What is the point of a theological argument? (Updated)

A week or so ago, I mentioned some of the challenges relating to theological debate, discussion and disagreement. One challenge I mentioned was this:

“We want to be careful to give matters their proper importance

There are two things to watch out for here. First of all, we need to carefully identify which issues are essential to Christian faith and which are not.  There are some matters that if we get them wrong, we undermine the Gospel. There are other areas that are still a matter of discussion and debate between Christians.

The second challenge is to do with relevance. On the one hand, academics can become obsessed about all sorts of obscure technical points that have no bearing on day to day church life and pastoral care.  On the other hand, busy pastors can miss the significance of something because it doesn’t seem immediately relevant.”

Part of the challenge is to do with how we have conversations about these things.  There can be a tendency to become quite aggressive in holding our position and attacking others and it can become highly personal.

Now, there is a proper time for naming names and identifying serious error and false teaching but a lot of the time we need to step back and recognise that what is really happening is a family discussion between brothers and sisters who are finite and waiting full knowledge.  

The problem is that the behaviour in terms of tone of language and obsession about specific issues exhibited at times can give Theology in generally and sadly Reformed Theology a bad reputation. So when I read a theological argument I want to ask:

“Is it creating light or heat, is it illuminating or obscuring, is it glorifying God or theologian and do readers think wow I love God even more and want to know him more and more …and if knowing my theology helps then count me in?”

I also want to recognise that because both I and the writer or speaker are finite and fallible that:

1.       There is a good chance in so far as we are trying to understand and explain something that I might be wrong on some things. Am I willing to learn from them?

2.       There is a good chance that they are wrong on some things but where they are wrong, first of all does that destroy their overall argument and secondly how dangerous, genuinely are the implications of what they’ve got wrong?

The second part of question 2 is important because, there will be times when we can see a trajectory from what they’ve got wrong now to an even greater wrong.  However, because those trajectories are sometimes there does not mean they are always there.  One of the things you have to do is look at how their whole argument is formulated to see the checks and balances that they have included to guard against serious error.

Which brings me to a current example.  There’s a lot of talk and fuss at the moment about a book called “All that is in God” by James E Dolezal.  The fuss is primarily amongst people who are particularly interested in theological debate and discussion – I don’t think it has really spilled out into the wider church. That’s probably a good thing.

In summary: classical theology talks about God in terms of his simple, eternal and unchanging nature (we covered these things in our “Who is God?”) series. These are things that Christians have agreed on throughout history, so you see these things coming up in the Church fathers, people like Athanasius and Augustine. Then you get to Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages and he goes to great length to detail and explain those beliefs logically. 

Now, the problem with those descriptions, is that it is possible to make God sound remote, cold, joyless and loveless if you are not careful. Indeed, some writers do sound like that, some philosophers took a wrong turning theologically into Deism and pastorally you get some people acting as though it is good for us too to be cold, joyless and loveless, unchanging, devoid of feeling. 

Over the past two centuries, there has been a reaction against this perception leading to ideas like Open Theism. This reaction takes the Bible passages where God is seen to interact with people, respond in time, show emotion etc and to say that the classical position is completely wrong. God does change, God does experience time, God does suffer, God is passible.

Reformed Theologians have responded firmly against this assault on God’s Sovereignty.  However, in the process, they’ve also tried to interact with how the Bible talks about God’s engagement with his creation and the view of a number of theologians such as Jim Packer, John Frame and Bruce Ware is that at times, the classical approach, especially in its medieval form doesn’t quite cut it.  What you will realise as you read them is that they are trying to work out carefully how to engage with those Scripture passages that talk about God’s emotions or God responding to his people’s prayers without undermining what else we know about God, his eternity, simplicty, aseity, impassibility etc.  Do they get it right? Well I am one person who isn’t convinced by all their answers (you can see this when I look at the Open Theism debate in Who is God?) However, I also recognise that they are guarded because their attempts to answer the questions come from within the framework of a Biblically rooted classical theology.

