Why disagreement is not good – Part 2

In this blog I shall respond to some of the interesting issues raised by my former Oak Hill colleague Dr Thomas Renz in response to what I wrote last week.

The first question he raises is whether our inability to grasp ‘a comprehensive knowledge of the truth on which we all agree’ is a result of sin or simply an inevitable result of how God has made human beings.

In response to this question I am happy to agree that as human beings we necessarily lack the fully comprehensive knowledge that belongs only to God. As finite creatures who exist at a particular point in space and time and who acquire knowledge by degrees over our lifetime we necessarily lack the absolute knowledge of the truth about all things that God possesses. It is not, and (in this world at least) never will be, true that any human being ‘sees to the ends of the earth and sees everything under heaven’ (Job 28:34) and this is a result of the way that God has made us rather than a result of the Fall.

Even Jesus, in his incarnate state, was limited in his knowledge. We are told in the Gospels that as he grew up he ‘increased in wisdom’ (Luke 2:52) and we are also told that there were things that he did not know, such as the time of the second coming (Mark 13:32). However, as John Wenham argues in his book Christ and the Bible, what the Gospels do not tell us is that Jesus was ever in error. As he puts it: ‘this is the testimony of the Gospels: God yet man; infallible yet limited in knowledge.’

The distinction between being limited in knowledge and being fallible is an important one for our purposes. Being limited in knowledge is simply part of being human. The same is not true of being in error. As I argued last week, being in error is a consequence of the Fall that will be corrected in the world to come. What precise degree of knowledge we will then have is something which we do not yet know. What we do know, however, is that whatever we do know we shall know as fully and truly as God currently knows us (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Dr Renz’s second question, building on the work of James Smith, is whether ‘the ineluctable plurality of interpretation, both of texts and of the world’ belongs ‘to creation in its goodness and not (merely) to the Fall.’ Here I would want to draw attention to the distinction that I made last week between ‘diversity’ and ‘disagreement.’ A diversity of different perspectives can be a very useful way of helping us to increase our knowledge of the truth. That is why, for instance, God gave us four Gospels rather than one. Our knowledge about Jesus is greater because we have four different accounts of who he was, and what he did and said, than would be the case if Matthew’s Gospel was the only one we had.

However, the Gospels only help us to know the truth about Jesus because they exhibit diversity rather than disagreement. If one or more of the Gospels disagreed with each other this could only mean that one or more of them was wrong and therefore did not assist us to know the truth about him.

What I take from this example is that plurality of interpretation is not always a good thing. It is a good thing when it is a result of people seeing and declaring different aspects of the truth. It is, however, a bad thing when it is a result of one or more people being in error. Where there is genuine disagreement, rather than simply diversity, it is the latter rather than the former that we are talking about.

For this reason I am happy to talk about ‘good diversity’, but I still don’t think that we can properly talk about ‘good disagreement.’

His third question is how what I have said about the need to focus on the proclamation of the truth and the refutation of error relates to the divisions that exist between and within churches.

Do we need to hold back from ‘resolute truth telling’ in order to work to overcome the divisions within the body of Christ and do we need to tolerate error as that price that has to be paid in order to benefit from a plurality of perspectives within and between the churches?

As I see it, the answer in both cases is ‘no’.

Jesus’ prayer for his disciples as recorded in John 17 is not only that ‘they may all be one’ (John 17:21) but ‘that they may be one even as we are one’ (John 17:22). In John’s Gospel the oneness that exists between Jesus and His Father involves complete agreement in the truth between them that means that everything that Jesus says and does is in agreement with His Father’s will. That is why He can say ‘I am the truth’ (John 14:6). It is that kind of unity in truth which Jesus prays for his disciples as the fruit of His coming death (John 17:19 ‘and for their sake I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in truth’).

It follows from this that overcoming the current divisions of the Church needs to go hand in hand with enabling the Church to be a community where the truth is known, accepted, celebrated and lived out. That is why the ecumenical movement at its best has insisted that the quest for institutional unity between the churches has to go hand in hand with faith and order work which seeks to overcome disagreements between the churches by enabling Christians to grow in their common understanding of the truth of the Gospel and how this should be manifested in the life of the Church. It is only as this happens that we can move forward towards the vision of unity set out, for example, in the seminal New Dehli Statement of the World Council of Churches of 1961:

‘We believe that the unity which is both God’s will and his gift to his Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people.’

What this means is not that all we should ever talk about with Christians from other traditions is where we think they are wrong. It does mean that our engagement with them must include a serious joint search for truth. We cannot simply ‘agree to disagree.’

What is more, we do not have to tolerate error in order to benefit from the existence of a diversity of different perspectives within our churches. Unless it is ultimately impossible to separate truth from error we do not need to tolerate error in order to benefit from truth. If we were to weed out error we would still benefit from having a variety of truthful perspectives.

However, this having been said I would argue that we need to be cautious about seeking to purge the Church from error. As St. Augustine warns us, we must avoid trying to prematurely separate the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). This is for two reasons.

First, because we are fallible it may be that we ourselves are in error and those who we initially think are in error who are teaching and living out the truth. The Church can only be perpetually reformed by God as it needs to be if we are open to correction from unexpected sources. In addition, because we are fallible we may simply have misunderstood someone else’s words or actions and so there may be no real cause for concern.

