Rules For Charitable Theological Discussion



In yesterday's post, I talked about the issue of theological fanboyism. In short, I argued that there is an epidemic of individuals online who simply repeat what their theological idols tell them to say. I pointed out that there are theological idols from all over the theological spectrum, ranging from John MacArthur to William Lane Craig to Thomas Jay Oord. But if we are not to simply parrot what our favorite teacher and/or theologian says, how are we supposed to engage in productive theological dialogue? In today's post, I would like to present four principles that will point us in the right direction.

Principle 1: Know Your Beliefs and Your Argument

The first principle that I would like to propose is that we know what we believe and why we believe what we do. Instead of simply parroting a position, we need to take some time to reflect on the position that we are promoting. If we do not understand our position, then why would we expect anyone else to? 

It isn't enough to just understand what our favorite theologians are saying, however. We need to understand why we hold to the doctrines that we do. For example, since I, as a Nazarene, affirm my belief in the Trinity, I need to be able to articulate why I hold this position. I should not only be able to point to the passages of Scripture that lead me to that conclusion, but I should also be able to articulate why these passages are Trinitarian in nature. I should be able to point to passages that are Trinitarian in nature, such as Matthew 28:18-20, John 14:6-27, and 1 Corinthians 8:6. In addition, it is also helpful if I can articulate why other passages, such as Deuteronomy 6:4, do not rule out the doctrine of the Trinity. 

One principle that I would recommend following is simply this: If you are going to defend a position, you need to be able to articulate, at least, what you think the strongest objection to that position is. To use the example of the Trinity above, I should at least understand what the strongest objection to the doctrine of the Trinity is. This does not mean that we have to accept the truth claims of such objections. Recognizing what we believe to be the strongest objection to our position is simply a way of recognizing that otherwise intelligent people can disagree with us on even fundamental issues.

Principle 2: Know What You Are Arguing Against

In addition to knowing what we believe and why, it is important that we know what we are arguing against. Even if we are not directly arguing against a position, when we claim that our position is true, it will imply, to some degree, that other positions are false. As an example, if Trinitarianism is true, then Unitarianism is false, because they will contradict each other logically at some point. If we are arguing against a position, it is important that we understand what we are arguing against.

How do we know that we understand another view well enough to argue against it? Here is a general rule to follow: If you cannot articulate an opposing position in a manner that would be recognizable to most people who hold that position, then you do not understand the opposing position well enough to critique it. In other words, if you cannot explain the position well, then you don't understand it well enough to argue against it.

An excellent example of this comes from a philosophy course I had to take for my undergraduate degree. Each student in the class was assigned a partner. Each pair of students was assigned a controversial ethical topic. Our group was assigned the topic of euthanasia. During week 1, one student was to write an essay in favor of the topic (ie, pro-euthanasia), while the other student was to write an essay against the topic (ie, anti-euthanasia). The next week, the students switched sides, arguing for the position that they argued against the previous week. During the third week, each pair of students came together to write a single essay giving a biblical view on the controversial topic. I am incredibly grateful to the professor of this class for helping us understand how important it is to understand the position that you are arguing against.

Principle 3: Assume the Best

A third principle for charitable theological discussion is to assume the best of those who disagree with you. We should not assume that those with whom we disagree have some kind of ulterior motive or evil intention. We should not assume that the other person is trying to waste our time. We should not assume that the other person is unintelligent or incapable of thinking through his or her position. These should not be our initial assumptions.

Of course, it could be possible that the person that you are having a theological discussion with is intentionally wasting your time, or trolling you, or doesn't really understand their position. I am not denying that this is sometimes the case. My point is that your initial assumption about the other person should not be one of these things. If one of these things is true about the other person, it will come out during the course of the discussion. We should assume the best about the other person unless and until we see some reason to do otherwise.

Principle 4: Know When to Walk Away

The final principle for a charitable theological discussion is to know when to walk away. Some discussions are not worth continuing. Some conversations are not worth having in the first place. Here are some situations in which it may be wise to consider just walking away:

1. When the conversation is devolving into a shouting match or a he said/she said scenario. Once a conversation devolves to this point, it rarely becomes productive.

2.When it becomes clear that your discussion partner is not serious about having a theological discussion. If, in the course of the discussion, it becomes clear that a person is trolling, or isn't interested in having a serious discussion, it is perfectly fine to walk away to avoid wasting your time.

3. After an agreed-upon amount of time. It is perfectly fine when a person, having had an extended conversation, decides that it is time to wrap the conversation up and simply "agree to disagree" with the other person. There is no shame in this.

The point is that sometimes, it is better to walk away than to continue a conversation. Knowing when to walk away is a valuable skill to have when engaging in theological discussion.


While this is not an exhaustive list, I believe that these four principles will help us to have more charitable theological conversations, particularly in online spaces where such conversations quickly go downhill.


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