Recently I wrote a post that triggered a conversation with an atheist who made some interesting claims. One of which was that Christians cannot agree on how to read the Bible so how can their claims be true. What an interesting claim to make, at what level must Christians agree for Christianity to be true? We do profess that unity is not simply our goal, but one of our virtues; but does this mean we have no room for differing opinions? I want to deal with this question in two parts, first the logic of the objection, then circling back to Christianity I will talk a little about proper unity and where we can differ.
I want to compare the logic of the objection to a similar one I hear frequently: “climate change cannot be real because climate scientists do not agree about climate change.” This objection actually holds more weight than the objection to Christianity, because the objection to Christianity assumes that all Christians have equal expertise in theology. The climate scientists I have listened to have said there is unity in the metanarrative and division in the details. That means they all agree on the big picture but have differing takes on some (or even many specifics). Does this mean climate change does not exist or is in some way invalidated? Obviously not. The same is true in many other arenas in the sciences– experts disagree; but such disagreement does not invalidate the fields of research. Rather, such disagreements simply point to the complexity of the problem and our ignorance of solutions. What does this atheist argument have in common with climate change deniers. Well yes, denial. Now yes, for a statement to be true there must be some macro level of agreement (we will get there); however, in each case the macro level agreement is ignored and the disagreements are highlighted. Also, in both cases the experts who are discussing the unity of the position are ignored by people with far less information.
This objection is especially difficult to pin on Christians as a whole because not even Christian is in expert in theology. Making the claim Christianity is false because Christians disagree on theology is like making the claim the Liberal or Conservative politics is false because of a person on the street interviews. It is intellectually dishonest to judge the claims of a group by the person most ignorant of the group’s position. I have beside me Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity, a systematic theology in which he hardly contributed an original line. His endeavor was to show how the historic Church has been united on the core of Christian belief. Yes, the people whom he quotes had disagreements, and some changed their minds on issues, however he could show a historic continuity within the beliefs of the Church. A second example of this principle is John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, a fantastic book on the first Biblical creation account. Christians in general have vastly diverging opinions on the opening chapter of Genesis, and many would have harsh criticism of Walton’s treatment. However, among scholars there will be a general agreement that his approach is valid even if there are some disagreements in specifics. What does this prove– there is less disagreement about Christian beliefs among those who have studied the most than those who have studied the least. If I am going to analyze a philosophy (religious: Christian, Buddhist, Atheist or Political: Liberalism, Conservationism, Marxism) I should, if I am intellectually honest begin, and probably end, with those who are the most educated and best able to make a reasonable defense of their position. Thus to point out that Christians have differing beliefs on elements of Christianity is not inherently a valid argument. Rather one must pint out that the central core is intellectually void or irrational.
But then this begs the question, “What is the intellectual core of Christianity?” What are those teachings on which all Christians must agree. I think the best definition is the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
These words echo the very heart of the Christian tradition and are universally agreed upon. Beyond that, Christianity is inherently relational. Jesus when asked what the core of his teaching is responded,
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31
Understood correctly, these words mean that proper beliefs about God derive from proper relationship with God, and stand behind John Wesley’s famous words, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” The truth is if you ask five of my friends to describe me you will probably end up with five similar general descriptions which differ (sometimes wildly) in the specifics. Such differences of opinion are inherent in humanity. Ask witnesses about an event, you will get multiple accounts which have both overlap and divergence.
The Church is continuously trying to understand God, something we should naturally expect from humans trying to comprehend the infinite. And in recent years considerable efforts have been made to be more open about the Church’s unity, because many have recognized that when we dwell on the the disunity people sweat the small stuff and forget the overarching picture. In the end are there differences of opinion among Christians– yes. Do these differences among to significant disagreements– sometimes. Do they rise to the level of inherently falsifying the faith– considering the number of extremely intelligent individuals who have professed Christian faith I would have to answer no.