Now along comes James Dolezal with his book. His argument is that the classical position is correct and that Aquinas in particular got it just right and in fact, he provides the high point of classical theology. Dolezal disagrees with the attempts by various reformed theologians including Frame, Ware, Carson etc to articulate what is happening. 

Now, I suspect that if he had sat down and written about classical theology and interacted with various other theologians then three things would have happened.

1.       His book would have been a lot longer

2.       Although longer, it would actually have been more interesting and shed more light

3.       Nobody would have heard of it or read it.

Instead, what we have is a book which is written by a seemingly angry man who throws out a lot of serious accusations.

Now, the problem when you start writing a  book with a lot of serious  accusations against well known people and don’t give yourself enough space to fully address your disagreements and why you think they are important is that it feels convenient to any reader who isn’t already in agreement with your point of view. You see the accusations are against the sort of people whose names are going to be recognised easily and show up often in internet searches and get picked up quickly on social media.  In other words, I’ve never heard of James Dolezal and I’m not sure I’ve got time to read a worthy tome on the helpfulness of medieval scholastic theology but if someone is about to out some famous people as heretics, count me in.

Note, I’ve amended the above paragraph because in retrospect the original wording came across as harsh and presumptuous. At the same time I can’t avoid stating that this is the feel I had with the book and why I didn’t find it very pastorally edifying. Now, obviously I can’t and shouldn’t  second guess motives. All I can do is observe the type of response a style of approach creates in readers.  It is possible to avoid that type of end product by taking the approach I suggest above but this will require us readers to grow a better and different type of appetite,

Sadly, there does seem to be a “name, hit and run” approach to discussion encouraged by blogging and even more so by twitter.

That type of  approach plays into our 21st Century idolatrous obsession with celebrity. There’s one thing that our idolatrous culture loves doing more than putting a celebrity on a pedestal and that’s knocking them off again.  The church has bought into this celebrity culture with our celebrity pastors, worship leaders and (though maybe for a more select grouping) our celebrity theologians. So, we cheer on Frame and Ware when they slay the dragon of Open Theism but we are equally delighted when someone else manages to find that they are not quite orthodox enough. We bought Sach, Ovey and Jeffrey’s Pierced for Our Transgressions, not because we thought that the Doctrine of Penal Substitution is crucial but because we took pleasure in seeing Steve Chalke cut down a peg or two and so we were equally delighted to seen Liam Golligher being a little rude to Mike Ovey about the exact way in which the Son relates to the Father. 

This is great entertainment for theological nerds but does nothing for the cause of the Gospel and nothing to edify God’s people and bluntly it turns people of fin their droves so that the baby is thrown out with the bath water and pastors who want to teach their congregations good doctrine are handicapped.

Isn’t it time we call a halt on such shenanigans?

By the way, my tip would be:

  1. Don’t bother with this particular book by Dolezal (To be clear, I haven’t read anything else by him so wouldnt comment further but it is important not to judge an author on one book alone)
  2. Get back to some of the classical authors he mentions. Church Fathers like Athanasius and Augustine are actually much more readable than modern authors. Get stuck into people like Calvin.  Search out and read Aquinas.
  3. Get hold of and read some of the more contemporary authors, find out what Frame, Carson and Packer are actually trying to say in context.
  4. Think through the issues carefully for yourself making sure that your reading and thinking is rooted in deep and wide Bible reading.

Let me share another example.  There’s a lovely, thoughtful article in the current issue of Themelios by an Oak Hill student all about how believer’s baptism fits with reformed covenant theology.  That’s great but here’s the thing. It’s primarily a response to another article a couple of years back by someone, who should have known better, arguing that believers’ baptism as opposed to infant baptism in some way undermines the Doctrine of Creation and therefore makes Baptists gnostic and docetic. Now, the correct response to that is not to painstakingly write a scholarly article but to tell the person who wrote the original piece to grow up and stop being so crass, offensive, ignorant and arrogant. We have a gospel to proclaim and churches to serve and we don’t have time for such infantile playground antics.

There’s a time when we simply choose not to entertain the argument and say “This is a waste of all our time.”