“Christian doctrine grows disciples by teaching them to perceive, name, and act in ways that demonstrate the reality of the gospel, speaking and showing what is ‘In Christ.’ Kevin Vanhoozer
I can recall, even back in high school, when my theological knowledge began to grow that I loved to have theological dialogue. But what I noticed was that I was not just having a conversation with people about a topic, I wanted to be right, I wanted to be the winner. If you have been involved in theological dialogue, chances are at least one of your debates has gotten heated and maybe even personal attacks made. It may have even gotten so bad that you no longer speak with the person you were having a conversation with. When I began my Master’s at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School my professors began to model for me and teach me what it looks like to have healthy theological dialogue. What follows in this post are five of the many lessons my professors taught me about healthy theological dialogue.
#1- The Goal of Theological Dialogue is Intimacy with Christ.
Theological dialogue is not the same as any other philosophical discourse. Alexander of Halles notes that “Theology is more of a virtue than an art, more wisdom than factual knowledge. It consists more in virtue than efficacy than in contemplation and knowledge” (Quoted in Theological Commonplaces). In theology, we seek to speak “words concerning God” for the sake of maturity in Christ. If we are having theological dialogue that does not have deeper intimacy with God then we are doing nothing different than secular philosophical deliberation. This being the case, when we speak to each other and have theological dialogue our first desire must be a desire for the other person’s intimacy with Christ. The knowledge that we gain in doing theology is “not merely intellectual; it is also passionate, touching both our understanding and affections” (Kelly Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012. 29).
#2- Theological Dialogue Must Be Conversational Not Condemning.
Ephesians 4:29 says “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (ESV). How is our conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ building up if we are condemning? When we dialogue with each other our conversation, even if we believe the other person to be wrong, must be spoken to lovingly and in a way that builds them up and encourages them toward intimacy with Christ. Personal attacks are never ok in theological dialogue. Ephesians 4 gives us the reason that we should speak to build up; “that it may benefit those who listen.” We do not know who is listening to us and if we are arguing with each other and being nasty to each other and someone over hears us who does not have a relationship with God, how is that going to make them want to know God? But if our words are full of love and grace as we seek to build each other up it can and will benefit those who listen to our conversations and God may even use that to bring someone into a relationship with him. P.T. Obrien comments, “Having put on the ‘new man’, we will want to develop new standards of conversation so that our words will be a blessing, perhaps even the means by which God’s grace comes to those who hear” (The Letter to the Ephesians: The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999. 345).
#3- Theological Dialogue Must Be Done in Humility.
If God is the only person who is omniscient then why do we act like we are when we participate in theological dialogue? If Scripture is the only inerrant writing then why do we act like our opinions and interpretation are inerrant? Now I am not saying that we cannot know truth but what I am saying is that we must recognize that we are fallen people which means our interpretation of scriptures is also done with a fallen mind which means we can misinterpret and misunderstand what Scripture says. This is why our dialogue must be done in utter and complete humility knowing understanding our place as fallen human beings. So please, stop acting as if your interpretation is absolutely flawless and the only possible interpretation of Scripture. Instead, have a conversation with the person you disagree with and if you approach the conversation in humility you may be surprised to see that you learn something from the other person.
#4- Understand What Are the Non-Negotiable Doctrines
In my course on the use of scripture in theology with Dr. Vanhoozer we talked about what he called dogmatic rank. Dogmatic rank gives us a system for ranking what is non-negotiable in theology. That is, which doctrines, when denied, would indicate a lack of salvation. This is a 3 tier ranking system. The first tier would include things like the deity of Christ and the Trinity. If someone denies these things they probability that they are genuine Christians is doubtful. The second tier would be doctrines such as infant vs adult baptism. We would say that people who believe either of these things are undeniably Christian but we would have separate churches from each other. The third and final tier would include things like the age of the earth and most eschatological views. If we are conversing about something in this tier we would agree that people who hold both views are Christian and we can worship in the same church together even though we disagree. Healthy theological dialogue includes and firm grasp of this concept so that we don’t major on the minors nor minor on the majors.
#5- Theological Dialogue Should Lead to Worship
The reason that I include this here is because theology should lead to worship. If we leave a theological conversation unaffected then I question whether theology has even been done in that conversation or if you were just having philosophical ponderings about God. Kelly Kapic comments, “Christians are called to enter into the chorus of praise that is true worship, responding in the Spirit to the revelation of the saving God in Jesus Christ. Theology is all about knowing how to sing the song of redemption: to know when to shout, when to mourn, when to be silent, and when to hope” (A Little Book For New Theologians, 23). If we do not leave theological conversation in worship, theology has not been done. In every theological dialogue we have, we should leave more in love with God AND with each other than we did before we began the conversation. If your conversation is not headed in this direction then stop the conversation completely or restart the conversation so that this is true of your theological conversations.
I hope that these five lessons that I learned in seminary can be a help to you as continue in theological dialogue with fellow saints in Christ. Pray over these lessons and ask God to show you where you have failed and repent not just to him but to those you have pushed away with your theological brutishness. I leave you with this benediction,
“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus
our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence…” 1 Peter 1:2-3