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Chapter 5

Why Christians Differ over Biblical Faith (Truth)

A great frustration for me as a Christian, and I am sure to many others, is the lack of agreement among Christians, often on important issues: mode of baptism, predestination vs. free will, dispensationalism vs. covenantal theology, interpretation of Holy Communion, etc. This disagreement is evident when one begins to research a question about some aspect of the Christian faith. Since commentators and other Christian authors differ, how can one know what is the right answer? A more immediate problem is the disagreement between other Christian brothers and sisters with whom we interact on a regular basis. Many have a similar degree of commitment and knowledge and concern for biblical authority. In terms of this present book, all these concerns are a matter of "faith." Yet, each of us often remains unmovable in his particular "beliefs." To help us understand ourselves and each other better, to express our unity, to advance the Kingdom of God, and to glorify God, I would like to suggest some reasons for these disagreements. The reasons themselves may cause some to reconsider our positions in many of these areas.

Our differences have to do with the subjective (personal) dimension of faith: our personalities, our spiritual gifts, our education, and all that makes each of us a unique individual. These differences are not absolute, as common exceptions can be found. Further, there is much overlap, for example, life experience as a broad category could include church experience and time of conversion. We will review some of these areas in detail.

God, as a Trinity, is a unity (Deuteronomy 6:4); He is unchanging and unchangeable (Hebrews 13:8); and in every Christian He is the same Holy Spirit who teaches us the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:10b-16). Because of these characteristics of God, His Holy Word can have only one intended meaning. But, differences do exist among Christians that prove that we do not agree on that intended meaning. Some examples might help.

What is the difference between a black and white TV and one that has color? Both receive the same electromagnetic waves (messages), yet the results of the reception in each are greatly different. The reason is the receiver: one contains the equipment to receive color and the other black and white. The same situation occurs with one person who is color blind and another who is not. What they see is entirely different, but the difference is not with the objects that they see. With Christians the difference is not with the objects (God and the Scripture) of their understanding, but with the reception in the individual who seeks to interpret those objects. Some differences in us as "receivers" follow. First, let us look at one passage that clearly illustrates this reality.

In Ephesians 4:4-6, seven "ones" are listed. We can easily agree upon five: one body (of Christ, I Corinthians 12), one Spirit (the Holy Spirit who indwells in each believer, Ephesians 1:14), one hope (primarily has to do with heaven, Colossians 1:5), one Lord (Jesus Christ, Philippians 2:9-11), and one God and Father (Matthew6:9). Differences, however, are likely to be present with "one faith" and "one baptism." Since faith with its objective and subjective components is the focus of this book, I will not say more about it here. I offer the arguments throughout my work here for consideration of those who hold differing views.

The baptism here cannot mean the sacrament of baptism because the mode differs among denominations.1 I contend that this reference is to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We have already seen His work in the believer to change his premises or "what he values as a guide to life." A passage that is clear in its implications is John 1:33 which identifies Jesus Christ as the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Since oneness of baptism cannot refer to mode without denying that multitudes of professing Christians are deceived about the reality of their faith, the passage must refer to the Spirit's baptism. Therefore, the seven "ones" of this passage clearly demonstrate the unity that is spiritiually real among all true Christians. The diversity that we experience cannot be due to any one of them. The differences must be subjectively within our individual selves.

Because of our subjective differences, denominations serve a beneficial purpose. On the negative side they demonstrate our diversity and separate us from each other. On the positive side, however, they allow us to work in the Kingdom without devoting all our energies to attempts to resolve our differences. Can you imagine the situation in which a local church attempted to allow Christians to function together with different convictions about baptism, communion, free-will, styles of worship, and other practical matters? To vote and allow the majority or plurality to rule would be to compromise individual consciences and deny individual beliefs that are foundational. On the one hand, according to Francis Schaeffer, we need to demonstrate our unity. On the other hand, true ecumenism (a joining together of separate denominations into one) will not work because it compromises foundational beliefs.2 (Later, however, I will give some practical direction for greater unity.)

1) Spiritual Gifts. Our diversity is revealed in spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3-8, I Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4:7-16, I Peter 4:10-11). It is clear from these passages that all Christians do not have the same gift(s), yet each gift is necessary to the growth (both in numbers and maturity) of the local and universal church. This situation might be called "unity in diversity" or "diversified unity." It is not God's intention that we all have the same gifts. It should be obvious, however, that a Christian who has the gift of teaching, knowledge or wisdom may have greater understanding of the Bible than one who has the gift of helps or administration. Thus, it becomes important to recognize each other's gifts: the helper should listen carefully to the one who teaches, and the one who teaches should realize his limitations in helping, neither gift being more important than the other (I Corinthians 12:12-26).

2) Church Teaching and Experience. The knowledge with which one grows up or to which one is first exposed as a new Christian, seems to have a powerful affect upon one's thinking. People sometimes change from one denomination or doctrinal persuasion to another, but such change is uncommon.

3) Personality or Styles of Thinking.3 Some people are methodical thinkers concerned with detail, and others are concerned with practical implementation. So, one would expect the former to have completed the necessary study and reflection to arrive at knowledge that is the true or closer to the truth than the latter in most instances.

4) Biblical Knowledge. The more biblical knowledge that one has, the more thorough is his understanding. Although some can learn a large number of facts that have little to do with understanding, it is not likely that completeness or accuracy of understanding can come without extensive biblical knowledge. This difference is particularly significant because it is under the direct control of the individual himself. A common problem among Christians, as individuals and as churches, is that we have our favorite passages and authors. We read and think about little else. To remedy this problem, we first need to adopt some systematic program by which we review the entire Bible on a regular basis. Second, we need to read authors that criticize our own positions and seriously consider their points. If ours are correct, they will be strengthened by this process. If they are not correct, this process may reveal our errors. Third, we should attempt a systematic and logical understanding of the Bible. Often, inconsistencies go unnoticed or unresolved because of a lack of a systematic and logical approach. (Examples of this endeavor are found in Chapter ___ where misconceptions about faith are presented.)

5) Hermeneutics. I may disturb some theologians but I will proceed because there are some realities of our faith here that we seldom discuss. Hermeneutics is sometimes presented as the answer to our differences. It should be apparent from the discussions in this book that I greatly value hermeneutics. It is a subject that is neglected by far too many Christians. Further, I believe that such study and its application would resolve many of our differences or at least help us to understand each other. Modern Christians take far too lightly the serious and tedious work of theologians to systematize and interpret the Bible. They seem to have no qualms to disagree with such "giants" of the faith as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, and others less well known. Without serious thought and study of their own, it is arrogant for these Christians to consider their opinions to be on a par with such men. It is unreasonable to expect the same efforts from all Christians, but they could certainly spend more time and effort in biblical study to defend and develop their own positions.

In spite of my contention for more hermeneutical study by all Christians, I must point out that even one's hermeneutics are subjectively determined. I make this claim because Christians rarely change their minds about their fundamental beliefs. The debates about modes of baptism, free-will and election, styles of worship, and forms of church government have gone on for centuries. It is not realistic to expect that resolutions of these issues are ever going to be resolved this side of heaven.4

Our premises concerning these doctrines form the structure for our hermeneutics and control our interpretation of all passages in Scripture.

How do we arrive at these fundamental positions? The answer is finally a mystery, the result of the influence of regeneration and all that a person is subjectively within his heart, soul, mind and spirit.5 More concretely, the differences explained in this chapter shape our fundamental positions. Exactly how all these factors interact, especially as the Holy Spirit is active in each of us, however, is a mystery. We know that what we think and what we do flows out of our innermost beings (Proverbs 23:7, KJV; Mark 7:20-23, Luke 6:43-45), but it is mysterious why the basic premises within each Christian are the same, but the specific manifestations are different. Another example is the variety of sins with which each person struggles, yet they all flow from a similarly sinful heart. Vocation, another example, is a driving force in many people's lives. Yet, consider how varied is each occupation: from truck drivers to doctors to pastors to businessmen to secretaries to school teachers, etc. In the same way our method of interpretation of the Bible varies.

6) Life Experience. The trials that one has experienced and the temptations to which one is vulnerable affect his thinking. The person who has experienced the severity of alcoholism is likely to be more sympathetic and less rigid than one who has not. Further, those who work directly with people and their problems are likely to be less precise about doctrinal issues. Those who work in academic settings are likely to be more precise but less tolerant of people. These categories are not true with everyone, but they do hold generally.

7) Time of Conversion. From the testimonies of others it seems that the person who is raised in an explicitly Christian home has fewer hindrances to the Christian life and an understanding of it than the person who is converted after several decades of non-Christian living.

8) Use of the Work of Others. I have encountered many Christians who have set out to develop a biblical understanding of some area of study without reference to any other work. The intention is commendable, but the method is not. Previous Christians have already dedicated a portion or even all of their entire lives to the development of Christian teaching and biblical understanding. To begin without consideration of their work is to consider that any previous work is worthless and that its authors were not called by God to their task. Further, it is severely limiting. Not to build on the work of previous saints is to make no more (and probably less) progress than they did. It is to deny that the Holy Spirit is at work enlightening anyone else but one's self.

9) Other Factors: Intelligence is greater in some than in others. Educational experience (in theology and other areas) is quite varied. Exposure to significant Christian influences, such as sound teaching, intimate fellowship, accountability, and wise, mature Christians differs.

When these factors are considered in their depth and diversity, the outstanding fact seems to be that we agree at all rather than that we disagree. The central constant is the objective Scripture. For Christians, regardless of subjective factors, God's Revelation is the Source of knowledge that should control all thought and action. If we start from the same objective authority, we are more likely to arrive at knowledge that is consistent among us. Because of our sinfulness and our creaturely limitations, however, complete agreement will never be possible. But with an awareness of the subjective factors that cause disagreements, we will be better able to understand each other and to develop those areas that are lacking.

The Imperfection of Faith and the Fall

All these differences manifest the imperfection of our faith. The position is untenable that faith can become perfected because we have no criteria by which to recognize it. Equally devout Christians have doctrinal and practical positions that they believe represent Scripture, yet they differ among themselves. We have looked at this disagreement concerning Hermeneutics in some detail. Whose criteria would we choose? That of the Calvinists? That of the Wesleyans? That of the Baptists? Further, if we could identify perfect faith, we would have to affirm that all people (which would include all other Christians) who lacked these criteria could not be true Christians.

Faith became necessary with the Fall of Adam and Eve, and it will not be present in heaven. Abraham Kuyper said, "To suppose that saving faith existed already in Paradise is to destroy the order of things .... (and) saving faith is unthinkable in heaven"6 To see this fact will require some stretching of our minds because we are only familiar with thinking and living in a world system that is distorted because of sin. My assumption that faith exists only during this earthly existence is based upon the characteristic of God that He is truth (Numbers 23:19, I Samuel 15:29, Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:18). Prior to man's sin, falsehood could not have been known by a creature created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), because God would have had to create falsehood in man? Lack of omniscience, however, should not be confused with falsehood. I am not saying that Adam knew everything; only that all he did know was true. Further, whatever knowledge that he gained from his investigation or experience was always true. He moved from knowing some truth to knowledge of more truth. (How simple would our science be in that situation? We could not err, so repeated testing would not be necessary!)

I have explained at length that faith is not absolute certainty. In New Testament language, we say that Adam and Eve walked by sight and not by faith (I Corinthians 13:12;,II Corinthians 5:7, and I John 3:2). In heaven, the same situation relative to faith, knowledge, and truth will prevail. Heaven is a state of sinless perfection (Ephesians 5:27, Hebrews 12:23, and I John3:2); no falsehood can exist there, only absolute certainty. Again, such certainty does not mean omniscience; only that whatever is known will be true.

Faith by definition is imperfect. Since it is, is it not to be expected that the expressions and particulars of our faith as individuals will vary? Is it not reasonable to expect that all the factors presented in this chapter are part of the explanation? At the same time certain fundamentals of the Christian faith must be believed as true or one does not believe and practice orthodox Christianity. This conformity must be present even in our greater diversity.

How Can Imperfect Faith Save?

"How can faith save if it is imperfect?" Or, "How can a holy God accept something that is imperfect, since it is clear that faith is the instrument by which man is saved?" The answer cannot be that Christ is our faith; he can no more have had faith than he could have had sin; all his knowledge had to be true because falsehood would have required Him to have sin. That is not to say that his knowledge was not limited while He was Incarnate. What we have said about man's knowledge being perfect, yet not omniscient could be applied to His Incarnate state. The answer is that saving faith does not have identifiable criteria that are the same for every regenerated person.

Dr. J. Gresham Machen concluded. "Who can presume to say for certain what is the condition of another man's soul."7 Similarly, Dr. Gordon Clark stated, "There seems to be no other conclusion but that God justifies sinners by means of many combinations of propositions (truths about Christ and His Word) believed."8 These sources should be read for their more lengthy explanations.) Definitely, I am not saying that saving faith is not identifiable by some specifics of knowledge and behavior. Such specifics are necessary as membership requirements for local churches and for church creeds. I am saying that these specifics will vary from Christian to Christian within identifiable limits. I conclude that the most basic belief is that the Bible is the infallible and inerrant Word of God.

Notes

1. To conclude that those who have not had a particular mode of baptism are not Christians is a severe judgment on the reality of their faith and divisive of the kingdom of God on earth. I do not mean to minimize the importance of this doctrinal matter, but it is secondary to evidences in a Christian's life of his faith in the Scripture as the Word of God and in his profession and practice of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

2. Brown, Harold O. J., The Protest of a Troubled Protestant. Reprint. 1969, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1971, somewhere.

3. Harrison, Allen F. and Robert M. Bramson, Styles of Thinking, Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1982.

4. It is interesting that just these four doctrines are almost exclusively the ones that divide the major denominations. There are other points of difference within these larger divisions, but the major disagreements are small in number, even if they are quite large in the vigor of debate and defense.

5. These terms refer to the same immaterial component of man. Adams, Jay E., More Than Redemption, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979.

6. Kuyper, Abraham, The Work of the Holy Spirit. Trans. by J. Hendri De Vries., Reprint. Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1900. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, p. 397.

7. Machen, J. Gresham, What Is Faith, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1925, p. 155.

8. Clark, Gordon H., Faith and Saving Faith, Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1983, p. 110.


 

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