New Horizons

Why Can’t Christians Agree?

James W. Scott

According to Presbyterians, infant baptism is taught in the Bible. But according to Baptists, the Bible teaches that only professing believers should be baptized—and they must be immersed, besides. Why can’t we agree on what the Bible teaches about baptism? Why doesn’t the Bible tell us simply and unmistakably who should be baptized—and how? We could ask such questions about many matters.

Sociologist Christian Smith has the answer. We can’t agree, he tells us, because the biblical writers don’t agree. To take another example, some passages really are Calvinistic, and others really are Arminian, but evangelicals can’t see that because they assume the Bible has a consistent position. Hence, they twist the other side’s passages to suit their own preferred view. Furthermore, they try to extract “biblical teachings” on all sorts of subjects that the Bible doesn’t really address.

Evangelicals of all theological stripes misuse the Bible like this, argues Smith in The Bible Made Impossible (Brazos Press, 2011), because of their erroneous doctrine of Scripture, which he labels “biblicism.” They think that the Bible, as God’s inspired word, must be inerrant and self-consistent. And because God gave it to us to instruct us about theology and life, it presumably provides clear teaching on these matters. But since evangelicals disagree on many issues, and are fragmented into numerous contentious groups, we can only conclude, Smith insists, that the Bible does not contain the clear, consistent teachings that evangelicals think it does. In short, all the disagreements among evangelicals refute their doctrine of Scripture. Their “pervasive interpretive pluralism” proves that the evangelical view of Scripture is simply impossible.

Most of Smith’s book is a recycling of insufficiently substantiated assertions made by other critics. While the book is clearly and engagingly written, it presents a web of beguiling misrepresentation and argumentation that threatens to ensnare the unwary reader. For example, Smith repeatedly declares that the evangelical doctrine of biblical inspiration and inerrancy is merely a preconceived theory that people bring to the Bible. In reality, it is the traditional Christian view (as expressed by the Westminster Confession). It has been carefully derived from what the Bible says about itself, and in fact it pervades Scripture. Smith does draw attention to some passages that pose problems for this view (in chapter 4), but he ignores the explanations that Christians have put forward.

Furthermore, the author’s credibility, as one who supposedly writes as a fellow evangelical, is undermined by his recent conversion to Roman Catholicism (which he mentions).

The Clarity of Scripture

Much more could be said about Smith’s book, but his basic point needs to be answered. He asks rhetorically: “If the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous [clear] text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches?” (p. 26). The absence of such agreement, Smith says, demonstrates that the Bible is not God’s clear revelation of correct beliefs, practices, and morals.

Smith’s conclusion does indeed follow from his premises, but his premises are faulty. He misrepresents the traditional Protestant and Reformed doctrine of Scripture. The Bible is indeed “given by a truthful and omnipotent God,” and therefore must be “internally consistent.” But it does not necessarily follow that the Bible is a “perspicuous text,” clearly and unmistakably revealing a wide range of “correct beliefs, practices, and morals” equally to all “presumably sincere Christians.” As our Confession (1.7) states, the basic truths “necessary … for salvation” are taught in the Bible with “sufficient” (but not necessarily full) clarity for all to understand, but (1) “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves,” nor (2) are they “alike clear unto all.” Let us see why this is so.

The Difficulty of Understanding Scripture

First of all, it is often difficult for our limited minds to understand the word of God very deeply, even though it has been expressed in human language. If we had the divine intellect, the Scriptures would be crystal clear to us, but we don’t. Even after a lifetime of study, meditation, and prayer, building on the insights of those who have gone before us, our understanding of Scripture still leaves much to be desired.

God has given us a written Word that is not only profound, but also in many respects challenging. Instead of giving us, say, an encyclopedia of doctrine, in which we could easily look up clear and concise answers to all of our questions, God has given us a set of sometimes obscure texts that require us to find our answers in scattered verses that can be interpreted properly only in the light of the whole. On many subjects, he gives us a glimmer of truth here and another glimmer there, and challenges us to figure it out.

