How Not to Have a Theological Argument

“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there also will be theological arguments.”

Well, not quite what Jesus said, but true nonetheless. There’s nothing that believers seem to love to do more than fight with each other. It can be about points of doctrine, worship practices, or anything else. If it’s worth talking or thinking about, then people are arguing about.

But is this bad? I mean, after all, Proverbs says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (27:17). Furthermore, Paul extols the Bereans for being discerning about what they were being taught. So, certainly we too should be discerning in all things?

Yes, of course, but with some important caveats. Many Christians are quick to point out that our faith cannot be purely intellectual. They worry about people, especially young theologians, getting puffed up with too much “head knowledge.” The intention of this, I believe, is to provide a corrective to people who are excessively argumentative about their faith. And while I agree with their sentiments, I think that this misidentifies the problem. The issue is not that argumentative Christians are too focused on “academic theology” or “head knowledge,” as is often supposed. The problem is, in Paul’s words, that they have knowledge but not love. Or in other words, they may know a lot, but they’re jerks. That’s the issue. Knowledge is a tool and can be used either to build up or to tear down. Knowledge itself is a good thing. It just has to be used appropriately.

Paul and the Importance of Love

In 1 Corinthians Paul responds to the issue the Corinthians are facing regarding food sacrificed to idols. In an urban context, almost all of the meat that one would buy would have been sacrificed to pagan idols. Some Christians did not think that this was a real problem, because the pagan gods were not real. Paul agrees with them. They’re right, but:

Not all possess this knowledge…. some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled…. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. (8:7-11)

Being right does not give you permission to hurt other people, especially in cases that are more or less trivial. But we never do this with trivial things, right? Maybe not…

Later in the letter Paul writes:

If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing…. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away…. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (13:2, 8-12)

So we must, as Ephesians says, “speak the truth in love.” But even more than that, here Paul emphasizes why it is that we ought to be humble about our knowledge: it’s incomplete. Theology is in a certain sense, tentative. It is the best we can do at describing something that surpasses all understanding. At its best, theology is speaking back to God what he has first said to us in his revealed word. But he has not revealed everything to us. Furthermore, we as human beings are limited. We can’t know all that there is to know and we will always be biased by our own backgrounds and perspectives. This ought to force us to have a bit of humility when discussing theology. This does not mean that we do not boldly proclaim what God’s Word teaches us, but it does mean that we will be gracious with people who don’t come to all of the same conclusions we do. Because we are limited. We might be wrong.

What to Avoid

In 2 Timothy, Paul writes:

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2:23-26)

It seems like Paul must have had a prophetic glance at theology arguments on the internet. How often can it be said that we Christians “have nothing to do with foolish controversies”? Or that we correct our “opponents with gentleness”? It’s certainly the exception more than the rule. Oftentimes we may be right that our opponents need to repent of their false doctrine, but more often than not we also need to repent of how we have handled the argument.

How to Have a Theological Argument Discussion

Let’s assume that you are talking to a fellow Christian with whom you disagree about something. What should be the goal?

Prove them wrong and force them through your sheer intellectual prowess to admit that they’re stupid, right? Probably not.

Instead, it is far more productive to try to accurately understand the other person’s position and clearly communicate your own position. Theological positions are deeply held and interconnected beliefs and a person is not going to change their mind in a single conversation. It takes a while for someone to change their view on something like this. It’s a process.

If you want the person you’re talking with to change their mind, then the best thing you can do is make sure that they accurately understand your position. People often reject ideas because they misunderstand the ideas or their implications. Your job then is also to accurately understand their position. After all, maybe you’re wrong. At the very least you can show someone the love of honestly wanting to understand what they think. This goes a long way, and it actually opens up opportunities for further conversations. If someone avoids talking with you about theology because they know you’re going to attack them and try to make them feel stupid, then all you’ve done is galvanize them against you and your position.

This is particularly important for those of us from traditions that are known for being cantankerous and less than generous with those whom we disagree with. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to whose only experience with Lutherans has been with people who were jerks.

So, go ahead, discuss away. Don’t avoid it. We need to discuss theology. But above all else, speak the truth and don’t be a jerk.

(That means you, Lutherans)

(You too Calvinists)

8 thoughts on “How Not to Have a Theological Argument

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