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.