Siouxlands Presbytery Study Committee Report

The affirmations and denials are not all directed at specific statements of FV/NPP advocates. The reason for this is that just about every single time someone says “The FV says this,” FV proponents say “no, they don’t.” So, many of them are directed against more general implications (and practical outworkings of what happens) of their theology. Todd, with regard to comment 4 [comment 4 reads: ‘The FV major players would all agree with the vast majority of this report’], the point is not that they would *say* they disagree with it, so much as that their theology actually does disagree with it. This point has been raised again and again in the discussions on my blog: the issue is not whether NPP/FV advocates *say* they agree with the WS, but whether their theology is compatible with it.

So writes Lane Keister (see comment 5 following the post). I am reminded of a comment by John Owen regarding the uncharity of judging people according to the supposed implications of their theology when they themselves do not draw such implications. Just because a certain statement leads to heretical conclusions within the logic of your theological system does not mean that it leads to such conclusions within the systems of others.

My advice to the opponents of the FV and NPP is to listen carefully to what the proponents of such positions are insisting that they are not saying and explore that common ground. It is far greater than may first be thought. The heat of the present debates largely results from people jumping to conclusions regarding the implications of the FV and the NPP, conclusions that should be questioned, given the fact that FV and NPP proponents do not in fact draw the feared implications. I am well aware of why many of the opponents of the NPP and the FV are afraid of what to them are apparent implications of the movements (I use this term very loosely). If I thought that such positions were really implications of the movements I would be deeply concerned too.

A little Christian charity and benefit of the doubt would go a long way here. When FV and NPP proponents say that they reject certain apparent implications of their positions, it would be great if people would take them at their word, and not suggest that they hold to positions that they strenuously deny. Dialogue could begin by a clear statement of the fact that certain feared implications are out of bounds and the heat of the debate could thereby be significantly reduced. It would then be possible to begin to explain the inner logic of NPP and FV positions, which prevent them from going in dangerous directions.

So many of the discussions that have resulted when I have articulated positions related to those of the FV and NPP have begun with wild accusations being thrown at me, as people have jumped to conclusions and assumed that, since I hold X, I must hold Y and Z as well. Baptismal regeneration is a great doctrine for provoking such reactions. In my experience, many of those with whom I have talked for a greater period of time have ended up stepping back from most of their original conclusions. Whilst they still disagree with me at the end of the conversation, they have realized that the implications that they initially perceived to follow do not necessarily do so. Unfortunately many are too dismissive to listen long enough and carefully enough to clear up such misconceptions.

I must confess to having been hurt by many of the accusations that have been levelled against me in various contexts for holding the positions that I do, particularly when these accusations have come from people who are closer to me. Paranoia can prevent us from exercising Christian charity and asking the questions that might prevent misunderstanding. It has been a blessing to interact with some people who have not jumped to the conclusion that I hold to a certain set of implications for some of my beliefs. Instead they have questioned me about whether I hold these implications and, when I reveal that I don’t, have asked me to explain why, so that they might understand where I am coming from.

Whilst I definitely have some substantial theological differences with the Presbyterian opponents of the FV and NPP, the thing that frustrates me most in dialogue with them is that so much common ground is left unexplored because they are forever tilting at windmills. If we were permitted to lay to rest the illusory enemies that their imaginations have conjured up we might discover that it is possible to live in peace.

I know from experience that a conversation that begins with accusations that spring from paranoia, rather than clear understanding seldom reaches a successful conclusion. A conversation that begins with suspicion and accusation is almost doomed to end nastily. The response of the person who is accused will often be characterized by anger, fear and aggresion. When someone comes at you with their heretic-killing sword drawn, the fight or flight instinct tends to kick in and the possibility of reasonable debate goes out of the window. Having been at the receiving end of such behaviour I know that I have often responded in an ungracious and unChristian manner. I have said hurtful things, things that were unhelpful and inappropriate.

This is why it is such a blessing to dialogue with people who go to great effort to believe the best, whilst wanting to be clear about what I do and do not hold. It is not the first time that I have said this, but I believe that the present debates would not have reached the scale that they have had this approach been adopted from the outset. Much of the current mess is the result of an underlying failure in Christian charity, and not just on one side of the debates.

The debates easily collapse into a mimetic spiral where uncharitable opponents are responded to be uncharitable proponents. This has to be stopped sometime, before it goes too far. The polarization that results does none of us any good. I have been blessed with a few theologically-minded friends, who hold quite different positions from those which I hold on a number of issues. These friends frequently criticize my positions and challenge me in areas where they perceive imbalance and I do the same to them. Such critics are invaluable and we all need them. However, contexts in which such criticism can exist are very fragile and depend upon the preservation of Christian charity.

