5 Tips for Finding Your Theological Balance
If you asked me to name my theological pet peeves, right near the top would be what I call pendulum-swing theology. This process usually occurs when you grow up hearing one particular view of something, get sick of it, and then swing to the opposite extreme. For example, you grow up a hyper-Calvinist, something happens, and you swing to open theism. You see this swing a lot in atonement theology, too. Sometimes, when evangelicals who've grown up on a steady diet of penal substitutionary atonement discover Jesus actually did some other things, too—like defeat the powers, demonstrate God's love, and so forth—they end up chucking penal substitution altogether instead of carefully integrating each truth into a holistic doctrine of reconciliation. Martin Luther described the history of theology as a drunk man getting on his horse only to fall off the other side—and then repeating the process. This problem irks me.
So finding evenhanded treatments of just about any subject is one of my greatest delights. A sense for balance is one of the highest virtues a theologian can possess, while a lack of balance is a serious vice. In trinitarian theology, for example, focusing on God's oneness over his threeness, or vice versa, leads to either modalism or tritheism—neither of which works with the gospel. In fact, they both destroy it. In Christology, too, the Chalcedonian definition keeps us from tipping into an overemphasis on the Son's divinity or humanity to the exclusion and distortion of the other. Again, lose your balance, you lose the gospel. God is both immanent and transcendent; tip one way or the other and you end up with either a soggy pantheism or a cold deism—neither of which works well with the gospel. You see how this works?
That said, it's important to be balanced even with our love for balance in theology. Bruce Ware explains this point in his foreword to Rob Lister's excellent, balanced book on the doctrine of impassibility:
Theological balance, like physical balance, is normally a sign of health and well-being. The reason such balance is "normally" but not exclusively best is simply that, in some situations, imbalance is clearly required. So physically, balancing equally on both legs with sustained upright posture is normally best, yet if one wishes to dive into a swimming pool, one must embrace the imbalance of leaning altogether forward—a position that if done "normally" would result in endless bloody noses and skull fractures. (16)
In all sorts of areas, balance is good, but sometimes there's no balance to be had. Ware reminds us specifically of the Reformation solas. Christ is not one among many mediators, or else he isn't Savior. We aren't saved by God's grace and our merit. It can't be God's glory and ours. And, of course, as soon as we elevate other authorities alongside Scripture, we begin to lose sight of biblical proportion.
Indeed, there are times when balance is no virtue, but a gospel-destroying vice. The gospel requires a few headlong plunges. In other words, a true sense of balance will recognize that there are times for both/ands along with times for either/ors. Knowing the difference between the two is crucial to avoiding heresy and preserving the gospel.
Finding your theological balance indeed can be difficult, so here are five tips for those of us still in process.
1. Read your Bible like crazy.
You can't know the Scriptures too well. And by "knowing the Scriptures" I don't just mean the canon-within-a-canon you've chosen for yourself out of three Pauline epistles and a Gospel, or from the books of Matthew and James. Get a few prophets, Old Testament narratives, and even some Torah in there. God gave us 66 books to reveal himself, so ignoring bits will inevitably leave you off-balance. Get this one wrong and the rest won't matter.
2. Read more than one theologian.
Focusing on that one pastor or thinker to the exclusion of others is a recipe for imbalance. As a limited, fallible human, your hero will be myopic somewhere. Expand your horizons. Read outside your tradition a bit. Wander outside your century. Who knows what gems you'll find?
3. Read the key irenic, broadly focused theologians.
Every theologian has hobby-horses and pet issues, but some are well known for their controversies and others for their broad, even-keeled treatments of issues. Look for those theologians who are widely consulted even across traditional boundaries. If there's a Methodist or Catholic being quoted by a Reformed theologian, like Thomas Oden, go ahead and pick him up.
4. Read the key polemical theologians.
I've recently set myself the task of reading some key theologians in the early church controversies: Ireneaus against the Gnostics, Athanasius against the Arians, Cyril against the Nestorians, Augustine against the Pelagians, and so forth. These teachers demonstrated an ability to defend or preserve some necessary tension—some holy imbalance—in the faith. The ability to defend one issue clearly is often a sign of a good grasp on the whole.
5. Read about more than one subject.
This one should be obvious, but if you fixate on one issue, no matter how central it is, you'll have balance issues. It's okay to give sustained attention to interesting or key subjects, but if I've only ever read about the cross and never the resurrection or the ascension, I'll have a skewed view of Christ's person and work. What's more, narrow reading usually obscures a fuller understanding of the couple of subjects I do study since every doctrine is only meaningful within the framework of the whole.
I could easily list more, but the point is, don't be that drunk guy falling off his horse. Study widely, read deeply, and constantly check yourself against the whole of Scripture. Do that, and you may just begin to find your balance.