The End of Theological Discussion (Guest Post – Nathan McCorkindale)

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Some days I feel like calling for an end to all theological discussion.  I hate the way that theology spirals into nasty battles about whose got the corner market on truth.

When I told my co-workers at a a steel manufacturing warehouse that I was quitting to study theology the response I got was, “What is theology?”  Literally theology means, “words about God” from the Greek ‘Theos‘ (God) and ‘Logos‘ (words).  But is that enough?  I believe that it isn’t.  The trouble is that when theology is understood as words about God our debates quickly degenerate into a battle of words.  We just end up spilling ink and blood over the meanings and ideas.  We argue about what one dead white man said over another, walk out the door and don’t change a thing.  We feel self righteous that we have successfully defended “the truth” against the “other.”

Here’s the thing.  Theology is not our words about God.  Theology is our convictions.  Convictions are the things that we believe deeply and are critical to our identity.  Convictions are the thing that shapes the way we live in the world.

James McClendon writes that theology is the discovery, understanding, articulation, and clarification of the convictions of a convictional community (in this case, the Christian church), including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to other fields of knowledge (1).

Convictions is a big word.  They are central to our identity, even if we do not know what they are until they are challenged.  For this reason McClendon challenges us to search out what our convictions are, and discover them.

After we discover our convictions we then need to learn how to understand how our convictions  fit together.

Once we are aware of our convictions we also need to articulate them (e.g. “I believe that Jesus is fully God”).  Convictions are of no use, if we are unable to speak them in a way that people around us can understand what they are and why they are important.

Finally, is the process of clarification. Perhaps in the process of understanding and articulation we will find that our theology of prayer and theology of God’s sovereignty are like (to use Gonzalez’s term) hot ice cream.  We may discover that we cannot keep our theological system the way we thought we could because of new information that has come to light, or a contradiction in the way that things are.

This clarification will always cause discomfort and pain.  We do not easily give up our convictions.  So we must decide.  Will I be open to reworking my theology?  Will I return to the Scriptures, the community, the tradition and see if or how my convictions need to change?

Or will I retreat and close my eyes and ears to the challenges to my conviction?  Will I lash out at those who question the validity of my convictions?  Will I perpetuate a cycle of angry blogs and criticism of those who think differently, because something that has been said challenges what I hold as a core conviction.

Convictions are more than intellectual assent.  This, I believe, is why theological debates can degenerate so quickly.  Not everything we believe about God is a conviction.  There are many beliefs about God that we are willing to take a new look at the evidence and change.

Convictions though, those are protected. Convictions shape the way we live, they drive our evangelism, our prayer, our trust in God.  When our convictions are challenged it is natural to respond quickly and angrily.  Something essential to our life of faith is being challenged.

Here is where I land. There can be no end to theological discussion.  This blog is evidence of the importance of it.  Here we have people from all over the world joining together to discuss and debate with each other about the most important subject/object we can know, the person of God.

We need each other to sharpen us.  We need each other to challenge our convictions.

I hope though, that we will realize that this is what we are doing.  We are poking holes in each others deeply held beliefs, the beliefs that have shaped the way that we understand God’s activity and relationship with us. So my prayer, hope and encouragement to all of us bloggers is twofold.

First, be sensitive to the way in which we engage each other, since we are going way beyond just words, to people’s core beliefs.  There is great discomfort in being challenged to rethink things that you have always believed.  Secondly, be open to having people challenge your convictions.  If our first response is to get angry, defensive, self-righteous, then maybe we need to stop for a moment and enter the process of discovery.  This does not mean that our conviction must change.  That is to be discovered in our community as we understand, articulate, and clarify our conviction.

I promise that the reworking of our convictions will be painful.  But convictions shape how we live in ways that intellectual assent never will, and so we need to be open to the reality that each of us has convictions that the Holy Spirit would like to mold and change.


Thanks to my good friend Nathan McCorkindale for this great article.

1)  James McClendon Ethics, 22.
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  • My degree, a BMin, is something I came to regret until a couple of years ago when an atheist co-worker told me that my ministry degree "was not a waste." I'd intended to go into full-time ministry and served a few years in Brazil as a missionary, but was ill-prepared for the rigors of ministry and had what I now understand was a narrow view of the mission of God.

    When I see these theological squabbles I generally do not participate any more. My faith should compel me to love God and my neighbor in practical ways, not with vitriol and ire.

    Thanks for the post Nathan.

  • Nathan, I agree with you that it should be our conviction that drives us. The Word of God is only true in that it originated from the one who is true. However, conviction isn't hard wired. We can have a passionately held belief and yet by reading scripture we can be convinced that we are wrong. In Paul's writing you hear a man of reason. He was a Pharisee of Pharisee's yet when Jesus explained how grace was the end of the Law he capitulated and bowed to one who spoke with authority.

    As far as I can see, men and women of high morals and high standing stop at the alter of theology because they refuse to submit to reason. Its not enough to follow your convictions if you will not let allow reason to temper them. I think C.S.Lewis said that he had reasoned that the Christian Faith was true and only then would he take the leap of faith that defied reason. Its the faith that goes beyond reason not the sort that denies it.

