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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

When Theological Disputation Is Too Much…

The United Church of Canada. The Anglican Church of Canada. The Presbyterian Church in Canada. [Counterparts in the United States: United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist…]

As a scholarly observer of the North American church scene, I have noticed a pattern of recurring phrases. They are recurring again here and there.

1. ““We don’t want to debate theology.”

2. “We don’t want people clobbering each other with the Bible.”

3. “We want to avoid arguments.”

4. “We don’t want to have to pick sides.”

5. “We just want to hear people’s stories of exclusion.”

6. “We want unity, not division.”

7. “We want to find a middle way.”

8. “We should stop hurting people.”

9. “Ever since my [significant other] came out, I now believe…”

10. “We just want to have a conversation.”

Observation: If you hear the first nine, it doesn’t matter about the tenth.

The conversation is already over.

Only politics remains.

The one way Christians can hope to hear God saying anything other than simply what they want God to say is to listen to each other, yes—but in the joint enterprise of searching the Scriptures with the sincere intention of understanding and obeying God’s Word as the Spirit teaches us through the Bible, in whatever direction that Word may cut.

Once a group decides to dispense with theological argument (too elitist, too logocentric, too intellectual, too painful, too boring, too difficult…) and to opt instead for storytelling, testimony, and intuition, it is unclear, at least to this theological epistemologist, what keeps anyone and everyone from arriving happily and triumphantly at foregone conclusions.

Yes, theological disputation can be sterile or stupid, pretentious or pedantic, arcane or absurd. But to claim to listen to God without it, to think that we will truly hear God by just listening to each other (perhaps in the context of a few Scriptural generalities: love, acceptance, etc.)—which means, at the end, to simply pick those with whom we ultimately agree on the basis of…whether we agree with them—is to dispense with the wisdom of the Church through the centuries. It is to part company, in fact, with the Church that produced and studied and revered the Bible as the main way in which the Spirit of Jesus would teach and guide the faithful truly seeking a Word that was not merely of their own convenient manufacture.

What God might be saying in and through each other’s experiences can be precious and important. I have myself been provoked to fresh Scriptural insight by listening to previously repressed voices. And theologians have not gotten, and will not get, everything right. Only God is infallible.

But if ignoring the cries of minorities in the Church is bad theological method—and it usually is—marginalizing intensive and extensive Scriptural argument is not theology at all. And, thus, it isn’t serious discipleship to the Jesus who conducted himself by Word and Spirit in tandem and expected his disciples to do the same.


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