Posted by: duncandrews | April 3, 2012

On throwing the baby out with the Barth-water

A few weeks ago I heard someone say that the path to disagreement is a sympathetic one. There’s a lot to like about that. As a broken human, I know that I don’t know as I ought to know, and, until I’m fixed up, I never will. The appropriate stance towards a friend who disagrees with me is therefore humility, and a willingness to listen sympathetically and with a genuine openness towards having my own blindspots exposed.

At the same time, disagreements need to be had. Epistemic humility doesn’t mean ontological relativism – while our own limitations and selfishness keep us from seeing reality clearly, that doesn’t mean there is no reality to see. We need to disagree, often vigorously; but if our path there is sympathetic, our disagreement will be more informed than reactionary, more passionate than gleeful, more concerned to love a friend than to win a contest.

Well, it’s been helpful to have these thoughts going round in my head this year as I’ve had the opportunity to engage with the writings of some of the great theologians of the past, including Schleiermacher, J. H. Newman, Warfield and Barth. Each of them in their own way has significantly influenced not just modern academic theology but on-the-ground Christian thinking and experience and to some extent society itself.

I might have some more to write later about these guys specifically, but what’s really challenged me is this broader issue of theological method – how we go about thinking God’s thoughts in community, with each other and with others who have come before, particularly others who are ‘not from our camp’.

Our lecturer reckons there are two ways of going about this: polemical and properly critical. Polemical engagement categorises. It groups people into camps and evaluates them on how closely they align to your own particular camp. There’s a place for this, and it’s important to recognise that we all all the time speak out of a particular context that colours what we say. The problem arises when this kind of critique becomes an excuse to dismiss the entire body of someone’s thought simply because of their own particular context and ‘camp’. To do that is to close the door to any mature Christian community and to any serious personal growth. In our arrogance we fail to genuinely submit ourselves to the refining furnace of Christian community. Even more seriously, at its worst this approach is idolatry of the self, a failure to recognise our own utter dependence and falleness.

In contrast properly critical engagement seeks to evaluate a person’s work firstly on their own terms. It means reading sympathetically, trying to understand a person’s own measures and testing if they are coherent to those measures. It  means testing the measures themselves as fairly as possible by the norm of Scripture.

The danger of purely critical engagement is that we can forget that truth matters, that the Gospel ought to be defended and proclaimed. We can forget that what’s at stake is life and death.

But we need to not forget the danger of pure polemic either: a stunted soul that sees itself as the benchmark for all truth.

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