Unison, harmony, or cacophony

Unison, harmony, or cacophony: How much pluralism can a church tolerate?

Can theological diversity and harmony coexist?

John Brunt, Ph.D., is senior pastor of Azure Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church, Grand Terrace, California, United States.

Editor’s note: In 2004 the Seventh-day Adventist Church sponsored a Faith and Science Conference. In April 2005, the first papers from that conference were published along with the response of the church as voted by the Annual Council in October 2004. Since then, other adaptations of papers from the same conference have been published. This article is another adaptation from a paper presented at the Faith and Science Conference.

How much theological diversity should the church accept among its members and ministers? Perhaps a metaphor can help shed light on this question. The metaphor, from the world of music, compares unison, harmony, and cacophony.

Of these three, unison is the easiest. If all sing together on one note with no variation, the music is easy, but it is also boring. On the other hand, cacophony, in which one hears a plethora of sounds with no meaningful relationship among them, is unpleasant and confusing. Once I was in Chicago during a street music festival. I heard some wonderful music, but all too often, groups were so close together that I heard several at the same time, so that while I was trying to listen to some delightful Israeli folk songs, the strong, thumping beat of hard rock dance music across the street made it difficult to enjoy the experience to its fullest.

The greatest music is the music of harmony, whether a hymn, a Bach prelude and fugue, a barbershop quartet, or a Beethoven symphony. But harmony is by far the hardest to achieve. There’s more than one note. Not every voice and/or instrument is putting out the same sound or pitch, and yet it all must fit together into a meaningful whole. My thesis is that the church’s theological communication should have harmony. We should not all sing in unison in the same voice, but neither should we burst forth in cacophonous confusion. What would this mean?

Ellen White on Scripture

My model comes from Ellen White, who admits that there is diversity in Scripture, but rather than being embarrassed by this fact, she celebrates it. To some early Christians, even the fact that there was more than one Gospel was a source of embarrassment. Tatian rolled the four into one in his Diatessaron. Marcion accepted only Luke. Irenaeus argued that there had to be four Gospels; no more, no less, based on the four directions of the compass and the four pillars that uphold the earth.1

Ellen White, however, gives a different perspective on why there are four Gospels. She argues that we need more than one Gospel writer because the minds of people differ. “Why do we need a Matthew, a Mark, a Luke, a John, a Paul, and all the writers who have borne testimony in regard to the life and ministry of the Saviour? Why could not one of the disciples have written a complete record and thus have given us a connected account of Christ’s earthly life? Why does one writer bring in points that another does not mention? Why, if these points are essential, did not all these writers mention them? It is because the minds of men differ. Not all comprehend things in exactly the same way. Certain Scripture truths appeal much more strongly to the minds of some than of others.”2

For Ellen White, this principle of harmonious diversity applies not only to the Bible but to us: “The same principle applies to speakers. One dwells at considerable length on points that others would pass by quickly or not mention at all. The whole truth is presented more clearly by several than by one. The Gospels differ, but the records of all blend in one harmonious whole.

“So today the Lord does not impress all minds in the same way. Often through unusual experiences, under special circumstances, He gives to some Bible students views of truth that others do not grasp.”3

The diversity of voices about Jesus in the New Testament, however, does not mean that the early church accepted every voice about Jesus. There were gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, that were not included. But those that were included, according to Ellen White, have an underlying harmony. Underlying harmony means that it is not on the surface. It is not immediately visible. It is not in unison. But underlying harmony also means it is not cacophony.

Let’s take a look at three biblical examples that speak, in one way or another, to this question of unity and diversity. From these three examples we will attempt to draw some concluding principles.

Biblical examples

Example 1: Philippians 2. Philippians chapter 2 is one of the most debated Christological passages in Scripture. The hymn in this chapter has been debated to the point where blood has literally been spilled over the interpretations of expressions such as the “likeness of human flesh,” “emptying Himself,” “the appearance of a man,” et cetera. Yet, the metaphysical nature of Christ is clearly not Paul’s stated intent in this passage. The purpose in Philippians is very different, and if we listen carefully, it is remarkably clear. Open your Bible and carefully read Philippians 2:1–11.

