It gets so tiresome, you know, arguing about the Bible. And the worst of it is that you rarely actually convince anyone. They have their verses. You have your verses. And you just talk past each other, knowing that your verses represent perfect saving truth and their verses are taken just so badly out of context and misunderstood. Of course, the person you’re arguing with feels exactly the same way … but that’s okay. He’s deluded.
But that other person … the deluded one, you know … is actually quite bright and has studied the Bible very diligently. And yet he just … won’t … listen. And it’s so … very … frustrating!
Now, I don’t imagine that I have the solution to all the debates they have filled the centuries and even the millennia. But I think I have an observation that might help. And then I’ll have some examples to make my point. So this is going to take more than one post. Maybe several. Maybe a lot.
The last-verse-read argument
Let’s start with a classic debate: can a Christian fall from grace? The Calvinists, including many Baptists, the Presbyterians, and many others, say no. The Arminians, including the Churches of Christ, Methodists, and many others, say yes. This debate is roughly 500 years old.
Here’s how it works. At the local First Presbyterian Church, a Sunday school teacher is teaching a class on this very subject. He begins by reading the classic Arminian verses, such as Heb 6:4-6. There are several.
The class is perplexed. He then reads the classic Calvinist verses, such as John 10:28. He says that the Calvinist verses explain the Arminian verses, which must be read in light of the Calvinist verses. And he talks about how awful it must be to be an Arminian, never certain of your salvation. The class feels better, having their preconceptions affirmed.
Across the street at the First Methodist Church, another Sunday school teacher is teaching a class on this very subject. He begins by reading the classic Calvinist verses.
The class is perplexed. He then reads the classic Arminian verses. He says that the Arminian verses explain the Calvinist verses, which must be read in light of the Arminian verses. And he talks about how awful it must be to be a Calvinist, so certain of your salvation that you have no reason even to try to do right. The class feels better, having their preconceptions affirmed.
Manifestly, both teachers are making the same mistakes. Here they are —
* They started with their conclusion. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have known which verses to read first! This is known to logicians as circular reasoning or “begging the question.” But it’s a subtle mistake, because it is only shown in the order of study.
* They are both a little blind to the weaknesses of their own positions and to the strengths of their opponent’s position. They certainly don’t point out to the class why the other side disagrees! In fact, they may have never seriously studied the other side at all.
* Because each side has problems, it’s entirely possible that both teachers know Christians who once took the other side, found it untenable, and so switched sides. If so, they took this as absolute proof of the merits of their position. Of course, they’ve taken no notice of all of those leaving their camp and going to the other.
* Both assume that there are but two possible positions. As a result, to prove their own position, they need only show a flaw in their opponent’s position. Both are quite good at making the other side look ridiculous. This is known to logicians as a “false dichotomy,” assuming only two possible positions when there may be many others.
* Neither has the least interest in looking for a third possibility: a third way. After all, their heritage, their identity, even their self-esteem is closely tied to their current view — and they know to a certainty that their opponent across the street is wrong, giving them great assurance of being right.
Now, as easy as it is to write all this, the very hard problem, of course, is finding that third way. After all, if none exists, then it’s true: one is right and the other is wrong. And there doesn’t have to be a third way! Looking for one could be an exercise in futility.
And if you were ever to find it, the likelihood is that neither side would recognize the truth in it. To the Calvinist, any in-between answer would be too Arminian. To the Arminian, any in-between answer would be too Calvinistic. Hence, both would reject the new idea.
Both would be able to point out the vast literature in support of their view and the paucity of support for yours (although it’s unlikely that you’d truly be first to discover your third way. It’s just that third ways get ignored by both sides and so are rarely discussed or remembered). Both would have many great men and scholars who’d rejected your third way.
Both have too much invested in the status quo to seriously consider any other option. They aren’t wicked, of course. Just very human.
This leads, therefore, to a bit of a quandary. How do we know whether a third way even exists? If it does, the two teachers seem rather silly and small minded. If it doesn’t, then we just need to roll up our sleeves, do the Greek, and see which one is right.
Seeking a Third Way
And so, a hypothesis (utterly without proof at this point): nearly all long-standing doctrinal disputes among Christians of good will and serious scholarship are false dichotomies — and the truth is a third way. Sometimes the third way is fairly close to one side or the other. Sometimes it’s radically different from either. But it’s nearly always there.
If this is not true, then why does no one ever win the argument?
Finally, just to make things a bit more complicated, another hypothesis: the nature of third ways is that we may never fully understand them. It is, after all, very presumptuous to assume that we can fully understand God’s will.
We can certainly understand a third way — any truth of God — well enough to be saved and live as saved people should. But we shouldn’t be surprised if once in a while we find that we can’t chase the truth down to total, complete certainty. This is, after all, the mind of God we’re talking about.
Let me give a couple of examples from a slightly different angle. The point I want to make is that Biblical truth tends to be at the point of paradox. It’s not a real contradiction, but it often seems that way.
Josh Hunt offers an interesting example —
Let’s start with the question: Are we to do our acts of righteousness in a public way so people can see them? In my experience, people will normally answer “No” to this question. To which I respond, “Why then does the Bible say:
In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16 [NIV]
We are instructed by Jesus to let our light shine, to do our good works in such a way that people will see them and give praise to God. If they don’t see them, they won’t give praise to God. We must do our works publically, right? Now, everyone agrees. Somewhat hesitatingly, they all agree. Then I read this verse (in this case, I am disagreeing with myself):
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. Matthew 6:1 [NIV]
Now, which is it? Are we to do our acts of righteousness before men, so they can see them, or not?
Hunt’s point is —
Too many times we are guilty of giving Sunday School answers in Sunday School. Sunday School answers are oversimplification of complex truth. The real truth is nearly always a careful balance between two extremes.
Of course, some truths really are at the extreme, but the working of God’s grace tends not to be. It’s because God is doing two nearly contradictory things. He hates sin and loves people. And yet people sin. All of them. This raises a challenge that only a God can resolve. And we’re just fortunate that he shares some of his thinking with us. But it’s hardly surprising that we struggle to understand it.
In the next few posts, we’re going to go looking for Third Way solutions to some classic Protestant disputes.