Five Lessons Seminary Taught Me About Theological Dialogue

Five Lessons Seminary Taught Me About Theological Dialogue August 4, 2023

The Church Fathers in an 11th-century depiction from Kiev, miniature from Svyatoslav’s Miscellany/ Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


“Christian doctrine grows disciples by teaching them to perceive, name, and act in ways that demonstrate the reality of the gospel, speaking and showing what is ‘In Christ.’ Kevin Vanhoozer

I recall, when my theological knowledge began to grow I loved to have theological dialogue. But I noticed that I was not just having a conversation with people about a topic. I wanted to be right. I wanted to be the winner. If you have been involved in theological dialogue, chances are that one of your debates has become heated. Maybe even including personal attacks. It may have even escalated to the point where you no longer speak with the person you were conversing with. When I began my Master’s degree my professors began to model for me and teach me what it looks like to have healthy theological dialogue. What follows in this post are five of the many lessons my professors taught me about healthy theological dialogue.

#1- The Goal of Theological Dialogue is Intimacy with Christ.

Theological dialogue is not the same as any other philosophical discourse. Alexander of Halles notes that “Theology is more of a virtue than an art, more wisdom than factual knowledge. It consists more in virtue than efficacy than in contemplation and knowledge” (Quoted in Theological Commonplaces). In theology, we seek to speak “words concerning God” for the sake of maturity in Christ. If we are having theological dialogue that does not have deeper intimacy with God then we are doing nothing different than secular philosophical deliberation. Thus, when we have theological dialogue our first desire must be a desire for the other person’s intimacy with Christ. The knowledge that we gain in doing theology is “not merely intellectual; it is also passionate, touching both our understanding and affections” (Kelly Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians. 29).

#2- Theological Dialogue Must Be Conversational Not Condemning.

Ephesians 4:29 says “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (ESV). How is our conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ “building up” if we are condemning? When we dialogue with each other, we must speak, even if we believe the other person to be wrong, with love. In such a way that builds them up and encourages them toward intimacy with Christ. Personal attacks are never ok in theological dialogue. Ephesians 4 gives us the reason that we should speak to build up; “that it may benefit those who listen.”

We do not know who is listening to us and if we are arguing with each other and being nasty to each other and someone over hears us who does not have a relationship with God, how is that going to make them want to know God? But if our words are full of love and grace as we seek to build each other up it can and will benefit those who listen to our conversations and God may even use that to bring someone into a relationship with him.

#3- Theological Dialogue Must Be Done in Humility.

If God is the only person who is omniscient then why do we act like we are when we participate in theological dialogue? If Scripture is the only inerrant writing then why do we act like our opinions and interpretation are inerrant? I am not saying that truth is unknowable. Rather, we must recognize that we, as fallen people, can and do struggle to grasp it. This acknowledgement implies that our interpretation of scriptures is also influenced by a fallen mind, which means we can misinterpret and misunderstand what Scripture says.

This is why we must engage in dialogue with utter and complete humility, fully understanding our place as fallen human beings. So please, stop acting as if your interpretation is absolutely flawless and the only possible interpretation of Scripture. Instead, engage in a conversation with the person you disagree with, and if you approach the conversation in humility, you may be surprised to discover that you learn something from the other person.

#4- Understand What Are the Non-Negotiable Doctrines

In my course on the use of scripture in theology with Dr. Vanhoozer we talked about what he called dogmatic rank. Dogmatic rank gives us a system for ranking what is non-negotiable in theology. That is, which doctrines, when denied, would indicate a lack of salvation. This is a 3 tier ranking system. The first tier would include things like the deity of Christ and the Trinity. If someone denies these things they probability that they are genuine Christians is doubtful. The second tier would be doctrines such as infant vs adult baptism. We would say that people who believe either of these things are undeniably Christian but we would have separate churches from each other. The third and final tier would include things like the age of the earth and most eschatological views.

If we are conversing about something in this tier we would agree that people who hold both views are Christian and we can worship in the same church together even though we disagree. Healthy theological dialogue includes and firm grasp of this concept.

#5- Theological Dialogue Should Lead to Worship

The reason that I include this here is because theology should lead to worship. If we remain unaffected by a theological conversation, then I question whether we have truly engaged in theology during that conversation, or if we were simply indulging in philosophical ponderings about God. Kelly Kapic comments, “Christians are called to enter into the chorus of praise that is true worship, responding in the Spirit to the revelation of the saving God in Jesus Christ. Theology is all about knowing how to sing the song of redemption: to know when to shout, when to mourn, when to be silent, and when to hope” (A Little Book For New Theologians, 23).

If we do not engage in worship during theological conversation, then we have not truly done theology. In every theological dialogue we have, we should leave more in love with God AND with each other. If your conversation is not heading in this direction, then either stop the conversation completely or restart it.


I hope that these five lessons that I learned in seminary can be a help to you. Pray over these lessons and ask God to show you where you have failed. Then repent, not just to him, but to those you have pushed away with your theological brutishness. I leave you with this benediction,

“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence…” 1 Peter 1:2-3


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