To say that we evangelicals haven’t always engaged in respectful dialogue with folks representing other perspectives is to put it mildly. But there are clear signs that things are improving, in at least some parts of the evangelical world. The presence of many evangelical voices as a part of the impressive mix here at First Things is an obvious case in point. And I have been impressed by the enthusiasm for intellectual give-and-take among evangelical undergraduates. On one campus where I spoke recently, several of the students used the “Iron sharpens iron” phrase in testifying to their fondness for serious engagement with opposing viewpoints.
While those students were putting the adage to good use in their studies, it is not without its dangers. It could also be used to reinforce a defensively combative posture. A person who emerges from a battle with an enemy, for example, can rightly claim that “iron has sharpened iron,” since what it took for him to defeat him enemy made him stronger in his commitment to the cause—ideological, say, or patriotic—than he was before the battle started.
In my years at Fuller Seminary, where we typically have well over a hundred denominations (and “none of the above” ecclesial configurations) in our student body, I have come to rely on two analogies for the benefits theological diversity yields. One is the notion of medical specializations. A practitioner of preventative medicine looks at things differently than a surgeon does. Oncologists focus on different aspects of our physical being than pediatricians do. In the big picture, all of these medical specializations have their place. This is why it is always important to consider getting a “second opinion” when dealing with a medical problem. And in weighing conflicting professional recommendations, it is necessary to take the specializations of the recommenders into account.
Specialization is also a good thing in theology. I have to confess that I have not given much attention in my career as an ethicist to the Sermon on the Mount. I am much more of a “Sinai commandments” thinker when it comes to charting out the proper paths of a godly moral life. My Mennonite friends, on the other hand, focus intensely on the Sermon on the Mount. I have learned to take them seriously on this subject, as a corrective to the relative lack of attention given to these teachings of Jesus in my own tradition.
A second helpful analogy is the system of religious “orders” in Catholicism. It is misleading to contrast—as often happens—the “unity” of Catholicism with the “dividedness” of multi-denominational Protestantism. Catholicism encompasses many different orders, each with its own set of special vows, and each promoting distinctive missions and virtues. Jesuit life and thought are different from those of the Franciscans. Dominicans are different from Carmelites, and Benedictines from Claretians.
I see my own commitment to Calvinism as something like committing to a theological specialization and taking some special spiritual-theological vows. A high school student wrote to me recently for advice on the differences between Calvinists and Arminians. She was being educated in her Christian high school to think like a Calvinist, but she wanted to explore the Wesleyan-Arminian perspective in the most “civil” manner (she had read my book on civility) in a term paper she was writing.
I told her that I think of the differences in this way. We Calvinists have taken a special vow to protect at all costs the idea of God's sovereignty, whereas Wesleyans have taken a special vow to protect the idea of human free will. This means that we Calvinists would rather run the risk of limiting human freedom than to give the impression that we are detracting from God’s sovereign control over all things, whereas Arminians would rather risk challenging God’s sovereignty than to deny our responsibility for our basic choices in life. These respective vows work best when each side knows when it goes too far, acknowledging that we have to live with some mystery on the subject. (She liked my answer, and asked me to pray that her Calvinist religion teacher would like it as well when he read her paper!)
My experience in engaging the diversity of spiritualities and theologies of the evangelical world has been greatly enriched by seeing things in these terms. Lutherans are an “order” organized around a strong commitment to the idea of justification by faith alone. Pentecostals have taken a vow to honor the power of the Holy Spirit in a special way. Nazarenes want to remind all of us of the biblical call to “holiness unto the Lord.” Mennonites model for all of us what it means to walk “the Way of the Cross.” And so on.
None of this is meant, of course, to deny that there are some very bad theological ideas at work in the world—and certainly within evangelicalism! But when I encounter a teaching that I find strange, and even offensive, I remind myself to ask what specialization might be at work in the other person’s way of viewing things, and how I might learn from it. To be sure, many of my fellow Christians will see that as too messy a way of dealing with theological disagreements. But I have also take a vow to live with a certain degree of messiness in my theology!
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.