Reading Different Theological Traditions

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC, has many great one-liners. He’s gained wisdom through his years in life and ministry. Keller had this to say about reading:

When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice. (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/246271-when-you-listen-and-read-one-thinker-you-become-a)

I’d like to take a moment and step back so as to apply this quote to reading various theological traditions. Let me explain why I believe this is important (or, has been important in my own life).

I was raised in a conservative United Methodist church. While I don’t remember a great deal of theological instruction from the church, I can now think back through my theological lens and see why they did “church” the way they did. After my parents died during my early teen years, I found myself in a Pentecostal fellowship. Pentecostalism and the Wesleyan tradition have very similar roots, so my education in Wesleyan and Arminian thought continued. I was part of this tradition for almost a decade. Towards the end of my college life I was beginning to read and study Reformed thinkers. This reading led me out of an Arminian tradition into a Reformed/Calvinistic tradition, which is where I am today. I even graduated from Reformed confessional seminary. And, what am I doing now? I teach Bible and World Religions at a Christian high school, a non-denominational Christian high school. That means, I’m not there to convert people to Reformed theology; rather, Lord willing, I’m there to be an instrument by which the Holy Spirit plants seeds for conversion to Christ. And, I believe my experience and continued reading in various theological traditions does just that.

As I interact with students who have been raised in one tradition their entire lives, I get the idea that their beliefs (never mind how genuine) are cloned. Whether or not they have come to those conclusions and hold them dearly is tough to tell. While being entrenched in one tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does put blinders on the eyes. It is easy for us humans to begin thinking our theological traditions has all the answers. But, in reality, it obviously doesn’t. If our tradition were exactly right, you’d expect everyone to be part of our tradition. There are “unanswerables” out there. There are mysteries. There are areas where one must come to a conviction knowing arguments (and sometimes good ones) exist against their convictions. But, does it have to be this way?

What if everyone who is committed to a tradition of Christianity took the time to read others outside their own tradition. For me, that would mean reading theologians outside the Reformed world. How does that help? Well, as unique image bearers of the living God, seeing through others’ eyes helps me see more clearly through my own. I can get trapped into reading Scripture one way without seeing the insights of others. Reading various traditions also helps me see how others approach the Scriptures, and how they might come away believing they way they do. I’ve read from theologians who are at the center of orthodoxy and the fringes. I’ve read Open Theists, Arminian and Calvinist thinkers. I’ve read from those arguing traditional inspiration of Scripture and those who are questioning what “traditional inspiration” really is. I’ve come across those who emphasize (though not necessarily to an exclusion) social gospel, unreached missions, urban ministry, etc. I’ve read those who hold to eternal conscious punishment, conditional immortality, and universalism. I’ve read those who believe in a rapture, who are pre-mill, post-mill or a-mill. I suppose I could go on, but I think my point has been made.

How does this help? When my seniors or underclassmen ask questions, I don’t have to give them a single sided reply. Rather, I’m able to tell them how various strands of Christendom wrestle with certain issues. Do I necessarily think all of these strands are right? No. Do I give my opinion if the students ask? Yes. However, I believe it is my duty in my current work to show how varied the body of Christ is on various issues, just like an actual body has all sorts of different members (like hands, eyes, ears, etc.) Just like the whole body grants the fullest picture of what a human is, the various theological traditions help highlight what the church is. And, what is the church?

The church is the visible representation of Jesus on earth. The church is the hands and feet of Jesus. Though we are all seeking to be faithful with Scripture, we still find our disagreements. Yet, in those disagreements the world can see a unified church in the love of Christ, whatever the eschatalogical view of various bodies are. That’s the goal, right? How do you get varied groups to act as one? You have them actually engage with each other.

Keller was right. One tradition will make someone a clone. But, reading only two might confuse them. They might believe one is Christianity and the other is not. However, once you read ten, or one-hundred, you begin to see all the wonderful similarities Christians have across the theological spectrum. Wide reading shows love and compassion with those whom we differ because it shows them we love them enough to attempt understanding who they are and where they come from. That’s a good thing.

Don’t be a clone. Don’t be confused. Rather, read “to become wise and develop your voice.” (Tim Keller)

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