Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Graciously Saying "You're Wrong"

I remember a number of years ago, a young lady wanted to talk about a paper I had written regarding the differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant theology. In the paper, I made the contention that the substance of the two theologies, based on documents from both systems of thought were irreconcilable. This young lady said that the comment about "irreconcilable differences" was divisive and not promoting of love. My response to her was that I wasn't trying to be divisive and know RC people who are genuinely wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now, part of the subtext of the conversation was that this young woman was dating a Roman Catholic man, despite being strongly Protestant in her background, conviction and theological persuasion. But what I continued to say to her was that if I in any way presented a false caricature or represented poorly the RC position, then I deserved the charge of being divisive; however, if I represented the RC position well and then simply compared and contrasted the two systems of theology, showing that one cannot say justification comes by faith alone and not by faith alone at the same time, then this would only mean I was being truthful.

She said that she did not believe I misrepresented the RC position on justification or the Protestant one for that matter, but that she still believed my comment about irreconcilable differences between the two systems of theology to be ungracious nonetheless.

Now, what happened in that conversation? Why were we unable to make any visible progress in the conversation?

In his 1968 work The God Who is There, Francis Schaeffer writes that in the 20th century in the United States and the 19th century in Europe, a new way of looking at truth began to develop. Schaeffer writes, "So this change in the concept of the way we come to knowledge and truth is the most crucial problem, as I understand it, facing Christianity today," p. 6.

Schaeffer contends that before this "shift" non-Christians held the same assumptions as Christians, regarding discovering truth. As Schaeffer writes, "(before the shift)... everyone would have been working on much the same presuppositions, which in practice seemed to accord with the Christian's own presuppositions.... What were these presuppositions? The basic one was that there really are such things as absolutes. They accepted the possibility of an absolute in the area of Being (or knowledge), and in the area of morals. Therefore, because they accepted the possibility of absolutes, though people might have disagreed as to what these were, nevertheless they could reason together on the classical basis of antithesis. They took it for granted that if anything was true, the opposite was false. In morality, if one thing was right, its opposite was wrong. This little formula, 'A is A' and 'If you have A it is not non-A,' is the first move in classical logic. If you understand the extent to which this no longer holds sway, you will understand our present situation," p. 6.

According to Schaeffer, following the shift, the understanding of discovering truth and logic by embracing the "law of noncontradiction" no longer held sway. The idea of antithesis in an argument is that you and I might agree to disagree, but also agree that one or even both of us might in fact be wrong. However, after the shift, with the rejection of absolutes, it became thought of as unloving and ungracious if we didn't all agree leaving an argument or disagreement declaring that everyone was right in his/her own way. Even much of Christian thought fell below Schaeffer's line of despair with skepticism and absurdity coming as a result.

You see, the issue with this young woman, who was a professing evangelical Christian, was not so much that Protestant and RC theology held fundamentally different explanations of the nature of salvation, understanding of the church and the mission of God in the world. But the issue was that she and I held a different set of convictions regarding how we discover truth and see the role of absolutes playing out in our respective worldviews.

This young woman would have been unable to agree with Schaeffer who wrote, "At the time of the Reformation, the (Protestant) reformers were confronted with a total system. They did not say that there were no Christians within the Roman Catholic Church, nor did they say that there were no differences in the teaching and emphases of the various Roman Catholic Orders. But they understood that there was one underlying system which bound every part of the Church together, and it was this system as a system that they said was wrong and in opposition to the teaching of the Bible," p. 51.

So given these newer presuppositions that have arisen since the "shift," it now comes across as "divisive and unloving," even among Christians when we say, "you're wrong" (even if it is in fact true). Yet as the Beloved who believe that the Triune God of the universe reveals Himself definitively through His Holy Scriptures, we must reserve room in our interactions to, at times, lovingly and graciously say "you're wrong" or at the very least to say, "from the best of my understanding of the Bible, I believe you're wrong." This isn't an excuse to be rude, arrogant or lack humility in our interactions with one another or to "beat others over the head with our Bibles," but to reserve the right to see that there is a place for meaningful disagreement and the acknowledgment of "right" and "wrong" in our conversations: there must be- the one who says otherwise, well, is wrong.

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