  • benyamen

    I agree with you that we must be careful how we treat others especially when it comes to theological discourse and doing so out of love for the other. The problem I think that we run into most often though in our culture is that a great deal of people hold all their theology as conviction instead of holding just a few deep convictions – such as the Apostle's or Nicene creeds – and understanding that the rest of what they believe about Christianity is primarily theory and not fact. I believe much of this can be attributed to the rise of systematic forms of theology over the past few centuries and the seemingly foolish idea that finite man could ever fully explain and systematize categorically and permanently the nature of an infinite God. If our Christian culture could learn to embrace and understand that the vast majority of theology is an exercise in theory and not absolute fact we would all find theological discourse far easier to be a part of and learn from.

    • Nathan

      I agree. I think that this is where thinking about theology as convictions is very helpful. Since our systems have so much influence on our beliefs it makes the tasks of discovery, understanding and articulation even more important. We can only hold so many core convictions. Part of our discussion needs to be both discovering our own convictions as well as helping others discover what is really at the heart of their beliefs. In the process we might find that we have been holding on to something as a core conviction that really shouldn't be in the center. I hope that as we all search and discover our convictions we will realize that all beliefs are not equal, and this will allow us to reorient our lives around what/Who truly matters. It is my belief that using the language of convictions rather than belief will create room to find what needs to be primary.

      Also.. for what it's worth. James McClendon (the guy who I quote) was a systematic theologian.

  • Thanks for this — I appreciate your thoughts, the distinctions you make. "There can be no end to theological discussion…" I'd invite a slight amendment of emphasis to "There can be no end to theological work…" Perhaps we sometimes jump too quickly into discussion, although that too is a vital part of the "work," as you suggest — and I certainly believe we discover within community. — If I can add one other thought, and again this fits into your words about "theology as conviction": one of the most important things I learned personally, and it came from the writings of Katie Funk Wiebe, is that we all work at theology, really, whether we realize it or not. To expand the notion of theological work from formal study to the practices of study, reflection, discussion we do in many areas was very important for me. Throughout my life, I did theological work constantly as I sorted out, say, convictions and practices around marriage, Sabbath, raising our children, women in ministry. Well, the list goes on and on. It was important for me to think of myself as a theologian, whether I knew the "dead white men" inside or not. — Again, my warmest thanks for your words!

    • Nathan

      Thank you Dora. I think you are right on track. Thank you for your kind words and insightful additions to this post.

  • Steve

    Lots of useful stuff here, good to see people searching rather than acting like they know it all already. Being a disciple has to mean assuming that as well as having learnt some things, we have a lot more to learn & possibly re-learn.

    Although anger isn't a sin in itself, if it's a habit it leads to all kinds of bad stuff. Anger & contempt for people is never necessary. It's pretty clear that Jesus wanted us to become the kind of people who love whoever we happen to interact with. That doesn't necessarily mean we do what people want, but we do need to think "how can I do that person good?"

    So, when we are right about something we should think in terms of how it will help people, not how we can win an argument to make me feel good.

    A great quote that I've remembered, which makes some people nervous; "it makes no difference what you believe if what you believe makes no difference". Some seem to think that slavation is by assenting to the right beliefs. I used to accept this, but now I think that salvation is about trusting & learning from Jesus. Not just believing He existed/exists, or believing He said/did certain things, but trusting Him, now. Find out what He said, and what He meant by it & act on it. He will be there by the Spirit as we do. Jesus defines eternal life in John 17:3. It's well worth meditating on how big the statement is.

  • Eric

    One of the things that I've come to learn is the approach a theological discussion needs to be made with both an open mind and discernment.

    We need to be open to learning what the Lord has to offer through the words of others who might have a grasp on a dimension that previously we didn't know. A conviction might change, but does that mean we cannot multiply them the more we learn? I don't think that there is a specific number limit to the convictions that the Holy Spirit puts on us, but our
    limitations come into play with our humanity.

    We need to maintain discernment because there is false teaching all over the place. The world tries to suck us in into compromise. This is precisely why it is very important to hold to your roots and core convictions. The mass communications of the day are a great tool and a great hinderance. Great teaching and false teaching is readily available like never before.

    My goal is to know Christ and His Word as well as possible. This is most important in discernment of the different points presented. There are people out there who can manipulate verses out of context to say whatever they want… so we best be on our guard. We also need to be open to what God may be teaching us as well. In the end, all of the study and discussion should lead us towards a stronger relationship with Christ and an increase in our hunger for Him. I personally try to glean practical application from whatever I'm studying. It isn't my job to change people, that belongs to the Lord. Instead, we are to encourage others… that is something that is irrefutable in all theology.

    • Nathan

      Hi Eric,
      I would say that there are actually a limited number of convictions that a person can hold. Convictions are different than our beliefs in that they are the driving force behind our actions. Not everything we believe is a conviction, in that not everything will create such a strong emotional response in us.

  • iangpacker

    Always great to see McClendon (and Smith) being quoted. Their work is underutilised, underappreciated or unknown… to our loss.

  • Ostensibly, theology is the study of God. However, there can be world of difference between a person who knows theology and a person who knows God.