Learning How to Have Better Theological Arguments
Confessional Lutherans love controversy. At least it seems that way sometimes. We have entire blog sites known for blowing the whistles on the slightest indication of theological error (and sometimes even perceived error on matters of adiaphoran). The Formula of Concord is divided into "affirmative theses" and "negative theses," the latter being a fancy way of saying, “This is the #$@! we’ve got issues with!” And I can’t help but mention Luther, who was prone to swearing and carving Latin phrases into tables.
I suppose that to a certain degree commitment to controversy comes from commitment to the truth. The more you love something (like the Gospel), the more you guard it with your life, even to the point of high blood pressure. There was a reason that St. Paul got all up in Peter’s face in Antioch, called people dogs, and advised his opponents to take their circumcision a few inches further. Controversy can bring out a courageous, emboldened defense of what matters the most. But it can also bring out the worst in us—a whole stinky mess of spiritual and intellectual pride that talks down to people rather than winsomely invites them into the truth. I see much of this in my own church body. At times, I’ve seen this in me.
Thinking Critically Without Being Critical
It’s a positive thing that we learn to be sharp theological thinkers. The seminary trained me to examine the Christian book section at Barnes and Noble the same way some parents obsess over the ingredients list of cereal boxes. We don’t want spiritual toxins to get into the systems of those we love and serve in the church. Often times we find ourselves in arguments with those in the body of Christ we suspect are knowingly or unknowingly cutting corners with the theological ingredients list—beliefs or practices that taste like Lucky Charms and Captain Crunch, but contain a whole list of less than wholesome ingredients. Some of these are new innovations – the stuff of American spiritual entrepreneurship catered to the “your best life now” mentality of consumerism and individualism. Others go way back—traditions rooted in guys like Aquinas, Calvin, and Wesley, who, despite what I consider welcome contributions to the catholic conversation, may foster traditions or practices that conflict with the clearest expression of the Gospel. For example, I consider theology all the richer because of Calvin’s Institutes, which I have enjoyed reading immensely. Nevertheless, I think his focus on the sovereignty of God can obscure the comfort of the Gospel when it comes to the dark and confusing abode of double predestination (By the way, let me say up front that I respect Aquinas, Calvin, and Wesley, even where I disagree with them, whereas I do not have respect for the theological malpractice of many American preachers. In other words, I would never liken such theologians to Captain Crunch).
Arguments on the Fringe and in the Family
With all of this stated, let me get to my real point. Theological controversy is sometimes dealing with doctrines that play on the fringe of what it means to be Christian or not Christian. For example, Arius, Pelagius, and Joel Osteen are doling out something that may look like biblical Christianity, but is most definitely not. However, other theological controversies are “in house” conversations, dealing with beliefs or practices that are not always clear in Scripture. Take, for instance, the practice of baptism. All Christians agree that we should baptize—that’s not up for grabs. What’s not immediately clear is when we should baptize. I don’t think you can make a clear, slam dunk argument for either infant baptism or believer’s only baptism from the Bible. With that said, I do believe that infant baptism is scriptural. However, proof texts are not really helpful. Have you noticed that both sides use the same Bible, just different proof texts to prove the opposite points? How we approach the larger scriptural narrative, our assumptions about God, sin, and salvation, and even the weight we give to church history will tip the scales either way.
The same goes for the Lord’s Supper. I think Luther was mistaken when he appealed to “this is my body” as clear and undeniable evidence for the real presence. We don’t apply the same rules of language equally to other sayings of Jesus, and yet, so often Lutherans like to follow Luther by dropping “this is my body” as a conversation stopper. I think Paul’s language of participation in the body and blood of Christ in 1 Corinthians 10 provides a tighter argument, as well as the whole biblical narrative of God dwelling with his people. But, then again, how we interpret these words will depend in large part on our Christology, our philosophical commitments, and our church tradition.