This is one of the greatest problems in Internet debate. When we are personally acquainted with someone we are far less inclined to demonize them. Unfortunately, people who would never respond to someone in a rude fashion in a face-to-face conversation find it easy to do so on an Internet forum or blog comment. The anonymity of the Internet and the lack of physical presence to the other makes the cultivation of charity far harder. We tend to be a lot more gracious and charitable to people when our acquaintance is mediated by more than a computer. The fact that the Internet has been such a driving force in these debates and that so many of the condemnations of the FV and NPP have involved little or no face-to-face contact or personal acquaintance with the proponents of the position should go some way to explaining the tone that the debate has taken.

I believe that these debates have got mired down in misunderstanding and aren’t going to get anywhere soon. The accusations of heresy that have been levelled against the FV and NPP are unfair and remain unsubstantiated. The fact that FV and NPP proponents protest against the accusations is not an attempt at evasion, but springs from the conviction that they are being seriously misrepresented, a conviction that is not uncommonly mingled with anger and fear. We should not forget that personal vocations are on the line for a number of people involved in these debates. Many of us have had friendships jeopardized by these debates and have been considered heretical by people who are close to us on account of unsupported claims that have been made about the theology of men such as N.T. Wright. We have been hurt and have felt betrayed and falsely accused. If the accusers of the FV and NPP had serious theological charges levelled against them, charges that they considered unjustified, they would probably feel much the same.

I am sure that I am not the only one who would love to see a new stage of the debates beginning, one characterized by Christian charity and a willingness to believe the best, one that resists accusing FV and NPP proponents of certain apparent implications of their theology, but rather one that seeks to establish clear common ground from which differences can be explored and seeks carefully to understand the logic underlying the differences before it ever begins to criticize. Such an approach would make sure that FV and NPP proponents did not feel misrepresented (and I can honestly say that most FV and NPP proponents I know are not just claiming to be misrepresented because people disagree with their theology), but that they were properly understood before they were criticized.

Such criticism could first come, not in the form of knee-jerk accusations (such as those which started the whole FV affair), but as brotherly concern over imbalance and possible error. Such an approach would invite FV and NPP proponents to correct some of the various imbalances that exist in their theologies, without the need to drop any ‘H’-bombs. It would invite them to articulate their positions with more clarity to avoid dangerous potential implications, to lay to rest certain misunderstandings and to take some of the important concerns of others on board (I am convinced that the FV and the NPP are imbalanced, taken by themselves). Within such a dialogue the parties could move closer together in many ways and the polarization that characterizes the present debate could be largely avoided.

Such charitable dialogue would establish the places where substantial and unresolvable disagreements do exist far more successfully than the current debates, where such charitable dialogue really has not taken place. In the current situation the heat of the debate makes it hard to clearly locate the substantial disagreements within all of the dust that is thrown up by the various parties. Oliver O’Donovan recently gave some thoughts on the debates surrounding homosexuality that are far more appropriately applied (in my humble opinion) to debates like those over the FV and NPP:—

The old-style liberalism that used to preside over the church’s dilemmas in a confident spirit of practical compromise began from the assumption that everyone was divided from everyone else by recalcitrant disagreements. The Lord, the liberals prophets announced, had sent a perpetual famine of his word. We should stop asking questions of one another and hoping for answers, and eat the dry bread of commonsense compromises. Those who remember Pentecost may reasonably doubt that this was ever the wisest counsel for the church. But at the very least we cannot know whether and how much of a famine of the word there is in any disagreement until we submit it to the disciplines of patient common enquiry. No disagreement refuses to be analysed, and its constituent elements sorted out according to size and shape. No disagreement does not lure us on with the hope, however distant, of a genuine resolution. Can we promise ourselves, then, that if the churches would only discuss homosexuality long and fully and widely enough, they would end up agreeing? Well, we are not entitled to rule out that possibility. But suppose it were not true; suppose that after careful exploration and a search for common ground, there was an agreement-resistant core at the centre of the issue – a problem about how modernity is viewed, for example, or about the ontological status of self-consciousness – it might still be possible to set the residual disagreement in what the ecumenists like to call “a new context”, and (who knows?) learn how to live with it. We have a parallel in the difference between indissolubilist and non-indissolubilist views of marriage, a traditional point of tension between Catholic and Protestant. That disagreement has not gone away; but if today it bulks less threateningly than it once did, that is because we are so much more clear about the extent of the agreed ground all around it – God’s intentions for marriage, the pastoral desiderata in dealing with broken marriage etc etc. It no longer evokes threatening resonances. It is a problem reduced to its true shape and size.

There are no guarantees. There never are in the Christian life. But that is not a reason not to try. And seriously trying means being seriously patient. Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge and clarification, has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time.

I am convinced that there are genuine differences between the FV and NPP proponents and their critics. However, I am equally convinced that, whatever differences exist have been so exaggerated in the consciousness of many that they badly need to be ‘reduced to their true shape and size’. I am convinced that, if such an approach were taken, we would also discover that it is possible to live with one another, despite our differences.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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