In the debate and conversations about The Trinity one thing has particularly concerned me. To be clear, it’s not that I’m unbothered about the risk of theological error. I hope that comes through in my own articles. However, I’ve been struck by our struggle to disagree well and how much of that arises out of not hearing and reading each other well.
Throughout the debate I’ve become more and more convinced that what we are primarily dealing with is a disagreement between orthodox evangelical Christians. It’s primarily a debate within academia. This also means that even when it has flowed out to the wider church it has still been an academic debate. Pastors tend to engage not primarily as pastors but as people with an interest in academic theology.
The debate is between two groups of people. I don’t think either side is necessarily uniform. That’s the first problem with our listening. If we assume that Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Bob Letham and Mike Ovey are all saying exactly the same thing then we will come unstuck. I would venture to suggest that the same applies when talking about Matthew Barrett, Liam Golligher, Fred Sanders and Kevin Giles. This means that we need to be very careful both in our disagreements and our agreements. I may be disagreeing with one person because I associate their position with someone else’s. I may be agreeing with another person because I associate their position with mine. Yet in both cases I may have misheard them.
I have also come to the conclusion that both sides of the debate haven’t come out well. However, I still believe that primarily we are dealing with men (and some women but the debate has mainly been between men) who are concerned for the truth. This means they want to guard against potential errors and stop the church from crossing a boundary line. However, in that concern they have at times used clumsy language, attempted to say too much on some things and not enough on others. The result is that in seeking to avoid crossing some boundaries we may end up pushing too hard against others.
It’s worth observing at this point that this doesn’t mean that I think everyone who has engaged in the conversation has stayed within the lines of orthodoxy. Nor does it mean that I sit exactly in the centre. I am more sympathetic to some arguments than others! Indeed, it is also worth saying that if we assume that by finding a centre ground position we’ll avoid conflict then we will soon be corrected. Trying to find a mediating position is as likely to lead to you upsetting everyone as it is to you keeping everyone happy.
I experienced a good example of that this week having commented again online that I thought both sides of the debate were seeking to protect orthodoxy but both had problems with clumsy statements. This drew a sharp response from Luke Stamps who said:
Here I think is a helpful case study in what happens when we mishear someone and jump to conclusions. I hope Stamp doesn’t mind me using the example too much. Stamp’s response here assumes that I’m saying that 4th century theologians like Athanasius were clumsy in their language and need correcting. Because he seems to assume that his position is fully in line with Athanasius, Hilary, Augustine and the Nicene creed (whilst the opposing position is seen as an attack on those authors), he rushes to defend them. He insists that they are not in need of improvement.
However, if he’d read my comments carefully, then he would have recognised that I wasn’t having a dig at 4th century writers or the creeds. I was specifically talking about the current debate and contemporary authors. I was suggesting that Wayne Grudem, Kevin Giles, Luke Stamps and, yes, Dave Williams are not infallible, not beyond improvement and correction. The comment about the 4th century is a deflection and a distraction. It also depends upon the assumption that he has managed to 100% correctly understand and faithfully represent the 4th Century position.
The result is a statement that is frankly problematic. I am sure that on reflection he will recognise that his tweet says far more than he would want it to. Because having said that I did not have 4th century authors in mind when I commented on clumsy language, that doesn’t mean that 4th century writers or the creeds are infallible and inerrant. Those believers would be the first to admit (even not at the time -but with the benefit of being with Christ and knowing fully now) that they were not perfect and that there was room for challenge and improvement in what they said.
However, I’m not sure as I re-read Stamp that he is saying that those authors were themselves beyond improvement. The qualifier that their words have been refined and improved over the years since is interesting. If I’m reading him right, then he appears to be saying that it is the body of understanding that we now have, founded on their thoughts but with an evolutionary process since. The risk with such words is that they start to make it sound like we are giving a level of authority to tradition and a form of modern day, evangelical magisterium that we would not want to and I’m sure he would not want to either.
Here I think is another risk for all of us. Theoretically we know and believe in the infallibility and sufficiency of Scripture alone. However, I think we can sometimes act as though others, especially when their views chime with our own have a level of infallibility. We need to remember that only the Bible is beyond improvement and refinement. This means that the rest of us are not infallible and not beyond challenge and improvement. That includes Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Grudem and Dave Williams.