Tolerance has become a fashionable word in ecclesiastical circles these days. It is hailed as being one of the essential Christian virtues without which a Christian’s claim to Christianity becomes a hollow mockery. Intolerance and Christianity are mutually exclusive—so it is said.
Tolerance has also become the password of ecumenicism. It is the foundation upon which can be built imposing ecclesiastical structures which house various denominations of widely divergent doctrinal beliefs. The leaders of ecumenical movements appeal to the need for tolerance in support of the position that, though denominations may disagree, disagreement in doctrine is not good and sufficient reason to remain separate ecclesiastically. In more liberal circles, tolerance is a sufficiently strong force to bring Roman Catholics and Protestants nearer to each other in an effort to heal the breach struck at the time of the Reformation. Tolerance becomes such a powerful force that it is not at all uncommon to find that Protestants can worship with Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and adherents of other pagan religions.
A large number of the ecclesiastical papers which cross my desk have articles dealing directly or obliquely with the question of tolerance. Recently a paper which professes to be Reformed contained one such article. The author cited the appeals made to Scripture in support of Pentecostalism and in opposition to Pentecostalism as being an example of the need for tolerance. He appealed also to the difficult struggle going on among the Missouri Lutherans to bolster his position. There, too, the author said, both sides appeal to Scripture; both sides appeal to genuine Lutheranism; and both sides do little more than make a sorry spectacle of themselves.
Tolerance is the answer to these problems. In fact, tolerance will do away with the folly of innumerable sects and denominations bitterly warring against each other over questions of doctrine. Tolerance will dispel the arrogance of theologians who claim that God is on their side exclusively and opposed to all others who disagree.
It seems as if tolerance will solve a lot of problems in the ecclesiastical world.
One ought, I think, to take the time to analyze a bit what tolerance is all about. Anyone who thinks about the matter at all will soon come to the conclusion that, while tolerance is a nice word, and while tolerance seems indeed to be a desirable Christian virtue, there are presuppositions lurking in the background which ought to be carefully scrutinized. That is, if it is true that the plea for tolerance finds many ready ears today, what precisely is presupposed when one adopts a “tolerant” attitude towards others? What is he getting into? What is he committing himself to? What baggage is being packed along when he carries a tolerant attitude towards others?
There are a number of presuppositions involved in this matter of tolerance. I do not say that everyone who pleads for tolerance will admit to them all. Some imply one thing when they speak of tolerance; some imply something quite different. But the presuppositions are there. And we ought to know what they are.
Sometimes, perhaps in more liberal circles, tolerance simply means that all truth is relative; i.e., that we possess no sure standard of what truth is because no such thing as absolute truth exists. This is a kind of spiritual agnosticism which claims that in all matters which have to do with religion, the only real standard of truth is what a man believes himself. A man must come to his own conclusions with respect to religion because he must find those religious beliefs which will be of the most help to him in the difficult business of living. Whatever he can lean on in times of stress, whatever brings him some measure of solace in times of sorrow, whatever kind of crutch he can find to help him walk when life’s pathway becomes too difficult—this is the religion which is good for him; and, because it is good for him, this is the religion which is true.
Others, not quite so ready to speak of all truth as being relative, speak merely of the fact that God is the incomprehensible One. And, because He is the incomprehensible One, He is also essentially unknowable. We never can be very sure what the truth concerning God is. And, if we cannot be sure, then we ought not to criticize those who have views differing from ours.
Still others concentrate their attention on the Scriptures themselves, or, perhaps, on our ability to understand the Scriptures. The calling to be tolerant flows forth rather naturally from the position that the Scriptures are not very clear. Taken as a whole, the Scriptures are clear enough; but there is sufficient doubt as to Scripture’s meaning in the specifics of Christian doctrine to leave room for a variety of different interpretations. Thus, because different interpretations lead to different doctrinal positions, we must not be overly hasty in judging critically the opinions of others. Or, if emphasis is placed upon our ability to understand the Scriptures, the position is taken that human beings are fallible and limited in powers of intellect. The result of this is that human beings fail rather miserably both in apprehending the truth as it objectively exists in Scripture and in communicating that truth accurately to others. We must all recognize our limitations. If we recognize our limitations, we will also recognize our proneness to error. And if we are sufficiently aware of our proneness to error, we will admit, in doctrinal disagreements, that we could very well be wrong while our opponent could very well be right. Tolerance then becomes a matter of proper humility.
