As a theologically oriented pastor, I rejoice when church members express an interest in studying theology. But as any student of theology knows, wading into this vast ocean means swimming through the rough and choppy waters of theological disagreements. Church history is littered with them—Irenaeus vs. the Gnostics, Augustine vs. Pelagius, Luther vs. Erasmus, Calvin vs. Sadoleto. These skirmishes sometimes unsettle laypeople. But I don’t think they should. (I’ll explain why shortly.)
What I want to address in this post is the two ways people respond to these disagreements.
Some hear about them and move on with their day. Others are wired differently. They want to read further; they want to understand why theologians—and consequently denominations—reach divergent conclusions.
It’s to this latter category of people that I’d like to offer some unsolicited counsel.
Unsolicited (and Perhaps Sleep-Inducing) Counsel
So, for those inclined to get to the bottom of theological disagreements, I ask you to prayerfully consider the following two points:
Theological disagreements are inevitable in a fallen world because of human finitude and fallenness. Human beings are created and dependent. God alone is uncreated and independent. However, since the uncreated and independent God has revealed himself in creation and Scripture, and since he has fashioned us in his image, we can have genuine, but not comprehensive, knowledge of God. Omniscience, you’ll recall, is an incommunicable attribute. Humans are finite creatures.
Humans are also fallen creatures. And fallen creatures live in “perceptional darkness.” Sin clouds our reason and judgment. In contrast to Enlightenment thinkers, Christians do not regard human reason as a “natural” faculty—that is, as a segment of the human person unaffected by the fall. Reason, like our loves, is disordered. (Note: From conversations I’ve had with well-intentioned, Jesus-loving people, I can assure you that not all Christians are aware of this.)
At this point, you might be shouting at your screen: “But Joe, what about for Christians? If they’ve been regenerated (born again), aren’t their minds ‘renewed’ by the Holy Spirit?” (Romans 12:2). Good question.
The answer is yes. “Like all other aspects of human life, reason is a field of God’s sanctifying grace,” to quote John Webster (1955–2016)—a theologian who has had a profound influence on my thinking. Human reason is implicated in God’s saving grace, which is why Webster and other theologians often speak of “redeemed” and “regenerate” intelligence to describe the work of theology undertaken by Christians.
And yet, while it is true that the gift of regeneration implants a new principle of life within God’s people, that “new principle that this [regeneration] establishes does not instantaneously propel the intellect to perfection.” Translation: Our once-rebellious reason has been redeemed and recreated, but not fully restored and glorified.
All that I’ve written so far leads to the following conclusion: The context in which we carry out the theological enterprise allows for neither narcissistic triumphalism, nor pessimistic cynicism, but rather for gospel realism.
Gospel realism helps us see that we carry out the theological task amid the valley of human sin and the vistas of God’s grace. We do all our theologizing short of the beatific vision—in the overlap of the ages, as pilgrims on our way to the Celestial City.
In my judgment, this explains why theological disagreements abound. We are finite, which means our knowledge of God is partial (“we see through a glass darkly” [1 Cor. 13:12 KJV]). We are fallen, which means our perception and grasp of the truth, though real, remains tainted by the fall. This will be remedied in the recreated earth, when we will finally “behold the King in his beauty” (Isa. 33:17).
Prayerfully cultivate Christlike virtues. The phrase “Christlike virtues” is a shorthand for the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23); faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13); childlike wonder (Mark 10:13–15); sacrificial service (Matt. 20:26); and humility (Prov. 22:4; Phil. 2:1–11).
Virtue is necessary because intellectual undertakings cannot be separated from moral practices. Disordered passions and practices affect how we read, reason, and draw conclusions. “The moral governs the intellectual,” as philosopher James W. Sire observed.
In my judgment, those seeking to get to the heart of theological disagreements need especially to prayerfully cultivate the virtue of patience.
I say this for two reasons.
First, the current political, intellectual, cultural—and yes, even theological—climate is marked by the death of nuance, rampant hyperbole, and crass sloganeering. Well-reasoned arguments presented in stately prose has been replaced with reactionary blog posts fired off at midnight. Serious-minded Christians must be able to spot this kind of sloppy thinking for what it is. This requires reading well, and reading well requires patience.
Getting to the heart of theological disagreements requires patience because it means avoiding reaching conclusions and making judgments before you’ve done the necessary reading and reflection. Reflection requires time, prayer, inner calm, solitude, and silence.
