Monday, November 26, 2012

No Good in Theological Debates?

I was listening to a sermon recently and the pastor made a comment that caused a bit of concern (though I’m not sure this is the best word). I have heard similar comments made before, and often, from different churches and leaders. The pastor said something to the effect of, ‘I have seen no good come from a theological debate. We should instead just love Jesus and study the Word.’ He also mentioned that theological debate is divisive and can lead to self righteousness.
I am trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, so I am going to assume he doesn’t fully mean there is no value to debate since he also mentioned that it is important to offer arguments to others. Maybe he meant quarrelsome debate. However, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on his comments, since it is one I have dealt with in the past. The challenge in this, ironically, is to do it such a way as to avoid the label divisive or self righteous. I’ll do my best.
1) Just because you can see no value in something does not mean there is no value or that someone else does not see the value.
                I like math and I think it is useful beyond simply answering the question in front of you. It helps with critical thinking skills and more. Many folks do not see the value, though it is there. For years, I did not like history; it took a long time to see or appreciate the value in it.  While we may not always see the value in something, it does not mean the value is not there.
2) Just because someone does something poorly does not mean we ought not to engage in it.
                Marriage, driving, parenting, communication, relationships, loving God, loving others, preaching, apologetics, debate, etc…Many folks completely mess up these things, myself included, on a daily basis. This does not mean we ought to abandon them. Instead, we must work on doing them well. Many folks come from a family of dysfunctional relationships (who doesn’t? J)- I still wanted to get married and have children. But I knew it was going to take work to do it well. I knew there were certain things I did not want for my relationship. So, I learned from folks that did it well and tried not to make the same mistakes.
3) Unity does not mean we always agree. Debating theology does not always mean being divisive just to be divisive- put another way- Dividing truth from error is not always bad.
                Like it or not good theology does divide. But sometimes our error will have worse results than division. If I say I love Jesus, I need to be sure of a few things about Him (ie…theology). If I am wrong about some of the details of who He is, this could have eternal implications. Even if I just want to ‘love Jesus and study the Word’. Mormons, some New Age folks, and others could say the same thing and still not be a believer.
                Just as we must be careful not to treat ‘nonessentials’ as the most important thing, we must also be careful not to think that if an issue is not explicitly the Gospel that it is not important. Many issues have implications beyond the immediate, but have some level of importance. (ex…baptism, church governance, methods of evangelism, worship music, the sovereignty of God vs. man, Biblical interpretation, etc)
                On the formal side of debate folks like Ravi Zacharius, Greg Koukl, William Lane Craig, James White and many other godly men have participated in public debates that have been very helpful, even if not for those directly involved. Koukl calls the value in this- ricochet evangelism. What he means is that sometimes we may never persuade the person we are talking to; sometimes those who may be “listening in” may learn something valuable, even if it only to learn how to deal with those we may disagree with. (I have found this can be the case with many online interactions as well)
 Debate, discussion (even heated), or thinking deeply about controversial theological matters can be done well or poorly.
                As I said above, I want to give the pastor the benefit of the doubt. It may have just been a throw away comment that was not clearly qualified, which is understandable. However, the American Church has long neglected the intellectual life. And many Christians feel like they can never bring up a contrary view for fear they could be, or have been, unfairly labeled divisive. And just for questioning, discussing or debating important issues about the God of the Bible.
                God is bigger than our doubts; He is bigger than our questions; He is bigger than when we mess up. Thank the Lord. Even when we mess up our marriages, theological discussions, and any other human interactions. Thank the Lord. He still saves people in spite of us. Thank the Lord. The Gospel even covers us when we do things poorly. Dare I say, thank the Lord? But it doesn’t always mean we ought to give up those things. Strive, instead, to do them well.

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