The Common Good

Dogma and Disagreement

I recently found myself in conversation with a fellow believer who asked where I stood on the "non-negotiable" issues that seemed to him definitive for voting Christians. For him, as for quite a few others, the issues that divided the faithful from the wayward were abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research. These matters continue to be of grave concern to all of us who care about the terms on which we choose life and sustain it.

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But the question bothered me for two reasons. First, it seemed to shut off discussion of the complexities of those issues, and of the relationships of church to state and faith to science-relationships that deserve not to be reduced to bumper-sticker politics. Second, it brought me back to a question I've revisited over the years: What is the relationship of dogma, in its most positive sense, to the wide range of scriptural matters upon which reasonable, prayerful Christians disagree? The question of which scriptural teachings are "non-negotiable," and which bear multiple plausible interpretations, continues to divide the church, as it has ever since Peter and Paul debated the circumcision and dietary laws.

Each generation of readers comes to scripture equipped, first of all, with the assurance that, when we enter into relationship with a living God who guides us in spirit and in truth, we can receive what we need. We are called to read those texts not only in private devotions, but also in community, where those who are ordained to preach and teach can offer correctives and open up implications of what we find there. Ideally, in the conversations that follow, we learn to listen for the Spirit in the approaches others take to texts we necessarily read as persons enmeshed in our own cultural matrices and assumptions.

Of course, the ongoing history of hermeneutical disputes among denominations and congregations also bears witness to the very human dimension of the church: We work out our salvation in the midst of deep differences and petty squabbles over how to read, how to discern what the Spirit teaches, where to lay the emphasis, how to understand what is foundational and what is, as theologians put it, adiaphora-not a matter on which full agreement is necessary for a shared life of faith.

In the course of explicating propositional claims and the texts that support them, we always run some risk of reducing faith to a matter of intellectual assent. We risk forgetting that it is first and foremost a lived relationship with a living God-one who not only told the truth but who, more shockingly, proclaimed, "I am the truth." This astonishing act of identification changes the terms on which we are to understand truth: truth is rooted and grounded in an intimate life of learning to love Jesus, who both stands revealed before us and is hidden in mystery until he comes in glory.

Marilyn McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies: Stewardship of Language in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, May 2009), is a Fellow at the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Westmont College.

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