At the end of 2 Peter 3:18 Peter prays that the church might grow in grace and knowledge. Truly, when that happens Christians not only learn truths about God, they come to know God and share his character through studied communion with him. Likewise, in becoming like our heavenly Father we learn what is most important to God, and how, in our fallen world, can and should give grace to people who do not perceive as we do (rightly or wrongly) what is most important.
Extending grace to others has application in all areas of life, including theology. Yet, too often in an attempt to give grace to others, well-meaning (and well-deceived) Christians can compromise the truth. Therefore, learning to contend for the faith while growing in the fruit of the Spirit can be a difficult. Yet, nothing is more important than knowing how to hold the sound doctrines God has given to us.
On this subject, how to hold the truth in love, there are very few books. Albert Mohler’s article on Theological Triage is instrumental here, but for books, the list is short. One book that should be included, however, is Erwin Lutzer’s The Doctrines that Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines that Separate Christians. In this book published in 1998, Lutzer considers nine different theological debates. They include
- Is Christ Truly God?
- Is Christ Truly Man?
- Was Mary the Mother of God?
- Was Peter the First Pope?
- Justification: By Faith, Sacraments, or Both?
- Why Can’t We Agree about the Lord’s Supper?
- Why Can’t We Agree about Baptism?
- Predestination or Free Will?
- Can a Saved Person Ever Be Lost?
With pastoral wisdom, Lutzer explains various angles to the subject and argues with great winsomeness for his own position. In fact, showing the complexity of the predestination and free will question, he spends four chapters, considering differences that arose at different points in church history.
In these chapters, Lutzer explains how these debates began and then developed. Likewise, he gives in each chapter biblical reasons for his position. Thankfully, he eschews ecumenism that says doctrines don’t matter. Rather, he asks the right question: “Which view is biblical?” (95). Such a question drives him to consider each doctrine according the Scripture, even as it engages with the historical origins of various doctrines.
That said, Lutzer’s approach is somewhat arbitrary. While working with various evangelical commitments, Lutzer doesn’t explicitly define various types of doctrines. In other words, while his book grapples with subjects that might touch upon theological triage, he does not make such distinctions. Thus, the reader is given a more intuitive, albeit biblical, approach to doctrine, rather than theological approach that benefits from anything like the heuristic device (triage) provided by Mohler.
Nevertheless, while lacking a grid to evaluate doctrines, we can discern at least eight principles for organizing our doctrine around the gospel and holding the truth in love.
Eight Principles for Holding the Truth in Love
1. There are doctrines that divide.
Lutzer rightly opposes the ecumenical spirit of our age that tempts people towards relativism, pluralism, and theological indifference. He writes,
To speak of unity and to minimize doctrinal differences is to sacrifice truth on the altar of wishful thinking. Unity, unless it is based on agreement regarding the content of the gospel, would not be worth the price. . . .There is no need to repent for doctrinal differences if the truth of the gospel is at stake. (15–16)
As Scripture teaches, we must make distinctions in our doctrine. There is right and wrong, true and false, light and dark. Therefore, any study in doctrine will necessarily make distinctions. Even more, sound doctrine will make appropriate distinctions regarding various doctrines. This is assumed by Lutzer, but it needs to be more clearly articulated in how we make decisions about the importance of any given doctrine.
2. A study in theological distinctives requires an understanding of church history.
Sadly, church history chronicles too many “Reformers” who have divided themselves from others genuine believers—infamously, one thinks of Luther’s rejection of Zwingli over their differences on the Lord’s Table. Luther’s denunciation teaches us that those most committed to the truth can still err and that sometimes it is because of their commitment to truth in one debate that they cannot shift gears in another..
Along those lines, theological maturity grows when we come to recognize what is most central to the truth and where we can extend charity in matters less determined in Scripture. On this development of doctrine, Lutzer helpfully lists four ways that Christians have found themselves divided. He cites human limitation, human sinfulness, human unbelief, and human tradition as ways doctrines are divided (17–20).
Because theology is a human endeavor, it is susceptible to various errors. We are limited in our understanding, blinded by our sin, and shaped by our experiences and church tradition. Put all of these together, and it is a wonder any truth is accurately perceived. Ultimately, truth is though and it comes to us through the gracious working of God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10–16).
That said, a growing knowledge of church history (and the biographies of various theologians) is also important for discerning truth from error. What Lutzer’s book does so well is to to chronicle some of the historical events and people that led to various doctrines. While ultimately, Scripture is the final arbiter in all matters theological, knowing the historical origin of doctrine helps us discern where doctrines have departed from Scripture. Therefore, in any development of doctrine, church history play an important role.
