You confuse me in class and in your writing. How can you insist that Christians agree on some things, yet say it is okay to disagree on other things? Isn't that inconsistent?
At my school, some of my students come from churches where the congregation is discouraged, or even forbidden, from differing with their pastor in any way. Those who do are charged with, say, "not believing the Bible" or "going down a slippery slope" to liberalism, and treated as heretics. These students are mystified by the way I present Calvinism and Arminianism as different but not heretical views. If only one is right, how can both be acceptable? If both are acceptable why bother teaching either one?
Other students have been burned out by this high-pressure confessionalism, or have only a shallow exposure to church culture. These instead embrace the relativism of our wider culture: Every religious truth claim is just a personal opinion, a "value" rather than a "fact," which has no claim on anyone else but the one making it. The heretics here are the arrogant ones who insist that, say, Jesus really is divine whether others affirm it or not. These students are mystified by the way I present Arianism, Modalism, and Pelagianism as mistakes that are unacceptable to healthy Christian faith. Last week I was giving them room to disagree; why not here? Can't I believe anything I want?
Still other students (fewer and fewer, actually) are loyal to a denomination with a clear identity and a well developed theology. These swell with pride when I say positive things about their founding father (usually Luther, Calvin, or Wesley). They scowl when I criticize their tradition. I can always get a rise and a smile out of them when I take a cheap shot and wink. They rarely shift their loyalties because of my classes; more commonly they leave with a measure of new appreciation for some theological rival they had dismissed before. What mystifies them is how I can seem so reasonable one day on insisting on an article of faith, and so lax another day in leaving room for difference. Why can't I just pick a side?
Doesn't all this just confirm that Christian theology is really arbitrary?
Well, no. Roman Catholics have been dealing with these kinds of things forever, and they have developed a very helpful vocabulary for making distinctions among teachings with varying levels of authority. Using that vocabulary, and applying it to the career of a certain apostle, helps clarify what is going on.
The most universal level is dogma. It is the most solemn teaching of the Church. To give up a dogma of the faith is, directly or indirectly, to give up the good news itself. To teach against dogma is to proclaim "another gospel." In the letter to the Galatians Paul treats the demand that Christians be circumcised as effectively qualifying the righteousness of Jesus Christ that is received by grace through faith. Justification by grace through faith is thus a dogma. Teaching it is teaching orthodoxy; teaching against it is teaching heresy.
The middle level is doctrine. This refers to the teaching of a particular community. It is authoritative for them and not to be taken lightly, but it is not necessarily binding on all believers everywhere. It might be reversed, so there is room to disagree with an established doctrinal position even of one's own community. Paul's teaching on the role of Jewish custom in the life of Gentile believers in Galatians differs from James' teaching in Acts. The former pertains to the churches Paul founds in Asia Minor, and the latter to the churches of Jerusalem and Judea. There are great cultural and geographical differences between these communities, and both can support their local teachings as being valid and necessary expressions of the one apostolic faith. Neither is heretical. Neither may simply be dismissed by the unconvinced. However, one may still be a better expression of the faith; one may apply across cultural contexts more broadly; one may die out while the other survives and prospers. Just because a teaching is not heretical does not mean it is equal to others.
The most local level is theology. This refers to the faithful thinking of individual believers. It guides, expresses, and develops the faith of their communities, but it is not necessarily the faith of their communities. It is not to be taken lightly either, but just because it might be more sophisticated or draw on weighty authorities does not make it right. It is subject to the correction of dogma, doctrine, and other theology. It should defer to doctrine when possible. However, it may influence and even correct doctrine, and over time it may even influence the development and articulation of dogma. Some churches now treat some of the teachings of Paul (for instance on the role of women in "all the churches of the saints" in 1 Cor. 14) as simply theological, arising from his own idiosyncracies rather than out of necessary aspects of the good news. Luther certainly thought that about the letter of James! Less controversially, few churches believe that the theology of Paul that is not preserved in Scripture should be dogmatic. Just because Paul thought something does not mean it is gospel.
In Catholic theology the canons of the Church councils are dogmatic, papal encyclicals are doctrinal, and writings of the Church Fathers are theological. Of course, things work differently in the evangelical Protestant world. In my classes I generally treat the Apostles' Creed as dogmatic, schools such as Calvinism and Arminianism and positions such as the Pentecostal and Dispensational stances on tongues as doctrinal, and my own original thoughts (and those of my students, their pastors, and the writers of their textbooks) as merely theological.
I will get to the ways students often confuse these categories soon, but in our culture something else is complicating the picture. This calls for an excursus. If it confuses you, skip it!
The modern world often divides ideologies of knowledge into "absolutism" and "relativism." This miscasts the above distinctions. It reduces claims to "facts" that are universal in scope, and and "values" that are just personal opinions. Peter Schickele of P.D.Q. Bach puts absolutism as well as I have ever heard it: "you can't have opinions about facts." Relativists are absolutists that have had their hearts broken by modernity and are on the rebound. In their own way, relativists agree with Schickele; they just treat all truth-claims as opinions. Having recognized that human truth claims do not pass muster according to Enlightenment criteria for truth, they refuse to grant any scope for truth claims beyond mere personal opinion, or at most the local community. Facts are really just values with identity issues.
