Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Practical Importance of Theological Controversy


I have to admit that I get tired of theological controversy.  Can’t we all just get along?  Why does everything have to be argued?  But in my better moments, while I understand that much of what we spend time arguing about theology is not worth arguing, theological controversy is important. 
There are at least three reasons why theological controversy is good for the church.  The first is that it serves to solidify in the minds of believers what is true.  Since the beginning of church history, believers have wrestled with theological controversies, and as a result, have come away with a more complete picture of the orthodox doctrines of the faith.  One of the earliest, the Arian controversy, came in the fourth century.  It was named after Arius, who argued that Christ was a created being, not equal with God.  Athanasius disagreed, arguing that the divinity of Christ was of central importance to the gospel.  The result of this controversy was a fuller understanding of what the Bible teaches about Jesus.
Approximately 100 years later, the Pelagian controversy began when a British monk named Pelagius argued for a high view of human moral responsibility – so high that Pelagianism came to be known as a religion where human effort, rather than divine grace, precipitated salvation.  Augustine challenged this notion, arguing that “humans were in possession of a will that was corrupted and tainted by sin, and which biased them toward evil and away from God.”[1]  In short, because of this controversy, the church solidified several important points about salvation, including the depravity of man and the nature of grace.
            A little more than a millennium later, there erupted the Protestant Reformation over the issue of the nature of justification, whether it is by faith alone or by faith plus works.  This resulted in the recovery of the orthodox faith after almost 1,000 years of darkness.  
            Each of these controversies, and many others in between, has served the church.  What we believe was challenged.  We were forced to defend that belief.  What resulted was a firmer grasp of what is true.
A second reason that theological controversy is important is that it causes us to reaffirm God’s Word as our final authority.  It forces us to ask, what is the final authoritative measure of what is true?  In some controversies, there has been a disagreement on the answer to this question, one side claiming the final authority of Scripture and one side claiming the authority of tradition or human wisdom or papal infallibility.  In other controversies, both sides agreed that the final authority is Scripture, but differed on the proper understanding of Scripture.
            Scripture claims for itself the place of final authority of what is true.  It is the objective standard of truth.  Jesus said of the word of God, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17).  Paul writes that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16), that is, what is written in the pages of the Bible are the very words of God and therefore carries the authority of God.  In our knowledge of Christ, which comes through the Scriptures, we have been given everything pertaining to life and godliness, everything pertaining to belief and behavior (2 Pet 1:3-4).   
            It is good for us to be forced to ask the question, “what is true here?”  Without being put in that position with something really important on the line, it would be easy to begin to drift without even knowing it. 
            So, the orthodox faith has always found its basis in the most accurate and faithful interpretation of Scripture.  In the ancient debates over the nature of the Trinity or the modern debate over gender roles in the family and the church, we have been given the opportunity to reaffirm God’s Word as our final authority.  This reaffirmation serves us not only when we are thinking about theological issues, but perhaps more importantly when we are thinking about how to live.  Recognizing the Bible’s authority over theological issues reminds us also of the Bible’s authority over us.
A third reason that theological controversy is important is that belief cannot be divorced from behavior.  What we believe determines the way we live.  So if we have been called to live holy lives it is important that we believe true things.  (It is common to make one of two mistakes in this area.  Some make the mistake of ignoring theological issues in favor of more “practical” concerns.  Others make the mistake of devoting themselves to theological debate without ever considering how belief should result in greater godliness.  The truth is that belief and behavior are inextricably linked.) 
So imagine the practical consequences of ending up on the wrong side of a theological debate.  One current theological issue is the debate over gender roles in the family and the church.  How we answer this question will have much to do with whether or not we are walking in obedience to the Lord in our everyday lives.  If we believe that God has not designed men and women to fulfill different roles in the family and in the church, we will act in accordance with that belief, and will end up violating Scripture in more than just our opinion.  We will violate it in practice.  If on the other hand, we embrace the biblical teaching that God has given different roles to men and women (Eph5:22-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Pet 3:1-7; 1 Tim 2:8-3:13; Tit 1:5-6, 2:1-8; 1 Cor11:2-16), we will live in ways that both glorify God and benefit us.
I began this post with a comment that much of what we argue about in theology is not worth arguing about.  That does prompt a question - how do we know what is worth contending for and what is not?  We'll consider that next week.


[1] Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 35.
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

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