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

22 thoughts on “5 Tips for Finding Your Theological Balance

  1. All the tips are solid. What’s also obnoxious though in addition to reactionary theology are people who make themselves artificially “moderate” by dividing the “issues” in half and taking the “right-wing” perspective on half and the “left-wing” perspective on the other half.

    • Yeah, some of the issues aren’t a wing thing. That’s the unfortunate effect of the transposition of that language from the political to the theological or vice versa, especially in the American setting.

  2. Or “average” the perspectives that are out there instead of really evaluating and searching for the truth.

    • Well, from the looks of that Gospel Coalition piece, it seems like that really came through in your book on the Imitation of Christ. I’m adding it to my list of “buy in the next 3 months.” Glad you liked this piece.

  3. Tip # 6 or 4b: Make sure that you’re reading both marginalized voices and dissident voices (which are two different things). It’s a completely different thing to do theology in the context of poverty and social chaos versus doing it in the ivory tower where most of our favorite theologians live. Regarding the dissident voices, it’s important to understand the critiques of the predominant orthodoxy and even the thought process of a heretical position. Some of what Pelagius said in his argument with Augustine was spot-on and some of what Augustine said is just embarrassing.

  4. Love this post bro. I doubt we’ll ever truly eradicate the drunk guy on the horse/pendulum swinging theology altogether, but perhaps a glass of water and/or a coffee interspersed between drinks and a degree of moderation overall will keep us from completely falling off either side of the horse.
    One of the big plusses for me of this post is that you give equal time to both keeping balance as well as recognizing times when balance is not the right thing to seek, of which you gave some good examples.
    Like Morgan, i too often find benefit in reading the heretics (both of our day and days past) in a sharpening way. Whenever we are confronted with heresy, one needs to be able to intelligently interact with it and winsomely say, “Is this wrong, and if so, why is it wrong?” Of course, studying the truth will have equally strong benefit, but the application of that truth seems to be highlighted when you can skillfully apply it to what is false (with a loving, careful scalpel, not a bull-headed sledgehammer!)

  5. #7: Read theology within the context of an interpretive, discerning community. One, it calls the theologian out of the Ivory Tower and into the parish. This is not only incredibly beneficial for the theologian who needs community just like everybody else but it is also good for everybody else to hear from those who take the time to think deeply about how God communicates himself to humanity. Eugene Petersen put it this way:

    “It is of great importance for Christian believers to have, from time to time, a reasonable, sane, mature person stand up in their midst and say ‘God is…’ and go on to complete the sentence intelligently. . .the theologian offers his mind in the service of saying ‘God’ in such a way that God is not reduced or packaged or banalized, but known and contemplated and adored, with the consequences that our lives are not cramped into what we can explain but exalted by what we worship.” (Reversed Thunder, pg. 4)

    Two, akin to the earlier post about reading from the margins, God does not only speak through scholarship and the saints of the past. He speaks through our spouses, roommates and co-workers. He speaks through that one person who hardly ever speaks up in Bible Study groups. Simply put, He speaks through those he chooses to.

    Engaging in theology as an academic discipline or as a desperate search for answers to questions one’s faith background does not have the ability to speak into requires a community full of conversation partners that are equally as devoted to the pursuit of wisdom.

    • I would agree with this as well to a certain point. I have often found i gain great insights from interacting at a group level or with my wife or even my kids – truly God speaks through whom He chooses.
      The issue becomes, however, when we rely on group-think and individual interpretation to arrive at meaning. Everyone and their dog would have some opinion on any given Scripture but that does not mean that the Scripture itself does not have an intended meaning. It is, to be blunt, one of the weaknesses of the monastic tradition that values experience over study (at least historically) as well as a bent towards the mysterious, even where God has revealed Himself clearly. It wasn’t really until Anselm that we see a good mix of monasticism and scholasticism.

      • A couple of comments…

        “The issue becomes, however, when we rely on group-think and individual interpretation to arrive at meaning…”

        Once group think is involved the community ceases to be an interpretive, discerning one. While I agree with your sentiment you and I are talking about two very different things.

        “It is, to be blunt, one of the weaknesses of the monastic tradition that values experience over study (at least historically) as well as a bent towards the mysterious, even where God has revealed Himself clearly….”