In his book In the Ruins of the Church, R.R. Reno discerns that the real force of relativism is not logical (after all, its universal denial of transcendent truth contradicts itself), but spiritual. Relativism allows people to defend ourselves against any claim that would force us to change. It allows us always to justify who we are and what we do. It builds a one-person universe in which I can rule unhindered.
In Witness, James McClendon senses that the rhetoric of absolutism is subtly spiritual too. It is really a form of imperialism. Imperialism demands others accept the universal scope of my claim. It allows me to make claims on others that force them to become like me. It rules the universe that is common to all dethroning God in the process.
(By the way, conservatives are accused of imperialism a lot more than liberals are, but that association doesn't really work. A small Mormon town or an ingrown fundamentalist church are no less imperialistic than the majoritarian tyranny in many an elite university. In fact, since relativism dominates all others under the guise of tolerating them, it is really just a variety of imperialism, isn't it?)
Dogma, doctrine, and theology no longer work the same way in the worlds of absolutism and relativism. That means absolutism and relativism are incompatible with the Christian tradition. They are methodologies of idolatry that help us displace God and be our own masters. Not coincidentally, in the modern vernacular these older terms have turned into swear words. To be dogmatic is to oppress; to indoctrinate is to brainwash; to theologize is to speculate pretentiously. Past abuses are part of the problem, but today the real offense comes from aversion to the very idea of ideological authority. I am always proud to tell people I am a vocational theologian, indoctrinator, and dogmatist!
In Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism, McClendon and James Smith articulate a vision of theological assertion that is neither imperialistic nor relativistic. They call it "perspectivism." (Alasdair MacIntyre does much the same thing in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? but with different terms.) I will characterize it here using my own language.
Perspectivism shares both absolutism's preoccupation with validity and relativism's preoccupation with scope. It accepts that our claims arise from language, experience, and forms of life that others do not share. Thus our truth-claims are always located somewhere, and their location inherently qualifies whether and how they apply beyond. The inevitably linguistic shape of all human assertion and the particularities and incommensurabilities of our different languages make imperialism untenable. However, the integral connection between language and life, the commonality of our lives, the translatability of our claims, and the commensurabilities of human languages make relativism untenable. Perspectivism thus honors the way language actually works in and across our various communities in ways that neither absolutists nor relativists have been able to respect.
Moreover, perspectivism honors the eschatological character of Christian claims. The cry "Jesus is Lord" is not just a human claim that pertains to a few. It declares that Jesus is Lord over all things and all people. Its first claimant was no human community, but the divine community that exalted the risen Son to the Father's right hand (Ps. 110). Christians gratefully take up this claim even while knowing that not all agree and that we know it only in part; and we look forward hopefully to a day when every human community will agree together and we will know in full.
Now I had referred to students and readers whose communities cannot tolerate any theological dissent. These are basically imperialists who have turned every claim, even the pastor's personal opinion, into dogma. Here the categories of theology and doctrine are empty, save for a receptionist who refers everyone to the alpha-pastor or the statement of faith. There is an overly narrow picture of the Church here, and there is philosophical confusion, but there is often a good deal of old-fashioned pride as well.
Students and readers who reduce faith to opinion are like relativists who have turned all Christian teaching into mere personal opinion. The category of dogma is empty, save for a lonely and invisible sentinel that drives away all rivals with the one absolute axiom of relativism: "all truth is just individual opinion." There is an overly individualistic picture of the Church here, and philosophical confusion, and also a lot of pride.
Students who are loyal to a denomination they recognize as one of several legitimate ones have the advantage of knowing there actually is a legitimate middle level between the universal and the personal. They mainly differ with me about which specific teachings (say, predestination) are properly dogmatic and which are properly doctrinal. For instance, while I applaud Catholics for insisting on the millennia of their hard-won insights, I wish they would treat their nineteenth century Marian dogmas (with which my community disagrees) as properly doctrinal. And while I agree with fundamentalists that liberals have compromised the good news by deserting a few key articles of faith, I wish they would treat the fundamentalist dogmas of biblical inerrancy and substitutionary atonement (with which my community agrees) as properly doctrinal. These communities have similar disagreements with my community and with me. There is a schismatic picture of the Church here, but our differences can still be healthy. In a way, the fact that today we converse more than we anathematize shows we are moving toward reconciliation. However, our communities have invested sanctity not just in the edifying power of our teachings but in the security of institutional affiliation and group identity, so there is plenty of pride in this camp as well. Imperialism is older than modernity and is sure to survive it.
All this is to say that in a healthy Church, like a healthy classroom, there is room for "in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in both charity." In other words, for catholicity. It takes students a while to get a sense for how this works, so be patient. Someday every tribe and tongue and nation will gather around a common throne and sing, and we will find our voices coming together in polyphonous harmony in a way we cannot imagine. We will need more lessons and a lot of tuning, but we are already learning our parts.
While I already know the melody, I still can't wait to hear the full ensemble!