By Matthew Emerson
Much of the current scholarship on theological method concerns itself with prolegomena and/or with practical matters like steps, tasks, and tools. This is right and good – dogmatic inquiry requires right philosophical and theological foundations and right practice. And yet, there seems to me to be a vital aspect of theological method that is underappreciated and rarely discussed, namely the need for virtuous theologians.
Over the last few weeks I’ve reflected disparately on some of what I’ll call dogmatic virtues; here I want to tie those threads together and try to paint a picture of what a virtuous dogmatician might look like. I do not intend this list or the explication of individual components to be exhaustive, but preliminary. I want to begin to make the case here that dogmatic inquiry ought to exhibit (at least) the virtues of charity, justice, and wisdom.
Love bears all things, including disagreements with other theologians. Dogmatic clarity is important, but so is dogmatic charity (and her sister, dogmatic humility). I think we in American evangelicalism could do with a few reminders when we encounter beliefs with which we disagree.
We are finite. Each of us who is not God is a creature, and as such we are finite in our physical and mental capacities. To say it like Paul in 1 Cor. 13:12, we can only see now in a mirror dimly, and that limited sight includes limitations regarding our abilities to formulate and assess doctrine. To be sure, we are called to guard the good deposit and pass on sound doctrine, but we need to recognize that one of the reasons the Reformers acknowledged sola Scriptura and cried semper reformanda is because they knew that each person is a creature. We need the Word of God to continually teach us because we are creatures who are finite in our knowledge and understanding, not omniscient and all-wise. Even if we think we’ve arrived at full doctrinal clarity and faithfulness, there’s still more to learn and understand. We’re creatures.
We are fallen. Not only are our dogmatic abilities limited by our creatureliness, they are also tainted by our fallenness. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit of God to teach us and to correct us. Sometimes he does this through our own Bible reading, and at other times he does it through having us encounter people with which we (initially) disagree but who persuade us from the foundation of the Scriptures.
We are in Christ. Those of us who have been born again by the Spirit of God through faith in the finished work of Christ are all part of one faith with one Lord signified by one baptism. We are a holy Temple being built up together by the Spirit of God. We are called to grow in our understanding of Christ together, rooted and grounded in love, so that we might be united to one another and to him in thought and in deed. When we disagree with other Christians, we are disagreeing with our brothers and sisters. Even if we think our brother or sister is wrong, we don’t kill them. That’s what Cain does. That’s what Saul does until the Damascus road. That’s what zeal without knowledge does. Instead, we love them and walk together towards unity by the power of the Spirit.
We are part of Christ’s Church. The body of Christ is bigger than my or your tribe. It includes all who have trusted in Christ by the power of the Spirit throughout space and time. If my definition of orthodoxy excludes everyone but those who sign my denomination’s confession of faith, I’m a raging fundamentalist, not a bastion of orthodoxy.
Sanctification isn’t immediate. When we trust Christ and receive a new heart from the Holy Spirit, we aren’t immediately perfect. We don’t immediately morph into the image of Christ. That kind of spontaneous transformation only occurs when Jesus comes back and we see him face to face. Sanctification takes time, and that includes doctrinal sanctification. When we disagree with someone, it may be that we need to exercise patience with them as we teach them all that Christ has commanded us. Or it may be that we are the ones who need teaching. In any case, love is patient and kind, including toward those who have different doctrinal positions than us.
Of course, all this assumes a taxonomy of error in which disagreements about tertiary issues can arise. I’m not talking about heresy, first-order issues that indicate one has not yet come to true faith in Christ and is a danger to the flock if teaching those errors. I’m talking about doctrines over which we can disagree but not eternally divide – Calvinism, counseling, and cessationism, to re-name but a few. When we disagree with someone over such tertiary issues, before giving them a hate-filled farewell, maybe we should pray for them instead, as our brother or sister in Christ, remember our own creatureliness and fallenness, and hope for unity in the bonds of peace by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The kind of taxonomy that allows us to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary issues arises from another dogmatic virtue, justice. The judicious person is able to fairly and accurately make judgments and to pronounce that judgment in a measured fashion. In theology, this particular virtue gives rise to at least two related dispositions: the desire to read, summarize, appreciate, and critique interlocutors accurately and fairly; and the desire to render judicious judgments about those interlocutors’ positions.
Dogmatic Justice and Reading Dogmatics
Regarding reading accurately and fairly, I think evangelicals in particular need to consider our dogmatic justice – or lack thereof – when it comes to historical theology. I am concerned that, for most evangelicals – including myself – the tradition is at best, a blunt instrument to be (sparingly) used. But we need to remember that justice arises from love of neighbor. When quoting someone we are not merely citing abstract ideas or sentences from thin air; we are attempting to receive and continue to pass down the faith once delivered in, by, and to the communion of the saints.
