Words Get in the Way: On Doctrinal Divisions/Distinctions

“Why can’t we all just love Jesus and get along,” is a rhetorical question with deep roots nourished by practical realities.

“Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3 KJV)
(Seriously? On everything?!)
“If two people agree on everything, one of them isn’t necessary.” (A line I heard attributed to Ruth Bell Graham, Billy’s wife, in speaking of their exemplary lifetime partnership. I realize that Ruth Graham is not canon, but almost!)

When two true statements seem to oppose each other, the limits of language may be more at fault than the idea or reality we are trying to convey. Over the years I’ve witnessed many a church “break-up,” traceable certainly-not-always-but-unfortunately-quite-often to this conundrum.

Explaining the Unexplainable

Doctrinal systems customarily draw specific boundaries outside of which their teaching on this subject or that will not venture. Each doctrine is positioned along a false continuum which, in the case I was writing about, has reason at one end and experience at the other. Another is the re-emerging Luther-ian wrestling with the ratio of works to grace. In fact, most are co-occurring dimensions, interactive domains, rather than separate hemispheres divided at the center resulting in opposite poles.

Such divisions come from our attempts to explain to and for one another the unexplainable. Our understanding is limited because we insist on confining God’s ways and thoughts to the constraints of our own. We feel safely balanced, when our brains can organize information affording us a comfy degree of perceived control. If we subscribe to the idea that we are created beings, is it not laughable to presume full comprehension of the dynamic methodologies of a Creator, one whose specialty is “confounding [even] the [theologically] wise?”

Wiggle Room

“Heresy!” you protest. “Paul insists on sound doctrine!”
Indeed, he does.
But is it heresy to leave wiggle room in our explanations of a Divine Other of whom it is said, “…How impossible it is for us to understand his…ways!” (Rom. 11:33 NLT)? The kind of wiggle room that led Narnia’s Mr. Beaver to declare to Lucy that while Aslan isn’t safe, he is good?

I recently read a writer who pushed back against this timeless quote from Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, citing that “not safe” is anathema for victims of violence–an illustration with limits, a misrepresentation of God. Assuming one views the work as Christian allegory, hers is the perfect case in point. Even the world’s most brilliant minds have trouble fully and clearly articulating spiritual realities. The best possibilities seem to lie in artistic depictions;  abstractions which are reflective rather than representative of Mystery, and also have inherent but fewer limitations. Talking to Nicodemus, a member of the religious ruling class of his day, Jesus characterized this describing the dynamics of the Spirit as trying to catch the wind.


Still we try. For, paradoxically, communication by word, reason, intellect, mental rigor, is one of the great gifts of our humanity. However any tool is at its best when used with respect to its limitations, in this case to its also-inherent humanity. This means that our effort will likely accomplish many good things, but it will still not explain the unexplainable. When our attempts result in polarization, it might be well to consider this from Tensions, by H.A. Williams:

…Truth is dynamic…it will never sit still and stay where it is, but is always on the move, not getting ever fuller and more comprehensive so that our knowledge of the Eternal is more accurate, deeper and more complete than that of our forefathers [or contemporaries], but dancing about, shedding light first in this place, then in that, then in the other. Truth for us is like a spotlight, not a floodlight.”


Does this negate the good practice of finding and planting oneself in a specific community of faith, whose thoughts and practices have distinct emphases and preferences? Certainly not. This wisdom, however, challenges me:

  • To approach others with humility
  • To listen better
  • To conclude more slowly
  • To recognize that the spotlight may be shining for one in an area not yet or already illumiated for me.
  • To hold my own view, my own thoughtful theological variations, lightly, with open hands and heart

Because “…now we see through a glass darkly…”

But until then…Love. 1 Corinthians 13.



BONUS: Made me smile, makes the point. 

(Gloria Estefan-Words Get In the Way 1987)

COMMENT: (Under post title) Can you see yourself laying aside all the words between you and simply letting yourself experience being loved by God? What role does language play in your relationship to God and others?




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