These are the positions to which one commits himself when he adopts an attitude of tolerance to others who disagree with him in questions of doctrine.
There is, of course, a certain amount of truth in the above assertions. I recall that while I was attending Seminary there were times when we would get into disputes with our professor of Old Testament. After arguing a bit, he would say to us, sometimes with resignation, “You might just as well maintain your position; you are all prophets anyway.” What he meant to say was: there is certainly room for disagreement and differences of opinion within the Church of Christ on certain matters of interpretation of Scripture. This is true, and the result is a certain need for “tolerance” within the Church between members. Without it the Church cannot continue. There can never be rigid conformity on every single question of exegesis among the saints. To expect it is to expect too much. To insist upon it is out of keeping with the nature of the Church of Christ here upon earth.
But while we grant that this may be true, there are other considerations which enter into the picture. The question quite naturally arises: How far must this tolerance extend? The answer is not hard to find. Every Protestant denomination which at one time or another has maintained the truth of Scripture, has always also maintained that the limits of such tolerance are the Confessions which the Church has adopted. On matters of the Confessions, there must be agreement. On all matters on which the Confessions do not speak, there must be room for differences of opinion.
This is not merely an arbitrary line which is drawn at some point. The Confessions are not simply chosen as the line beyond which tolerance cannot go because they happen to be a convenient “last ditch stand” against the inroads of doctrinal relativism. The truth of the matter is quite different. The Church has taken the stand that the Confessions mark the limits of tolerance because the Confessions constitute a gift of the Spirit of Christ to the Church. They are not, as such, mere human productions. It is true that they are not on a par with Scripture. They are not infallibly inspired. They are not authoritative in the way that Scripture is authoritative. The authority of the Confessions is derivative. The Confessions derive their authority from the Scriptures. But, because and insofar as they agree with the Scriptures, they are authoritative. And the authority they possess is the authority of Scripture itself. This is possible only because they are the fruit of the operation of the Spirit of Christ within the Church. Christ promised this Spirit to the Church on the eve of His passion. There is more than one passage in John’s gospel which speaks of this. But we read in John 16:12, 13: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.” The Church recognizes that these Confessions are the fruit of the Spirit of truth. By this recognition, the Church receives these Confessions as statements of the truth as it is in Christ, and as it is revealed in Scripture.
And this brings us to the next point which needs to be made. At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers insisted that exegesis must be free. This stood in direct opposition to what Rome had always taught. Rome had insisted through the years and centuries that exegesis could not be free. It had to be under the control and direction of the magisterium, i.e., of the teaching Church which was composed of the clerical hierarchy with the pope at its head. The Roman Catholic Church insisted that, only in this way, could uniformity of doctrine be preserved in the Church. When the Reformers insisted on free exegesis, Rome warned the Reformers that this would lead to. a splintering of the Reformation movement into innumerable sects and denominations each with its own pet doctrines. When the Reformation did break up into various denominations, Rome shouted: “We told you so.” It seemed as if Rome was correct while the Reformers had broken the unity of the body of Christ.
The Reformers were obligated to take up the charge of Rome. They had to answer Rome’s accusations. They did this in various ways. Luther, e.g., wrestled with this problem, but would not admit that the charge of Roman Catholicism was correct. He insisted, and rightly, that there were various principles which contradicted what Rome claimed. The chief principle was this: God alone is the interpreter of Scripture. Luther emphasized this when he said: “God alone can interpret the Scriptures. If God does not open and explain Holy Writ, no one can understand it; it will remain a closed book, enveloped in darkness.”
