We have spent several weeks looking at sources for doing theology. That was time well spent, because if we do not understand the sources of theology, our efforts to do it will be a waste. We saw that there are four sources. The primary, and thus most important, source is the divinely inspired Bible. And three other important, but secondary, sources are tradition, experience and reason.
Now we are ready to move from the sources of doing theology to the question of why there are divisions in Christian thought among Christians. In an earlier essay I defined theology as “disciplined reasoning about God.” But as you know, in popular usage the term is understood more broadly as reasoning about any biblical doctrine. But those definitions do not tell the whole story. There are many differences, or divisions, in Christian thought, which is why we have differing theologies. In order to understand these differences, we must ask what theological reasoning is and how it results in these differing ideas.
I believe the answers to these questions will come into view, if we look at what I call the “Basis of Divisions in Christian Thought.” The first important factor in divisions in Christian thought is personal experience. Every Christian, when converted, experiences a relationship with the one Christ. That is to say, every person who truly “knows” Christ as Savior and Lord knows the same Christ. All are unified in Him. There is no separation at that level.
However, as soon as we begin to share our personal experiences verbally, differences between us immediately emerge. Some people have what we might call a mystical experience. For example, one might describe the experience as an inner light that began as a tiny glow deep down inside, but which grew in size and warmth, until overwhelmed by the warmth of the light of Christ the person accepted Christ as Lord.
Others have an experience more like Paul’s on the Damascus road. That is, their experience felt like the “props” were knocked out from under them, and they felt humbled and ashamed. The experience resulted in a drastic turn-a-round in their lives. In other words, they had a dramatic conversion experience that was very different from the mystics in the first group.
Still others have come into the kingdom gently while a child. They know in their hearts that they are genuinely saved, but they have no memory of the day when the decision was made.
All of these experiences are legitimate ways to become a Christian. And as soon as the Christians who have had these diverse experiences begin to explain what happened to them, differences in their theological thinking become evident. Therefore, although all Christians are united in the same Christ, our individual experiences influence how we think about God and cause us to think differently.
A second important factor in the divisions of Christian thought is the matter of philosophical presuppositions. The truth is, different people (and different groups of people, including groups of Christians, view the world differently.
This means that the different groups will have different mental frameworks for both their experiences and their explanations of those experiences. In other words, not all Christians have the same philosophical presuppositions.
Now, by “philosophical presuppositions” I mean those ideas (that everyone has), which one presupposes when thinking about other matters. To use an extreme example, the difference in thinking about God between a Christian and an atheist is tremendous, because of a fundamental difference of presupposition about God.
The Christian, who is a theist, presupposes (that is, assumes) the existence of God; and that colors everything the Christian has to say about God. The atheist, on the other hand, presupposes that there is no God; and obviously that atheist has to explain everything in totally different terms from the Christian.
Another example (within the Christian family) is the fact that orthodox Christians presuppose that God can and does interfere with his creation. That is, we believe that God works miracles. But liberal Christians do not believe that. Thus it is inevitable that there will be differences of opinion among various groups of Christians, when those groups have differing presuppositions.
A third important factor that accounts for divisions in Christian thought is one that follows naturally from differing presuppositions. On the basis of our presuppositions we make certain decisions about the meaning of theological language that is found in the Bible.
Since Christians generally consider the Bible to be authoritative to one degree or another, we all work with the same theological language. In other words, the biblical words and concepts used by all Christians generally are the same. We all speak of sin and grace, justification and sanctification, God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, and other biblical theological terms. But each of these terms and concepts is defined and discussed in light of the presuppositions of each group. This results in different definitions of the terms and concepts.
Once we have our terms and concepts defined according to our group’s understanding, we reflect theologically on them; and then we begin to formulate our larger systems of theology. This brings us to the level of Systematic Theology. In systematic theology theologians arrange all of the Christian doctrines into a “system” of theology that has been worked out according to the philosophical presuppositions and decisions of their particular group.
At this stage of the process, we easily can see the differences in theology between the four major groups that we have identified: Liberal Protestant, Roman Catholic, Reformed and Wesleyan.
Denominationally speaking, Liberal Protestantism has no particular denominations, though many of the so-called mainline denominations are controlled by liberal churchmen and scholars. Of course the Roman Catholics are easily identified.
There is more diversity in the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions. The denominations that you will find in the Reformed tradition are those that have Presbyterian or Reformed in their names. Also many of the churches with the term “Congregational” as part of their name, and most Baptists, would fall in that category. Among the Wesleyans you will find denominations such as United Methodists, Nazarenes, Free Methodists, Wesleyans, Salvation Army, some Baptists, and others.