Paul’s intent is clearly to talk about the attitudes that we should have toward one another. Jesus Christ is used as the perfect example of the ideal attitude. It is His attitude, rather than His nature, that is in discussion here. Paul is not trying to describe the various ways that the nature of Christ is either human or divine, and how they are related. And yet even in Adventism, we hear this passage used in vigorous and sometimes vitriolic debate over the sinful versus the sinless human nature of Christ. How ironic that a passage designed to call us to follow Jesus’ example in humility and good will toward each other has become a source of conflict and ill will between theologians and church members.

Example 2: The atonement. The atonement has been one of the most hotly debated topics in Adventism over the years. As some argue for a forensic atonement and accuse those who differ from them with teaching a moral influence theory, those accused of teaching a moral influence theory deny it but point out the dangers of forensic atonement. I don’t need to rehearse the details. You are familiar with them.

When we look at Scripture, however, we see a variety of pictures for the atonement. None is comprehensive nor exclusive; rather, each one is a window. Paul used many words, “adoption,” “reconciliation,” “justification,” “redemption,” and each of these words was a picture word used as an illustration. Unfortunately, we no longer see the pictures and think of them as theoretical terms. But for early Christians, adoption would have brought up the picture of a child being brought into a new home; justification, of a lawsuit where the judge set things right by vindicating the oppressed; redemption, of a slave being set free.

If we venture out to other writers, we find other kinds of pictures. In John 12:32 Jesus says, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw all men to myself.” There is a double entendre in the expression lifted up, a term that was a technical term for crucifixion but could also mean “to be exalted.” For John, Jesus’ very crucifixion was His exaltation that drew human beings to Him. This picture is somewhat different from Paul’s, and yet is complementary.

Nevertheless, I have heard intense arguments between Seventh-day Adventists over which of these images is the real explanation of the atonement. I have been tempted to say, “You know, you sound just like John, and you sound just like Paul in what you say that is positive and nonpolemic. Maybe both of your perspectives need to be heard.” It would seem that the task of the theologian is to help people learn from each picture, rather than to hold up one picture and denounce the other pictures and those who advocate for them. Yet this is often what we do.

We will never all agree on precisely how the atonement works, yet our uncertainty about this should never detract from our certainty that Jesus Christ is our Savior.

Example 3: The two Creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2. We are so influenced by our scientific age that much of what we talk about when we look at the two Creation stories is an attempt to harmonize what we see as apparent differences. In fact, there are differences in detail, yet those seem small in comparison with differences in the way they portray God. In Genesis 1 the Creator-God is a transcendent God. He never touches any of the creation, He only speaks. His majesty, power, distance, and otherness are all emphasized. In Genesis 2 we see an immanent God, who puts His hands in the mud, tenderly molding His creation. The emphasis is on closeness and tenderness and nearness.

Now some critics think it is unfortunate that we have two Creation stories. It is the accident of some editor who put two disparate stories together without realizing that they didn’t belong in proximity. These critics could not be more mistaken. I believe that by divine inspiration, the two stories are together precisely because they are different. No one portrait can capture the infinite magnificence of God. You could fill the whole world with portraits, and you still couldn’t capture all of God. But God has given us different portraits to help us understand.

These two portraits emphasize two sides of God and are meant to go together, for God is both transcendent and immanent at the same time. He is the majestic “Other” who has the power to overcome even death. He is the close, intimate Father, whom we can call “Abba” and who walks with us. Both portraits are true. Both portraits are necessary.

When we focus on the first story, we naturally sing out,

“I sing the mighty power of God, That made the mountains rise, That spread the flowing seas abroad, And built the lofty skies; I sing the wisdom that ordained The sun to rule the day; The moon shines full at His command, And all the stars obey.”4

When we focus on the second story, we are more likely to sing,

“I come to the garden alone, While the dew is still on the roses; And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, The Son of God discloses. And He walks with me, and He talks with me, And He tells me I am His own, And the joy we share as we tarry there, None other has ever known.”5

There are times when we need to sing one more than the other, but both should be part of our experience. Perhaps another hymn brings the two together.

“Lord of all being, throned afar, Thy glory flames from sun and star; Center and soul of every sphere, Yet to each loving heart how near!”6

In Genesis 1 we see the Creator-God as the center and soul of every sphere. In Genesis 2 we see that He is yet to each loving heart how near.