        You need to do a little bit more homework on that one. After the fall of Rome until the Renaissance it was the monastery that became the new centers of scholasticism – not just the education of people but they also preserved the works of thinkers like Plato – for the medieval world. During this vast chunk of time if you wanted to go study philosophy or other “sciences” (as they knew it before the Enlightenment) you went to a monastery and learned from monks. World renowned universities today – like Oxford and Cambridge – began as monasteries.

        There are certainly some western monastic traditions that do value experience over study but that’s a rather broad generalization. You speak of monasticism as if it is a monolithic movement and it is anything but. The wonderful thing about many of the monastic traditions I’ve come in contact with is that there is an authentic struggle to allow both experience and scholasticism play an equal and vital role in not just their individualistic faith formation but the formation of a virtuous community. Which is, I think the better route to take.

        “It wasn’t really until Anselm that we see a good mix of monasticism and scholasticism.”

        Um…what about St. Athanasius? Maximus the Confessor? Gregory the Great (the first monk to become pope!) Augustine?? There are centuries of scholastic work done by those who were deeply rooted in a monastic tradition that you’re overlooking if you really think that monasticism and scholasticism didn’t really play well together until Anselm in the 11th century.

      • Meant no offence brother. Perhaps we are speaking of different things?
        As to your other comments – no, i’m no monastic scholar but i have done a good deal of study in Patristic and Medieval theology. Would you at least concede that monasticism and scholasticism are separate ideologies (however they may have been blended throughout history)? Would you also concede that monasticism – broadly speaking – has a focus on contemplation?

  6. 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.

    Sometimes, though, there is no balance to be had. Ware reminds us specifically of the Reformation solas.

    You may want to consider that perhaps the Catholic-Protestant debates vis-à-vis salvation ultimately have their roots in Christology. “All theology is Christology,” as the Lutherans are wont to say. If there is a balance to be had between divinity and humanity in Christ, it seems to me that there is a balance to be had between divine activity and human activity in salvation. Monothelitism is to monergism what dyothelitism is to synergism.

    • Good push-back. In one sense, I absolutely agree. Christ’s humanity played active role in our salvation. I don’t think that means my human merits play any role in my salvation. The human component from my end is Spirit-empowered faith receiving salvation in Christ, through his covenant-accomplishment on my behalf.

      • Christ’s humanity played active role in our salvation.

        I’ve mentioned it to you before, but check out Richard Muller’s Christ and the Decree on this issue. In particular, see II.4, “Christ and Election: The Interrelationship of Two Focal Points in Calvin’s Theology.” For Calvin, Christ’s humanity is determined by and is subordinate to the divine decree. That’s not exactly what the tradition, and in particular Maximus the Confessor, had in mind by dyothelitism. If Christ’s human will is determined by the divine will, then there is only one operative or active will—namely, the divine will. That’s monothelitism. Hence why monothelitism and monergism are intimately related concepts.

      • Yeah, I want to read that. I’ve been reading Calvin’s theology through the work of J. Todd Billings’ “Calvin, Participation, and the Gift” who connects the divine-human relationship through Augustine’s reflections on the incarnation, as well as Horton who connects it to Christ’s covenantal obedience. Both have a robust sense of Christ’s Spirit-empowered, human response. It is a synergism within Christ that we are brought into by union with him. Beyond that, I still don’t see the necessary correlation between dyothelitism and some kind of synergistic faith plus works blend.

      • I read a couple reviews of Todd Billings’ book. Looks outstanding. It’s reminiscent of the Finnish interpretation of Luther, which sought to refashion him along similar participationist lines—”union with Christ” as the overarching motif of salvation. That’s great.

        Here’s a thought:

        If salvation also encompasses sanctification—and surely it does, as it is a fruit of union with Christ—and sanctification entails Spirit-empowered human activity—i.e. it is not purely passive, as per Billings’ read of Calvin—then it follows that humans participate in salvation. That’s synergism, right? It seems to me that that’s inescapable. Spirit-empowered human activity done in union with Christ would be pleasing to God, meritorious, because they are praiseworthy and deserving of reward. Being Spirit-empowered and wrought in union with Christ, such meritorious acts are the fruit of grace. In the words of Augustine, “what else but His gifts does God crown when He crowns our merits?”

      • Yes, to everything except for the conclusion that “pleasing to God” = meritorious, in the sense that it is the basis, or foundation for our standing with God/justification. I do think works actually play a role in final justification in a vindicating evidence sort of way (G.K. Beale) that one has been united with Christ, but it is Christ’s work which is the sole ground/basis. I love Augustine, but I don’t follow him on that conclusion.

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