However correct doctrine is important. Right beliefs are more likely to lead to good consequences and wrong beliefs to bad ones. Wrong doctrine can damage one's, or someone else's, faith in the short and long term.
In terms of doctrinal differences an obvious split is the conservative/ liberal divide. Given that many liberals don't believe in the resurrection or even claim to follow Jesus as a person (as opposed to his convenient teachings) it is unlikely they are even Christian and this is not what wish to address. Also the conservative/ liberal divide is represents a collection of beliefs rather than specific doctrines; the Catholic/ Protestant/ Orthodox difference is similar example of collections of beliefs. While beliefs may fall into more "natural" groupings I would like to look at the example of specific doctrines.
These doctrines may be mutually exclusive, they may not; they may be dichotomous or there may be several competing theories. Some examples are
- Young Earth Creationism/ Old Earth Creationism/ Theistic Evolution
- Calvinism/ Arminianism
- Believer baptism/ paedobaptism
- Pentecostalism/ Cessationism
- Futurism/ Preterism/ Historicism
- Eternal Security/ Apostasy
- Leadership confined to men/ open to women
- Dispensationalism/ Covenant theology
For starters many Christians adopt a lot of what they have been taught and may not have considered the alternatives. However many Christians have thought thru at least some of these thoroughly. And while all these beliefs may have some basis in Scripture they are different enough that it is likely that one side is predominantly correct and the other is not. The supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit thru individuals either ceased at the completion of the Apostolic Age or it didn't, Cessationists and Pentecostals cannot both be right. The earth is thousands of years old or billions. Conversely, eschatology may have elements of preterism and futurism but there may still be conflicts, the 1000 years Satan is bound is literal or not literal; it could be both literal and figurative having a double meaning, in which case those who insist it does not have a literal meaning would be incorrect.
I wonder whether the answer lies in what we bring to the Bible. I realise that we all have our suppositions and we need to be able to read (or speak) to understand what is taught. We also bring elements of our cultural background and even if we are aware of this it can still be difficult to see from outside one's culture. But there are 2 things we bring which we should be far more careful with. These are logic and experience.
This may seem surprising coming from someone who thinks most people are not logical enough. Someone whose hermeneutical method is to find a solution that allows all passages to be true. Someone who thinks the (operational) scientific method is valid and should affect peoples decisions more. The problem is that we are fallen.
Logical principles are important in reading the Bible. Being fallen we need to realise that we still bring many assumptions, often un-Biblical assumptions, and there is the rub. So when we reach a conclusion from Scripture plus our reasoning of this Scripture we need to compare that conclusion to other Scripture. And if our conclusion contradicts Scripture we need to strongly consider the assumptions in our logical process.
We experience our Christian life in a certain manner. When this does not seem to match the Bible we ask whether the Bible really means what it seems to say. Now it is okay to ask these questions, and there may be times that new information on koine Greek or ancient Hebrew or new manuscripts may change what a particular verse means, but we must remember we are bringing our experience to the Bible; and in doing so we must be very cautious if we seek an interpretation that fits our experience. The reason for this is that we are more likely to think this interpretation to be true by virtue of it conforming to how we think the world works. Our fallen natures would rather alter the Bible than allow the Bible to alter us.
How can we avoid this and come to true belief? I think there are several things we can do.
- Be aware of our presuppositions
- Remember we are fallen
- Be cautious about favouring positions that conform to our experience
- Have a hermaneutic method that attempts to be honest with every passage that touchs on a subject
- Be familiar with the entirety of the Bible
- Ask the Holy Spirit to guide us into truth
If you are a staunch Arminian are you prepared to become an Calvinist? If you are a futurist are you prepared to drop some aspects of this in favour of preterism? If you are not, the Holy Spirit may still choose to convince you otherwise. But he may not, and he leave you in your (willful) wrong belief for a time and that may have negative consequences—belief has real consequences.
Right belief is important, but Christianity is firstly about following Christ. If you do that with all your heart he will show you what to believe and more importantly, what he wants you to do!