In his recent blog post, “Fear Leads to Anger: Unpacking Theological Belligerence“, Peter Enns writes:
“Belligerence in theological discussions is a reaction to a deep fear—typically unperceived—that one’s metanarrative is under threat.
Let me put that in English: People fight about their views of God because they are afraid of the consequences of being wrong. Being wrong about God is fearful because it destabilizes their way of looking at the universe and their place in it. People tend to fight when frightened this way.”
I would like to follow this train of thought a bit further. Enns suggests (and I think rightly) that we fight because we’re afraid of being wrong. And that we’re afraid of being wrong because it destabilizes our “way of looking at the universe,” and perhaps most importantly, our “place in it.”
My question is, why does being wrong have this effect? When we find out that we’ve been mistaken on a theological point, or any point for that matter, our metanarrative inevitably undergoes a change. This happens all the time as finite creatures who learn and develop. It is not something to be feared or lamented; it is natural and to be expected. Our understanding is a dynamic process. Our metanarratives were never meant to be static.
I suspect that being wrong is such a fearful thing because somewhere along the line the idea of salvation through faith developed into the idea that it is our understanding which secures our eternal destiny (i.e. our place in the universe). Instead of thinking that our standing with God is dependent upon what we do, we now often think that it is dependent upon what we believe. To admit then that what we believe currently may be wrong is to admit insecurity about one’s current standing before God; and that is indeed a fearful thing.
Believing the right thing is very important. Your faith is indicative of who has a hold of you, i would suggest, in much the same way as your works are. Right faith and right action indicate your belonging to the family of Abraham, whom God has graciously called, redeemed, and sent out as his ambassadors to the world.
Yet even heirs of Abraham, who are marked out by right action, will sometimes act wrongly and need to be corrected. This is simply due to the fact that discipleship is an ongoing process during which the first Adam’s likeness is supplanted by the second, piece by piece and bit by bit. These wrong actions, these bumps along the road, do not call into question one’s eternal destiny. They are to be expected.
In the same way, even heirs of Abraham, who are marked out by right belief, will sometimes believe wrongly and need to be corrected. These wrong beliefs should not be a cause for alarm. The cognitive road of discipleship is expected to be a bumpy one.
It is not our faith which secures our standing before God, but the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, to his mission as Christ, to lead us captives out of exile, through death and thereby into life. He takes hold of us, joins us to himself, and in our union with him we are adopted as sons and daughters of God. It is to him that we should look for our place in the universe, for our standing before God; because it depends on him and on him alone.
Our misunderstanding is apparently not helped by our English translations of the New Testament. According to the Greek expertise of both N.T. Wright and my wife, the phrase which is translated as “faith in Jesus” (e.g. Romans 3:22), can also be translated just as well if not better as “the faithfulness of Jesus”.
The faith that we have, the beliefs that we hold, do not cause our salvation. Rather they are indicative of the grace in which we stand thanks only to the faithfulness of the lamb who poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors, who bore the sin of many and makes intercession for us (Isaiah 53:12).
I believe that carefully keeping this distinction in mind would go a long way in fostering civility and collaboration in theological discussions. For when we stop depending on being right, we’ll no longer fear being wrong.