Debates over Doctrine: It’s About More Than Who’s Right

Over the centuries, numerous Christian theologians and ministers have tried to arrive at the correct interpretation of the Bible. Some have done so through systematic reasoning, and others have sought direct revelation from God. Among both groups, many different doctrinal positions exist on the same subjects. But there remains the notion in the minds of many Christians that, among all the different teachings out there, one of them is correct, and the goal is to find it, either by reasoning or revelation.

When someone thinks they have found the correct teaching, the natural response is to explain to other people why it is correct and refute arguments against it. However, if you have ever engaged in this yourself, you probably realize that the chance of the people you’re talking to saying, “That makes sense, I admit I was wrong” is pretty slim. If they ever say it, it’s probably years afterward. And there’s a reason why.

Underlying a person’s theology is an accumulation of life experiences. As much as one may try to have an unbiased reading of Scripture, because the Scriptures are not written like a systematic textbook, one’s personal experiences shape the interpretation. Even among those who claim spiritual revelation of the right interpretation, testimonies and doctrines vary considerably (although you’ll have to look beyond your particular branch of Christianity to see this), so apparently personal factors are still at play.

Thus, to tell someone that their doctrinal position is erroneous is essentially telling them that their life experiences have given them a faulty view of reality, and that’s hard to convince people of. Now, it is true that we all have limited knowledge and vision; our own lives do not tell the whole story of reality. But it is nearly impossible to acknowledge limitations in our conception of reality unless we actually experience that limitation firsthand.

It may be, that when we leave this life and gain a more comprehensive view of reality, we discover that the absolute truths about God, salvation, or life beyond this world, even things we considered fundamental to our faith, are different from what we had intellectually perceived in this life. But does this mean that efforts to correctly understand the Bible are futile, or that a certain interpretation is just as good as any alternative? I don’t think so.

Even if the absolute reality is beyond our comprehension, we can get core elements and principles right by studying the Bible carefully. Any sincere interpretation of the Bible contains some truth, as well as some deficiencies. Problems arise when people frame their lives around the deficiencies. Throughout church history, whenever new theological movements arose (such as the Protestant Reformation, the Great Awakenings, the Charismatic movement, etc.), the truths contained in those theologies dominated at first, leading adherents to think that the whole theology was Biblical. But what eventually happened to those movements (and what sometimes happens to Christian fundamentalism today) is that the “deficient” elements gained more prominence. But even though such theologies don’t seem to work for everyone and cause some people to leave Christianity altogether, adherents continue to promote everything in their theology because it worked in the past, and they assume the problem is with people today.

Now, I am NOT trying to say that we should modify our doctrines to fit the prevailing culture. Rather, I am suggesting that as times change, deficiencies in theologies, which always existed but were previously overlooked or diminished, can become more apparent, and I think churches should consider revisiting their doctrines to see if they can use the Bible to express truth more fully. The Bible is not as narrow-minded and intolerant as many people today think it is.

So, I think the goal of studying the Bible is to gain a more diversified perspective – to avoid getting overly fixated on certain subjects in a way that exaggerates misunderstandings, and to gain a perspective that contains more truth about reality than error. For me, the goal of theological debate is not to convince someone that he or she is wrong and I am 100% right. After two thousand years of doctrinal debates, how can I be sure I got everything right? Rather, the goal of debate is to convince the audience that my position is worth consideration. So, with doctrinal articles that I post online, I am not trying to prove opponents wrong, I just want for people passing by the internet, who are struggling to reconcile what their denomination has taught with their personal experience, to see another option to consider.

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