Church Life Theology

Embracing the mosaic of theological diversity

I once new a person whose sole source of biblical exegesis was from the teaching of a popular American Calvinist pastor. I was fascinated with this person’s (rigid) approach to other views of the Bible and theology — especially my own.

It doesn’t help that my theology  tends to be all over the map. I relate personally (and deeply) with Luther’s Christology; I am convicted that Arminian soteriology is most reflective of God’s character; the gospel hope in Wesley’s eschatology continues to sweep me off my feet; Presbyterian doxology befits my need for a deep and sound Christology in worship; and the biblical integrity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethics grounds me in reality. And I guess that’s the problem — or so it seems. I try not to subscribe to a single theological “tribe” when it comes to reflecting on God and reality.

One of the many valuable insights I have gained in seminary is that theological diversity — within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy — is healthy and important. Theological diversity is a divine gift; a wonderful mosaic of theological treasure waiting to be mined, explored and enjoyed by God’s people and the world.

The purpose of theological diversity, I think, is to bring a certain colour, variety, meaning, liveliness, and context to the Christian faith for people who find themselves colliding with the reality of our broken world. Put another way, theological diversity allows God to speak to a wide range of people ‘here and now’ — as Bonhoeffer would affirm.

But don’t give me an empty diversity that’s an end in itself. Let it be a means to reveal Jesus Christ — “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), “the concrete executor of God’s love” (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 232). Of course, the danger of theological diversity is that it would be so diverse as to forfeit Christian orthodoxy and set as its higher goal secular harmony. Here we could run into the problem of creating a God in the image of liberal culture.

But what about the alternative — a rigid tribalism that adheres to a limited view of God and reality? Is this any better? I don’t think so. I actually think it’s worse and more dangerous to Christianity. Paul affirms this in his letter to the church at Corinth.

Being a culture steeped in the traditions of Hellenistic philosophy, many people in Corinth placed a high premium on the philosophical knowledge and rhetoric of the Sophists.[1] This created fertile ground for competition to break out between leaders who were seeking popularity among the masses.

Naturally, people began to divide into various camps; each one favoring a particular leader. Loyalty to their leader and criticism of others defined the Corinthian culture war. Most importantly, “Attachment to an eminent sophist could enhance one’s own status, so the choice of teacher had social significance.”[2]

What becomes apparent fast, is that this same tribal competitiveness began to invade the church at Corinth as believers applied the same criteria to Christian leaders as they did the Sophists. This rigidity towards other views and strict adherence to one’s own was creating division in the church, the same way it creates division and hostility in the church in North America today.

Paul’s response to this invasion of tribalism is friendly, yet direct:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you….My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 1:10-12).

It’s interesting to note at this point the inverse parallels between the dangers of theological diversity and tribalism when they become an end in themselves, and not the means of revealing Christ and the cross. On one hand, theological diversity, when left free to evolve without the guiding arm of Christian orthodoxy, runs the risk of elevating secular harmony over sound theology. On the other hand, Christian tribalism, when it is not confronted for its rigid and hostile treatment of Christian brothers and sisters, creates the total opposite of harmony — and this within the church!

Paul gently reminds the Corinthians — and we who call ourselves Christians today — that “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31 NLT).

Ultimately, it’s the “message of the cross” (1 Cor 1: 18, 20, 23) — the theology of the cross as Luther and Bonhoeffer would put it — that Christians should adhere to in their everyday lives, not the interpretation, eloquence or opinion of religious leaders.

And this brings us back full circle. Theological diversity, when embraced for its ability to create a vibrant and meaningful variety in the church within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, can be helpful in the church’s mission to reveal God to the world through the message of the cross.

Without running the risk of sounding tribal here, I think Luther and Bonhoeffer got it right: “The most decisive thing Bonhoeffer took over from Luther was… [his] insistence on the solus Christus: the Christian thinks and speaks of God…only as she thinks and speaks of Jesus Christ….come low in humility to save.”[3]


 

[1] Craig L. Blomberg, The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 23,

[2] Scott Nash, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Macon Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2009)27.

[3] Philip G. Zieglar, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Theologian of the Word of God,” in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, ed. Keith L. Johnson & Timothy Larsen (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013), 24.

Josh is an award-winning faith and culture writer and the author of the upcoming book, God Incognito: Bonhoeffer's Theology of the Cross for the Trump Era and Beyond. He holds a master's degree in theology from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and is the recipient of the Dr. Ross and Carol Bailey Theology Award. He lives in Murillo, Ontario with his wife and their two adorable daughters and has a column at ChristianWeek.org.

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