Saturday, September 25, 2021

Theological Controversy

With the publication of William Lane Craig’s new book In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration, fresh volleys of theological cannon fire are making their way across the pitch. Discussions about the age of the earth and interpretation of Genesis 1-11 tend to create fierce battles among many Christians in the west. The fight is most intense in the Evangelical Protestant sector. That disputation should occur amongst the faithful is not particularly surprising considering church history and practical realities. However, the level of intensity and vitriol often accompanying disputations about Adam and Genesis 1-11 is something that still catches me off guard and leads to fits of despair.

Like many important issues of late, the Adam/Genesis dialogue reminds us how far charity can be subverted for the sake of dogma. Exasperating habits from the social media-fueled civic-political sphere threaten to corrupt inter-Christian dialogue on theological matters. For example, the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mindset is on full display. The idea is that any position contrary to your own is an existential threat. That ‘giving an inch will always yield a mile taken’. That the person on the other side of the argument is to be despised because their opposition to your position consists in their diminishment of your humanity. And so forth. Christians should be wary in borrowing the mudslinging, straw-manning techniques so frequently used in the secular sphere. 

The standard line here is that we should not lose our public witness for the faith, the saving grace of God in Christ must be at the forefront of our words and deeds. Unbelievers and those seeking truth and looking for answers are watching how we conduct ourselves. It is not good enough to simply ask the person intrigued but not yet committed to Christ to suspend their current observations of Christians as they traverse the marketplace of ideas. Now, I certainly believe that the reason people should come into the faith is, ultimately, because it is true. The church is full of redeemed sinners who are not yet perfected. The non-Christian should not look for an artificial standard of perfection. Nonetheless, to become a Christian is to enter a new family. It is adoption. And we can make this new prospective family very unattractive to those who are not yet members.  

For some very odd reason, Christians of certain theological persuasion tend to come across as being continuously threatened. There is a chip on their shoulder. As Christians, we must strive to present ourselves as a non-threatened people. After all, this is who we truly are if we are in Christ. Not even death has hold of us. If an atheist brings an argument against the existence of God, the reaction should not be anger, frustration, or annoyance. If the person down the street plants a flag supporting LGBTQ rights and if the entire news media and popular entertainment are saturated with such messaging, it is not an existential threat to us. Standing for truth and our beliefs and doing so in a way that is not threatened is both a logical and practical possibility. Reacting to disagreements from inside and outside the faith can be done in a Christ-like way. There should be no lowering of standards. Our first reaction, when confronted with disagreement, should not be denunciation as heresy. When heresies are in fact encountered, we should address them in the spirit of grace with reconciliatory goals.

We could do a great deal of psychologizing about why some Christians, even if a vocal minority, act out in such ways as to rashly condemn those in the faith with whom they disagree on certain issues. I don’t think that would be a fun or fruitful exercise. One of the most difficult apologetic tasks is trying to explain why Christianity is seemingly so scattered and suffering from disunity. One can only get so much mileage out of “mere Christianity”. Certainly, Christians are united in affirmations of the Apostles or Nicene Creed. Or perhaps even Chalcedon. But when we tear each other apart in uncharitable ways, the “mere Christianity” car starts sputtering. 

I suggest that a path forward will require a deeper commitment at the local church, university, and ecclesial levels to more education and dialogue with other Christians. It will require local pastors to recognize the ultimately self-defeating nature of having a chip on our shoulder and teach this to their congregations from the pulpit and other teaching sessions. If our beliefs are so easily threatened, then how much do we know or strongly affirm them? If your local church is young-earth creationist, it will not help the cause to simply plug your ears and denounce other churches or members that hold contrary views. And vice versa for churches that do not hold young-earth creationism. It is far too easy to paint caricatures and pretends to know the strongest points from the other side. I think if we can commit to deepening our knowledge of contrary positions, we will be forced in most cases to respect them more. As someone who is not a young-earth creationist, I have benefitted greatly from professors, pastors, and friends, not to mention the voluminous literature, that argue carefully and respectfully on the exegetical principles and applications leading to such a conclusion. 

It has been said, “I have seen the enemy, and he is me.” May this be the case for repentance and faith in Christ and not representative of interfaith dialogue, even on ‘hot button' issues. 

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