If the history of Christianity teaches us anything, with all the divisions, doctrinal disputes, conflicts and even a few wars, it is that a correct understanding of God’s Word is not easily achieved. Of course, one could just take the position, as some Christians do, that it really is easy for them to read and understand God’s word, and as for those who do not accept their interpretation, well, they are just letting the things of the world cloud their understanding.
One problem is that while it is easy to see how others are letting things interfere with their understanding God’s word, it is usually correspondingly difficult to see how such things are getting in our way. This is why I believe that humility, dialogue, and a tolerance for those who disagree, working in a framework that stresses unity rather than division, are so important.
There is another problem as well. Even when there is an agreement on a biblical teaching there can still be disagreement on how this applies to real life situations. Thus, while I think I can confidently say that all of the authors posting on this board believe that based on God’s word, we have an obligation to the poor, there is considerable disagreement on the exact nature of this obligation and how it should be worked out.
Probably the most difficult problem is the question of balance. While many of the statements of Scripture are pretty clear, how they all fit together often is not. This is probably to be expected when dealing with nature of God. We do not really know how the statements that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are God fit together with the statements that there is only one God. But this problem goes beyond God’s nature. We do not really know how the statements that salvation is a choice we should accept fit in with the statements of God’s predestination of the elect.
As a result, as we seek to merge all these biblical statements into a unified whole, if we are not extremely careful, and historically it is clear the Church has not been careful, we create divisions in the body of Christ. For example, as some gave more weight to the verses that speak of our choice, others gave more weight to the verses that speak of our election. To disagree on this is one thing. To divide on it is another.
This is further exacerbated by our ability to reason, or perhaps rationalize. We reason what a biblical concept must mean, Sovereignty, Love, Grace, Righteousness, etc., and then interpret seemingly contrary passages to fit the our reasoning.
When you look at what are considered heretical views of the nature of God, they all try to rationalize God’s nature into something we can understand. Passages that teach contrary to the rationalization are then effectively ignored.
Again, while it is easy to see this process at work in the views of others, we all do this to some extent and in some places. God is a god of mercy. God is a god of justice. Those teachings are easy, but how we combined them is tough and thus we will tend to err to one side or the other, and examples of both errors are to be found in church history.
This is one place where discussion towards unity becomes so important. I have heard that when trying to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the best way is to have a large number of people guess and then take the average of their guesses. As we wrestle with these issues as a community, we will as a community reach better answers than we could individually.
Of course, one problem with this approach is when there are influences that effect everyone and the biggest of these is culture. How can these be counteracted? First, you must realize they are there. It is much easier to tell if you are being swept along by a current if you are on a river, than in the middle ocean. This is because the river bank is a fix point of reference.
The Bible is, or can be, such a fixed point of reference. If your understanding of the Bible is being updated to keep up with cultural changes, that should at least set off alarm bells. We are in this world, but our citizenship is not of this world. This is a world of sin that Jesus came to redeem, not imitate.
But again, it is always easier to pick out the flaws in others which is why, contrary to my normal pattern, I am not giving much in the way of examples. One hopefully safe example, is that it is much easier for us to see how our brothers and sisters, who lived during the Middle Ages, got some things wrong than it would be for us to see this in our brothers and sisters today, particularly those brothers and sisters who tend to agree with us. The sobering thing to realize is that our brothers and sisters from the Middle Ages would probably be equally adept at seeing how we are getting some things wrong.
Still, overall, I think the Church has learned from at least some of its mistakes and there has been some improvement over the last 2000 years. But I do not think the progression has been uniform or constant. As we have improved in one area, it has often come at the expense of others. Nor is this to be a surprise. To “get it right” we would essentially have to be God. Thus, I believe our efforts to balance out the seemingly conflicting aspects of God’s nature, to come to a better understanding of God’s will, and thereby God, will be a process that will last at least until Christ returns, and probably into eternity.
Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., Engineer, teacher, Christian apologist, and author of Preserving Democracy, What is Wrong with Social Justice?, A Short Critique of Climate Change, Christianity and Secularism, and Evidence for the Bible.