5 Tips for Finding Your Theological Balance

TightropeIf I had to name my theological pet peeves, right near the top would be what I’ve called pendulum-swing theology. You grow up hearing one particular view of something, you get sick of it, and you swing to the opposite extreme. Grow up a hyper-Calvinist, something happens and you swing to Open Theism. This happens a lot in atonement theology too. Sometimes when Evangelicals who’ve grow up on a steady diet of penal substitutionary preaching find out that Jesus did some other things, like defeat the powers, demonstrate God’s love, and so forth, instead of integrating them all into a holistic doctrine of reconciliation, they end up chucking PSA altogether.  Luther described the history of theology as a drunk man getting on his horse only to fall off the other side, only to repeat the process. This irks me.

Of course this means that finding even-handed treatments of just about any subject is one of my greatest delights. A sense for balance is one of the highest virtues a theologian can possess, while a lack of balance is a serious vice. In trinitarian theology, focusing on God’s oneness over his threeness, or vice versa, leads to either modalism or tritheism, neither of which really works well with the Gospel. Actually, they both destroy it. In Christology, the Chalcedonian definition is bedrock because it keeps us from tipping into an overemphasis of the Son’s divinity or his humanity to the exclusion or distortion of the other. Again, lose your balance, you lose the Gospel. God is both immanent and transcendent–tip one way or the other and you end up either in a soggy pantheism or a cold deism, neither of which leads to Gospel. You see how that works?

Now, that said, it’s important that we be balanced even our love of balance in theology. Bruce Ware explains this for us in his foreword to Rob Lister’s excellent, balanced book on the doctrine of impassibility:

Theological balance, like physical balance, is normally a sign of health and well-being. The reason such balance is “normally” but not exclusively best is simply that, in some situations, imbalance is clearly required. So physically, balancing equally on both legs with sustained upright posture is normally best, yet if one wishes to dive into a swimming pool, one must embrace the imbalance of leaning altogether forward–a position that if done “normally” would result in endless bloody noses and skull fractures. –God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion, pg 16

In all sorts of areas then, balance is good. Sometimes, though, there is no balance to be had. Ware reminds us specifically of the Reformation solas. Christ is not one among many mediators, or else he is not Savior. We aren’t saved by by divine grace and our own human merit and if faith is supplemented by works, the Gospel is confused with Law. It can’t be God’s glory and ours. And, of course, as soon as we elevate other authorities alongside of Scripture, we begin to lose sight of this.

No, there are times when balance is no virtue, but a Gospel-destroying vice. The Gospel requires a few head-long plunges. In other words, a true sense of balance will recognize that there are times for both/ands and times for either/ors. Knowing the difference between the two is crucial to avoiding heresy and preserving the Gospel. Finding your theological balance can be difficult, so here are five tips for those still in process:

  1. Read your Bible like crazy. I mean, really, you can’t know the Scriptures too well. And by “knowing the Scriptures” I don’t just mean the canon within a canon you’ve chosen for yourself out of 3 of Paul’s epistles and a Gospel, or the book of James and Matthew. Get a few prophets, OT narratives, and maybe some Torah in there. God gave us 66 books to reveal himself, so ignoring bits will inevitably leave you off-balance. Get this one wrong and the rest won’t matter.
  2. Read more than one theologian. Focusing on that one pastor or thinker you found that you connect to, to the exclusion of all others is a recipe for imbalance. As a limited, fallible human, they’re going to be myopic somewhere. Expand your horizons a bit. Read outside your tradition a bit. Maybe even wander outside your century. Who knows what gems you’ll find.
  3. Read the key irenic, broad-focused theologians. Every theologian has their hobby-horses and pet issues, but some are well-known for their controversies and some for their broad, even-keeled treatments of issues. Look for those theologians who are widely consulted even across traditional boundaries. If there’s a Methodist or Catholic being quoted by a Reformed theologian, like a Thomas Oden, go ahead and pick him up.
  4. Read the key polemical theologians. I’ve recently set myself the task of reading some of the key theologians in the early church controversies. Ireneaus against the Gnostics, Athanasius against the Arians, Cyril against the Nestorians, Augustine against the Pelagians, and so forth. These teachers demonstrated an ability to defend or preserve some necessary tension, or holy imbalance, in the faith. The ability to defend one issue clearly is often-times a sign of having a good grasp of the whole.
  5. Read about more than one subject. This one should be obvious, but if you fixate on one issue, no matter how central it is, you’ll have balance issues. It’s okay to give sustained attention to key or interesting subjects, but if I’ve only ever read about the cross and never a treatment of the resurrection or the ascension, I’ll have a skewed view of Christ’s person and work. What’s more, usually you won’t have as good of an understanding of the couple of subjects you do study since every doctrine takes it’s meaning within the framework of the whole.

I could easily list more (and if you have any ideas, feel free comment), but the point is, don’t be that drunk guy falling off of his horse. Study widely, read deeply, and constantly check yourself against the whole of Scripture. Do that, and you may just begin to find your balance.

Soli Deo Gloria