Truly understanding someone you deeply disagree with is exhausting. It’s a labor of love.
A friend with different politics recently brought up a subject about which I know “my side’s” position but not my own. I sensed he was attacking my tribe, but I couldn’t speak intelligently enough about the issue to have a worthwhile debate. I found my mental energy flagging as soon as this friend brought up the topic.
The same fatigue occurs sometimes when it comes to biblical and theological questions. I sometimes sit staring at my Logos screen wondering whether I have the energy to tackle a given question. I take comfort from two proverbs:
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. (Prov 17:27–28)
In other words, I don’t always have to have an answer. I cannot have a well-considered and widely-read case for every view in my collection. There isn’t enough time in the 24-hour news cycle—or the 24-minute theological blogosphere cycle. Maybe I’ll escape with any reputation I have for wisdom intact if I just close those lips.
People love Logos because it helps them find answers to their biblical and theological questions. But it’s helpful to break down the kinds of questions that come up when you work in theology and biblical studies—so that, hopefully, you and I can be described by the first line of another proverb, and not the second:
The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the hearts of fools. (Prov 15:7)
1. Questions you need to answer for yourself
Sometimes you really do need to study a hard topic and come to a conclusion. There have been times I had to make a significant decision, and I knew I had to base it on Scripture, but I wasn’t sure initially that I understood what Scripture was saying. At those key times, even though some of them involved a great deal of hard work, my prayers for light were always answered with a “yes.” But I don’t demand such satisfying resolutions: I’m willing to pray and wait for light to be shed on my hermeneutical path. If I must take a step without the number of spiritual lumens I’d prefer, at least my hands will be reaching out for the steadying and powerful arm of God.
2. Questions others can answer for you
There are also questions whose complexity is great enough that I have offloaded responsibility for accurate formulation to others—including people long dead. I am a Trinitarian by deep conviction, but not because I sat down and hammered out all the necessary affirmations and denials myself. I inherited them from theological battles in the early centuries of the church and have only ever found confirmation of them in my Bible study. I have worked hard on that confirmation, but I can’t pretend I would have come up with the same views if it were just me and my Bible on a desert island. I feel comfortable acceding to the wisdom of others, people called and gifted to help me put the Scriptures together on a given doctrine. Like every dutiful English-speaking pastor-scholar wannabe, I paid careful attention to the Eternal Subordination of the Son controversy last year—but I knew I was out of my league and did far more listening than talking.
3. Questions you don’t need to answer right now
With some topics, it’s okay to be unsure what you believe, and to stay that way. I don’t know for sure whether John 3:16 should read “only” or “only begotten,” or who the Nephilim were, or the final truth about verbal aspect in Koine Greek.
Eschatology is probably the biggest unanswered question in my theology. I feel comfortable with the outlines of scriptural teaching (Jesus is coming back as judge, restorer, and ruler) and equally comfortable, for now, with my lack of certainty regarding all the details inside those outlines. I know what my “side” says I’m supposed to think, and I haven’t seen sufficient reason to abandon it. But neither do I feel compelled to hone my thinking on the topic right now. Someday providence may move eschatology into categories 1 or 2; someday.
4. Questions you have answered
But then there are issues which for reasons of providence and calling I have dug down into, as close to bedrock as my gifts and training and opportunities could take me. I feel very little threat when someone disagrees with me on these few topics, because I reached a place years ago where I stopped encountering new arguments. I’m not saying those who differ from me make only weak points; I’m saying I feel comfortable that the strengths of my position outweigh the weaknesses they’ve discovered in it. And if push ever came to ecclesiastical shove, I could—no, must—in good conscience stand firmly on my conclusions. Jesus is Lord (for example); I’m not going to allow latitude on that point in any group over which I have influence or authority (1 Pet 5:5). Bible translations ought to be made into the vernacular—that’s another one I’ve planted on scriptural bedrock. So is the Augustinian (and, I would argue, Pauline and even Messianic) theological idea that “you are what you love.”
5. Questions you need to answer for others
Western culture, as it secularizes, will continue to press the Christian church to defend biblical doctrines—and, often, to abandon them immediately or else. The exclusivity of Christianity—“No one comes to the Father but through me”—is one example. These pressure periods are opportunities to dig down to scriptural bedrock and then stand on it. During that process, you and I may find that we have indeed gotten some things wrong. Controversy clarifies doctrine by forcing us to ask and answer questions we never would have thought of; and I think it is worth the exhaustion to read writers with whom you disagree, because it takes resistance to increase one’s strength.
And pastors, in particular: reading some difficult books you disagree with is likely what love for your flock demands (Acts 20:28–29). If you are going to have a persuasive and responsible view, and if you are going to help those who are being tempted, and if you are going to be ready to give an answer to the skeptical, you’re going to have to do some homework. “Hate even the garment stained by the flesh,” of course (Jude 23); don’t forget that you, too, can be tempted (Gal 6:1b). But be willing to put in some spiritually and even physically hard work.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).
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