Secondly, the Church is meant to be like a hospital. It is meant to be a place where sin-sick people can be made better and if we exclude people who are in error we prevent this from happening in their case.

Nevertheless, the faithful do need to be protected from error and to this end, and particularly if an error is so serious that it can put people’s souls at risk (by, for example, teaching people to rely on anything other than Christ for their salvation, encouraging them to worship other gods alongside the one true God, or teaching them that they can be saved regardless of their sexual conduct) the leaders of the Church cannot simply disagree with it. They have to seek to counter it, using church discipline as a last resort where necessary (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Galatians and Jude).

As Bonhoeffer explains, the purpose of such discipline:

‘…is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community of men who really live under the forgiving mercy of God. Discipline in a congregation is a servant of the precious grace of God. If a member of the Church falls into sin, he must be admonished and punished, lest he forfeit his own salvation and the gospel be discredited.’

For all these reasons I remain unconvinced that the concept of ‘good disagreement’ has anything to commend it and continue to believe that it would be better if Archbishop Welby and the House of Bishops emphasised instead the need for the Church of England to be a community that knows the truth and lives by it.

3 thoughts on “Why disagreement is not good – Part 2

  1. Many thanks for giving my comment such a full response. We agree on the importance of the distinction between being limited in knowledge and being fallible although I want to distinguish between different types of error. I am not convinced that all error is a consequence of sin. Did not Jesus learn Aramaic and a host of other things like other children growing up alongside him through a process of trial and error? I suspect that grammatical errors et al. are not what you have in mind. By the time we have carefully defined terms we are likely in agreement.

    Error multiplies interpretations needlessly. Indeed, where error is grounded in evil, e.g. sinful self-interest, the resulting plurality is clearly not good. My concern is to stress that being aware of the limits of our knowledge is as important as being confident in the truth we know.

    I wholeheartedly affirm that “overcoming the current divisions of the Church needs to go hand in hand with enabling the Church to be a community where the truth is known, accepted, celebrated and lived out” and we agree that this does not mean “that all we should ever talk about with Christians from other traditions is where we think they are wrong.” Setting aside disagreements for a while in some contexts need not mean pretending that they are insignificant or even irresolvable.
    There is a danger of “agreeing to disagree” in such a way that the joint search for truth is abandoned and this is not “good”. Disagreements such as over baptism leave wounds; we should not talk about them as “good”. We have still much plurality of interpretation, some of it good, some of it bad, in the Church of England even without the Baptists but we and they are the poorer for our separation.

    Or, to use another, recent example. The ordination of women to leadership positions is right and those who seek to limit ministry along gender-lines are in error. But if we were to exclude those who promote this error, we would self-harm because for all their error they also affirm much that is good and right and needs strengthening.
    There is arguably a difference between false teaching which innovates (Baptist views in the sixteenth century) and false teaching with a long pedigree (male-only leadership) but truth is not decided by majority vote or pedigree and it remains incumbent on all of us to keep telling the truth. My concern is that we do so in humility, listening to the other, and with an awareness of the limits of our grasp of the truth.

    Theological error does significant harm. (This is the thrust of Allison’s The Cruelty of Heresy, I believe.) Disagreement, as defined in your earlier post, signals the presence of error and should therefore be a warning, not something we seek to neutralise. But error is not simply overcome by resolute truth-telling. It requires truth-living as well which sometimes counsels silence without which no listening is possible.

  2. I’m not sure whether the discussion above is an example of “good disagreement” or “good diversity”? Though your emphasis might be different, do you still think you are disagreeing?

  3. We are not far away from each other, it seems to me, but along with the limits of our knowledge I want to stress the limits of discussing such matters in the abstract. (I do of course believe that it is not altogether non-sensical to do so, otherwise I would not have engaged in this discussion.)

    There is a case for saying that the apostle Paul (in 1 Corinthians 8) and John the Divine (in Revelation 2) do not disagree on the matter of eating food offered to idols. But there is also a way in which one part of Scripture can be read such as to be repugnant to another so that the apostle Paul and John the Divine disagree and one of them or both must be wrong. This calls for wisdom. The same may apply to some of our disagreements which are sinful because we extrapolate from one kernel of truth which we think we have grasped securely in a way which contradicts another kernel of truth which we hold less firmly or of which we are altogether unaware.

    “Good disagreement” is a potentially misleading term. And focusing on disagreeing well (Justin Welby) more than seeking to explore and proceed from our agreements (Rowan Williams) should at best be a temporary strategy. As a church we need to distinguish between (a) issues on which there are disagreements among us which signal that we have not sufficiently grasped the heart of a matter, (b) issues on which we are agreed as a church but where we are right to tolerate dissent, and (c) issues on which we cannot countenance disagreement without losing our integrity.

    Most real-life discussions, such as on human sexuality, consist of a whole bundle of issues which may fall into any of these categories. By and large we have been disagreeing badly on recent hot-potato issues and hence Justin Welby may be right to focus on disagreeing better, e.g. by speaking thr truth about one another. But Martin Davie is right to warn that this focus, especially when called “good disagreement,” may obscure the fact that there cannot be a happy truce with error.

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