Introductory Note:

This article by Chris Hall reminds us that “doctrinal fussiness” can cause unnecessary strife in our church life. Our spiritual formation most assuredly includes healing and correcting our ideas, but right thinking should never be pursued ahead of- or instead of- love for God and others.

Previously I mentioned the danger of theological pride as a significant hindrance to the knowledge of God. A related vice that harms us and others is a polemical spirit, a spirit that delights in pointing out the faults in others’ theologies, that readily brands controversial ideas as heresies” and their promulgators as heretics,” and that smugly separates from anything and anyone that does not measure up to the truth.”

This is a difficult matter to deal with, in which God’s people need the wisdom that is from above” (James 3:17 KJV) to an unparalleled degree. Heresy is certainly a possibility. There is certainly a time to refute heresies when they occur. Indeed, in certain contexts, the refusal to refute or to rebuke, to expel or to separate, may itself be a sign, not of humility, but of a terrible spiritual malaise. Those who do not love God deeply will never be much concerned with the details of the Lord’s truth. 

Yet this very fact makes it easy for us to conclude that we do love the Lord deeply so long as we are scrupulously, tirelessly, ruthlessly committed to every detail of what we perceive to be a biblical theological system. But this conclusion simply does not follow. 

A host of other explanations for doctrinal fussiness is available, explanations related variously to greed, vanity, malice, impatience, fear, envy, and every other deadly vice. We would be naïve to believe that all doctrinal arguments are merely, or even primarily, about doctrine. For instance, in the highly competitive climate of professional theology, where large ministries and international reputations and prestigious appointments and lucrative book contracts are all at stake, we cannot be too careful to guard ourselves against the sort of destructive pride that cloaks itself in the mantle of Guardian of the Faith.” 

This danger suggests that those of us whose vocation really is to guard the faith should exercise every caution to ensure that our work is rooted in the all-embracing beauty of Christ, where every virtue is made perfect. We must be prepared to heed Paul’s wise counsel to the church at Colossae: As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:12 – 14). 

Without this crucial grounding in love, our unanswerable defense of orthodoxy may turn out to be only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor. 13:1).

Probably every reader of this blog has his or her own view of where to draw the line that separates a legitimate commitment to doctrinal purity from an illegitimate polemicism. This is not the place to resolve that issue. Scripture itself commends godly wisdom more than punctilious casuistry in such matters (Prov. 26:4 – 5). Discerning the line between an appropriate concern for truth and a polemical spirit are not simply a matter of academic training and intellectual astuteness. It is a matter first and foremost of virtue — that is, of personal and communal holiness. Without holiness, no one — not even a hyper orthodox theologian — will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).

A deep rooting in the spiritual practices and the doxological context of the church throughout the ages can help to protect us from our internal propensity toward theological pride and polemical immoderation. It is a protection we all sorely need. It is not uncommon for a well-trained pastor or theologian to give an authoritative lecture on a theological hot-spot, to pray an eloquent public prayer, to identify the flaws in a competitor’s argument, and to grant an interview to the public media, all in a morning’s work. This is heady stuff, all of it — and all part of our God-given responsibility as Jesus’ apprentices. Yet the danger of a Pharisaic blindness to our own theological shortcomings and waywardness remains real. May God in his great mercy protect us from it. 

This series has been adapted from Steven D. Boyer and Chris Hall’s The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable. Hungry for more? Please visit Baker Academic for more information.

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Text First Published January 2017 · Last Featured on October 2021