There are a diversity of doctrinal views and thoughts about the nature of God that Christians have throughout the Church. The Catholic Church was pretty much the existing Church presence in the world prior to the Protestant Reformation. During this time there was consistency of Biblical interpretation because the interpretation was that which was set forth by the papal authority. Only those in leadership read the Bible, the rest of the people were told by them what it said and how it was to be interpreted. That’s just the way things were done in those days until a new idea came along that seemed good to put into practice.
With the onset of the Reformation throughout the Western world a new perspective emerged that people can and should read the Bible for themselves. The Gospel was written to all people and should be accessible by all. This unveiling of the Bible opened the door for it to be published in the common vernacular and studied by anyone and everyone irrespective of religious training by papal authority. However, this idea created the question of who has the authority then to claim to have an accurate interpretation. If the Church leadership doesn’t decide that for everyone else and everyone has individual responsibility to understand the Bible themselves what then shall be considered a correct reading of Scripture?
Due to this new freedom divisions began to take place between groups who interpreted Scripture differently. Even though there was a shared core value of what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” between the groups (Catholic and Protestant) they still aligned based on their differences instead of their similarities. This gives the erroneous appearance that the differences are so contrary that no one really can nail down anything true and consistent. When in reality there is more agreement than disagreement. When people align based on what they are against or based on one difference that difference becomes larger than life and seems insurmountable. People looking from the outside in often only see the diversity devoid of unity and think these people claim to have truth and yet all they have is disagreements between themselves. How can people see that there is truth here when we do not even seem to be able to articulate it in unity?
The Church is rapidly changing in form to move away from the disconnectedness of doctrinal disagreement to the continuity of value agreement. Vast numbers of Christians are now seeing that it is okay not to have neat codified interpretations on all matters of doctrine about God. We know in part and we cannot know that our view of a particularity is concretely true, it is mostly likely partly true, but there is most likely much more to it than our view of it. It is quiet likely that the Christians down the street have a different take on that particularity and bring a much needed addition to the perspective of the other group. The Church in the world is now seeing value in the variety of perspectives and not using these differences to create schisms, but uniting based on shared experiences and values in the Lord. This is creating a fluid Church with great freedom to not need to know it all and just take each day at a time in learning about the Lord and not turning current knowledge into rigid absolutes that cannot be altered by new revelation.
When I am asked by what authority I choose one way of looking at a particular topic versus the other ideas that are out there, I can only say that I know in part and I welcome the other parts and I will add to my perspective what I learn along the way and I could be adding wrong things sometimes. When an error becomes obvious to me, I let it go and replace it and move on. Then something else may change in my thinking and I’ll meet that when that comes. I only know in a small part and I try not to hold on to that so tightly that it can’t change with new understanding.
The Church as a whole is rapidly moving into a more experienced based identity than a doctrinal identity. While theology has its merits – one can know the Bible inside and out and have not experienced the truth of it. What good is such knowledge if it isn’t able to be experienced as true? If you can’t know God like you can know your good friend, what good is intellectual knowledge about Him? If He isn’t invading life with His reality and making real His identity then the Church has nothing to say to the world and only offers an empty shell of a religion.
Sociologist Harvey Cox published the well known book The Secular City in 1965 arguing that religion was fading away to be replaced with secularism that is here to stay. Then twenty years later, he wrote Religion in the Secular City arguing that “religion is and would continue to be a significant force in society.” Then in 1995 he published Fire from Heaven proclaiming that the Pentecostal form of Christianity has swept the world and would far surpass the cultural rise of secularism to pervade modern culture. Pentecostalism is any form of Christianity that is experiential believing that God is showing up in the lives of people today with miracles of healing, signs and wonders, tongues, prophesy, etc. Billions of Christians attest to these experiences and are counted amongst Pentecostals. This term is no longer being associated with a particular denomination, but a larger inter-denominational and post-denominational movement that has been sweeping through the Church since 1906. In recent times it has been gaining momentum to the extent that some hail it a New Reformation, even though church historians see it as an extension of the existing Reformation rather than a separate movement.
The point is that the Church is changing from absolutist doctrinal mentality of modernism to a fluid freedom that allows for ambiguity and flexibility on doctrines and embraces each person experiencing God for themselves directly rather than solely indirectly through learning information about Him. The church down the street might have different doctrinal ideas, but we are all experiencing the same Jesus and on this we agree and have life and community regardless of different ideas.