|It happens. Two people reading the same bible with comparable faiths come to different doctrinal conclusions. One is an Arminian, the other a Calvinist.
Both may admire the genuine faith, the gifting and the ministry of the other but each marvels that an otherwise faithful servant of The Lord can hold to doctrine that seems to paint the God of the scriptures in radically different ways - and neither seems willing to entertain the other's vision of God as accurate.
As a Calvinist you may expect me at this point to painstakingly demonstrate that the Arminian is wrong on all points, even as you may have expected me to do the reverse had I been an Arminian. Calvinists and Arminians have been engaged in this sort of back-and-forth criticism of one another for centuries.
Today's post isn't about who is right. It is about the nature of the differences. Both parties read the scriptures in earnest and both parties draw their soteriology (the doctrine that explains how God saves us) from the same scriptures. Why then are otherwise identically earnest Christians coming to a profoundly different understanding of how God saves people?
The answer cannot be blamed on the scriptures, though I strongly suspect that the more interpretive a translation is, the more likely an earnest reader is to follow the translator's interpretation on a matter than that person would have been had he not been spoonfed another person's bias. This is especially worrisome when the translation presents such interpretation without informing the reader that the text they are providing is based upon the scriptures, but in some places (keyed to the doctrinal opinions of the translators) the actual word of God is glossed over by a phrase that the translator feels captures what God was trying to say better than the Holy Spirit did When He inspired the text.
I say therefore that the person who favors the least literal translations will likely find more doctrinal disagreements among those who favor the most literal translations. I myself prefer the most literal translations, and cringe when a person quotes from five different translations in the same sermon or article. It strikes me that with enough interpretive translations a person may pick and choose the meaning of a text that most agrees with his own opinion about what he wants the text to say.
So there is that - but it isn't necessarily the reason for such doctrinal differences. No the main reason seems to be how one comes to have an image of God.
Imagine two renaissance painters painting a picture of Jesus. One imagines that Jesus as being perfect because he was Jesus, and paints Jesus as the idealic (according to renaissance standards) man, long, thick, dark blonde hair, kind and intelligent blue eyes, a noble handsome face with a stylishly trimmed but entirely manly beard. This Jesus is the center of the picture, just a handsome face looking up as if in prayer with a sort of glow around Him to accentuate His divine origin. The other paints a sad but hearty Jewish looking man, depicting The Lord not in a portrait, but in the very act of service - washing the feet of other Jewish men who looked, depending on the face, either indifferent (Judas?), or maybe indignant on Christ's behalf (Peter?) or confused an awkward (the rest?) - but the face of Christ in the painting is only partially visible - enough to see Him for a Jew, and to see both the concern of love and an underlying sorrow in His features but not enough to make out a full countenance, and this because the painter did not want the focus to be the imagined physical features of Christ, but on the character of Christ's person as portrayed in His ministry.
Imagine again the first couple of months in a relationship with someone you had a crush on. At first the person seems perfect in every way, but as you come to actually know that person, the illusion of perfection gives way, piece by piece to the reality of that person's actual personality, such that in a few months the "crush" is over, and the person may seem suddenly less interesting - do much so that some who do not understand how this works assume that the other person "changed".
How a person forms their original image of God can have a huge effect on their soteriology. Just as the two painters painted radically different images of Christ, so two Christians can have radically different images if God - long before they ever pick up a bible and read it earnestly. Many children inherit their parent's image of God, and many children filter the character of God through the examples of those who have been the primary authority in their early life (typically their own father). When most of us read the bible for ourselves we already have an opinion of what God is like, so we are just adjusting our opinion as needed when something in the word disagrees with the opinion we already have.
Second-hand descriptions of God abound, such that the original image we have of God is inescapably flawed, having been formed from the soupy patchwork of opinions and experiences that make up our own lives. It is the work of the scriptures to overcome these opinions with the actual image of God, but some of our opinions are so deep and profound, that we read them back into the scriptures rather than abandon them - and this we do unaware that we are doing it.
A man who believes that life is sacred apart from what the scriptures say, cannot imagine God taking the life of anyone because that would be evil and not good, and God is good. He has a presumption and rather than abandon it, he defines God by it. A man who is convinced that if you give a gift to one undeserving man you are obligated to give the same gift to other equally undeserving men because that is only "fair" may impose this same rule of fairness upon God, and conclude that God must try and save everyone or He isn't being "fair" etc.
Anytime a person interprets the God if the scriptures through the lens of some worldly moral, their image of God, and their subsequent understanding of What Gid is doing will necessarily be skewed by their having exalted worldly wisdom above the wisdom of God.
It is my opinion that a wrong opinion about who God is will always lead to a wrong opinion about what God is doing - hence soteriological differences vary according to the extent to which one uses worldly (moral) opinions as a filter through which the scriptures are understood.
They read the same bibles, but are seeing the God their predispositions demand.
It is therefore important for every Christian to understand what has influenced their opinions of good and evil (hint: humanism, relativity, tolerance, ideas about fairness, what love is, etc.) moreso if one has taken the mantle if a teacher since his or her errors will be multiplied in those who fall under that one's influence.
Calvinists and Arminians worship the same God, but they do not see the same character in God insofar as God's character is either being defined by the scriptures to the hurt of all worldly philosophies, or God's character is being defined by worldly philosophies to the hurt of the scriptures.
Each loves the image of God they find in the scriptures, but they are not the same image.
Having said that, both parties will believe that it is the other party whose image is flawed. In truth it is difficult work plumbing the depth of your own deepest presumptions. Most of us are satisfied to think that we are intelligent and honest enough that we would never knowing worship a flawed image of God. But I expect that even the best of us worships an image of God that could stand correction.
I am not embittered by the willful blindness of anyone else since, being fallible myself, I anticipate some flaws in my own understanding of God - though I strive to eliminate such flaws and endeavor to receive correction and instruction whenever I can. Yet it pleases God to accept imperfect worship in those who worship Him through the perfect person of His Son, Jesus Christ.
If you find yourself at odds with another believer, try to remember that we are all imperfectly worshipping God in our selves, but that this imperfect human worship is made perfect for us in Christ - for all of us who are in Christ.
That isn't to say that we shouldn't let iron sharpen iron (i.e that we should ignore what we believe to be error in one another). We should do all in our power to identify and correct bad doctrine, but we must be aware that doctrinal error almost always flows from worldly philosophy.
For this reason I am convinced that we do better to discuss how worldly philosophy infiltrates the church than to focus on the fruit of that infiltration. Why do I believe God is thus way and not that way, and why do you believe the opposite?
Not everyone will be Berean in the matter, but some will be. Don't make the mistake, as some do, of assuming that a person is being willfully ignorant - that'll just make you bitter, and cause you to form (and likely share) a bad opinion of that person. Regard this as the planting of truth that only The Lord can water and grow. Love the saints, pray for them, and tremble at the knowledge that you too have room for improvement. Have your heart set on God's glory and the live that God has for such as these and you will do better than you would have had you skipped that step in your heart.
There will be doctrinal differences amongst genuine Christians for as long as the enemy is with us, spewing out worldly philosophies and morals which inundate us from the cradle to our grave - through television, the school system, print, and the Internet; so it will continue until Christ returns.