Oh what a flash back! This was a picture of me when I first adopted the doctrines of grace around 18, and even up until a few years ago. I was very much of this mindset and demeanor when discussing theology. I was the most stubborn, argumentative, spit-fire, theological pit bull around anyone who would put up the slightest fight, and sometimes even around those who wouldn't. Id often boast in my knowledge, and become very arrogant and pretentious. I'm honestly amazed that the mentors I had continued to be patient and teach me and work with me. In some ways those impulses are still a part of my personality, but I am thankful that there has been large evidences (to other people) that I have grown and matured. I'm always up for a theological sparring contest, but there is a time and a place and a demeanor for that, and it is often very limited and sparse in it's appropriateness. There is much more pressing needs often than debating theology, and in a debate there are very important things to understand before, during, and after. In retrospect I can make a few observations as I have concerns but also a lot to be encouraged by as well.
One of the first things that came to my mind as I thought through this was the very common point that many people often have when they get into a more heated discussion or debate. There is a very real presence of the need to be right. I know that it has been a common motivation for me in the past, and I have seen it evidenced in others. There is a lot of pleasure that can be received when you think you have "beat" someone in a debate. I have felt this and basked in this pleasure. The funny thing is that often times when you have this sense of accomplishment, it is evident to the one who was discussing things with you that you have no idea what they were saying, and your argument didn't so much "win" as it did assume a self declared victory and walk away with no real understanding of why a person believes what you failed to understand. I have done this many times, and thankfully I have been humbled many times when I have actually studied what they advocated and realized I was just plain ignorant of what they were saying. This doesn't always translate to me adopting and advocating their belief, but I finally understand what they were trying to get across. It is dangerous, very dangerous, when your goal in debates is to win. I have learned, and am still learning in many regards, that debates are great tools to sharpen your own intellect, and to learn from one another, but the goal should always be to understand the opposing view. There should be a mindset of becoming more scriptural and more knowledgeable of your weakness and their strengths. The ultimate goal in theological debates should be mutual understanding and conformity of your mind and thoughts to scripture. You can legitimately (or illegitimately) win a debate and still be wrong. You're probably not as smart as you think you are.
This leads right into my second observation. Never assume that you know all there is to know on ANY subject. One of the biggest turning points in the way i viewed myself, and also the way I treated and respect others, was when I realized that I was not a wizard fount of supreme knowledge. I could be wrong, and I could be proven wrong often looking back. Sometimes I could be proven wrong simply by my excess of words being responded to by humiliatingly few words that cut to the core of my being. There are definitely people whom you may out debate and cause them to reconsider their views. If you are right, then praise God if you cause them to be more biblical. However never forget that they might be right not be the best communicator, or they also just might not be as knowledgeable as they thought and you just happened to be God's tool to humble them and make them realize that they need to study more themselves. I am convinced it is the times that you believe you are smarter than most people that God loves to bring someone into your life that will lay you flat and humble you (as a tool to grow and learn!). There is a wonderful point when you switch from thinking you have a great sum of knowledge, and then you realize sooner or later (by further study often times) that you actually know very little and have so much more to learn than you ever thought. Once you reach this point, that actually means that you are usually smarter than you were when you thought you knew everything! Especially when it comes to the study of theology, the more you know the more you know you don't actually know. The closer you get to God, the more you see you are a finite being with a finite mind trying to understand an infinite being! It's quite fun if you have a thirst for knowledge when you reach this point as it is very much like jumping off a diving board into what you thought was a pool to find out that you are actually swimming in an ocean! The more you know about God, the more amazed and in awe of just how grand and awe inspiring and breath taking He actually is! If you get to the point where you know you don't know much, then keep learning! It truly is rewarding.
