How should we engage in theological debate?
When I was fresh out of college, I developed a rapid desire to know the Bible and theology better. I began to read books, listen to lectures, study Greek on my own, and enter into conversations on theological message boards. However, while my knowledge of the Bible and understanding of theological doctrines grew substantially, my wisdom in debating these things did not.
As I engaged people of differing views, my posture tended to be overly confident of my own position and quickly dismissive of others’ positions, and my rhetoric often included a not-so-subtle undercurrent of attempting to make others look and feel stupid for believing what they did. Had they even read the Bible, let alone studied it carefully? Did they really take God’s word seriously? They must not, because if they did, they would certainly agree with me.
Since that time I have been graced with the opportunity to complete both a master’s and a doctoral degree in biblical studies, and standing here at this point in my theological journey I now see that my behavior at the beginning was both foolish and arrogant. I’ve also observed that my aggressive proclivities as a young armchair theologian are not unique to me, but in fact plague theological debate, especially as it occurs on the internet. And while I am all for believers seeking to “teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), I’m convinced that several priorities are often neglected when Christians debate theology.
The first Christian priority that often exits the stage of theological discussion is love. The usual comeback from overly-zealous theologizers against the charge that they are being unloving is that “love” should not be confused with “niceness.” After all, Jesus turned over tables in the temple and Paul did not always pen niceties when chastising others for theological error (e.g., Gal 5:12!). The problem with appealing to these events, however, is that while these are examples of divine and apostolic “tough love,” this is not the way Scripture instructs us to respond to error.
In Gal 6:1, Paul says, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” Since theological error is a “sin,” as our doctrinal policemen are quick to remind us, it is incumbent upon those who take it upon themselves to offer correction to do so gently, not harshly, abrasively, or offensively. This coheres with what Paul says in his most famous passage on love:
“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).
Although modern day aggressive theologizers normally don’t claim the gift of prophecy, they usually do believe that they have arrived at the most knowledgeable position concerning Scriptural teaching. However, according to Paul, even if one has attained “all knowledge,” if they do not exhibit love (i.e., gentle love [Gal 6:1]), they are nothing. So while love is bigger and broader than simply being “nice,” in the context of theological debate, being “nice” seems to be a necessary manifestation of “love.”
The second priority that is often lacking in theological debate is humility. Having traveled the path from being an uneducated armchair theologian to being an ordained doctor of the church, I’ve found it most interesting that overconfidence and arrogance seem to be much more prevalent at the lower levels of theological discourse. That is, you’ll encounter much more rigid dogmatism on blogs and message boards than you will in doctoral seminars or at the Evangelical Theological Society.
One of the reasons for this is that, as you persist in formal biblical study, you are exposed more and more to the vast array of theological positions (held by people who are not stupid!) and plausible interpretations of various texts. This makes you more cautious about dismissing someone else’s view too quickly and instills a healthy amount of humility concerning your own position. This is not to say that there is isn’t one correct position or one correct interpretation of any given text. This isn’t even to say that you can’t be confident in your own understanding of Scripture. But this exposure does force you to evaluate other views very carefully and express yourself judiciously.
One of the most helpful concepts in this regard is Richard Pratt’s “cone of certainty.”
For many who debate theology aggressively, each doctrine is often held just as staunchly as the next. This can result in them claiming that virtually every differing view is an attack on the gospel itself, whether it pertains to the deity of Christ, positions on the sacraments, or interpretations of the millennium. On this approach, beliefs are either totally embraced or totally rejected in a fairly binary fashion.
And yet it should be obvious that Scripture is not equally clear on all matters. Therefore, as this diagram illustrates, our certainty concerning any theological doctrine should fall somewhere along a cone-shaped continuum. Certain beliefs will fall at the top of the cone, where our certainty is greater, while others will fall toward the middle or bottom, where our certainty is less.
Also, as the cone shape suggests, we should have fewer beliefs up in the top of the cone compared to the bottom. This means that, relatively speaking, there are fewer concepts that we tether “to the heart of the gospel” and over which we divide with others, and more concepts that we hold to more “humbly.” So while we may argue vigorously for the deity of Christ, holding equally tightly to supralapsarianism over infralapsarianism is probably not warranted (and if you don’t know what those are, don’t worry!).
Wisdom lies in one’s discernment of where along this spectrum any given doctrine falls and then interacting with others over that issue with correspondent humility.
Connected to both love and humility is the church’s call to unity, which, like the prior two, often falls by the wayside in theological debate. Concerning Christian unity Jesus could have scarcely been clearer:
“My prayer is not for them alone [i.e., the disciples]. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21).
Here Jesus prays that His followers would be united together along with Him and the Father so that the world believes that the Father sent Jesus into the world. That is, the unity of the church is to be a testimony to the world of the incarnation and ministry of Jesus himself. This implies that such unity is visible to the world and not simply the de facto unity that exists among true believers through the Spirit.
In response, aggressive theologizers will often say, “There is no unity unless we’re united in the truth!” While this is true to a certain extent, what lies behind this statement is an insufficient understanding of intellectual humility as discussed above. Unity must revolve around truth, to be sure, but the real question is, “Which truths are necessary to unite Christians?” Doctrines like Jesus’ deity, man’s need of forgiveness, salvation by grace through faith, etc. are obviously necessary elements for true Christian unity. Other theological items further down our cone of certainty may or may not be necessary for true unity to exist. But because Jesus prays for the visible unity of the church, we are obliged to prioritize the pursuit of unity as we debate theology.
I don’t pretend to have mastered any of these above stated priorities. However, at 35 years of age I do believe I have a firmer grasp of my own intellectual finitude than I had when I was 25. While we may disagree with each other over various theological topics, we are called to do so while lovingly and humbly pursuing a unity that the world can see, which will testify that Jesus has indeed come into this world.