Q. How can two Christians honestly seeking God’s will come to two contradictory answers to questions about things like the age of the earth or whether women can be pastors?
Followers of Jesus who are people of good will and who have equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures may still come to different conclusions about what the Bible teaches if they have different interpretive presuppositions or if they follow different interpretive methods.
For example, if their presuppositions are that the Bible should be interpreted literally, this may lead them to conclude that the earth is much younger than the scientific consensus suggests. On the other hand, if their presuppositions are that the Bible should be interpreted literarily, this may lead them to believe that an earth that is billions of years old can be accommodated within a belief that God created the world as described in the Bible. (Full disclosure: I am of the latter persuasion, as is clear from various posts on this blog and from all of my other blog Paradigms on Pilgrimage.)
Similarly, if a reader of the Bible believes that the propositional statements within it have universal force, then they may see Paul’s comment to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man,” to be definitive on the question of whether women can be pastors. On the other hand, if a reader of the Bible believes that propositional statements should be understood and interpreted within their historical contexts, they may consider that such statements apply directly only to their original audiences, and that they must be applied to other contexts by inference and analogy. They would be read on a par with narrative and other genres, and not privileged because they are propositional. (Once again in the interests of full disclosure, I should make clear that I personally do not believe there should be any limitations on what women can do within the community of Jesus’ followers, simply because they are women. See the series of posts that begins here.)
So is there any hope that followers of Jesus who hold divergent interpretive presuppositions or who follow different interpretive methods can ever be brought to agree? Stated briefly, yes, I think that can happen. Specifically, I believe that over time our experience of God’s work in our lives and in the lives of others can make us uncomfortable with some of our previous conclusions, and this can challenge us to re-examine the presuppositions and methods that led us to them. In such a case we will ideally realize that it was not so much the Bible itself, but the way we were interpreting it, that led us to these conclusions, and we will continue to look to the Bible as a source of divine instruction, but we will do so in a new way. This has happened to me many times myself, and I’ve seen it happen for many others as well. Once this has happened, we not only come to see some things differently than we did before, we are also more accommodating of others who see things differently than we do now, and we can recognize more common ground between once seemed like contradictory views.
And while all of us are in this process, I think a good motto—found earliest in the writings of Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominis—is: “In essential things, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; in all things, charity.” (And if two interpreters disagree over whether something is essential or uncertain, well, that’s where charity comes in.)