I have been generally impressed by the way the brethren have conducted themselves over the past several days at Ref21 in debating vital issues regarding the presence of grace and merit in the covenant of works.
I do not offer this post, therefore, as a direct (or indirect) corrective to any of our esteemed bloggers. That said, theological controversy is not something at which contemporary Christians excel. It is therefore appropriate to step back from the specifics of the present debate to reflect a bit more generally upon how we should engage in the inevitable task of controversy in the church. What follows draws largely upon John Webster’s fine article, “Theology and the Peace of the Church” (chapter eight in his book, The Domain of the Word).
Fundamentally, a Christian approach to controversy must locate controversy within a larger framework that is defined by peace–the peace of God and the peace of God’s creatures. Though controversy is inevitable in the church that resides east of Eden and short of God’s eternal kingdom, and though controversy cannot be avoided by faithful ministers of the gospel, it is vital to remember that controversy does not belong to the metaphysical fabric of things. God is “the God of peace” (Rom 15.33; 16.20; Phil 4.9; Heb 13.20)–both in the eternal repose of his triune bliss and in the external works whereby he creates, governs, redeems, and perfects his creatures. Furthermore, “peace, not conflict, is the condition of creatures in both their original and their final states.” We were created in a state of peace. And God’s eternal city–our eternal home–bears the name of peace, “Jerusalem.”
Contrary to the nihilistic assumptions that drive modern Western culture, we are not by nature locked in a state of perpetual mortal combat–with the world, with other human beings, with God (cf. Gen 3.1-5!), where we must fight if we are to flourish. No. God is the God of peace. Peace is the foundation of our being. And peace will be the fulfillment of our being, as those who belong to the saving dominion of the “Prince of Peace” (Isa 9.6). Conflict does not belong to the metaphysical fabric of the universe. Conflict arises from the entrance of sin into the world (James 3.14-16; 4.1-2).
At least two implications for Christian controversy follow from this fundamental point.
First, Christian controversialists are always for something and only when the occasion requires it are they against something: “I am for peace,” the psalmist declares, “but when I speak, they are for war” (Psalm 120.7). Thus, according to Webster, “controversy will be fitting”
- when it is a work of charity, that is, of love of God and the gospel, and of our neighbours in the church to whom we are bound by common life in Christ;
- when it is an exercise in common discernment of divine truth, that is, of the object by which we are bound together as it shows itself to us to arouse delight and obedience; and
- when it arises from and tends toward peace, that is, the tranquil order of the saints whose hearts and minds are kept in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ.
Second, pursuing peace in the midst of controversy and by means of controversy requires that we become certain types of persons. As Webster observes, certain intellectual virtues are required of us, such as “self-restraint in dominating the minds and consciences of others,” “resistance to conceit,” “meekness, teachableness, and self-forgetfulness,” “appetite for the ‘spiritual sweetness’ of peace,” and “tolerance and calm in the face of legitimate theological diversity in our imperfect state” (1 Cor 13.9). Moreover, certain intellectual vices are to be opposed, such as “ambition and competitiveness, vain glory, censoriousness, the dissolution of intellectual powers by addictive curiosity (all of them chart-toppers among theologians’ sins, all of them corrosive to theology’s calling to seek peace and pursue it).”
The pursuit of such virtues and the opposition to such vices must not be confused with a quest for quietism in theology. Quite to the contrary, the existence of intellectual and moral falsehood calls for zeal, the “public passion for the truth.” Without zeal, “the church drifts into the indifference, weariness or irony of the late career religious professional” (!). But the zeal demanded of us in controversy is Christian zeal, zeal that arises from faith and hope in the God of peace. Webster explains: “Zeal in a world in which God’s peaceful judgement is utterly real is a very different undertaking from zeal in a world where evil will not be stopped unless I shout it down.”
As Christians, we must engage in controversy. But we must engage in controversy in the name of peace, armed with the virtues supplied by the confidence that, in the end, the God of peace and the peace of God will prevail in Christ Jesus.