God wants us to wrestle with the Scriptures, studying them diligently (Ps. 119:97; 2 Tim. 2:15; Acts 17:13), with deep humility (Ps. 25:9) and persistence (Matt. 5:6), imploring him to show us his truth and how it applies in our lives (2 Tim. 3:16–17). That is the path of spiritual growth. God does not simply want us to know what the right doctrines and practices are. He wants us to arrive at that knowledge in such a way that it takes root and transforms us into the image of Christ (Rom. 12:2; Col. 3:10; Rom. 8:29). Often the truths of Scripture are not obvious on the surface because God wants us to dig them out and learn from that process.

This digging is complicated today by our distance from the prophets and apostles. The original text of Scripture is sometimes difficult to ascertain. The exact meaning of the inspired text is sometimes obscured by imprecise translation. The correct interpretation of the biblical text is often distorted by our own ideas. Modern scholarship can help (or not), but the bottom line is that we are dependent upon the illumination of the Holy Spirit to understand the spiritual teachings of Scripture (1 Cor. 2:4–5, 10–13; 1 Thess. 1:5).

Human Sin

Proper understanding of Scripture does not follow automatically from diligent study, even when employing proper exegetical techniques with hermeneutical sophistication. Those who have sinful attitudes and sinful desires will tend to twist Scripture accordingly (2 Peter 3:16), no matter how educated they are. Not one of us is immune to this tendency.

Because of sin, false teachings arise and hold sway. Within the church itself, many “wolves in sheep’s clothing” promote erroneous teaching for their own selfish and wicked purposes (Matt. 7:15; Acts 20:29–30; Rom. 16:17–18; 1 Peter 5:8; 2 Peter 2:1–3). These false teachers are necessary, Paul explains, so that, in the debates and divisions that follow, “those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor. 11:19; cf. 1 John 2:19). But even genuinely Christian teachers “stumble in many ways” as they struggle with sin and misunderstandings (James 3:1–2). Personal pride leads many astray.

Because of sin, people are not only vulnerable to false teachings (2 Tim. 3:6), but actually eager to follow after errors that satisfy their ungodly desires (2 Tim. 4:3–4). Falsehood will always attract a large following (Matt. 7:13–14).

Theological disputes are not merely efforts by what Smith calls “presumably sincere Christians” to arrive at the truth. In reality, there is a great spiritual struggle going on behind the scenes, in which Satan and his minions are working mightily to deceive people, including teachers and other church leaders (1 Tim. 4:1; Eph. 6:11–12). Thanks be to God that his Spirit is also at work, and has the upper hand, or all would be lost.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century was a mighty work of the Spirit. It was marred by sin, of course, but the Reformers achieved a remarkable theological consensus as they resolutely looked to the Scriptures for guidance. This historical fact belies Smith’s claim that Christians relying on the Bible cannot reach agreement. But that Reformed consensus, manifested by the many Reformed confessions, came under attack from false teachers.

Some of their false teachings have prospered in the broadly evangelical world, not because the Bible itself is defective, but for all the reasons outlined above. For example, Arminian errors have gained a wide following because sinners do not want to acknowledge the sovereignty of God in their life, especially with regard to salvation. Many errors are now well entrenched in modern evangelicalism, and the sin of party spirit only adds to the inability of “presumably sincere Christians” to reach agreement on all that the Bible teaches.

Contrary to Smith, the evangelical doctrine of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture is the foundation of the true Christian faith. That doctrine, and the use of the Bible that is consistent with it, are certainly not “made impossible” by disagreements among evangelicals.

The author is managing editor of New Horizons. He quotes the ESV. For a thorough rebuttal of Smith’s book, see “Smithereens!” by Robert H. Gundry, at booksandculture.com. New Horizons, April 2012.

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