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Book Review: When Doctrine Divides the People of God by Rhyne Putman

Photo of Jonathan CieckaJonathan Ciecka | Bio

Jonathan Ciecka

Jonathan attends and works at The Experience Community Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he serves as a small group leader and class teacher. He has a B.S. from MTSU in Aerospace with a Professional Pilot concentration. He is best described by his loving and sarcastic wife, Emily, as “eclectic.” His Hawaiian shirt collection, vinyl record collection, book collection, coffee brewing methods collection, and ever-present memo pad all testify to this. His passion, besides Billy Joel, Clint Eastwood, and hand brewed coffee, is relational discipling and expository teaching.

Editor’s note: At, we have a way of organizing the various elements/doctrines of Christianity into the categories of “essential,” “important,” and “personal.” (See Chad Ragsdale’s book in the Real Life Theology series called Christian Convictions for an explanation of these categories.) While the book being reviewed here offers a different way of organizing Christian doctrines, there are helpful points made in the book. 

God is perfect. We are not. These two statements form the thesis of Rhyne Putman’s When Doctrine Divides the People of God. We are fallen people interpreting an infallible text: the Bible. This dissonance between a perfect author and imperfect interpreters leads to two questions: Why are interpreters differently imperfect, and what do we do about it?

Putman begins his book by distinguishing between permissible interpretative shortcomings and impermissible deficiencies. Reader-centered postmodernism is the unforgivable sin with which Putman seems most concerned. If the interpreter is a rifleman firing at Putman’s paper target of hermeneutical validity, seeking the author’s intent in the Protestant canon is at least on the target, and reader-centered interpretations are off the board that holds the target and into the neighbor’s farm.

But even those who hit the target can end up in different places.

A Presbyterian can see loud support for pedobaptism (infant baptism) in the same book a Baptist can see a condemnation of anything other than credobaptism (believer’s baptism). So how do we account for those with the same aim and the same text but different conclusions?

Putman explores several different factors that vary among evangelicals, including logic, emotional dispositions, and unconscious biases. He draws mainly from psychological research, particularly Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, to frame the expedition into evangelical infighting. Among Haidt’s observations are that moral reasoning typically comes after (and attempts to justify) an instinctive “gut feeling.” Putman engages with this and other “Neo-Darwinist” assumptions in an evangelical context.

After navigating the murky waters of how to decide who’s probably right in a given argument, Putman asks a more foundational question than “who’s right”: What’s worth arguing over in the first place?

In the spectrum between “everything must be this way” and “everything can be any way,” there are taxonomies of doctrine. Some things are more important than others. But what are those things? How much more important are they? The important topics have, in recent history, been dubbed “gospel issues.” Putman gives an overview of what a gospel issue is, or at least what topics have been called gospel issues. If we can decide what the gospel is, we should have a good grasp on what’s the most important.

But how do we deal with the differences that aren’t the most important?

I have never been very good at living with roommates. If the dishes aren’t cleaned the way I clean them, then they aren’t clean. It’s not done the way I think it should be, so it can’t be right. How can I share a catholic (universal) Church with someone who says you should wait until adulthood to be baptized? Worse yet, what if they were in my local church? Putman closes his book by drawing principles from the restored friendship of George Whitefield and John Wesley.

Essentially, the bonds of the Christian family must be stronger in us than our commitment to lower-order (non-gospel) issues.

If I could revise any portion of Putman’s work, it would be the section discerning who’s most likely right in a given argument.

To his credit, he displays the principles of Bryan Frances’ “better position” question excellently. Essentially, who’s in a better position to answer this question? Who has spent more time in this field of study? Who’s more skilled in the tools of investigation? Who had better investigation circumstances (i.e., were you able to focus, or were there kids screaming next to your office)? If they have more time, ability, background knowledge, and better circumstances, they’re probably right.

Frances and Putman refer to this “probably right” person as the epistemic superior and the “probably not right” person as the epistemic inferior. If both parties are equally qualified, they are epistemic peers, and the solution is to call it a draw. What Putman doesn’t seem to deal with sufficiently is the actual content of an argument. It could be he believes to have made that a non-issue (in the context of this book) by showing how fundamentally different our starting points are before an argument even starts. But if there is an argument going on, the argument itself needs to be dealt with.

We can’t default to expertise at the expense of analyzing the actual content of an argument.

To encourage Putman in his strengths, his crime scene analogy in “We Reason Differently” is greatly helpful.

Perhaps even more so than he realizes. The Bible comes to us “dead.” Not dead in the sense that it is useless but dead in the sense that Antonin Scalia (a constitutional originalist) declared the Constitution to be “dead, dead, dead.” Its meaning is fixed, having been determined by the authors who wrote it. Now the cadaver comes to us on the silver platter of the autopsy table, waiting to be cut open and investigated.

Even after all our investigation, though, there still remains the jury to convince. Arguments need to be presented to a jury of our peers (perhaps even our epistemic superiors). Perhaps the only place the analogy breaks down is that hung juries don’t get to call it a draw. There’s always a retrial and a new jury.

Then again, maybe that’s not so far off. We’re always bringing the same Bible before the court of the Church, asking the same questions of the same text at different times. The only question remaining is: can we live with our fellow jurors?

We can’t default to expertise at the expense of analyzing the actual content of an argument.