3. Not all divisions are the same.
While not employing the language of theological triage, Lutzer does recognize various degrees of theological difference. These differences might be labeled orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy, Protestant vs. Catholic, and Protestant vs. Protestant. Respectively then, there are first-order divisions that threaten one’s salvation; there a historical differences within Christendom that may also threaten salvation (if justification by faith alone is replaced by a belief in salvation by works); and there are intractable differences within Evangelical Protestantism that do not threaten salvation, but that do make local church unity impossible.
In general, Lutzer observes these differences when he says, “To this day, irreconcilable differences exist within Christendom on the most fundamental teaching of the gospel” (15). Rightly, he focuses his attention on matters of the gospel, but to think most clearly on these matters we need to say more.
4. There are doctrines that divide orthodoxy and heterodoxy.
Considering orthodoxy and heterodoxy, Lutzer explains how Christology (37) is more important than the mode of baptism (138). Because the person and work are at the very center of the gospel, errors on the person and work of Christ threaten the gospel and one’s personal salvation. Historically, the Church has identified heretics by their denial of Christ’s deity and humanity.
Heresy also includes any core doctrine that undercuts the gospel. Lutzer doesn’t survey these, but anything that would deny God as triune Creator or Redeemer would qualify as heresy. Likewise, anything that denies man made in God’s image, the ubiquity of sin and man’s need for salvation, the supernatural birth and/or resurrection of Jesus Christ, or the inspiration of God’s Word is patently heretical. And these kinds of errors should be acknowledged and addressed as errors that divide, to borrow J. Gresham Machen’s language, Christianity and liberalism.
5. There are doctrines that divide Catholics and Protestants.
While recent attempts have been made to unite Evangelicals and Catholics, this requires, in particular, a redefinition of justification. Historically, Catholicism’s sacramental theology makes grace available through the practices of the seven sacraments. Therefore, justification is a process and not a punctiliar declaration based on someone’s faith alone. Likewise, a fundamental difference regarding authority and the role of Scripture and tradition remains an intractable difference between Protestants and Catholics.
Rightly, Lutzer eschews the ecumenical movement among Protestants and Catholics, and explains the differences between them. While the division between Protestants and Catholics is not the same as Protestants and Muslims or Protestants and Atheists, the divide is great enough that no evangelical Protestant can consider the doctrinal commitments of the Catholic Church to be in keeping with Scripture. Moreover, those who trust in a Catholic view of salvation will necessarily believe in a (sacramental) system of works. For this reason, while Protestants and Catholics can partner together for pro-life causes and matters of public ethics (i.e., religious liberty), we cannot in anyway unite our churches. Such division was decided in the sixteenth century and remains fixed today.
6. There are doctrines that divide Protestants from other Protestants.
Moving closer to home, there are other divisions in the Protestant church which remain and will remain until all things are made new.. Such differences are not as extreme as those that relate to orthodoxy and Catholic doctrine, but they are significant enough that they create various traditions within evangelical Protestantism. They also call for the need for separate local churches, so that Christians who share a common salvation do not bind one another’s consciouses with respect to faith and practice.
Most significant in these “second tier doctrines” are the differences related to the ordinances—namely, the mode of baptism and the essence of the Lord’s Supper. Not without some agreement, evangelical Protestants do stand together against baptismal regeneration and the transubstantiation of the bread and wine. This is what makes Baptists, Lutherans, and Methodists Protestant not Catholic. That said, with agreement on the symbolic (and non-saving) nature of the sacraments/ordinances, there are many differences regarding meaning and expression. Historically, these differences are what have divided Baptists from Presbyterians, Lutherans from Methodists, and so on. Such separation is lamentable, but also necessary for the purpose of unity in the local church.
The relationship of sovereign grace and man’s responsibility has been another frequent divide among Protestants. While all Christians speak of God’s grace, how that is understood and applied differs. Lutzer does a good job to explain the differences on these subjects, and over the course of four chapters he traces the debate from Augustine and Pelagius to Whitefield and Wesley. What he shows is that the divide between the former pair is greater than that of the latter. Importantly, this teaches us that there are different degrees of difference with respect to various questions.
7. In any theological doctrine, there are different degrees of error.
In the fifth century, the church labeled Pelagius a heretic because he denied the sinfulness of humanity. Or rather, instead of teaching that Adam’s fall corrupted human nature in general, making God’s grace absolutely necessary for salvation, he believed and taught Adam’s sin was merely a bad example for humanity. Thus, mankind could, with the right encouragement and education, merit the salvation of God through self-improvement and good works.
Ever since Augustine, Pelagianism has been rightly denied as heretical. Likewise, the role of works for salvation has continued to be rejected as unbiblical. Because it compromises the gospel, it could be labeled heretical too. Still, the debate about nature and grace, faith and works has continued. And as Lutzer observes, key turning points in church history include the debates between Luther and Erasmus, Calvin and Arminius, and Whitefield and Wesley.
Importantly, the various eras in which the debates were held, along with the personalities of the those involved have shaped each debate. Likewise, the differences between each opponent has been varied. For instance, Wesley’s understanding of grace is clearly evangelical—in that only those who have received prevenient grace could be saved. Yes, he believed Christ’s death merited such grace for all the world, and that men and women were free to accept or reject such grace. This, in my estimation is wrong and diminishes the work of God in salvation. However, Wesley’s view of grace is fundamentally different than that of Pelagius and Erasmus, and thus not heretical.
Accordingly, and this is the main point, the nature of the debate and the extremity of the disagreement between Whitefield and Wesley is different than previous debates. Careful historians can observe this and practical theologians should observe the difference. Though the debate revolves around the same question, the scope of the debate is different. This should inform our historical theology, but it should also put us on guard for how we enter debates today. We should not mislabel people we disagree with as heretics, nor we should ignore the differences we find among various people with whom we disagree.
While rightly discerning truth from error, we must also learn how to treat people with love and respect. To say it differently, we must practice the golden rule whenever we engage in theological debate. Before rejecting a view or arguing against it, we must seek to understand it. We must be able to rightly articulate the view of another in a way he or she would agree. Only then do we have the right, so to speak, to address its error. While truth should impel us to correct error, righteousness (a love for truth-telling) should guide our steps. In this way, the pursuit of doctrine can and should promote holiness in us. For the goal of theology is never winning; it is also speaking truth in love—and this includes love for people with whom we disagree.
8. These theological debates are given to produce Christian maturity.
Ultimately, the goal of theological triage, if we employ Mohler’s term, is not abstract of impersonal. Ultimately, we seek to honor God by knowing and loving his truth and knowing and loving his people. As Lutzer points out, Paul confronted Peter because he was walking out of step with the gospel (see Galatians 2). Peter had not denied the gospel, but in his actions he was giving “the wrong impression about the content of the gospel” (16). Therefore, Paul publicly rebuked him. In this Paul’s motivation was not theology for theology sake; his motivation came from the gospel, its proclamation, and the upbuilding of the church.
The same sort of concern should animate the church today. When we see error that threatens the gospel, we should speak up. But such proactivity requires an understanding of what is central to the gospel and what is not. As we’ve seen, church history helps us understand what is orthodox, evangelical, and traditional. In truth, some traditions are more true than others, but not all doctrines merit the same sort of division. Likewise, the communication of truth often requires enduring patience and gentleness, before someone forsakes error and embraces truth (cf. 2 Timothy 2:24–26).
Christian maturity arises when we learn when, where, and how to address error with gospel-centered love. As Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:16, we are to keep a close watch on our lives and doctrine. Only by guarding the good deposit of the gospel can we hold fast to Christ and see others come to know him. That said, God has not, in this fallen age, created a church where every doctrine is equally central. Certainly, all doctrines are important, but error in the peripheral matters is not as egregious as errors related to the nature of God, the deity of the Son, the resurrection and return of Christ, the sinfulness of humanity, and the free gift of salvation to those who place their faith in Christ.
Could it be that God may have even left some doctrines as difficult to discern, so that we learn how to love people who think and act differently than ourselves? Clearly, if God’s goal is our conformity to Christ, then learning how to love others who are different than us—theologically different than us—is part of the plan.
In the end, it is the gospel that saves and sanctifies the church, and it is the truths of the gospel that Paul describes as matters of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3),. For us too, this is what we ought to focus on and from them we can learn to recognize how divisions have occurred through church history and how to love other gospel-loving Christians, even as we may disagree with their church polity or practices. In this way, a study of doctrinal divisions can and should facilitate spiritual growth and Christian love. After all, the aim of teaching sound doctrine and refuting error (1 Timothy 1:3; Titus 1:9) is “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
May God help us grow in our doctrine for this purpose, and may Christ’s church be built up in love as his children learn to speak truth with wisdom and balance.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds