John Wesley to demonstrate both a healthy and unhealthy response to disagreement.

Analysis

Putman intended this work to be an interdisciplinary answer to the question of doctrinal diversity (29-30), and his breadth of research is impressive. He regularly cites biblical scholars, systematic theologians, philosophers, sociologists, and linguistic scholars. For example, throughout the volume, Putman interacts with the likes of Kevin Vanhoozer, Charles Sanders Pierce, Umberto Eco, Jonathan Haidt, and Al Mohler.

The volume would have been sufficient had Putman simply expounded on the hermeneutical and theological reasons for doctrinal diversity, yet Putman’s interdisciplinary approach leaves no stone unturned in his attempt to provide an account for doctrinal diversity. The result of Putman’s accessibility and breadth of research is a volume that is accessible for students and pastors, yet still a substantial contribution to the field of theological methodology.

Moving on to the actual substance of When Doctrine Divides, there are several chapters and specific arguments worth highlighting. To start, praise must be given to chapter 1, “We Read Imperfectly.” In twenty-nine pages, Putman provides a survey of evangelical hermeneutic methodology which rivals any hermeneutics volume in clarity and comprehensiveness.

Putman’s “gospel test” is a needed correction to the movement that seeks to attach every issue as a central component of the gospel message. Click To Tweet Putman argues that Evangelicals have two important assumptions about the nature of Scripture. The first is hermeneutical realism, which states that Scripture contains meaning independent of the process of interpretation because the author of a text determines the meaning of the text (44). The second assumption is that we must understand and “own” our shortcomings and limitations as interpreters of Scripture. As Putman states, this is a “common sense” approach to Scripture which simultaneously affirms that the text contains objective meaning while recognizing that understanding must be filtered through subjective interpretation (45).

This second assumption, that interpretation is filtered through subjective interpretation, is a critical corrective to what has become a common misconception in evangelical interpretation. In an effort to preserve the first assumption — that Scripture contains objective truth — some have neglected this second, crucial assertion, jettisoning interpretive humility and equating the “objective meaning of the text” with “my interpretation of the text.” Some even go so far as to deny that one ought to recognize our subjective interpretation of the text, and levy the charge of “stand-point epistemology” against any call to “own” the reality that our interpretation is affected by a myriad of conditions.

These conditions, according to Putman, range from our own reasoning abilities to the cultural, geographical, and historical distance between the authors of Scripture and the modern day interpreter. Recovering the reality that Scripture is interpreted by fallible humans — and the interpretive humility that reality necessitates — will be critical for Evangelicals moving forward, and Putman’s explanation of the issue is a great asset in this movement.

Another highlight of the volume is Putman’s discussion on doctrinal taxonomies in chapter seven, “When Should Doctrine Divide Us?” Putman proposes three “tests” to determine where doctrines are placed within a doctrinal taxonomy: the hermeneutical test, the gospel test, and the praxis test (219). Under these tests, a doctrine’s significance is determined by how clearly it is stated in Scripture, how closely it is tied to the gospel, and how it affects practice so as to allow or disallow fellowship in a denomination or local congregation. These three tests are a useful resource in determining a doctrine’s place in a taxonomy, and avoiding the perilous ditches of undiscerning ecumenisicm and uncharitable doctrinal uniformity.

Putman’s explanation of “the gospel test” is especially useful in today’s theological environment. He rightly observes that evangelical thought leaders have “made a habit of labeling various theological and ethical matters ‘gospel issues’” (225). From racial reconciliation to the ontological relations of the persons of the Trinity, there has arisen a tendency among evangelicals to label their favorite soapbox a “gospel” issue, whether that issue be social, theological, or political.

He proposes three questions to ask to determine an issue’s relation to the gospel message: Is the doctrine 1) an essential component of the gospel message itself; 2) something that buttresses the gospel, or that hinders it when it is rejected; or 3) something that is a theological or practical by-product of the gospel (225)? Putman’s “gospel test” is not only a needed clarification on the vital, yet ever-garbling question of “What is the gospel?” but a needed correction to the movement that seeks to attach every issue as a central component of the gospel message.

Our day is a day that revels in clickbait language, where opponents “destroy” one another, and our favorite theologian “owns” the opposition. Click To Tweet One final highlight of the volume is Putmans concluding chapter, “How Then Shall We Disagree,” in which he sketches a roadmap for how Christians ought to live and interact given the reality of doctrinal diversity. First, we are to love our opponents, valuing them as people and seeking to read them in the most charitable light. Next, we must watch how we conduct ourselves during disagreements, exercising patience and grace with others, and remembering that an unbelieving world is watching how we disagree with one another. We are to recognize our own limitations, practicing theological humility, and avoiding dogmatic stances on theological opinions drawn from Scriptural inferences. Finally, we are to be aware of our own motivations, doing nothing from selfish gain, and seeking to glorify God in all that we do.

Putman’s concluding chapter is a call to remember that our command to love one another cannot be cast aside when we disagree over doctrine. In our day it is easy to view those who disagree with us as merely an avatar on a screen, or just a name on a book. Our day is a day that revels in clickbait language, where opponents “destroy” one another, and our favorite theologian “owns” the opposition.

There are, of course, times where it is necessary to fiercely defend key tenants of the Christian faith, or even particular denomination distinctives. Yet, even in these circumstances, it is right for Christians to assume a posture of charity and humility. Putman’s final chapter is a sadly-needed reminder to remember our Christian character during disagreements, and if it is heeded by even half of those who find themselves in disagreement, it could radically reorient how Christians speak to one another.

Conclusion

When Doctrine Divides the People of God is a fantastic work of theological methodology. Putman has produced an interdisciplinary volume that accurately assesses how Christians come to differing conclusions on doctrine and provides a roadmap for how Christians ought to live and interact in light of this doctrinal diversity. Christians, young and old, theologically trained and untrained alike would benefit from reading this volume and assuming the posture of humility that Putman lays out and demonstrates himself.

Jake Rainwater

Jake Rainwater is the Assistant Registrar and a Ph. D student in systematic theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research interests include the doctrine of sanctification, soteriology in general, and theological methodology. He is a member of Emmaus Church in North Kansas City, where he serves on staff assisting with the church’s pastoral residency. He is married to his high school sweetheart, and they have a one-year-old daughter and a Great Dane named Scotland.

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