I now wish to draw from these examples some principles for how the church relates to issues of certainty and diversity.

One: There is diversity in Scripture and there should be diversity among us. Why do we need a Matthew, a Mark, a Luke, a John, and a Paul? Because the minds of people differ. The minds of people still differ, and God is still a God who embraces and uses different people with different perspectives.

The minds of people differ for different reasons: culture, temperament, cognitive processes, childhood experiences, education, and socialization. If we think the goal of the church is to attain unison, we will be sadly disappointed. Some will emphasize the transcendence of God, while others will emphasize God’s closeness. No one person will show it all. But different personalities will show different aspects and make our understanding richer, even though we will always, until the kingdom, see through a glass darkly.

Two: There is underlying harmony in Scripture and there must also be among us. The church can never say “anything goes.” There are practices that cannot be tolerated within a Christian framework. Paul made that clear in 1 Corinthians 5, when one member was having an incestuous, sexual affair. There are also beliefs that are destructive and must be opposed. In the same letter, chapter 15, Paul shows that if we accept the idea that there is no resurrection, ultimately our entire faith will be in vain. There are certainties. These come from the clear teachings of Scripture, where we see the underlying harmony below the diversity. Diversity does not have to mean cacophony. There are basics to which we must all be committed. Even though we sing in different notes, our singing must still set forth the truth of the gospel and be in harmony with its message.

Three: A wholistic view of Scripture must be our guide in deciding where to draw boundaries. No one passage or section of Scripture but an appreciation for the wholism of Scripture with its diversity must guide us. This means that our view of God as Creator must include all the portraits of the Creator-God in Scripture, from Genesis 1 and 2 to the Psalms and Isaiah and Job and John and Hebrews and Colossians. We must always ask if any given view is within the range of Scripture or is opposed to basic principles of scriptural teaching. Is it consistent with the underlying harmony of Scripture? One, for example, cannot deny that Jesus Christ is our divine human Savior, that the Sabbath is His sacred gift to us, that God truly is our Creator and Redeemer, or that we exist by His will and not by chance, and still hold credibility within the community. There must be basic boundary issues that define us, but these must be based on a wholistic view of Scripture that appreciates both the Bible’s diversity and its underlying harmony.

Four: Priority must be given to clear issues of scriptural intent rather than inferred conclusions from Scripture. It is not wrong to infer from Scripture, but the more intentional Scripture is on an issue, the more that issue is a candidate for a boundary issue.

Look, for instance, at Philippians 2. What we infer about the nature of Christ from these several terms that Paul uses in the hymn celebrating Christ’s willingness to humble Himself is not a good candidate for a boundary issue.

This subject is clearly not Paul’s intent.

Nowhere, in fact, does a scriptural writer say, “Now I am going to tell you about the natures of Christ and how they are related.” Anything we say about this must be inferred, and therefore a good bit of tolerance for diversity must accompany this issue.

But, what Paul says about the way we should treat other people in this passage is painfully clear. We cannot ignore Paul’s intent. And so we should hold people accountable for their attitudes toward each other.

Five: We must be accountable for the way we treat people. Too much of our theological enterprise is driven by ego. We are socialized into an adversarial relationship that is not all that different from our legal system. We are academically successful when we prove ourselves right and prove others wrong.

What if, however, we were to adopt an attitude of mutual trust that made the assumption of goodwill among fellow believers? What if we were to ask not, “How does this person differ from me and therefore err?” but, “What can I learn about God from this person’s perspective, that is different from mine, but may be part of God’s harmonious symphony?” What if we were to adopt an attitude that said, “Just as I look for the underlying harmony of Scripture, I will look for the underlying harmony between my position and the positions of my fellow believers who differ from me”? Then perhaps we might be more successful in presenting an appealing, harmonious sound to the world.

1 AH 3:8 (ANF 1:428).

2 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press, 1913), 432.

3 Ibid., 432, 433.

4 Isaac Watts, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1985), no. 88.

5 C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden,” The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1985), no. 487.

6 Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Lord of All Being, Throned Afar,” The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1985), no. 17.



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John Brunt, Ph.D., is senior pastor of Azure Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church, Grand Terrace, California, United States.

April 2006

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