While the traditional elements of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy hold much, if not most, in common—at least doctrinally speaking (reflected in the ancient ecumenical creeds)—individuals within these historic subdivisions of Christendom sometimes give the impression that the three branches are almost completely divided. Correspondingly, when listening to conservative Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists, and Baptists debating theology, the impression may be left that Protestants can agree on virtually nothing.
Yet the truth is that the most significant doctrinal differences within Christendom clearly lie between the theologically liberal (mainline denominations) and theologically conservative (traditional denominations). For example, liberal theology denies such cardinal Christian doctrines as God’s Triune nature, Christ’s divinity, and humankind’s state of original sin, just to name a few. As I see it, the theologically conservative or traditional denominations and branches within Christendom have significant theological agreement, but also have important differences on some critically important doctrinal issues (with arguably the two most important differences being the authoritative relationship of Scripture and tradition and the salvific connection of grace, faith, and works).
As a scholar who cares deeply about both biblical truth as well as historic Christian unity, when I write about and interact with members of other theological traditions within conservative Christendom, I try to promote the virtues of respect, fair-mindedness, and charity.
When I engage in theological evaluation regarding the beliefs and values of another theological tradition (denomination and/or branch of Christendom) within historic Christianity, I attempt to do the five following things to promote both truth and unity within conservative Christendom.
1. Identify Common Ground
I begin my evaluation by reviewing the common and essential theological-doctrinal ground and values that my tradition shares with the other tradition (mere Christianity, creeds, confessional statements, value statements, etc.). Because conservative Christendom shares a significant doctrinal consensus, there is much common ground to consider. As C. S. Lewis rightly notes: “When all is said (and truly said) about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by God’s mercy, an enormous common ground.”1
2. Recognize Positive Features
I intentionally look to identify what strengths the other theological tradition models that my tradition can legitimately learn from and consider emulating. No single Christian denomination or branch of Christendom has a lock on all truth and virtue, so, therefore, Christians of different traditions can readily learn from each other.
3. Fairly Evaluate Differences
I endeavor to accurately represent the beliefs of the other tradition (quoting their most authoritative sources) and seek to render an honest, fair, and charitable evaluation of that position. Because of the deep consensus of historic Christian doctrine, I can usually distinguish between mere differences of theological emphasis and deeper substantive disagreements. For the sake of truth I must diligently compare every tradition’s doctrine in light of Scripture, including my own.
4. Seek, Review, and Response
I seek to invite thoughtful and articulate people within the other tradition to check the accuracy of my evaluation of their system and ask them to offer a response in writing or in a public dialogue and/or debate. The Golden Rule of Apologetics (to endeavor to treat other people’s beliefs the way you want yours treated) means that Christians must seek to accurately and fairly represent the views of others. I usually need help to correctly understand and convey the views of Christians in other traditions.
5. Utilize Christian Context
I seek to offer critiques of other traditions or denominations within a context where all parties are already part of Christendom (that is, I try to avoid criticizing other bodies within historic Christianity when non-Christians are present). Here’s C. S. Lewis’s advice when it comes to discussing or debating topics that are disputed among Christians:
“. . . I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold. So long as we write and talk about them we are much more likely to deter him from entering any Christian communion than to draw him into our own. Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.”2
These five points reflect an effort to follow the Golden Rule of Apologetics when engaged in inter-Christendom apologetics. But in this case these “others” are either fellow Christians or at least members of historic Christendom that deserve respectful and charitable treatment.
This is admittedly a very high bar to meet, and I have not always achieved it personally. It is also possible that in endeavoring to carry out this type of evaluation that others within a different theological tradition may choose to not return the favor in kind. But I remain committed to trying before God to promote truth, respect, fair-mindedness, unity, and charity within historic Christendom.
Reflections: Your Turn
Do you agree that Christians of different theological traditions should not discuss their differences in the presence of non-Christians? Why or why not?
- C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1967), vii.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 6.
For my attempt to provide a truthful and charitable Protestant evangelical evaluation of Roman Catholicism, see these two linked articles:
- “What Think Ye of Rome? (Part One): An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary Catholicism” by Kenneth Samples (article)
- “What Think Ye of Rome? (Part Two): An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary Catholicism” by Kenneth Samples (article)
For my attempt to provide a truthful and charitable Protestant evangelical evaluation of Seventh-day Adventism, see these two linked articles:
- “From Controversy to Crisis: An Updated Assessment of Seventh-day Adventism” by Kenneth Samples (article)
- “Evangelical Reflections on Seventh-day Adventism: Yesterday and Today” by Kenneth Samples (article)