There are many debates marking the theological landscapes of modern evangelicalism. Here’s one thing that you will find to be common in a large portion of those debates. A certain theological perspective is assumed apriori by debaters, and then Scriptural “prooftexts” are marshaled in its defense. Scripture passages contradicting a given perspective are commonly ignored altogether.
When a disagreeing party presents their collection of prooftexts, the response usually is not in trying to reconcile all the relevant texts in order to develop a perspective that would accommodate the fullest possible array of Scruptures dealing with the question. Instead, the most common response is to present one’s own prooftext collection, which at face value contradicts the one presented by the opponent. The fact of the second party’s collection’s superiority over that of the opponent is simply assumed, most commonly for no inherently objective reason. If the opposing party’s prooftexts are addressed, it’s usually done with the purpose of showing that the collection of the other party is somehow illegitimate.
This unfortunate mindset seems to be the main mode of operation behind many apologetic endeavors. It’s really neither honest nor constructive at all, and it seriously impedes any forward progress. This state of affairs is made worse by the fact that it’s not uncommon at all to observe an array of logical fallacies adorning many passionately stated arguments, as if fervor and shrillness alone can win a rational argument.
This is a commonly observed transgression among the more fundamentally leaning segments of Christendom. Fallacies range from strawman to “no true christian”, to appeal to fears, to appeal to mystery, to appeal to tradition, to appeal to consequences, to what seems to be a favorite among many – ad hominems, or personal attacks on the character and integrity of the opponents.
This happens way too often in intramural Christian discussions in various settings, both among rank-and-file Christians and church leaders. The only apparent group exception from this rule are professional theologians and apologists, and more educated and more intellectually discerning segment of self-educated followers of Jesus. This is certainly not true 100% of the time, but it is significantly more so than for the more fundamentalist and less educated groups.
Ironically, it appears that a university degree consistently impacts the Christlikeness of one’s behavior to a greater degree than simple piety or being raised in a certain denomination. Which alone speaks volumes about the culture of many religious establishments.
The messages and the delivery of true luminaries of Christian thought are marked not only with original insights, but with high levels of emotional intelligence and of personal culture, gentleness, and respect. People like that are the true standard-bearers both of genuine and innovative theological inquiry, and of advancing the theological conversation to new heights. They are to be commended for their intellectual honesty, and for refusing to be driven by socially controlled fear and shame-based tribal mentality.
Folks like N.T. Wright (Anglicanism – closer to evangelicalism in reality), Ravi Zacharias (classic evangelicalism), and Tim Keller (mainstream flavor of evangelicalism) come to mind. From among well-known figures of the spirit-filled segment of Christendom, Jonathan Welton stands as a unique example of both theological soundness, real respect toward his audience, and a genuine power of the spirit. These are just a few representative examples, of course.
And here’s the most crucial important distinguishing trait of this group of these thought leaders. The way they construct their worldview is not by adopting a pre-set collection of Scriptural prooftexts as their own. Instead, what they do is adopt complex perspectives that often times unlock amazing mysteries behind seemingly contradictory views expressed in a variety of Scripture passages.
It’s similar to building a complex puzzle from hundreds of pieces. Less sophisticated puzzle solvers simply choose a set of puzzle pieces that they can put together, set aside the rest of the pieces, and declare the entire puzzle solved. More sophisticated puzzle solvers, however, try to work on the entire puzzle, regardless of its complexity. They put together different sections, then try to make the assembled sections fit together. If they don’t – it’s not uncommon to either start from scratch, or take apart and reassemble various sections, as needed. Soon, the puzzle in its entirety begins to come into view.
Seemingly slow progress the price to pay for going this route – it’s the opposite of a sloppily put together worldview than can be compressed to five talking points. This approach takes courage, tenacity, intellectual honesty, humility, innovation, and critically – a steadfast refusal to say “I got it” when it’s clear that there’s a lot more to the puzzle that’s still unsolved.
Which brings us to exposing the biggest demotivator for innovative thinkers and pioneers in Christendom. When a theological puzzle of significance is in the process of being solved via innovative approaches, the solution in process is often times termed “heresy” by those who are insecure and are establishment-minded rather than Christ-minded. If there’s a label that I have a visceral dislike for, this has to be it.
As opposed to fostering an atmosphere of diversity and freedom of speech, where ideas get born or die on their intrinsic merit, too often the current majority attempts to monopolize the marketplace of ideas, making it very costly to develop and market new viewpoints, regardless of how Biblical, godly, and efficient for God’s kingdom those might turn out to be.
In this, some of the areas of the current marketplace of ideas are more akin to staid communism with its state-controlled economy than to thriving, vibrant capitalism with its healthy competition and its freedoms.
When new ideas survive the initial bullying tactics and begin to take shape regardless of the opposition, and the elegance of the solution begins to come into view, the shrillness of “heresy” screams are often raised to ridiculous levels, in an attempt to drown out the new ideas before they gain traction. This is because the threat to status-quo has just become real, and the establishment is not shy mobilizing more of its political capital and other resources in an attempt to suffocate potential competitors for the throne.
When new ideas and innovative solutions are significant enough to be game-changers, and they gather sizable followings, the “heresy” labels’ direction is often reversed, and the unsavory labels get reflected back to the initial offenders, which doesn’t help either.
If new ideas turn into new religious ideologies and practices, and their following becomes sizable and persists over 2-3 generations, the former heretics are elevated to the status of “heroes of faith”, and are eventually grudgingly welcomed into the mainstream by the rest of the establishment. And the new cycle begins.
I really think that there has to be a better way to practice institutional Christianity. Like – loving your theological opponents, affording them dignity and respect, and yes, sometimes even turning the other cheek. We need to advance our ideas with the best of our hearts, and not with our best machine guns. We can advance our views without the need to denigrate and demean our opponents. That would “preach” way, way louder than your average Sunday morning sermon.