Treating tradition rightly is a matter of exercising justice through loving one’s neighbor, both through receiving rightly – accurately and faithfully – what those before us have passed down and through ministering it to others. Exercising justice requires us to read our brothers and sisters who have gone before us without using them for our own purposes. Miscarriage of justice in the OT often is described in terms of Israel forgetting their obligations to their neighbors and instead exploiting them for personal gain. When we proof-text previous theologians, we do just that. Instead, justice requires us to give our (historical or contemporary) interlocutor a fair and full hearing, to understand their words as they intend them, and to accurately and fairly assess what they’ve said. Proof-texting rarely, if ever, allows for this kind of judiciousness. To fight this tendency, to promote dogmatic justice as we read, we need to read the full corpora of various historical figures. We need read secondary literature to help us understand these authors’ context and aims. And we need to read with dogmatic charity and humility.
Dogmatic Justice and Dogmatic Judgments
A second way in which we can exercise dogmatic justice is through rendering judicious judgments. Polemics – defined by Merriam-Webster as, alternatively, ” an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another,” or, “the art or practice of disputation or controversy . . .” – is sometimes required in theology. There have been, since the Garden, theological opinions that deserve strong rebuke. When required, we should not shy away from that particular task, however reticent we may be to engage in it.
But there are plenty of examples today of self-styled theologians – many of whom you can find practicing their “craft” on Twitter threads or long Facebook comments or various corners of the blogosphere – who engage in nothing but refutation. For them, the theological task is nothing more or less than telling others why they are clearly and dangerously wrong. Theology is take down. To say it a bit more charitably, there are those who remember their task to “guard sound doctrine” but forget the more constructive instruction to “pass on to faithful men what you have learned also.”
This kind of theological engagement suffers in at least two ways. First, it produces theologies that are completely reactionary to whatever is happening in our current cultural moment. Rather than theology being a pillar and buttress of truth, it becomes shifting sand – ironically, sand that shifts in exactly the same direction that the supposedly dangerous culture does, even if it comes to different conclusions than that culture. Theology in Scripture is firm, sound, a trustworthy deposit. *Exclusively* polemical theology is, on the other hand, tossed about by the winds, even while it intends to straighten everyone else’s sails. It sniffs around for silly myths rather than avoiding them.
The other way that this theology-as-polemics suffers is by producing pugilists rather than peaceable ministers of sound doctrine. In 1 Tim. 3:3, Paul gives instructions regarding the qualification for an overseer (elder, pastor, bishop…). The penultimate characteristic listed in the first group (vv. 2-3) is “not quarrelsome.” In the KJV, it’s translated as “not a brawler.” Whether or not this particular qualification has physical confrontation or an intellectual disposition in mind (and, given the mention of “violence” in the immediately previous characteristic, one could choose either option, I think), the latter plausibly can be considered under it in terms of general application. A minister of the gospel should not be one disposed to quarreling, physically or intellectually. But theology-as-polemics produces bulldogs, not shepherds. It produces pugilism, not discernment. It produces violence, not love. And this pugilistic attitude leads, in turn, to viewing one’s interlocutor as an argument to be destroyed rather than a neighbor (and, often, a Christian sister or brother) to be loved. In other words, because of a lack of dogmatic charity, dogmatics is unable to render just judgments, and it is unable to wisely discern between a host of dogmatic issues.
In many ways, that issue of discernment leads us to conclude that all of the above points could be summarized under the rubric of wisdom. Dogmatics requires wisdom, the ability to discern what is good and what is evil. Some distinctions that come to mind include:
The foolish theologian –
- cannot discern between foolish myths and matters of utmost importance;
- cannot discern between matters of friendly disagreement between Christian sisters and brothers and matters that threaten the integrity of the faith once delivered;
- cannot discern when to speak softly and circumspectly and when to speak forcefully;
- cannot discern between flattering language and arguments of substance;
- cannot discern between proof-texting a source, whether historical or contemporary, and reading it rightly in context
The wise theologian, on the other hand, exercises discernment in all these areas. They are slow to anger, quick to hear, slow to speak. They measure their words carefully. They know how to adjust the volume, so to speak, depending on the topic. They can distinguish between matters of utmost importance that require forceful argument and matters about which we can disagree and remain within the bounds of orthodoxy. They can refer to others’ arguments and positions without twisting their words or ideas.
May the Lord give us charity, justice, and wisdom when we speak about him and his works.
Matthew Y. Emerson (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Dickinson Chair of Religion and Assistant Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Along with R. Lucas Stamps he serves as co-executive director of the Center for Baptist Renewal. He is the author of Christ and the New Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2013) and Between the Cross and the Throne (Lexham, 2015), along with a number of essays and articles.
Matthew is also the co-editor of the Journal of Baptist Studies, and, along with Stamps and Christopher Morgan, the co-editor of a forthcoming volume on Baptist catholicity with B&H Academic. His research interests include biblical theology, early Christian interpretation, and Baptist catholicity. Matt is married to Alicia and has five beautiful daughters.