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The Risk of Serious Debate

Gregory E. Reynolds

Some will say I am foolish to invite discussion of topics that within the Reformed community are hot topics—that is, the kind that tend to generate more flames than illumination. My imperfect efforts have met with mixed success. However, I am confident that such discussion is one of the most important ingredients in the forging of what we know as Reformed theology. This was true in the past as a study of the history of doctrine will readily establish. The risk of being at least singed, if not burned, by the flames of the interaction of theological debate is well worth the result. Flames temper steel. As the proverb observes, "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" (Prov. 27:17). The debate is out there, so it is no use to ignore it. It is hoped that this controlled format will help keep the flame of this debate on a slow, illuminating burn. Thus, I have chosen to let several of our best theologians engage each other on the topic of union with Christ.

There are at least two kinds of challenges that have proved the occasions for doctrinal refinement and definition: internal and external. They have not always been easily distinguishable. The external come in the form of direct challenges to the faith. The internal are in-house debates that refine our understanding of the faith. The latter require a collegiality that is becoming rare in the modern world. Where niceness is the ultimate virtue, disagreements become the ultimate threat to peace and camaraderie. On the other hand, where a passion for truth, as the witness of the confessing church, is the ultimate virtue, meaningful debate will lend clarity to our articulation of God's revelation. To be sure, there is a gray area at the boundaries of confessional orthodoxy where the discussion is joined. But this ought to be considered a kind of demilitarized zone until the debate clarifies what is orthodox and what is not. Sometimes this may take several generations, as did the Trinitarian and Christological debates of the early church.

If we are incapable of engaging in such debate, it seems to me that our theological tradition is doomed to a kind of fractiousness that will render us truly irrelevant—that is, with no voice outside our own small circle. Furthermore, while we are discussing important issues, we must affirm, and reaffirm, what is clear in the confessional consensus we already affirm. I also believe that some—perhaps at times a large part—of our discussion reveals our ignorance of what once has been understood by the Reformed churches. Many, perhaps most, of us in the OPC have come from outside the Reformed tradition, and often with no confessional heritage at all. So, while it may be true, as Machen insisted, that ours is not a creed-making age, at the very least our debates should help us rediscover what has been forgotten.

Writer John Updike once observed that it is in the middle space between two extremes that one finds the real action and interest. So the risk of theological overstatement should be worth the light it may shed on the truth somewhere in the middle. The union with Christ debate in our circles seems to me to be just such a debate. I am concluding that there is much to be learned from both sides; and there are some extremes that need to be avoided, especially in our preaching. This is where the terse doctrinal summaries of our Confession and Catechisms can keep us on course. This analogy is meant to illuminate the nature of theological debate, and not in any way suggest that we soften our stand on the truth. Confessional truth, it seems to me, has always been arrived at in just this way, through thoughtful, respectful discussion within the bonds of the trusting and loving fellowship of the visible church. Until an ecclesiastical formulation—or perhaps understanding of what has already been formulated—is arrived at, every ear ought to be open, carefully listening.

So let's take the risk of debate together. I have no dog in this fight, just lots of esteemed fathers and brothers in the faith seeking to disciple the nations in the truth of Scripture. Let us commend one another's work for consideration, especially when we disagree.

Ordained Servant, March 2009.