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Martin Downes on theological controversies…

Theological controversies can appear to be so intricate, so involved in minutae, that they amount to the splitting of hairs. It is no doubt the case that they can be written off as a waste of time and energy, perhaps even as the product of argumentative personalities whose default setting is to be combative in conversation. Onlookers can find it exasperating, with so many points of agreement, that such commonalities as exist are held hostage by an overweening scrupulosity about tiny details where disagreement remains.A little patience is needed here. Why work on the assumption that the difference between truth and error is always as plain as the nose on your face? Is it right to presuppose that differences will always be clear and evident to all? If these are our assumptions as we approach this issue it is time to enrol on a Church History 101 course.

There are lots of things that we ought to include into the mix when thinking about the dynamics of theological controversies. There can be the desire to find a form of words that will make the resulting document a compromise statement, the kind that is not really satisfying to either side but which will quell some troubled waters.

Of course, this can never hold up for disputants with a real concern for truth, but it is desirable for those seeking to preserve institutional unity or regional peace. At this point the inclusion of single words, and the meaning of those words as understood by all parties is a critical issue.

A statement of faith so vague that it can be read in mutually contradictory ways will always prove to be a failure of conviction and clear thinking. What each party is willing not only to affirm but also to deny can reveal what real disagreements actually remain.

James Buchanan made this acute observation:

 

We learn another lesson from what occurred at the Diet of Ratisbon [MD: the 1541 discussion of justification by Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians].

It shows the possibility of appearing to concede almost everything, while one point is reserved, or wrapped up in ambiguous language, which is found afterwards sufficient to neutralize every concession, and to leave the parties as much at variance as before.

It has been justly said that, in controversies of faith, the difference between antagonist systems is often reduced to a line sharp as a razor’s edge, yet on one side of that line there is God’s truth, and on the other a departure from it.

 

James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, p. 136

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