At this point there should be a very serious word of warning. There are considerations for people who do have a thirst for knowledge. Knowledge can be a terribly deadly danger. As the apostle Paul warns the Corinthians, "we know that 'all of us possess knowledge.' This 'knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. (1 Cor 8.1-3)" We do not know what Paul was responding to, as it appears to be an answer to something they wrote to him. But the warning is applicable as a general rule regardless. We ought to remember that this was not a man who was speculating, or commenting as a spectator. This was the Pharisee who studied at the feet of Gamaliel who we know was a man of great honor to all the Jews, and Paul affirms he was a very rigorous and strict student of the law. But all of his status by birthright and teaching he counted it all as loss for the sake of knowing Christ and him crucified! It is very possible to attain vast knowledge about God, but have absolutely no relationship with him, and what does that accomplish for you other than eternal damnation. Christ often addressed the Pharisees and those seeking righteous from the keeping of the law as broods of vipers (Mt 3.7, 12.34 and 23.33), sons of Satan and many other curses. There is also the danger that attaining large amounts of knowledge can cause you to over think things and lose sight of the simplicity of the gospel! Christ said that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the children and exalted the faith of a child right before he addressed the rich young ruler. What does this imply other than sometimes growing up into adulthood, and all of the trappings that come with that, can hinder your understanding of what it means to follow Christ. In the case of the rich young ruler it was his wealth, but obviously the same teaching can be applied to the Pharisees in regard to their knowledge. Do you love how much you know about God, or do you love God? Does your thirst for knowledge cause you to lose sight of the pure simplicity of the gospel? Have you forgotten to call on the Lord, or to repent and believe, or to follow Christ? We must make neither the error of making knowledge our idol nor of missing the simplicity of the gospel.
One other observation I have is that we should never stop seeking to learn from one another. The book I was reading that my friend picked up is a call for the church to stop fragmenting over minute details and starting to work towards creating unity. Small steps at first among like minded believers, but then as we progress starting to really engage each other and work our some of our theological differences. But he did talk about how we must be ready to see the strengths in those different from us, as well as being able to accept the weaknesses in our own traditions. One of the parts of the book that impressed on me recently was simply when he was discussing the differences between the Arminian and the Calvinist. He said that there was both a real theological difference as well as a difference in emphasis from human responsibility (free will) and divine sovereignty (election). One of the observations he made was refreshing, as it has been on my mind the past few years.
In preaching it is not a matter of whether the hearer has this or that kind of ability, but simply whether he "can" or "cannot" properly respond to the message. Some Calvinist preachers go out of their way to inform the unbeliever that he "cannot" come to Christ. Arminians typically seek to inform him that he "can," and that he is therefore responsible to do so. Faced with those two alternatives, I am inclined to believe that the Arminian presentation is more biblical...To tell unbelievers that they "cannot" come to Christ, while true in a sense, is to encourage passivity on their part. It tells them to wait and see if God will do something to them. That is not the biblical pattern...On the other hand, the Arminian pattern of telling unbelievers that they "can" come to Christ and are therefore responsible is true in a sense and does properly encourage a response of faith...My own conclusion, then, is that Arminian preaching is far better than Arminian theology, better than some of the worst forms of Calvinistic preaching. If now and then more serious errors enter Arminian sermons, I must be honest and recognize that serious errors often enter Calvinistic sermons as well.It was very refreshing to hear a Calvinist theologian who was honest enough to point out where people from our tradition can fall short in theology and where there are aspects in different theological traditions that we can, and should, learn from. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and we will never start to tear down the walls that divide us until we humble ourselves, admit our weaknesses and other peoples strengths. We might be surprised when we start to see how much other traditions pick up on aspects of scripture that we might have missed altogether. This mentality comes from the ability to be teachable, which is needed so very much in our church today.
Needless to say, after the conversation tonight I was reminded a lot of myself and struggles I have had (and might still have to one degree or another). I was also encouraged to see someone who is rising up in the generation behind me but who also stands out among his peers with his zeal and his passion for truth. I think there is a lot of passion and zeal, that given more time and more wisdom, could turn out to become very fruitful. I am thankful for the men and women who have, through the years, put up with me as I have a history of being over zealous and combative myself. Such a self-realization has led to me seeing the need to be patient and work with those who seem to be made of the same mold as me. I think we could all do a lot of good if we took stock of where we have come from, how much we have grown (and how much farther we have to go still) and finally applied it to those who may be mirrors of our past. We might be able to keep them from making the mistakes we have made, and who knows what they may be able to accomplish. After all, "love builds up".