What did Luther mean by this? He meant, on the one hand, that God interprets the Scriptures objectively through the Scriptures themselves. Scripture interprets Scripture. This is the great principle of the Reformation. Luther wrote often of this. “Such is the way of the whole Scripture: it wants to be interpreted by a comparison of passages from everywhere, and understood under its own direction. The safest of all methods for discerning the meaning of Scripture is to work for it by drawing together and scrutinizing passages.” In another place, he writes: “The abominable sophists . . . support themselves with Scripture because they would look laughable if they tried to force only their own dreams on men; but they do not quote Scripture in its entirety. They always snatch up what appears to favor them; but what is against them they either cleverly conceal or corrupt with their cunning glosses.”
But, on the other hand, God interprets the Scriptures by means of the subjective operation of the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit of truth of which the Lord Himself spoke on the night of His betrayal. When the believer has both, the objective Scriptures which he carefully studies in their entirety and the subjective operation of the Spirit, then he will surely learn what the truth of the Scriptures is. When he bows before the Scriptures in humility, then the Scriptures will speak to him. And when God’s people do this together, they will learn the truth as it is in Christ. There may be disagreement about the interpretation of some passages, but there will be agreement on Scriptures’ teachings. And this truth will be so clear that anyone who wishes to understand the Scriptures will be able to see clearly that this truth is what the Scriptures teach.
Why is it, then, that there is disagreement? It is because the rule of Scriptural interpretation is transgressed. It is characteristic of heretics, Luther says, that they always appeal to individual texts, jerking them out of context and refusing to take the teaching of Scripture as a whole. They “do not quote Scripture in its entirety. They always snatch up what appears to favor them; but what is against them they either cleverly conceal or corrupt with their cunning glosses.” And, lacking the subjective operation of the Spirit, they nevertheless make appeal to Scripture because if they did not, “they would look laughable.”
This is the beauty of the Confessions. These Confessions teach the truth of the whole Scripture. They give us the analogia fidei, the “analogy of faith”. And they give this to us as the fruit of the Spirit.
Hence, Luther writes in another place, “God’s Word has to be the most marvelous thing in heaven and on earth. That is why it must at one and the same time do two opposite things, namely, give perfect light and glory to those who believe it, and bring utter blindness and shame upon those who believe it not. To the former it must be the most certain and best known of all things; to the latter it must be the most unknown and obscure of all things. The former must extol and praise it above all things; the latter must blaspheme and slander it above all things. So does it operate to perfection and achieve in the hearts of men no insignificant works, but strange and terrible works.”
It is not, therefore, a question of the lack of clarity in Scripture itself. Scripture is clear. It is not a lack of ability to understand the Scriptures. The child of God possesses the Spirit of truth. And this is why there can really be no such thing as tolerance in the sense in which it is used today. Concerning the truth of the Scriptures, the believer must be, before God, very intolerant. He must insist that the truth of Scripture be maintained. He does not do this out of a spirit of haughty pride. He does not claim that all men must see it his way simply because he thinks that he has the last word on all matters of doctrine. He is rather concerned about the truth as it is in Christ. For it is this truth which is God’s glory. Any denial of this truth is a slander of the glory of God revealed in Christ and recorded infallibly in Scripture. He must be, as Elijah was, very jealous for the Lord God of Israel. He must be willing to say with Paul: “If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:9.
Tolerance is a rather strange thing. Tolerant people can be most intolerant. If you talk to a tolerant person sometimes, notice that he will be very, very tolerant of every conceivable heresy under the face of the heavens. But he will be very intolerant of the truth. This is also characteristic of heretics. They can be the most tolerant of men when heresy is rampant. But they will not tolerate the truth. The truth will make them exceedingly angry and upset. And they will strike out against the truth with viciousness. Denominations can also do this when they have begun to shelter heretics under their ecclesiastical wings. This is why the Belgic Confession points out that one of the marks of the false Church is the failure to discipline heretics and ungodly, while persecuting those who confess and love the truth.
But tolerance is a devil’s ploy. It is used to deceive the unwary. It is a trap to snare many. It is a means to protect heresy and to destroy the truth as it is in Christ.