A few years ago I made my way through John Frame’s excellent book on theological method, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. It was helpful in many ways. In particular is Frame’s section on “cognitive rest” and how genuine growth in our knowledge of God comes by way of spiritual maturity and growth in sanctification. Here is an important excerpt:
Many doctrinal misunderstandings in the church are doubtless due to this spiritual-ethical immaturity. We need to pay more attention to this fact when we get into “theological disputes.” Sometimes, we throw arguments back and forth, over and over again, desperately trying to convince one another. But often there is in one of the disputers—or both!—the kind of spiritual immaturity that prevents clear perception. We all know how it works in practice. Lacking sufficient love for one another, we seek to interpret the other person’s views in the worst possible sense (We forget the tremendous importance of love—even as an epistemological concept; cf. I Cor. 8:1-3; I Tim 1:5ff; I John 2:4; 3:18; 4:7ff). Lacking sufficient humility, too, we over estimate the extent of our own knowledge (155). Continue reading “Spiritual Maturity and Doctrinal Debate”
I am currently reading New Testament Exegesis by Gordan Fee for my Greek Exegesis class. As I was perusing the section about the use of commentaries and secondary resources, I found a paragraph that was extremely helpful to me; not only in writing exegetical papers, but for writing in general and for verbal communication as well. Fee gives wise counsel as he writes on page 33,
A student is not bound to reproduce slavishly the interpretations of others, but you are bound to assess critically what you read. Before you can say, ‘I disagree,’ you must be able to say, ‘I understand.’ It is axiomatic that before you level criticism you should be able to state an author’s position in terms that he or she would find acceptable. After that, you may proceed in six directions:
a. Show where the author is misinformed.
b. Show where the author is uniformed.
c. Show where the author is inconsistent.
d. Show where the author’s treatment is incomplete.
e. Show where the author misinterprets through faulty assumptions or procedures.
f. Show where the author makes valuable contributions to the discussion at hand.
This is excellent counsel, especially for writers. It is simply easier to misrepresent someone’s position and to set up straw-men (weak arguments that your opponent isn’t making) in order to appear as though you have the superior argument. It is difficult to work through the principles Fee provides above. But when you follow this kind of approach to theological discussion and dialog, you are not only misleading your readers, you are harming yourself, for you are forging patterns of thinking that will lead to greater and greater confusion and lack of clarity. Do the hard work of thinking well, and you and your readers will be blessed.
Another vital component in our approach to controversy that will keep our hearts soft and our mind focused is communion with God. Not merely communion with God in prayer for help (e.g. ‘Lord help me to remain steadfast as I defend your truth,’ etc.) but also in the truth itself that we are currently contending for. Owen writes,
When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth,–when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us–when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts–when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for–then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men (John Owen, The Glory of Christ; quoted in Beyond the Bounds, ed. Piper Taylor and Helseth).
The very truth that we are battling for should become a means of fellowship with God! Usually, when we are fighting for some particular doctrine, we find that our minds become more sharp and certain of the truth itself-controversy has a way of purifying our conception and understanding of the truth. This clarity, therefore, according to Owen, must not remain in our heads alone, but rather create deep fellowship with God. This fellowship will keep us near to the Lord and thus far from the dangers of pride and self-reliance; it will also tend to soften our hearts toward our opponents.
John Newton provides us with some very helpful words in a letter he wrote to a man who was involved in some kind of controversy in his day:
As to your opponent, I wish, that, before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write…[if he is a believer,] in a while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts…[If he is an unconverted person,] he is more proper the object of your compassion than your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.” But you know who has made you to differ [I Cor. 4:7]. (John Newton, “On Controversy,” The Works of John Newton, page 269).
What practical and soul-preserving counsel is here! Newton encourages us to desire only the best for our opponents and to demonstrate great love toward believers and heart-broken compassion toward unbelievers. But what is the foundational reason that a Christian is able to look on an opponent this way? Because he knows that it was neither his intellect or his wisdom that has made him different from the person who is currently in error; rather, it was pure grace that has given him insight into and conviction of the truth. Just as Paul reminds us, “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it (I Corinthians 4:7)? Knowing this, then, let us proceed into controversy, not only with keen minds and well-grounded arguments but with broken hearts and tender compassion toward our opponents.