March 01, 2006

Theological Fencing

My wife reminded me of a piece of history that I'd learned and then promptly forgotten. In the early 1800s, in New Orleans, there were bands of aristocrat's sons who would roam the streets looking for duels. They had been well-trained in fencing, some by the top fencing instructors in France, and looked for opportunities to show their skill, and show off who their teachers were. Of course, the better fencers were trained by the better (read, more expensive) teachers.

These kids would walk around looking for opportunities to take offense with something that someone said or did, and challenge them to a duel. And the duel would begin in earnest -- unless the challenge was refused. If the challenge was refused, the challenge-ee was considered a wimp (or at least the 19th century equivalent of a wimp) and roundly mocked. I see this happening today, but with less physical violence. I'm talking about theological fencing. Someone is offended by something that someone else has said, and demands a public debate so that the whole world can know how wrong that person is. Sometimes, the debates take place on Internet forums, sometimes in more formal settings. But they seem to be for the same reasons.

To prove how wrong someone is. To show publically how they don't know what they're talking about.

Not long ago, I expressed my disappointment in the fact that the Mohler/Patterson discussion on Calvinism had been downgraded from a debate. I still think, in a perfect world, that debate would be a perfectly acceptable way to show conflicting views on a subject, and to attempt to come to a resolution. But I'm becoming increasingly aware that public debates usually end up getting very personal, with both sides insulting the other's position, credentials, committment to Christ, etc. This isn't a perfect world.

I'm a fencer. Actually, I'm a reforming fencer. 6 years ago, I would travel from forum to forum, waiting for a fight. Then I'd go after the person who disagreed with me, showing everyone in the world just how foolish they really were, and how much more I knew about everything. There was one forum (no longer operating) where I would log in every fifteen minutes when I was at home, just to see if my opponent had responded to me. But I reallized something.

Nobody was changing their mind. The debates were happening, debate skills were being shown off, but nothing was changing. People were sticking with their positions no matter what. If anything, the debates were making people dig their trenches deeper, so that they were not going to be moved no matter what. "My mind is made up -- don't confuse me with the facts!" was the slogan of the day on every side of every debate.

Soli Deo gloria should be our motto. And we need to ask ourselves if God is receiving the glory when we debate, or if we are. Are we exhibiting our love for God, or our debate skills? What are we doing this for?

So I'm a reforming fencer. I actually call myself a sniper now -- I will wait until a really ludicrous arguement is exposed, and then I'll take a shot. I don't get involved in extended battles now -- snipers don't duel. One or two shots, and we're done. It's not perfect, but it's easier than quitting cold turkey.

I'm starting to see that theological discussion -- actually talking about our differences, and how we can work together dispite them -- is preferable to theological fencing. Rhetoric isn't going to change someone's mind -- we need to establish that we can work together in spite of our differences, and let God convict of our doctrinal errors.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 04:32 PM | Comments (4) | Add Comment
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1 Thou doth wax philosophic.

Posted by: Greg at March 02, 2006 08:38 AM (PZjIq)

2 Well said my brother, For is not the Church which is His body One Body? Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Eph 4:4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; Eph 4:5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism, Eph 4:6 One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. Eph 4:7 But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. One Church! Grace and Peace, Dennis

Posted by: Dr. Dennis M. Callahan Th. D. at March 16, 2006 11:46 AM (uom/o)

3 Dear Warren, As soon as I saw you blog, I was attracted to it. Your article on theological fencing really stirred my interest. I love to discuss theology, and was hooked to read the whole thing. I couldn't agree more about how theological fencing is not only of little worth, but more often than not, it is counter productive. I have found at times that I knew a person's theology was weak, or outright fallacious, and I knew exactly how and where to place the winning jab. But in the end, those fencing matches elevate the ego, and divide brothers over matters that are not pillars of the faith. I am a missionary, and still to this day, across the board of all denominations, the number one reason missionaries leave the field, is unresolved conflict with people of their own culture, not the host culture. One time, at a church planting school, the leader assumed that every one in the room shared his personal opinion on a touchy issue, and made the pejorative comment that it was really about spiritual maturity, referring to those immature people who took the opposing side. Growing up we moved a lot and I have been and insider in Bible Methodist, Church of God Holiness, Independent Baptist, PCA, Church of Christ in Christian Union, Nazarene, Non-denominational/Bible, and EFCA. Living with missionaries in Russia from all different backgrounds, and all the experience in those churches has confirmed and reaffirmed that the real mark of maturity, is not whether a person is sprinkled or immersed, uses wine or grape juice, or believes that one can depart from faith or not, but how much grace that woman or man extends to the brother who believes differently, but is seeking God with his whole heart. A small minded man is one who only has friends who think and believe exactly like he, because it doesn't require him to love or think. I deeply appreciate your article. I will ask engage in dialogue and respectfully challenge or ask for clarification, but I can't agree with the "Goal of Christianity". Let's toss it around, what say you.

Posted by: Loren Ozanne at March 22, 2006 11:41 PM (DukCx)

4 Another thought on theological fencing; maybe done in the right spirit (hard to maintain over extended periods of debate) they are still needed. They require a good deal of work and usually show little reward as far as the opponent is concerned. However, even the choir needs preaching sometimes. And then there are the "lurkers" who perhaps gain assurance regarding salvation, for instance. The reasons for believing "once saved, always saved" can be written by memory by those of us who believe it. But for some, it is great revelation and help to hear this truth from God's Word. Others, who already believe it, may learn how to defend it. Peter stated that he was committed to reminding Christians of that which they already knew. Not as glamorous as winning many souls for Christ perhaps, yet a needed ministry anyway. Them's my thoughts! YBIC, Dennis Clough

Posted by: Dennis Clough at May 29, 2006 12:11 AM (I2Rnk)

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