Second, Christians living in this current political, intellectual, cultural, and theological climate need to cultivate patience due to the presence of unreliable sources. The unreliable sources I have in mind are social media influencers (both actual and aspiring ones), popular-level writers, and YouTubers. Do not rely on these sources if you’re goal is to do serious reading and get to the bottom of theological disagreements. I’ve noticed that consumers and purveyors of these sources usually lack empathy, restraint, and evenhandedness. Therefore, if you’re serious about reaching an informed conclusion, set aside popular-level treatments and engage the best available scholarship.
For example, if you truly wish to understand the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, do not read Dave Hunt or lend your ear to some random YouTuber. Instead, read Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (note: Olson is an Arminian). Or maybe read Richard Muller’s God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (note: I’m not sure where Muller stands on the issue, but he’s a recognized expert on Arminius). Or maybe read J. V. Fesko’s newly released book Arminius and the Reformed Tradition: Grace and the Doctrine of Salvation.
If you truly want to know what Calvin believed and taught, then actually take the time to read all 1,500 pages of Calvin’s Institutes. Yes, that requires a commitment; it requires patience.
Another example: Before rejecting universally affirmed orthodox Christian doctrines like divine immutability and impassibility, perhaps do more than read and/or listen to Peter Enns and Greg Boyd. You might wish to consider Scott Swain’s The Trinity: An Introduction. (I begin with the Trinity because you can’t deny immutability and impassibility and think your view of the Trinity is in line with the pro-Nicene theologians.) And definitely don’t reach your conclusion before slowly working through James Dolezal’s All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Theism and Thomas Weinandy’s Does God Suffer?
This requires patience and prolonged reflection—and, I would add, a competent theological adviser or pastor.
It goes without saying, of course, that this entails prayer, which is the most fitting posture for theological study and reflection, because the study of theology is a spiritual discipline.
If you know me at all, you’re not surprised by anything I’ve written here. I’m calling for contemporary Christians to retrieve the posture and practices of the Great Tradition—the theology, piety, and worship found in the church fathers, the medieval doctors, the Protestant Reformers, the Post-Reformation scholastics, and the Puritans.
In sum, tracing theological disagreements to their source requires prayer, praise, and patience.
And to the beloved saints of Crossroads Community Church: I am more than willing to work through all these issues with you (Phil. 1:8).
It seems fitting to close with a prayer from Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562) that I read quite often. He prayed this before teaching his theological students:
O thrice blessed God, may the things that I am going to teach your disciples not be the winds of error but the needed and fruitful rains of the truth. May my interpretations not be a violent rain destroying the Church and casting down consciences but a dew of consolation and a useful edification for souls. I would wish, after you have heard and answered my prayers, that all those who are here present may not listen to the sacred seed of your Word like a footpath of thorns or a rocky field. But may they be the good soil and the field prepared by your Spirit that will bring forth from the Scriptures, which have been implanted in the furrows of their hearts, fruit thirty- and sixty- and a hundredfold.
Note: Interested readers may also wish to consider two other blogs I’ve written: “In Praise of Christian Dogmatics and Theological Retrieval,” and “Why Contemporary Evangelicals Struggle with Classical Theism: An Exploration.”
 Michael Allen, “Disputation for Scholastic Theology: Engaging Luther’s 97 Theses,” Themelios 44:1 (2019): 105–119. See esp. 108.
 John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 10.
 Here I’m thinking of John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), ix; Scott R. Swain, “Dogmatics as Systematic Theology,” in The Task of Dogmatics: Explorations in Theological Method, eds. Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 50.
 John Webster, “On the Theology of the Intellectual Life,” in Christ across the Disciplines: Past, Present, Future, ed. Roger Lundin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 112.
 To date, the best book I’ve read on this is A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987).
 If this comes as a surprise to you, read Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 1–6; and Lewis Ayers, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 244 et. al; John Webster, “Habits: Cultivating the Theologian’s Soul,” in The Culture of Theology, eds. Ivor J. Davidson and Alden C. McCray (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 131–147.
 Peter Martyr Vermigli, “Strasbourg Oration,” in The Peter Martyr Reader, eds. John Patrick Donnelly, Frank A. James III, and Joseph C. McLelland (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1999), 64.