A third area where I believe Reformed theology must adapt involves conflict. While the other issues I raised, confessionalism and demographic and cultural diversity, revolve around a resistance to change, I believe this issue confronts a sin cherished in many Reformed institutions. Faced with doctrinal disagreement or diversity, Reformed theology too often refuses to distinguish the doctrines central to the Christian faith, and those expressions, even if not fully clear or precise, do not violate the core tenants of Scripture. When faced with conflict, Reformed theology all to often engages in discussion in a manner not consistent with the Biblical mandate.
The history of Reformed theology, especially during this century, is a history of conflicts. The OPC in particular aptly demonstrates this in its history. The church was born in the fight against false doctrine and errant teaching. Soon after this, a struggle for the identity of the denomination in relation to strict fundamentalism was fought, with the result that biblical liberty prevailed. While these initial conflicts may have been necessary and even commendable, it is not long before Reformed theology turns inward and attacks itself. The vitriolic struggle, continued even today by some, between Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark is one of a number of prominent struggles within Reformed theology that have maimed its history. More recently, discussions regarding the number and nature of covenants, the length of the days in Genesis 1 or even preaching style has been the occasion for conflict, waged by some in an uncharitable manner. Most recently, issues surrounding the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision have been the focus of much energy among Reformed churches. While the New Perspective is a wider movement in New Testament theology, the Federal Vision is confined within Reformed theology. The near universal condemnation of these developments have rallied those who not long before were at each other’s throats on other issues. The experience of those who were not long before on the outer fringe of the Reformed consensus has not translated into equitable and Biblical treatment of those who now find themselves on the cold outer fringe. What is particularly disturbing is not so much that the conflict exists, but the manner in which the conflict is being conducted.
Conflict, even intense conflict, is not in itself sinful. But, there are Biblical principles which govern conflict; and when those are violated, sin enters into conflict. The first principle which must govern all conflicts is honesty. We must never be tempted to misrepresent the positions of another. This finds expression not simply in accurate citation, but accurate placement of citation within the author’s overall thought. Once can easily abstract a statement from any author and on that basis question their orthodoxy. Second, we must judge by the proper standards. Ultimately, the standard is the Word of God. However, especially for those within the Reformed tradition, when engaging those outside our tradition, the Westminster Standard is not our starting point; rather, we must begin with the author’s own theological commitments. For an author such as N. T. Wright, this means that we must measure him against the 39 Articles, and not a standard he has not committed himself to teach. Third, we must allow for acceptable divergence within the absolutes set forth in Scripture. Certain doctrines are necessarily accepted by all who would reckon themselves Christians, such as the universal sinfulness of humanity, the death and resurrection of Christ, Jesus as the only way to God and many other similar doctrines. However, not everything that may be true is necessary. I am convinced that paedobaptism is Biblical, yet failure to affirm this doctrine does not result in damnation. While discussion on disputed points should continue and agreement should be sought; we must clearly distinguish these peripheral areas from those central to Christian doctrine. Fourth, we must be wise to determine what is a “wise” conflict. Paul consistently advises Timothy to “avoid foolish controversies.” How many prominent leaders in Reformed theology heed this apostolic command? Many of the debates which scar our history would have been avoided had this advice been followed. Fifth, love must override and govern all conflict. Our goal is never to win an argument, but to defend and promote the honor of Christ and the health of his body. When one must engage in conflict, love and concern for the other individual and their spiritual concern must guide the interactions.
The dictum attributed to Augustine is as necessary today as it was when it was first uttered, "In essentials- unity; in nonessentials- liberty; in all things- charity." May God grant us the discernment and the ability to apply this to the issues of the day.