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A Merciful Dissonance

The Guest Viewpoint by Jerry Andrews and reply by Robert Bullock and me offers a poignant example of Christian friends engaging each other -- reluctantly -- in disagreement. What are we to make theologically of this fact: that disagreement seems to be a permanent mode of the church's existence?

There is but one gospel, but at no time in the church’s history, however, has everyone understood that gospel in exactly the same way.

Even at the point of the church’s greatest ecumenical agreement — i.e., in the ancient councils that gave rise to the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ — there were bitter disagreements that persisted for generations. The years of dispute in the Presbyterian Church today are nothing compared to the 400 years it took the early church to hammer out definitions concerning the meaning and significance of Jesus Christ. And even then, from council to council, the pendulum swung back and forth between the party of the Antiochene Word-man christology and that of the Alexandrian Word-flesh christology, with both sides locked in fever-pitch struggle — and yet with both sides making a vital contribution to the solutions the church was finally able to achieve. The Chalcedonian definition that Jesus is genuinely human and genuinely divine is church doctrine, but the language in which the doctrine is couched is a compromise between different theologies in competition. (For a discussion of this, see the eight issues of The Outlook from Nov. 16, 1998, to Jan. 18, 1999).

Still, if the truth of the gospel is the guiding light of the church — which I believe it is — then why is it that we perceive the fullness of that light, as Paul so memorably put it, “as through a mirror dimly”?
(1 Corinthians 13:12). Why do we not yet see things face-to-face? One answer is that we are finite. Yet since God embraced our finitude in Jesus Christ, it is not enough to attribute our differences to finitude. Another explanation of why we have differences is that we are sinners. True enough, but that by itself doesn’t explain what is going on when people of obvious good will happen to differ.

Lately I have taken comfort in knowing that truth itself comes packaged, so to speak, in complexity. It is not just that there are differences between us, but truth itself is embodied in those very differences. Let me cite just one example. Christianity is nothing if it is not a weaving together of two sometimes discordant ways of thinking — the Hebrew and the Greek — into one complex vocabulary of grace.

Although there is no single Greek way of thinking, when compared to the Hebrew the Greek draws its life from the Word understood as logos, with its connotation of a rational structure that is stable and logical, a structure that can be visualized completely to the mind’s eye. Presbyterian ministers know that Greek can be a very difficult language at first. Yet once the overall structure is grasped, a fuller mastery is within one’s reach. As Emmanuel Levinas tells it, Greek thinking is like the journey of Ulysses, who departs from Ithaca on wild adventures, only eventually to return to his place of origin — to the familiar place of hearth and home. It leaves in order to return to where it started.

The Hebrew, on the other hand, plots the course of life not as a predictable odyssey but an Abrahamic wager, a venturing forth into the unknown. Abraham must set out in response to God’s summons and follow a winding path to a place he knows not. In its earliest forms Hebrew thinking adopts an approach to life that cares nothing for speculation but seeks only to know the one thing needful. The Hebrew language, in contrast to the Greek, lives by the Word understood as dabhar, with its intimation of dynamic action and divine command, an event that must be experienced, heard and grappled with, like Jacob wrestling the angel at the River Jabbok. As languages go, most ministers find that Hebrew is quite a bit easier to learn in the beginning, but one can study it for years and never master it. Hebrew is the language of the divine breath that blows where it will.

So then, what was God thinking in stitching together these two threads, so disparate in character, in order to create the single fabric of mercy that constitutes the gospel? What does it reveal to us about God when the very vocabulary in which revelation is given is one of such dazzling complexity?

Think about it. In the days of his flesh, Jesus of Nazareth — fully human, fully divine — is steeped in the Hebrew worldview and declares his message in Aramaic. Yet it is into a foreign tongue — Greek — that his life and message have been translated and distributed to the world. Even at the level of the language in which it is couched, in other words, the gospel is a reaching out to embrace the Other.

The gospel reaches out to incorporate the Gentile world into God’s covenant with the Hebrew people. Then that same covenant is reiterated in a strange new tongue with a remarkable result: a wandering, sojourning people on the fringe of the Roman Empire become the center of salvation. And those who had once formed the center of power and might were then, themselves, sent out into the world as sojourners — sent on a mission newly received from the God of Israel.

I am not claiming that either the Greek or the Hebrew perspectives are monolithic; nor that every controversy in the church is reducible to the interplay I have just described; nor that in the current disagreements perplexing the church one side is more Hebraic and the other more Hellenic. Each of us thinks things through with a strange mix of logic and spirit, of risk and of seeking the safe haven of home.

My point is this. By faith we must trust that our symphony of discord is under the direction of a divine composer, who from the very coming together of our difference and dissonance can set the stage for movements of sublime harmonic invention. God redeems us not despite our dissonant differences but through them — in the very midst of them.


William Stacy Johnson is the Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary.