Putman has produced an interdisciplinary volume that accurately assesses how Christians come to differing conclusions on doctrine and provides a roadmap for how Christians ought to live and interact in light of this doctrinal diversity. Christians, young and old, theologically trained and untrained alike would benefit from reading this volume and assuming the posture of humility that Putman lays out and demonstrates himself.
Rhyne Putman’s When Doctrine Divides the People of God (Crossway, 2020) begins with a retelling of the theological disagreement between the Reformation figures Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Though the two Reformation leaders practiced communion in virtually the same way, their understandings of the meaning of the Supper were on opposite poles. So vast was the theological chasm between them that Luther refused to extend the hand of fellowship to Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy.
How could two individuals so united around other Reformation principles be so far apart on this particular doctrinal issue? Was Luther right to refuse fellowship with Zwingli over their disagreement, or should Luther have put their disagreement aside?
These questions continue today because doctrinal diversity continues today. Somehow Christians, indwelt by the same Holy Spirit, reading the same Bible, can arrive at opposing doctrinal opinions. The fact of doctrinal diversity raises two important questions: How is it possible for Christians to arrive at differing conclusions, and how ought Christians to live and interact with those who have differing opinions?
In When Doctrine Divides the People of God, Rhyne Putman, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Christian Ministries at Williams Baptist University, sets forth to explain why doctrinal diversity exists, and how Christians ought to live in light of doctrinal diversity.
The volume is divided into two parts. In Part One, Putman examines five reasons why like-minded Christians reach differing theological conclusions. According to Putman, theological diversity is caused by a host of imperfections, differences, and presuppositions. He dedicates a chapter for each of these causes, arguing that doctrinal diversity is caused by reading Scripture imperfectly, reading Scripture differently, reasoning from Scripture differently, bringing varying emotional biases to the interpretive process, and housing a variety of biases brought on by one’s theological tradition. Throughout the course of each chapter, Putman explains how these imperfections, differences, and biases are possible, and that understanding these imperfections, differences, and biases creates an effective framework for explaining the phenomenon of doctrinal diversity.
In Part Two, Putman examines what Christians ought to do in light of theological diversity and answers three important questions. First, in chapter 6, he identifies when Christians should change their mind on a theological position. Putman argues that disagreements present opportunities for “epistemic self-improvement” (199), and he provides seven questions to answer in considering a position change.
In chapter 7, Putman addresses when it is appropriate to allow doctrine to set boundary makers. In this chapter, Putman explores the idea of theological triage, and posits three tests for determining where a doctrine is placed in a theological taxonomy. The third and final topic Putman addresses is how Christians ought to conduct themselves when faced with theological disagreement. He utilizes the real life disagreement between George Whitefield and John Wesley to demonstrate both a healthy and unhealthy response to disagreement.
Putman intended this work to be an interdisciplinary answer to the question of doctrinal diversity (29-30), and his breadth of research is impressive. He regularly cites biblical scholars, systematic theologians, philosophers, sociologists, and linguistic scholars. For example, throughout the volume, Putman interacts with the likes of Kevin Vanhoozer, Charles Sanders Pierce, Umberto Eco, Jonathan Haidt, and Al Mohler.
The volume would have been sufficient had Putman simply expounded on the hermeneutical and theological reasons for doctrinal diversity, yet Putman’s interdisciplinary approach leaves no stone unturned in his attempt to provide an account for doctrinal diversity. The result of Putman’s accessibility and breadth of research is a volume that is accessible for students and pastors, yet still a substantial contribution to the field of theological methodology.