So, going back to the original point, is there a way we can approach theological controversy in a more healthy, constructive manner? Or, put differently, is there a way we can have better conversations with our beloved family members in the body of Christ who, while living within the safe boundaries of the ecumenical creeds, happen to see things differently?
Yes. I believe there is. The answer is not theological compromise—some kind of wishy-washy, watered down commitment to lowest common denominators. I would rather have Reformed friends remain thoroughly Reformed than see them slip into some bland version of generic American Evangelicalism. Instead, I would argue that the best way to approach in house theological disagreement is to do our best to see the grain of truth—the truly valid point—that our friends in Christ are making. That doesn’t mean we’ll agree, or should even pretend to agree. But at least we’re clear on the valid issue we’re responding to.
Avoid Caricatures. Respond to Valid Issues.
Very often Christians disagree on doctrinal matters because of disagreements about how to respond to truly valid problems. The best approach is to acknowledge where our brothers and sisters committed to the opposing viewpoint are right, and then, instead of remaining on our theological high horse in triumphalistic judgment, do our best to provide a solid answer in response. Let me explain what I mean with a well-known example.
Going back to baptism, those who baptize only adults are making a valid point even if we disagree with their limited application of the sacrament. I’ve heard some Lutherans quip that the practice of credobaptism is tied to American individualism—“I want my baptism to reflect my personal decision to make Jesus my personal Lord and Savior.” This may be partially true, especially in camps where American-style Arminiam revivalism holds sway. But what about those Baptists who are Reformed in their confession? In my conversations with these brothers, I get the impression that their commitment to credobaptism is more or less a protest movement against nominal Christianity. In response to institutional Christendom in which baptism is the equivalent of good citizenship, they deeply desire that no gap would exist between those who are baptized members of the church and those who are regenerate believers in Christ. The problem is a valid one. When detached from continual prayer, worship, and catechesis, the practice of infant baptism often becomes an excuse for institutionalized forms of nominal Christianity (the same is true of “the sinners prayer,” with the necessary caveat that baptism, unlike “asking Jesus into your heart” has the command of God behind it).
Theological Disagreement Calls for Reflection and Repentance
The problem pointed out by our Baptist brothers is real. We can argue all day long about why their limited application of baptism is an unwarranted overreaction. But we would do better by using our disagreement to fully acknowledge their valid concerns, as well engage in the often inconvenient and uncomfortable exercise of self-examination. In other words, before we ever get embroiled in controversy, our response to the Baptist stance on baptism should be a more responsible practice of baptism on our part—better teaching for families, more follow up after baptism, a culture of biblical literacy, catechesis, and accountability when the baptized wander from their baptismal promises, etc. All of this is in our confessional heritage. Somehow it got lost in the complacency that comes with a nominally Christian nation. That façade is coming to an end. Perhaps we will take baptism more seriously as baptism is treated less as a cultural punch card, and more like a call to daily die and rise.
Speaking the Truth in Love
Overall, the tendency toward controversy that is often birthed by love for the truth is better handled by first and foremost paying attention to the legitimate issue(s) behind the controversy. Error occurs when we overreact to the issue (we withhold baptism, we attribute everything to either the sovereignty of God or the human will, or we only share the Lord’s Supper a few times each year so it won’t lose it’s meaning). However, I would argue that even greater errors occur when we ignore and fail to respond to the issues behind the error. Lutherans may feel like they’ve got their theology and practice of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or justification perfect. But how many people in Lutheran churches have perished because they treated the sacraments as ex opere operato excuses to live without faith (when in reality the sacraments create and sustain faith!). And how many continued in that error because pastors feared reminding the baptized that baptism without faith does not save because, well, that would sound too Baptist! The struggle is real. Being a faithful theologian isn’t always clear-cut. Sometimes the issues that divide us are more complicated than we think. But in the end, honest and charitable controversy should at the very least lead us to be more faithful rather than smug and secure.
Rev. John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windsor, CT