I am convinced there are some theological issues which, no matter what view we hold, we’re wrong. These are also, not coincidentally, among the issues where we have the strongest convictions or opinions. For quite a while now, I’ve been making my way through Three Views on the Millenium and Beyond, a book offering a basic defense and critique of three prominent eschatological positions:
I find the debate between the contributors—Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., Robert B. Strimple, and Craig A. Blaising—fascinating because the distinctions are often based on details the average layperson might miss. The tense or range of meaning of a word in the original language, and that sort of thing. But however subtle the distinctions might seem, they do matter. At the same time, I’m thrilled about how much the various positions actually do agree, and on what points. All, for example, agree on the end point: the literal, physical return of Christ, and that his coming will bring God’s redemptive work to its conclusion (even if they disagree on how long that will take).
I think these sorts of books—volumes that compare and contrast viewpoints—are more essential than ever. Culturally, we’re rapidly losing our ability to engage in debate, to say nothing of offering thoughtful critique.1 These are skills we need to relearn, especially as Christians. There are some issues about which we must draw clear lines, obviously. But there are many others that, while important, we have the freedom to agree to disagree.2
So how do we do this? How do we agree to disagree on important, but not essential, matters? Let me offer four suggestions:
“Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). Paul wrote to the Roman church encouraging them to pursue unity, refusing to judge one another based on their convictions about observing festivals, eating and drinking, and so forth. But in doing so, he didn’t simply say, “Let’s all try to get along.” He first said each must be fully convinced in their own minds. In other words, they had to have a conviction about something before they could disagree on it. The same is true for us in our day, not just on eschatology, but on many other social and theological issues. Be convinced what you believe is right. Know what you believe and why (which requires us to do our homework).
Acknowledge the lack of consensus. When it comes to eschatology, there has never been a clear consensus among God’s people. Some of the most brilliant theological minds in history have disagreed on this. Clement’s view was not Augustine’s view was not Luther’s view was not Lloyd-Jones’ view was not Carson’s view, and so on. Moving beyond a theological issue to a social one like poverty alleviation, we can’t even come to a clear consensus on how best to help those in need, beyond general agreement on the importance of education. But the “how” is where we get tricked up. Many great organizations are tackling the same problem from different perspectives, each confident that their way is the best way—but those ways aren’t always the same.
Recognize the possibility we might be wrong. The Word of God is perfect, but our understanding of it is not. Because we have limited knowledge and intellectual abilities, we’re going to get something wrong when we study it. The same is true for our understanding of many social issues. We should be convinced in our own minds, but that doesn’t mean we’re right. We should be willing to ask the question, “What if we’re wrong?”
Listen humbly. Even if we remain unconvinced, we would be wise to give those with whom we (probably) disagree a fair hearing. We might not change our view, or we might become more convinced we’re correct. But if we try to understand a different point of view, we can engage far more charitably.