Guest blog by Steve Holmes. Steve is a Baptist minister, who teaches theology in St Mary’s College in St Andrews, Scotland. He teaches in the areas of historical and systematic theology, and also on homiletics.The main areas of study are: evangelical Christianity, Baptist theology, and constructive theology. He is particularly interested in the doctrine of God, and how the Trinity relates to philosophical ideas of God in history (particularly the church fathers) and in recent theological reformulation. He is also interested in the doctrine of salvation, particularly the atonement.
Steve blogs at Shored Fragments where he explores “theology and culture from an Evangelical perspective.”
I have had a couple of conversations with (good, close, affirming, valued) friends recently in which I have been challenged to be less generous in argument: ‘truth matters, and we need to contend for it!’ – that sort of line. I confess that this makes me uncomfortable.
Truth does matter, yes; that said, my present opinions are, I am certain, not truth. I hope that, in many cases, they approximate to it; in certain core cases I fervently hope that they approximate closely. I do not, however, want to confuse myself with the One who could say ‘I am the Truth’. Because of this, there is a proper humility and a proper provisionality in the way I hold my opinions; in all things, I acknowledge that I might be wrong.
As to needing to contend for truth – well, I have preached four or five times in the last couple of years on Rev. 20:7-9; I am fairly convinced that truth will win out, regardless of my best efforts. God does not need me to defend His ways and works; God calls me primarily to holiness and to witness, not to controversy.
There is, certainly, a Christian duty to contend for the faith once delivered. But most of the ongoing arguments I find myself in are with Christian sisters and brothers, many of them good friends to whom I owe a great deal. With them, I don’t think I am contending for the faith, just for a particular interpretation of it. Of course, there are views that are true, and views that are false on various issues, and we need to discuss these things in the family. But if I win these arguments, someone else has to lose. And, as a general orientation, I really don’t want my friends – or my sisters and brothers who I have not yet met – to lose.
Of course, this raises the question of the limits of Christian fellowship: which issues are ‘in the family’ on this description, and which are contending for the faith? My test-case here is baptism. Baptism is the basic command of the Lord Jesus, the beginning and heart of Christian ethics, and so on. I make common cause with people with whom I disagree on the proper mode and subjects of baptism, work with them in mission and pastoral care, teach alongside them in conferences, offer them the eucharist I celebrate and receive joyfully from them the eucharist they celebrate. So, unless an issue is more important than baptism, unless a practice is more fundamental to the Christian life than the practice of baptism, unless an ethical command is more urgent than the last word of Jesus (Mt. 28:19) and the first word of the newly-Spirit-baptised church (Acts 2:38), I am not going to break fellowship over it, and so I really do not want to win an argument about it.
Thus considered, there are very few things I argue about that are more important than baptism.
I do not know what a mode of rhetoric that debates issues with a principled refusal to win the debate might look like; the generosity of the sort of medieval scholasticism exemplified by Thomas’s Summa Theologica is probably the closest thing I have seen, and some of the practices of discussion that my good friend Andrew Marin narrates in his Love is an Orientation also begin to come close. I do know that I want to discover or invent that rhetoric, to find ways of exploring and testing the truth of issues which place ideas in competition, but people in community.
Whenever I engage in public argument, I try hard to be self-critical after the event, to test my heart and actions against the call of the gospel as I understand it. With due respect to my friends who would have me be sharper, on my best understanding of what gospel holiness looks like, I have never yet been too generous or too loving in debate – rather too often the opposite. If some of my friends call me to be less generous in argument, I believe the gospel calls me to be far more generous than I have yet imagined.
I suppose that in the next few years of my life I will be even more active in public arguments than I have been so far; I pray that I will be far less willing to win those arguments than I have been up till now.