Perspectives vs. Positions of the Church

Monday, May 15th, 2017

It is important to keep sorted out the difference between a perspective and a position as it relates to theological matters. Today, the word perspective has slowly advanced over the linguistic landscape until almost everything in Christianity is referred to regularly as a perspective. However, the word perspective should be carefully reserved for matters of legitimate differences within the church. For example, churches really do have different perspectives on the sacrament of baptism. A covenantal view, for example, embraces infant baptism and has a series of theological arguments to support it. In contrast, a confessional view of baptism rejects infant baptism, insisting on the public confession of a believer. This view also has theological arguments to support it. Historically, the church has not found common ground on every aspect of baptism. Similar examples could be cited related to forms of church government, the relationship of tongue-speaking to Spirit baptism, or views on the millennium. On all these matters, the church sees this or that issue from differing theological perspectives.

The word position, on the other hand, refers to matters where the church has historically spoken with a single voice. The church could never accept a situation where one wing of the church believed that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the grave, while another wing of the church believed that he merely rose symbolically in the preaching of the Apostles. Rudolph Bultmann may have believed that, but the church of Jesus Christ throughout time and history has never accepted that. The church would never accept such differing perspectives on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, the church has a position regarding the Resurrection; namely, Jesus of Nazareth bodily rose from the dead. Period. This is not a point of discussion. There are many things in this category such as the Christian prohibition against lying, the virgin birth of Jesus, or the deity of the Holy Spirit. On these things the church has spoken with a single voice.

There are, of course, endless examples of clever people who rise up from time to time and challenge core doctrines of the Christian faith. They inevitably create a big stir, sell a lot of books. Our mind quickly goes to such books as Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code or John Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change. When books like these appear and become best sellers, a whole sector of Christians get weak at the knees and starts telling the church that we should be ashamed of ourselves for believing this or that historic doctrine. We are told that we are “on the wrong side of history” and we should “get with the times.” We are, in particular, reminded that young people will never believe historic Christian doctrines, so the church had better adapt to the future realities now, or the church will go the way of the Dodo bird. Of course, these challenges always blow over, whether it be Gnosticism, Arianism, Constantinianism, Protestant revisionism, popular evangelical reductionism or the new atheism. They raise their ugly head for a season, but the glorious truth of the gospel has this habit of reasserting its power and glory into a broken world. Certain denominations hold to the new “gospel of John Spong” and within a few generations that church disappears and new vibrant expressions of the gospel re-emerge in other sectors and tens of thousands hear the gospel afresh and the gospel is renewed once again.

We are now in the midst of a half dozen or more new waves which are washing over the church. We are, of course, told that our differing views are merely matters of perspective. So, they argue, “let’s just agree to disagree.” We should make sure that we are on “the right side of history” and recast a gospel which is acceptable to the millennial generation, and so forth. We have heard this song so many times, even if the tune is slightly different each go around. However, this is a category error. We cannot pretend that an historic Christian position has somehow become a mere perspective. If your denomination, or my denomination, or any other goes down this route (as so many already have), fear not. God always raises up better hearers of His holy Word. There is no point in getting angry or fearful.

In 1548 after the death of Martin Luther, Charles V called for an imperial diet (major meeting) to finally put to rest this “Luther affair” and to put this whole Reformation thing behind us. However, the Protestants pushed back. They reminded Charles V that they really did believe the great themes of the gospel which the Reformation sought to restore. In the end, it wasn’t about Luther or any other personality. It was the church being the church, even when the whole weight of public opinion and imperial force stood against us. In just a few months we will be remembering the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Perhaps we should start preparing our own theses to nail on church doors across this nation.

Comments

  • I am one of those ugly heads you deride.(Which reveals your perspective.) I agree with your point that perspective and position are not the same but I think your definition of position is too limiting. In studying Church history, there has never been one church voice but one perspective that prevails for various reasons and becomes church doctrine. In fact, church doctrine, depending on the denomination, has changed throughout history and usually in eras—i.e. Reformation which also had its voices that split and declared their perspectives as positions. I don’t think that the confessional view of baptism would call that a perspective but rather the position adopted by their church. And so it goes.

  • Teddy Ray says:

    What a helpful distinction! Thanks, Dr. Tennent.

    It’s interesting to note that most denominations require that their clergy and churches maintain both orthodox positions and denominationally-approved perspectives. We can have full communion with denominations that teach and practice different perspectives (e.g. covenantal view of baptism, I suppose you’d even have to include exclusion of women from ordination here??) But we wouldn’t have full communion with those who affirm different positions. Those alternate positions are, by the definition you give above, heterodox.

    I don’t know how you meant it, but your reference to “wrong side of history” took my mind immediately to debates over human sexuality, which is where I usually hear that line. Which leads me to wonder… if we put human sexuality in the “positions” category here (and I think there’s much to commend that), will we view all people with a different theology of human sexuality as heterodox––those not to share communion with? And if so, where exactly is that line on the position of human sexuality? I know much of the debate today centers on LGBTQ+ discussions, but it seems that large portions of the church already capitulated to culture decades ago on other points of sexual ethics. And I wonder if the Roman Catholic Church would consider nearly all of us heterodox on this position.

    Those questions are perhaps more than you intended with this post, but it was a helpful prod for me. Thanks.