Doing Theology in Love

Love1With all the internecine debates and in-house fighting it’s sometimes hard to believe that Christian theology could have anything to do with love. But it should. Paul instructs the Ephesians plainly that they are to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). It’s not only possible to theologize in love, it’s really the only way to do true Christian theology. True Christian theology is done in love.

It takes a lot of courage to theologize in love. The world and the church are often so fissiparous that we refuse to acknowledge even the obvious forms of unity that exist among us. “If you’re not exactly like me,” we determine, “then you are my enemy.” Churches, traditions, and denominations develop exclusionary theologies that permit only their tribe to inherit heave. In light of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, however, it’s hard to imagine how such approaches can even remotely be called Christian. There, in his last hours before the crucifixion, Jesus prays:

The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:22-23)

The unity of His church is on Christ’s heart before He dies. It bears a special significance to Him and concerns Him enough to pray to the Father about it. It ought, then, to concern His people too.

Theology done in love, then, seeks to promote the unity of the church. Theologian John Frame writes:

Positively, we must learn to theologize in love (Eph. 4:15), a love that edifies and that promotes unity, not division. Theology ought to seek and promote reconciliation among brethren, even among denominations and theological traditions, as much as that is possible. (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 327)

This is not a call to naiveté. It does no one good to pretend like there aren’t significant theological difference between some of us. Theology done in love does not ignore these, nor call us to sweep them under the rug in order to achieve some fabricated notion of “unity.” But theology done in love is done in humility. We ought to be just as ready to criticize and question our traditions and our opinions as we are ready to criticize and question another’s. Frame comments, “Self-criticism is a form of biblical humility that is necessary when we seek to rebuke others (Gal. 6:1; Matt. 7:1-5)” (328). There are some theologians who refuse to question or criticize their own tradition, even when it is clearly proven wrong.

A few years ago there were those who refused to entertain any conversation that suggested the Puritans were in fact slave-owning oppressors whose theology didn’t match their lifestyle. Debates raged online over this whole point, and only finally did some concede – even then with begrudging attitudes. I have seen it happen often in my own tradition and my own camp, but I know it lives everywhere. We need to be just as ready and willing to point the finger at ourselves as we are at everyone else. Tribalism has no place in the unity of the church.

In conjunction with self-criticism we ought also seek to find the good in other opinions, theologies, and traditions. Instead of immediately targeted the weaknesses of a theological position we ought to strive to find where it overlaps with our own theology. Build on what is good about another’s position. Be slow to create division. Not every theological difference is the same. Some warrant dismissal and rebuke, others may genuinely be less serious matters. Frame warns us well here too, he writes:

Often a theologian will correctly identify a weakness in the view of another but will play that weakness for far more than it is really worth. Thus minor differences are elevated to major differences, and theological disputes become church divisions. How contrary to the teaching of Scripture (see John 17:11, 22f.; 1 Cor. 1:11ff; 3; 12; Eph. 4:3-6)! We have a responsibility before God not to exaggerate the importance of our differences. Some doctrinal differences (for example, over vegetarianism, observance of days, idol food – see Rom. 14:1; 1 Cor. 8-10) are treated very mildly in the New Testament, both parties being urged to live together in love, without any reference to formal discipline. Other issues (for example, Judaizing as Paul attacks it in Galatians) are much more serious, because they compromise the heart of the gospel. It is theologically and spiritually important to be able to recognize that difference and to behave appropriately. (327)

Treating each other with grace, dignity, and love is as important a part of our theological disagreements as is getting to the truth. Examine other views carefully, noting the nuances and benefits of its teachings, and presenting it without dramatic mischaracterization or straw-man accusations. We may disagree, but it is possible to disagree in love and theologize in a way that promotes our continued living together.

Christians have a responsibility to do theology in love. Division is too common a thing among believers, and while we may have legitimate disagreements, we ought to seek to speak of those disagreements and navigate them with grace and truth. The truth is important, but without love we are only a clashing cymbal (1 Cor. 13:1). Working for unity is hard, but we are called to strive for it (Phil. 1:27). Do theology, friends. But do theology in love.

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